SPRINGFIELD -- A confession in a criminal case must be backed up by independent evidence, but that evidence doesn't need to match the confession detail for detail, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
A unanimous court upheld the predatory criminal sexual assault conviction of a Cook County man whose admission, which he later retracted but which was presented to the jury, told a more serious story than that related by the then-8-year-old victim.
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Jason Lara confessed to digitally penetrating the girl, whom his mother was babysitting, on two occasions in 2005, when he was 19. But the victim testified that Lara had touched her only on the surface.
Lara argued that under a long-held legal standard, the jury shouldn't have been allowed to consider his confession because the girl's testimony didn't corroborate the confessed penetration. Without the confession, there was only enough evidence to convict him of a lesser charge, aggravated criminal sexual assault, he said.
Lara, sentenced to consecutive prison terms of 10 and eight years, claimed he had had an epileptic seizure while in police custody, which made his confession unreliable.
Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride, writing the court's opinion, said the additional evidence the legal standard requires must merely "tend to show" a crime was committed. He said the victim's testimony "reveals a close correspondence on virtually every detail of both incidents described" by both she and Lara.
"Defendant's mental state and any discrepancies in the details ... constitute disputed facts to be resolved by the fact finder, who has exclusive responsibility for determining the credibility of the witnesses," Kilbride wrote.
Courts have held for more than a century that extra evidence is necessary because confessions are sometimes unreliable. False or forced confessions were a major problem in death penalty cases in Illinois, leading to a decade-long moratorium on capital punishment before it was abolished last year.
Lara argued that the standard requires the evidence to match elements in the confession. The victim never mentioned penetration, which made the assault more serious, so Lara's attorneys argued that his confession could not be used because it wasn't corroborated.
The court returned the case to an appellate court to consider other issues Lara raised: That the jury should have been instructed that it could consider the lesser charge of aggravated criminal sexual assault and that 18 years, even for two counts of predatory criminal sexual assault, is excessive.