A federal jury awarded $5.2 million Tuesday to a man who claims he spent 31 years in prison after two Chicago police officers beat him into falsely confessing his role in a brutal September 1982 gang rape and assault of a woman on the South Side.
The verdict favoring Stanley Wrice ended a contentious civil trial that lasted roughly a week and a half at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, taking jurors through a legal saga that has spanned nearly four decades.
Wrice said Sgt. John Byrne and Detective Peter Dignan — both since retired — tortured him into giving an incriminating statement tying him to the assault that took place in Wrice’s second-floor attic. But lawyers representing the two officers told jurors that Wrice “sadistically tortured” the victim like “something you see in horror movies.”
When all was said and done, jurors awarded $4 million in compensatory damages to Wrice and then added a $600,000 judgment against each officer.
“It sends a message to Peter Dignan and John Byrne,” Wrice said after the verdict. He added, “I am so vindicated. I got closure.”
The jury sided with Wrice on two of his three legal claims — finding for the officers on a third alleging fabrication of evidence. But Wrice’s lead attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, said the jurors sent their true message with the size of the award.
“The number that they gave him speaks volumes about whether they believe justice was served,” Bonjean said.
Kathleen Fieweger, a spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department, later released a statement by email.
“We believe the award, while significantly less than the plaintiff sought, is nonetheless inconsistent with the jury’s finding that no evidence was fabricated or suppressed,” she wrote. “We are assessing next steps.”
A Cook County judge granted Wrice a new criminal trial in December 2013 after key witnesses took back their testimony. Prosecutors then said they could not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt because witnesses were not available, cooperative or had recanted, so Wrice walked free.
But the next fall, another Cook County judge denied Wrice a “certificate of innocence,” declaring there was “substantial evidence” that Wrice “actively participated” in the assault.
Fieweger referenced that decision Tuesday, before the verdict came down, in a separate email explaining why the city chose to take the case to trial rather than settle out of court.
“Each case has its own specific facts, and in the Wrice case, the city believes that he was properly charged and convicted of a particularly abhorrent and gruesome crime, for which he was sentenced to 100 years in prison,” Fieweger wrote. “No court has ever found him innocent and his certificate of innocence was denied.”
The assault in question took place in the early-morning hours of Sept. 9, 1982, records show. The victim was sexually assaulted, beaten and burned with an iron on her face, neck, breasts, legs and buttocks.
Lawyers for the officers said the woman suffered burns across 20 percent of her body, including 80 percent of her back. She also suffered more than 100 bruises, they said.
Wrice has insisted he did not see, hear or suspect anything that night. He testified he was sleeping on a couch when the rape took place. Bonjean explained to jurors that Wrice’s home was a “party house,” where young people often carried on and made noise.
Scott Jebson, an attorney representing the officers, argued there was “overwhelming evidence” of Wrice’s guilt, and he said the statement Wrice eventually gave to a prosecutor didn’t even amount to a confession. He displayed the words “Worst Fabrication Ever!” on video screens around the courtroom.
“It should take you two minutes to find against Stanley Wrice,” Jebson said.
Contributing: Manny Ramos