A Chicago man stepped out of an Illinois prison Wednesday after a 31-year incarceration for a crime he says he did not commit. He says his is a victim of torture from one of the darkest chapters in Chicago Police Department history.
The city has spent more than $85 million in settlements and legal fees for 17 cases related to Jon Burge, a former Chicago police commander who led a secret unit within the police department that carried out systemic torture during interrogations between 1972 and 1991.
Mr. Burge was never criminally prosecuted, and the statute of limitations has run out, preventing Burge from ever facing a criminal trial. However, he is currently serving a 4-1/2 year prison term for perjury and obstruction of justice charges from a 2010 civil case related to the torture cases.
Stanley Wrice exited Pontiac Correctional Center in Pontiac, Ill., Wednesday saying he was filled with “an overwhelming feeling of joy, happiness that finally it’s over with.”
Mr. Wrice left prison a day after a Cook County judge overturned his conviction, saying two Chicago police detectives lied about the interrogation techniques established by Burge. In his trial, and for years afterwards, Wrice argued he was forced to confess for a 1982 sexual assault after John Byrne and Peter Dignan allegedly beat him with a flashlight and a 20-inch piece of rubber. Attorneys representing torture victims say those two instruments were commonly used to force confessions under Burge.
Wrice was convicted of rape, armed violence, and unlawful restraint, and received a sentence of 100 years in prison.
Messrs. Byrne and Dignan, who are no longer on the force, did not testify during the Monday hearing, asserting their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. To date, no Chicago police officer has been charged with a crime related to the torture cases. Like Burge, both Byrne and Dignan are protected from civil and criminal charges by the long-passed statute of limitations deadline.
“As a result, I don’t know of any way to get these guys,” says Leonard Cavise, a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago and a member of the state torture inquiry and relief commission that is tasked with reviewing claims related to the Burge era.
The remaining option for Wrice is to sue the city, as others have done. Earlier this year, Ronald Kitchen and Marvin Reeves, two men who were exonerated in 2009 for a 1988 multiple-murder case, received settlements of $6.15 million each.
“Unfortunately, the taxpayers will bear the burden of this. But Mr. Wrice lost 31 years of his life,” Wrice attorney Jennifer Bonjean told The Chicago Tribune Tuesday.
Mr. Cavise says there are at least 100 similar cases pending. “There are a lot more cases that are in the pipeline. They are similar to what we’ve been seeing. There are a lot of more people who have been tortured,” he says.
There is political tension underscoring the Burge saga. Under the previous administration of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, revelations of coerced confessions were largely fought in court, rather than settled. Mr. Daley was the Cook County state’s attorney during parts of Burge's tenure and successfully prosecuted many of these cases. So far, he has avoided testifying under oath and has largely dodged, or remained silent, about the growing revelations.
The city offered an official apology in September, when current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel set aside more than $27 million to settle lawsuits in 2013 alone. Critics say that Mayor Emanuel did not apologize directly to victims. Critics also want the city to establish a fund to provide job training, health care, and other compensation to victims who, for varying reasons, are unable to bring their cases to court.
Cavise says Emanuel remains committed to fighting the wrongful conviction cases “just as the other administration has fought them,” rather than opt for immediate settlements, which might be less costly. Typically, the city outsources the legal work. The majority of contracts have gone to Andrew Hale & Associates, a Chicago law firm that has earned more than $20.6 million, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“This is big business for them. None of the people tortured have made any money yet, but the cop’s lawyers are making a fortune,” Cavise says.
Attorneys with the state special prosecutor’s office could retry Wrice, but it is unlikely, considering that several prosecutors have died and both detectives involved in the case have been discredited.
“What people learned today is that there’s a power in a sitting judge acknowledging from the bench, on the record, what we've all known for a long time – that they tortured people into confessing and then they came into court and they lied about it,” Ms. Bonjean told the Tribune.