Opinion: An obvious reform, 50 years in the making

A speaker talks about the methods The Innocence Project uses to exonerate wrongly convicted people during a program in Greenwich in 2018.

A speaker talks about the methods The Innocence Project uses to exonerate wrongly convicted people during a program in Greenwich in 2018.

Tyler Sizemore, Staff Photographer / Hearst Connecticut Media

I was just 18 years old when I got home one night and found my mother dead in her bedroom. She had been murdered, and less than 24 hours later, I was being charged with her death. There was only one problem — I didn’t do it.

I had been at a church meeting before coming home to find my mother dead. I immediately called anyone I could think of for help. Instead of being consoled, I was brought into the police station and kept overnight. I was kept awake and questioned in the early morning. Despite having no attorney present, I was subjected to an interrogation and even took a voluntary polygraph test. I lived in a small town — I trusted the local law enforcement, and even knew some of the officers who were interrogating me. I genuinely believed they were there to help me, and that by cooperating with them, my innocence would be quickly proven and I would be allowed to go home. But, I was wrong, and to this day my mother’s killer has gone free.

The officers assumed I was guilty from the start. They isolated me from the community members who were trying to help me. Despite no evidence tying me to the crime, having a clear alibi and no motive, they were determined to use any means necessary to prove that I had done it instead of investigating the crime.

They took advantage of the trust that I had in them. They told me that I had failed a polygraph test, even though they knew this was a lie. Over hours of interrogations, they convinced me that I had somehow done something I couldn’t imagine. It wasn’t until two years later that evidence showed I clearly could not have done what I was tricked into believing. Nearly 50 years later, I am appalled that Connecticut still allows these tactics to be used against kids and that more have gone to prison wrongfully through their use.

I’m lucky that my community backed me and believed in my innocence. They rallied together to raise money to post my bail so that I could finish my year of high school. Not all wrongfully convicted individuals receive this type of support.

And, to someone who has not been subjected to deception and tricks in an interrogation, it might seem confusing how someone would falsely confess to a crime they didn’t commit. However, through DNA-based exonerations, it has been found to be a frequent contributing factor to wrongful convictions. In fact, it is the most common contributing factor among homicide exonerations — and present in 30 percent of all exonerations — proven through DNA. And here in Connecticut, at least 29 percent of our already 34 unearthed wrongful convictions have involved false confessions.

Ever since my exoneration, I have been an advocate for reform of police interrogation methods. Law enforcement frequently stop me and ask “are you the real Peter Reilly?,” because they are struck by my story; yet our practices still remain the same. No one should have to go through what I did.

But under current Connecticut law, it is still legal for police to lie to children during interrogations to extract false confessions. The risk of young people falsely confessing is well documented to be greater than that of adults, and they especially deserve protection from the use of deceptive tactics to obtain confessions. That is why we need legislative action.

Connecticut’s lawmakers have the opportunity this session to ensure our children are protected by enacting S.B. 1071, which is legislation that would prevent wrongful convictions in Connecticut by ensuring reliable confessions. S.B. 1071 is based on legislation that has already been enacted in California, Delaware, Illinois, Oregon, and Utah, and is endorsed by a large coalition of advocates here in Connecticut.

I am very concerned that we still have not learned from the mistakes made in my case. Since 1989, false confessions have been present in at least seven wrongful convictions in Connecticut. The cases of Connecticut’s exonerees, including myself, demonstrate that confessions derived through deceptive tactics cannot be trusted. We must pass S.B. 1071 here in Connecticut — we cannot wait anymore to protect our children.

Peter Reilly was wrongfully convicted in the death of his mother in 1974. Since his exoneration in 1976, he has been an advocate for the reform of police interrogation methods.