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Lifer gets new murder trial after appeals court issues scathing ruling

James Gibson, who was sentenced to life in prison for a 1989 double murder. The Illinois appeals court granted him a new trial last week. | Prison photo.

In the summertime, James Gibson has trimmed the trees on the sprawling prison complex at Stateville Correctional Center.

In the winter, he’s driven a snowplow.

But last week, the 53-year-old man received news that could mean he’ll see the seasons changing outside his own home and not on a work crew inside the walls of the prison near Joliet.

On Wednesday, the appeals court issued a blistering opinion that reversed Gibson’s murder conviction and ordered a new trial on charges that he killed two men in 1989.

He remains in prison, but defense attorney Joel Brodsky said he will ask the court to release Gibson on bond.

Gibson hopes his murder case will be dismissed and he’ll be set free.

Brodsky said he broke the news to his client over the phone.

“I had to repeat it twice. He was so happy he started shouting. The guards were actually also in tears because Jim is well-liked,” said Brodsky, who is working on the case with defense attorney Ramon Moore.

Attorney Joel Brodsky talks to reporters during the Drew Peterson trial in 2012. | Sun-Times file photo.
Attorney Joel Brodsky talks to reporters during the Drew Peterson trial in 2012. | Sun-Times file photo.
Sun-Times file photo

Gibson is serving a life sentence for the fatal shootings of insurance agent Lloyd Benjamin and Benjamin’s customer, Hunter Wash.

Police suspected the men were killed during a robbery in a Southwest Side garage when Benjamin was collecting a weekly insurance premium payment from Wash.

Gibson was arrested on an anonymous tip and interrogated. He claimed detectives under the supervision of now-disgraced police Cmdr. Jon Burge tortured him.

Unlike most alleged victims of torture, Gibson immediately reported his allegations to the Office of Professional Standards, which investigated claims of police misconduct. OPS found the detectives did nothing wrong.

RELATED: Jon Burge’s legacy of torture

Gibson allegedly gave the police a statement that he was in the garage when someone else killed the men. But other witnesses identified him as the shooter.

He was convicted even though one witness recanted at his trial, saying detectives coerced her into telling them that Gibson plotted to rob the insurance agent.

Eric Johnson, who was sentenced to life in prison for acting as a lookout during the killings, successfully appealed his conviction and was freed from prison in 2013. He claimed he was tortured into confessing.

Gibson’s appeal went forward because the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission found his torture allegations were mostly credible.

The commission was created to review allegations of torture under Burge.

Burge was sent to federal prison for lying that he didn’t know about the torture of suspects arrested under his watch in the 1970s and 1980s. He died last year.

In Gibson’s case, the torture commission found that detectives Anthony Maslanka and John Paladino punched and kicked him — and found that photos confirmed his injuries.

Gibson also claimed the detectives burned his arm, but the commission didn’t believe that allegation.

In 2015, the torture commission referred Gibson’s case to the Cook County Circuit Court for a new review. But Neera Walsh, the circuit judge, found Gibson’s testimony wasn’t credible and denied his request for a new trial.

The appeals court overruled Walsh and sent the case back to her, but she found Gibson’s claims were a “contrived attempt to piggyback” on Johnson’s successful appeal. She also said Gibson’s claim that the officers burned his arm “rendered him wholly unconvincing.” She again denied his request for a new trial.

Then in a scathing opinion Wednesday, the appeals court overruled Walsh once again.

“The circuit court apparently felt free to reject our findings, and to turn our own words on their head,” the appeals court wrote.

“In sum, [Gibson] is entitled to a new trial, at which his incriminating statement to the Area 3 detectives, the product of police torture, may not be introduced as substantive evidence of his guilt.”

The appeals court also ordered that the case be transferred to a circuit judge other than Walsh.

A spokeswoman for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office declined to comment on the ruling, referring questions to a special prosecutor who’s been handling Gibson’s appeal. The special prosecutor didn’t return a call seeking comment.