CHICAGO (CN) – Three Indiana teens arrested in connection with their uncle’s death can sue the police officers they say coerced them into confessing to murder, the Seventh Circuit ruled Tuesday.
In 2012, three teenaged siblings – Andrea, Deadra and William Hurt – were arrested after their uncle, Marcus Golike, was found dead on the banks of the Ohio River.
Golike, a resident of Evansville, Ind., was homeless at the time of his death and suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, according to court records.
When notified of Golike’s death, his brother immediately asked the police whether Golike committed suicide, because he had threatened to jump off a bridge into the river on three prior occasions.
But the police firmly believed the death was a homicide, and interrogated the last person to have seen him at the family house, 18-year-old William Hurt, about his involvement in Golike’s death.
For an hour, William consistently told officers he had played chess with his uncle that night, but had not seen him once he left the house.
But the officers insisted he was lying, repeatedly told him they had information to put him in jail, and dropped details about the suspected crime.
The officers allegedly told him, “We’re the ones that determine if you’re lying or not. So far, we’ve both determined you’re lying.”
William eventually confessed that he and his sisters were responsible for Golike’s death.
But his story was riddled with impossible details, court records show. For example, William told the officers they dropped their uncle’s body in the river at a point where it would have had to float several miles upstream to the place where it was eventually found.
The officers also interrogated 19-year-old Deadra, accusing her of lying and allegedly telling her she was “going to hang” if she did not tell them what they wanted to hear.
She too eventually broke and confessed to the crime.
On the basis of these confessions, the police also arrested 16-year-old Andrea Hurt, and held her for seven days before releasing her.
Deadra was charged with murder, and held for four months until a state court suppressed her confession.
William stayed in jail for eight months before his trial, where he was found not guilty on all counts.
After William’s acquittal, the Hurts filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Evansville police officers who interrogated them, alleging they were wrongly arrested and police coerced their confessions.
A federal judge refused to dismiss their claims last year, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed Tuesday.
“A jury might conclude that Golike committed suicide, that Deadra’s and William’s ‘confessions’ are unreliable, that some of the evidence against the Hurts was fabricated, and that physical evidence conclusively undermined William’s ‘confession,’” U.S. Circuit Judge Diane Wood wrote for a three-judge panel. “Assuming that the disputes over those facts were resolved in the Hurts’ favor, the case for even arguable probable cause to arrest any of the three Hurts falls apart.”
The 30-page opinion repeatedly stated it was not the appeals court’s role to re-evaluate the district court’s assessment of the facts.
However, Judge Wood has strongly criticized police tactics in other false confession cases, most recently in her dissent from the court’s decision upholding Brendan Dassey’s confession in a case made famous by the Netflix series “Making a Murderer.”
Her opinion Tuesday is peppered with examples from the Hurts’ interrogations that make the officers’ conduct seem highly inappropriate.
For example, Wood quoted one of the interrogating officers telling William that he had “not felt pain yet,” but the pain was not “going to go away until you tell me the truth.” According to the opinion, the officer warned William that he could “keep turning the pain on,  keep turning it on,  keep turning it on.”
The judge also quoted long sections of the interrogation to show how the officers allegedly fed William every fact he needed to satisfy their demand for a confession.
“On the basis of this record, a trier of fact could find that the officers deliberately coerced confessions from William and Deadra. The rule forbidding such conduct has been established for decades,” Wood said. “Perhaps, as the officers argue in their briefs, a trier of fact might come to the opposite conclusion and think that they were pushing, but doing nothing that crossed a constitutional line. It is not for us to resolve that question.”