Public interest law firms have filed suit against St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department officers saying they used psychologically coercive interrogation tactics to wring a fabricated confession from a 17-year-old African American teen accused of an armed robbery in Belleville last year.
The suit filed today in federal court in East St. Louis also states that Trevon Yates, now 18, was kept in jail for more than nine months before charges were dropped by the St. Clair County State's Attorney on June 12.
Yates is represented by Locke Bowman and Alexa Van Brunt, attorneys with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Juvenile Justice Center, and Laura Nirider, an attorney with the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY). The MacArthur Justice Center and the CWCY are public interest law firms and part of Northwestern University School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic in Chicago.
Belleville attorney Jim Ellis also represents Yates in the case.
Naming St. Clair County and seven St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department officials as defendants, the complaint alleges that the officers used coercive measures to force Trevon Yates to incriminate himself falsely and against his will in violation of his constitutional rights.
The lawsuit brings claims of coercive interrogation, false arrest, civil conspiracy, malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
"Officers acted maliciously, willfully, wantonly, and/or with reckless disregard for Trevon Yates’ clearly established constitutional rights," the suit states. "Their misconduct was done in total disregard of the truth and Trevon’s innocence."
According to the lawsuit, officers arrested Yates on Aug. 28, 2013, and brought him to the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department for questioning in connection with an Aug. 12 armed robbery of a couple who were lured to a parking lot in Belleville, where they expected to meet someone advertising an iPhone 5 for sale on the website Craigslist.
The lawsuit claims that officers did not have evidence to implicate Trevon Yates in the crime, yet officers repeatedly told Yates, who has an IQ of 60, that they knew he was involved in the robbery and that he could avoid incarceration by confessin.
“In response to these tactics, Trevon repeatedly sobbed uncontrollably for several minutes at a time, often rocking back and forth, writhing in his seat, sliding from his chair onto the floor, and praying aloud to God,” the suit states. “Thirty-five times, he begged for his mother; and on one occasion, he threatened to kill himself.”
The suit claims that Yates eventually agreed to admit to the crime. But because he was innocent, the defendants had to “repeatedly spoonfeed details about the armed robbery to Yates.” Those details then were incorporated into the confession, the suit says.
Yates was charged as an adult with armed robbery while armed with a firearm, a charge carrying a sentence of between 21 and 45 years in prison.
He entered a not guilty plea with bond set at $500,000 by St. Clair County Associate Judge Laninya Cason. Yates remained in jail for more than nine months.
"During his incarceration, Trevon was subjected to repeated trauma and abuse," the suit states. "As the youngest detainee in the facility, he was targeted by older detainees who abused him and stole his belongings. Meanwhile, he missed time spent with his family and friends, as well as educational and career opportunities. At the most basic level, he was deprived of the fundamental freedom to live his life as an autonomous human being."
After viewing the videotape of the interrogation, the St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s Office moved to dismiss all charges against Yates on June 12.
In addition to the nine months of deprived liberty, the lawsuit states that Yates’ reputation has been damaged by publicity surrounding the case.
At the time of his arrest, a press release from the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department resulted in news stories that identified Yates as an accused robber and included a color mugshot, the suit states.
"No press release was issued and no media coverage resulted after Trevon’s release
and the dismissal of charges," the suit states.
In addition to St. Clair County, the defendants named in the lawsuit are St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department Investigators Kenneth McHughes, Frank Bennett, Brian Cregger, Maurice McMiller and Jason Robertson; St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department Lieutenant Scott Weymouth; and St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department Sergeant George Mokriakow.