1999: DeNeen L. Brown, The Washington Post
The American Society of News Editors
Award for Nondeadline Writing
For two little boys, wrongful murder charges could stick for life
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 1, 1998
CHICAGO -- The persistent sound of someone trying to saw through thick plastic woke her from a deep sleep. She slid heavily out of bed and followed the sound that was coming from down the hall, from the bathroom. The rasping of metal on plastic reminded her that nothing had changed. Her 7-year-old, her baby boy, was still facing charges of first-degree murder.
She found him in the bathroom with a butter knife, futilely trying to free his leg of an electronic shackle. He sat cross-legged on the floor, naked, yanking at the hard black plastic strip that a judge had ordered clamped around his ankle. He slid his chunky fingers under the shackle and tried frantically to pry it off -- not having sense enough to know he could not free himself, and his mother could not free him either. He was caught, trapped.
This chubby-cheeked boy, barely four feet tall, had spent much of the week in court. Reporters from across the country studied his caramel face, his fat braids, his missing two front teeth, and wrote down every detail.
A prosecutor, a blond woman with short hair and a crisp green suit, had sliced the air with her finger, then pointed at him and his 8-year-old friend, and proclaimed them callous killers. She argued that an 11-year-old girl had been fatally "brutalized at their hands."
For eight hours in court that day, attorneys argued back and forth about whether the 7- and 8-year-old boys were a danger to society. When the boys stood up, deputies raced behind them. When they went to the potty, deputies stood guard. But the judge knew that the children, under state law, couldn't be placed in a locked facility. So he sent them home, to be monitored by their parents and the custom-made electronic shackles.
The 7-year-old, believed to be the youngest murder defendant in the city's history, didn't fully understand what was happening. Because of his speech disorder, he couldn't or wouldn't talk about it. All he knew was that because of the uncomfortable shackle he couldn't nap that Saturday afternoon, and he wanted to take a bath.
"It don't come off," his mother sleepily reminded him.
"Man, why they got to put this stuff on me?" he grumbled, the words barely distinct because of his speech impediment.
"If you don't leave it alone, the sheriff is going to be here," she scolded.
The phone rang. The sheriff's office was on the other end. Deputies wanted to speak to the boy to make sure he was not trying to escape from the house.
The mother put him on, and he recited his ABCs and numbers until they were satisfied they had their prisoner.
"Police Say Suspects Not Too Small to Kill," declared the lead headline in the Chicago Tribune on Aug. 11, two days after the two boys supposedly confessed to the murder of their neighborhood playmate, Ryan LaShaun Harris. "We are certain we have the right individuals," a Chicago homicide sergeant said.
Within a month, the charges were dropped and the shackles unbuckled. Investigators found semen on the panties of the victim. Boys that age cannot produce semen. Now, suddenly, the evidence pointed to someone else -- someone much older, someone powerful, someone the boys' parents and their neighbors had always suspected was the real killer, the one who battered that pretty little girl, crushed her skull, beat her face, rammed foliage up her nose, pushed her panties so far down her throat that she swallowed her tongue, making sure that if she did not die of the beating, she would most certainly die from lack of breath.
Ryan Harris was slain in a poor South Side neighborhood that had seen many other heinous murders. When the news of the boys' arrest was flashed nationally, many gasped and thought, Why not?
Why not -- when kids were shooting kids in alleys, parks, school halls and playgrounds? Why not -- when not far from this neighborhood two boys, 12 and 13, had dropped a 5-year-old out of a 14th-story window because he wouldn't steal candy? People, especially those who don't live on the South Side, seemed more than willing to believe the worst about kids -- black kids in particular.
The police version of events -- that the 7-year-old had knocked Ryan off her bicycle with a rock, then dragged her body into the weeds with the help of his friend -- was based on an interrogation of a shy child with speech problems who could easily be coaxed into saying anything an adult wanted to hear. Yet to this day, the police and the city refuse to apologize to the boys or to their parents. Saying the case is still under investigation, officials will not comment further.
There is one central question they really can't answer. Perhaps nobody can.
How does a little boy who still sucks his thumb put his life back together after he has been accused of murder?
How does he wash away the dry taste of a police interrogation room, the stain of the fingerprint ink, and the thick, lingering suspicion? How can he go on playing tag, walk to the store to get candy, go to school, when the grown-ups who caused all of this -- "the mean police," as he calls them -- won't just say they're sorry, and clear his name?
You don't remove the stigma by simply dismissing the charge.
The mother says it happened after church the other Sunday. Some kids called him a name: "I don't want to play with you anymore, you little murderer," one boy shouted. "My mama told me you murdered that girl."
"He will always be suspect. He will always be known as the youngest murder suspect in Chicago's history," says his mother. She is 28, round-faced, a hard-working woman who keeps her four children well behaved.
It's 7 a.m., and she is pressing his hair. It sizzles. His sisters, 6 and 8, and brother, 10, sit at the kitchen table in the small apartment above her mother-in-law's house. The mother takes the pressing comb and puts it in the stove's blue flames. He's having his second-grade pictures taken this morning at his new school, where the children don't know he was "the 7-year-old accused killer." Only the principal, his teacher and the counselor know.
The boy's long hair hangs nearly shoulder-length. He is proud of it, and of his perfect-attendance trophies from last year. An industrious child, he liked to help out at the corner store and the laundromat, offering to sweep the floor for quarters.
All that has changed since the charges were filed. The family had to move. He doesn't like to talk about his arrest. He does not like to talk much at all -- for when he speaks, he is often misunderstood. His voice is deep and gruff, and his tongue gets tied. The words bump together: "Amgoingtoschool. Don'tbe laughing atme. Yourhair isalmostlongas mine."
His mother knows what he's saying and interprets.
A court-appointed psychiatrist diagnosed him as having something called a receptive/expressive language disorder. "If you ask him where is his right hand, he will point to his left," his mother explains. But it goes deeper than that.
"I'll say, Where did you go last night?' And he'll say, To the store.' And I'll say, No, we went to McDonald's.' "
The family may have actually gone to the store. But once he's told it was McDonald's, the boy would believe it to be true, she says.
So: If you told this boy that he killed somebody, he'd believe that, too.
The mystery begins on July 27, in a neighborhood known as Englewood. That afternoon, Ryan Harris, a straight-A student who wanted to be a basketball player, didn't come home after riding a borrowed bicycle. Ryan had been spending the summer with her godmother.
In Englewood when a little girl is missing, residents tend to fear the worst. Her family called police, mobilized a search party and passed out hand-printed fliers, with a photo of a smiling Ryan Harris standing in front of a chalkboard, her braids pulled up in a ponytail.
Ryan's body was found the next day behind an isolated row house in an overgrown lot near the railroad tracks. The medical examiner determined she died of trauma to the head and asphyxiation. A collective, almost primal scream came from the community. Somebody was hunting their little girls and had made a kill. The residents, poor and powerless as they were, demanded that the killer be found.
Police began investigating older men, but then got an anonymous call saying the murder was connected to some boys throwing rocks. Detectives went to talk to Ryan's relatives, who told them that a few days before Ryan died, she and her little sister were going to the corner store to buy candy when two boys started throwing rocks at them.
"You better get back home and don't come around here," one of the boys yelled at the girls, according to police reports.
"I want that bike right there," a boy yelled, pointing to the blue bike Ryan was riding.
Ryan got scared and peddled away.
The 7-year-old's parents were high school sweethearts who married four years after graduation. She got an associate degree in liberal arts from a local college. They both found work in fast food. She is a manager at a KFC franchise and he is a fry cook. On Sunday, Aug. 9, both were at work.
The boy was at his grandmother's when police knocked on her door. They needed to ask the 7-year-old just a few questions. It seemed he had some information and might be able to help them out. The grandmother told the detectives she was taking him to church, but would be sure to stop by the police station after services that afternoon.
A slender woman who wears her hair primly pulled back, the grandmother drove the boy there about 5 p.m. She says that when they arrived, a detective greeted him: "Hey, big guy, come with me."
The detective took the boy to the lieutenant's office, a small room with a desk, a telephone, a typewriter, a computer, four file cabinets and three chairs. According to a police report on the interrogation, the door was left open so that the boy's grandmother could see him.
The detectives, James Cassidy, who is white, and Allen Nathaniel, who is black, introduced themselves. But before they asked him any questions about the dead girl, they made small talk. They asked him about his favorite sport (basketball), what kinds of things he liked to do (play with trucks), how old he was and whether he was looking forward to going to school.
Then they began the real questions.
"Do you know the difference between the truth and a lie?" a detective leaned over and asked.
"You should never lie," the boy told police, according to the report. To tell the truth is to tell "what really happened" and a lie is "when someone makes up something."
"To tell the truth is good," a detective said. "To tell a lie is bad. ... Good boys only tell the truth."
"Are you a good boy?" a detective asked him.
Yes, he told them.
The officers then asked him to hold their hands "because we were all friends."
The boy gave Cassidy his left hand and Nathaniel his right.
The detectives showed him a poster with Ryan Harris's picture and asked the boy, "Do you know the girl who was killed?"
"Without further questioning," the detectives' report says, the boy told them this story: He and the 8-year-old were playing and throwing rocks. When they saw Ryan riding her bicycle, the 7-year-old threw a rock and hit the girl in the head, knocking her off her bike.
"After she fell off the bicycle she wasn't moving so he and :the 8-year-old: each took one of the girl's arms and moved her into the weeds where they began to play with her soft,' " the report said. "He said they took her panties off and put them in the girl's mouth and rubbed leaves on her."
According to the report, the boy told police, "They put leaves in the girl's nose and also a stem." And police said the two took the bicycle and moved it into the weeds by the railroad tracks, where someone must have taken it because they never saw it again.
Police won't comment on the interrogation, which was not taped, but a source close to the investigation, who did not want to be identified, put it this way: "At some point in the conversation, police were being told things that were very disturbing by the 7-year-old. He said things that implicated himself. The cops were stunned.
"They said, We dragged her.' There were drag marks on her body. They said they put things in her nose. There was dirt and leaves in her nose."
At that point, Cassidy left the room and Nathaniel continued talking to the boy about basketball and school.
In another room, officers approached the 8-year-old and his mother, and told them they wanted to get a witness statement from him. Police said she allowed them to talk to the boy alone, saying, "I want you to get to the bottom of this."
The 8-year-old was given a soda and put through the same routine. He and Detective Cassidy talked about lying, and how good boys don't lie. The report says that each suspect was given a simplified version of the Miranda warning: The boys were told that they didn't have to talk if they didn't want to, and if they asked for a lawyer, then the detectives "wouldn't talk to them anymore."
Neither boy knew what a lawyer was.
According to the report, the children were told that a lawyer "protects people who are said to have done something bad." Court was a place "where if you were accused of doing something bad you would have to go there and a person called a judge would decide if you really did something bad or not."
The 8-year-old told police that he met the 7-year-old behind a house and the younger boy threw a rock, hitting the girl in the head, and she fell off her bike. He told police the 7-year-old did "something to the girl who wasn't moving," the report says.
The older boy said he didn't want to watch, so he turned his head away. Then he got on his bicycle and rode home to watch cartoons.
The boys were given McDonald's Happy Meals, then were arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
The homicide case of Ryan LaShaun Harris was classified as "Cleared/Closed by Arrest."
By 6 p.m., the 7-year-old's mother was ending her shift at KFC. She arrived at her mother's house, but the boy and his grandmother were still not back and her older son told her they had gone to the police station. She panicked, thinking, "What is going on?"
Still in her uniform, she jumped in her car and sped down the expressway. She ran into the station and saw someone she knew: the mother of the 8-year-old. "You are not going to believe what's going on," the woman said.
She tried to find her son, but an officer told her the boy couldn't leave just yet because he had admitted hitting Ryan with a rock.
Later, in a green spiral notebook, the mother recorded her version of a conversation with the unidentified officer. "Now he's not being charged with anything," she quotes him as saying. "The way I see it, it was an accident, so don't be mad at him. He's going home and if you don't tell, we won't either."
She looked at him in disbelief and asked, "What about the rape allegations?"
He said, "Oh, that was just the media's imagination. You go back in the room with him while we complete our paperwork."
She went numb. An accident, she thought. She sat in a room across the hall. She didn't think anything was wrong until her son had to go to the washroom.
Police stopped him.
"Where are you going?" boomed an officer. "He needs to be escorted."
Now she knew something serious was going on.
"They won't let him out of sight," she said. "I saw a detective go back with him. I kept hearing DCFS' " -- the Department of Children and Family Services.
Thirty minutes passed. She panicked again. "Where is he?"
A youth officer came into the room, asked her to step next door, and told her without stopping for breath or giving her a wall to lean on that her 7-year-old baby was charged with murder.
"Are you out of your mind?" she screamed. "This is a child. Are you crazy?"
She had to pull herself together. She had to listen closely to what they said. She needed to know what was going to happen next. She recorded the conversation in her mind and later put it down in her notebook, her diary.
The officers told her that her son had confessed to hitting the girl with a rock, dragging her body into weeds, stuffing "foliage" in her nose and playing with her "very softly."
It was a setup, she thought. "My son can't talk," she argued. "If he speaks a whole sentence, you might be able to pick two words out of the sentence. You must be crazy."
She told them not to talk to the boy again unless he had a lawyer. That much she knew from watching TV.
They told her she had a choice: Sign the boy over to Hargrove Hospital, a psychiatric center on Chicago's West Side, or DCFS would take custody of him until he went to trial. Her mind went blank. She wrung her hands and did what any decent mother would have done.
She signed the papers that allowed him to go to the hospital.
"DCFS you don't want to play with," she says. "They get your child and you will never see him again."
On the way to the hospital, he fell asleep sucking his thumb.
The next day, the court assigned two public defenders to the 7-year-old: Catherine Ferguson, a tough-talking lawyer who grew up on the South Side, and Elizabeth Tarzia, who was about to have her own baby.
They hadn't even met the boys before a hearing that would decide if there was probable cause for holding them.
"We were waiting for the kids to come when we saw these two little figures walking down the hall with five or six deputies," Ferguson remembers.
The boys were hysterical, crying, slobbering, calling for their mothers.
"It was the kind of cry when someone loses a mom," Ferguson says. "My partner starts to cry. I said, You gotta pull it together.' "
When the 7-year-old met his attorney, he wiped his face and asked whether he could go home.
"I tried to change the subject," Ferguson recalls. "I said, Well, you got a whole lot of boogers running down your face. Im going to get some candy. What kind do you like?' "
"Honey buns," the boy told her. She had never seen or heard of that pastry. She went to the vending machine and bought Skittles.
Under the fluorescent lights of the courtroom, the boys climbed onto chairs between their attorneys. Their feet dangled above the floor. A courtroom artist gave them crayons so they could draw pictures on legal pads. When they stood before the judge, they were crying so much that he stopped the hearing and asked the boys' mothers to stand behind them.
"But a sheriff told me, You can't touch him,' " the 7-year-old's mother says. "We couldn't hug them or touch them."
On the night of Aug. 9, lawyer Andre Grant got a call from a woman who called herself Miss Rosetta. It was a name he fondly remembered from his days growing up in the Washington Park housing project. "The woman practically raised me," Grant recalls. Now her children had had children, and she was the grandmother of an 8-year-old boy -- a boy who had been charged with murder and needed help.
Tall and slim, Grant is a former prosecutor who likes to take on the system. He headed to the police station.
The boy was sitting in a dirty interrogation room, crying. Cops were looming over him, the lawyer says. Grant asked all the officers to leave the room.
"I told him his grandma had hired me to represent him and I knew his mom. And I told him I was a lawyer. And I asked him if he knew what a lawyer was.
"He said no. I asked him if he knew who I was. He said yes. I said, Who am I'? He said, You are another police.' I said, No, I'm not the police. I'm here to help you. I'm going to fight for you.' "
The boy's face showed he didn't know whether to trust him. He wouldn't stop crying.
Grant had to figure out a way to get to him.
He leaned over and asked: "Do you like the Power Rangers?" The boy, looking bewildered, said yes. "Who's your favorite Power Ranger?" Grant asked.
"The blue Power Ranger," the boy said, his eyes a little wider.
"I'm the blue Power Ranger," Grant said. "I'm going to fight for you."
The boy stopped crying.
While editors around the country front-paged the story on the boys, their neighbors, playmates, attorneys and ministers on the South Side said it didn't make sense. Didn't make sense that the kids were riding their bike in a field choked with weeds. Didn't make sense that two little boys could produce the kind of blows to bring a taller girl to death. Didn't make sense that they could be a part of something so terrible and then participate in the search to find the girl.
Community leaders urged police to keep looking for Ryan's killer. Citing the historical racism in the Chicago police department, they raised that issue even though the superintendent of police and the commander of the district are both black. The police countered by saying race had nothing to do with the arrests, that the boys knew too much about the crime. But neighbors said other kids had seen the body before police made it to the scene and word of what they saw raced through the neighborhood grapevine. Anybody could have known those things.
State's Attorney Richard Devine said: "The police would not have filed the charges and we would not be pursuing them unless there was evidence to support the charges. Police officers are not out there to find some people to throw a charge at, particularly a 7- and 8-year-old."
But three weeks later, investigators got a call from the state crime lab that blew their case apart. The call came a day before the boys were scheduled to go back to court for another hearing. A DNA report had found semen on the girl's panties.
When the fax came in, prosecutors were waiting. "We were surprised," says a source in the case. "There was an immediate recognition we would drop the charges."
On Sept. 4, they took the new evidence to the hearing. Defense attorneys were waiting. The prosecutor stood up and read a statement dismissing the charges.
"Everybody was looking at them with jaws dropped," public defender Ferguson recalls. "Then it was like, How dare you? Why didn't you find that out before you charged them?' "
After four weeks, the boys were set free. The police still refuse to rule out that they were somehow involved.
"At this stage, all you can say is that the charges went away," says the law enforcement source. "Nobody has been charged in the Ryan Harris case."
Checking the DNA against a database, the lab found a close match with a man called Eddie Durr. But the match was not perfect, leading police to believe the semen belonged to someone related to him. They found his brother, Floyd Durr, 29, who had been arrested this summer after a series of sexual assaults. Floyd Durr's DNA matched perfectly, the police say.
Durr, a convicted sex offender who lived in Englewood, is being held without bond in three other cases. He recently pleaded innocent to sexually attacking three neighborhood girls earlier this year, ages 15, 10 and 11.
Durr, who has not been charged in the Harris case, has denied killing the girl. He allegedly told police he saw two little boys playing near a house. According to police reports, he said he happened upon the girl after she was dead and performed a sexual act that stained her underwear.
"I think that's a lie," says Grant, the 8-year-old's attorney. "They know this guy's the guy. They know doggone well these children aren't involved."
The day is gone in Englewood. The 8-year-old's father is in a fit of anger. When Andre Grant arrives, the father stops him on the sidewalk.
"You know what I heard last night? A bump. It's 4 o'clock in the morning and my baby runs in the room: Daddy, it's a man!'
The father is a mechanic who plies his trade on the street in front of his aging brown house. He paces in front of the chain-link gate. His face is pulsing with rage.
"I got to get out of here. I'm going to take my baby and go. Kids are running up to him at school saying, Why did you kill that girl?' " the father says. "I got to go. Money, no money, we've got to get out of here."
Up the creaky steps, past a mixed-breed chow, the little boy sits curled in a green chair, too close to the television. He's 4 feet 2, with a round brown face and big brown eyes. He smiles, gives his lawyer a handshake and then a high five.
He is watching a show about volcanoes. A gray and white kitten jumps in the boy's lap. He strokes the kitten's fur.
"Look at that smile," Grant says. "The first time I saw him, I knew he could not have done that. Look at his smile."
The boy says nothing.
"You know he's been asking about you," the boy's mother says to the lawyer.
Grant tells the boy he can call him any time, and reaches into his jacket pocket and hands him a business card.
Call me, he says. Do you remember my name?
"You're the blue Power Ranger," the boy says.
Thanks to the conventions of the juvenile justice system and journalism, the names of the boys have not been released. But that doesn't mean people don't know.
"I have this empty feeling," the 7-year-old's mother says. "Because you know he got a label. He's like the youngest child in the United States to ever be accused of murder. People won't say it, but I know they'll always think it."
She is sitting in the dimly lit but spotless kitchen. Her daughters are playing at the table, copying letters and counting.
It was hard for the boy to start school. His old school didn't want to enroll a murder suspect, so his mother placed him in one 15 minutes away.
The first day back, his mother held his hand, but when he saw the big building he screamed, "Those people are mean in there. Don't leave me!"
She couldn't calm him, so she took him home.
The next day, he was better. But the day after that, when the teacher was not looking, he slipped out of the classroom and they found him balled up sucking his thumb in a corner.
It's over, but it's not over.
Immeasurable damage has been done. You can see it in the boys' eyes. They feel that at any time, the police could come knocking at their doors.
The 7-year-old told his mother: "They think I killed that little girl. She was my friend."
His mother told him: "Anybody say you hurt that girl, that you killed that girl, is ignorant. We ignore ignorant people."
She is angry: "We still don't know who killed that girl," she says. "I want to prove my son's innocence. He won't stay outside and play. He won't eat honey buns no more. When we go to the store, he gets a big fat juicy pickle."
"We may never get to the truth of what happened now," public defender Ferguson says. "We always thought he saw something. I don't know if he dreamed it up or they :the detectives: said it. Every time you ask him, it comes out different."
He doesn't talk about it now. And his parents are not going to ask him. The police want to interview him again, but the lawyers have refused.
Grant also has refused to submit the 8-year-old to more questions.
"I said, You've got to be joking.' There is not a parent in America that would take their children back to the police station ... when they were framed the first time."
After the judge ordered the boys unleashed, they still walked and thought as they did when they had the monitors on. Like the prisoner so used to the chain that when he is freed he forgets how to run.
The 7-year-old's mother told him the news: "You are free. You can go outside and play."
She pushed him to the front door, but he wouldn't budge.
"Don't wannago," he said. "You tryingtotrick me."
He grabbed his mother's leg.