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False Accusations Scar Boys

At ages 7 and 8, they were charged with slaying a Chicago girl. The trauma still casts a shadow on their lives. A sex offender awaits trial.

November 06, 2005|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO — Even now, the mug shots are jarring.

The murder suspect wears a red-and-purple T-shirt with a playful animal design. In one photo, he stares wide-eyed into the camera. In another, he's in profile, looking anxiously upward, as if something is about to fall on his head.

His height and weight are noted: 4-foot-7 and 70 pounds. But these numbers are overstated, his lawyers say, because police want to make him appear bigger and stronger.

Unlike most people photographed in a police lockup, this suspect has a limited history. He has never held a job. He isn't even halfway through elementary school.

He's just 8.

The child, identified in court documents as E.H., was charged, along with his 7-year-old pal, with slaying an 11-year-old girl, Ryan Harris. The case captured national headlines in 1998 as the two became among the youngest children in the nation ever formally accused of murder.

The charges were short-lived and the two boys then turned the tables on their accusers. After seven years, an agreement was reached in civil cases that accused the city and the police of wrongful arrest.

Last month, the city approved a multimillion-dollar settlement of one suit, ordering its lawyers to negotiate an agreement as a jury trial neared its end. An earlier case was resolved out of court.

Nearly $11 million in taxpayer money, including legal fees, has been paid to close what an alderman called "one of the most shameful episodes in our city's history."

In settling, the city admitted no wrongdoing. No police were sanctioned.

This was not the first time children have been wrongly accused or reported to have confessed to something they didn't do.

But this case offers a rare glimpse into how it can happen -- what detectives may say and do behind closed doors, and how a harrowing journey from a police station to the courts and a psychiatric hospital can change the lives of two little boys.


When E.H. took the witness stand in August, he didn't look at the jury.

Nor did he glance at two men sitting at the defense table: Detectives James Cassidy and Allen Nathaniel -- the former retired, the latter still on the force -- who were accused of framing him.

Nearly half his life had passed since news helicopters had buzzed over the boy's house and he was called a "little killer."

He was 15, but his voice was barely audible, his attorneys gently coaxing every answer.

He recalled the day when he rode bikes with friends, including Ryan Harris, watched her get into a red car with two men, then ended up in the police station, where he assumed he'd look at photos to try to identify them.

Instead, police surrounded him and showed him a photo of a badly beaten body in a weed-filled lot; Ryan's panties were jammed down her throat, leaves stuffed in her nostrils.

"They were hollering at me, asking me if I killed her," the boy told his lawyer, Andre Grant, in a near whisper.

"Did you tell them you killed Ryan Harris?' Grant asked.

"I said I didn't do anything," he answered.

"Were you afraid?"


The charges against E.H. depended largely on the purported confession of his buddy, identified as R.G., who was questioned separately. According to police, the 7-year-old said he threw a rock at Ryan, and she fell off her bike and hit her head. Then, he allegedly said, he and E.H. dragged her into a wooded area, where R.G. stuffed the girl's underwear into her mouth.

Attorneys for the boys have long ridiculed that claim, noting R.G. had a serious speech impediment and could barely string two or three words together -- much less a 16-sentence confession.

"To say that he could tell a story from start to finish was patently absurd," argues Jan Susler, a lawyer for R.G. "The only evidence they had was not believable. ... These two little kids were scared out of their brains."

It's not difficult for police officers to shape a kid's message, says Stephen Ceci, a professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University and an expert on child confessions. "They're putty in the hands of a powerful adult authority figure."

"You say to a child who has been in an interrogation room for an hour ... 'If you only tell me what we already know, you can go home.' An adult knows that's not true," Ceci says. "If you say that to a 7-year-old, they'll often tell you, 'I did it.' They can't anticipate the consequences of saying yes."

In this case, the boys were questioned without lawyers or family in the room. Their statements were not recorded. And from the moment they walked out, both denied they'd confessed.

"I didn't do it, Grandma," R.G. repeatedly said after the interrogation, during which police held his hand and bought him a Happy Meal and a toy car.

At the time, the detectives, Cassidy and Nathaniel, were praised by police for having "performed magnificently" in cracking what had become a "heater" case, with heavy public and political pressure for an arrest.

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