In the latest twist in convicted cop killer Jackie Wilson’s decades-long bid to win a new trial, Cook County Judge William Hooks on Tuesday blasted the conduct of special prosecutors’ appointed to handle the case. Meanwhile, Special Prosecutor Michael O’Rourke has asked to stay action in the case, and wants Hooks to recuse himself.
The drama comes some three years into Wilson’s latest bid to overturn his conviction for the 1982 murder of Chicago Police officers William Fahey and Richard O’Brien, a sensational case that became all the more controversial over the decades because of allegations of abuse by detectives under the command of Jon Burge.
Wilson and his brother Andrew Wilson, have claimed they were tortured into confessing to the killings, and the state Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission in 2015 granted Jackie Wilson hearings on a new trial. Private attorneys were appointed to serve as special prosecutors because of allegations of misconduct against Cook County State’s Attorney’s office in the original prosecution.
At a hearing last month, and again Tuesday, Hooks complained that the O’Rourke and his prosecution team were acting as de facto defense attorneys for police officers accused of abusing the Wilsons, and voiced misgivings about a former special prosecutor who left the case and months later joined the team of lawyers defending Burge in a federal civil lawsuit filed by another defendant who claims he was a torture victim.
“That smelled really bad,” Hooks said Tuesday during a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building. “It still smells bad. It smells like rotten eggs that are going past right now.”
O’Rourke has said there is no conflict, and, in a motion to stay the Wilson case, noted that the judge has refused to authorize payment of his bills. Hooks had ordered O’Rourke to provide itemized bills showing how much his team had been paid to handle the Wilson case. O’Rourke on Tuesday refused to turn over the records, claiming they were subject to attorney privilege, prompting Hooks to demand he provide the bills by Wednesday morning.
The status of several motions O’Rourke and lawyers for the Special Prosecutor’s Office tried to file Tuesday, one seeking to intervene in the case to bar the release of the billing information and another seeking to recuse Hooks from the case, was unclear. In a motion filed Monday, O’Rourke questioned the judge’s attacks on his handling of the case.
“What began as a passing commentary about various positions taken by the Office of Special Prosecutor has now morphed into protracted attack on the Office itself and the integrity of of various individuals who have served that office,” O’Rourke wrote in the motion.
In his critique of the special prosecution team Tuesday, Hooks also wondered whether they were aggressive enough in seeking to force Burge and other officers and former prosecutors to testify about allegations of abuse. He then questioned the propriety of attorney Brian Stefanich’s role on the special prosecution team.
Stefanich – Wilson’s lawyers pointed out at a hearing last month – is now representing Burge in a lawsuit in federal court, in which Alonzo Smith claims he was suffocated and beaten before confessing to a 1983 murder.
Stefanich, who left his post as an assistant prosecutor, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But Lance D. Northcutt, an attorney representing the special prosecution team, said in a statement that Wilson’s lawyers had engaged in a “cynical ploy” suggesting “improper conduct on the part of the Office of the Special Prosecutor is as offensive as it is false.”
The courtroom sparring comes as a ruling on whether Wilson will have a new trial would appear to be drawing close. In hearings that have spanned months — often attended by dozens of uniformed CPD officers — Wilson has testified he was beaten and electrocuted before confessing his role in the murders. Closing arguments had been set to take place early next month.
A special prosecutor was appointed to the case because of allegations the State’s Attorney’s Office under then State’s Attorney Richard Devine.
Wilson and his brother, Andrew, was also convicted in the murders. Andrew Wilson died in 2007.
Hooks on Tuesday said he was troubled by the number of current and former police officers and prosecutors who have refused to testify in the case, noting that in depositions Burge and others have taken the Fifth Amendment without being challenged by the special prosecutor.
“You may be more like special defense or additional counsel for police officers who had their own attorney present” during the depositions, Hooks said.
Hooks ordered O’Rourke to file his itemized bills, and said he would review them under seal, ahead of a hearing on Wednesday morning.
G. Flint Taylor, Jackie Wilson’s lawyer, said attorneys working as special prosecutor had billed the county $5 million for work on Wilson’s case and others.
Taylor complained that in Smith’s case, the law firm representing Burge has refused to turn over communications between attorneys working as special prosecutors and the team defending Burge. The refusal shows that the special prosecutor, who is opposing Smith’s petition for a certificate of innocence in circuit court, is working with those defending the federal case, he said.
“The special prosecutor is not supposed to be defending cops, he’s supposed to be dealing with justice,” Taylor said.
Northcutt in his statement said, the special prosecutors will continue to handle each case “irrespective of the attempts by some to litigate these cases in the media and not the courtroom.”