City should settle cases of wrongful convictions based on police torture

Time and time again the dollars paid in wrongful conviction cases, including Jon Burge cases, show that an early reasonable settlement would have saved the city millions of dollars.

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Torture victim Robert Smith, who served 33 years in prison for a double murder he did not commit, was released from prison Oct. 23.

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As Chicago legal icon Flint Taylor wrote in Injustice Watch on the eve of the March 2020 Stanley Wrice trial, the City of Chicago and its mayor, Lori Lightfoot, are again at a “legal and political crossroads; the question is whether she will stand with the torturers or torture victims.”

Shortly before she announced her candidacy for mayor, Lightfoot chaired the Police Accountability Task Force, created after Laquan McDonald’s senseless murder. Indeed, it was the release of that video and the public outrage over it that swept Lightfoot into office.

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In April 2016, Lightfoot and her task force colleagues released a report titled “Recommendations for Reform: Restoring Trust between CPD and the Communities they Serve.” The report did not sugarcoat CPD’s long history of racism, emphasizing that communities of color had been complaining for decades about their maltreatment at the hands of CPD. Among others, the report highlighted “Jon Burge and his midnight crew” as just one of the “many significant flash-points” between CPD and the community.Of Burge, Lightfoot’s Task Force wrote unambiguously:

“From 1972 to 1991, CPD detective and commander Jon Burge and others he supervised tortured and abused at least 100 African Americans on the South and West sides in attempts to coerce confessions. . . .Lives lost and countless more damaged. . . .a long, sad history of death [and] false imprisonment.”

Then Lightfoot became mayor, and something changed.

We won’t repeat here all the different ways that Burge proteges John Byrne and Peter Dignan tortured Stanley Wrice in 1982, other than to say it involved four of their favorite techniques:(1) a long metal flashlight; (2)a rubber nightstick; (3) suffocation with a plastic bag; and (4) threats of hanging, repeatedly accompanied by the “n” word to emphasize the point.Wrice spent three decades in prison.

Instead of settling with Wrice, however, the Lightfoot administration actually doubled and quadrupled down on Byrne’s and Dignan’s defense, sending the city’s second-highest ranking lawyer to defend the case, who tried to convince a jury that the torture of suspects at Area 2 was just an elaborate lie.The administration’s position was “Burge torture” never happened, at all.Burge torture was, to use a common word of the day, “a hoax.”

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The jury disagreed, awarding Wrice $5.2 million.By time the city pays for both sets of lawyers (which it must under a civil rights fee-shifting provision), the actual cost to the city will likely be in excess of $10 million, far more than it would have taken to settle with Wrice early on.

This issue won’t go away for Lightfoot. Recently, our client Robert Smith filed a $66 million lawsuit against the city and several Burge acolytes. Smith spent more than 33 years in prison for a double murder he did not commit after Detectives John Yucaitis, Daniel McWeeny and others framed Smith for a double murder of his own family members by coercing his false confession, fabricating crime scene evidence to match the confession, and then lying about both at Smith’s suppression hearing and trial.Five different judges have so held.

Again, at a crossroads.Lightfoot can either stand with the victim or again with the torture deniers.She has the opportunity to do the right thing here.She has the opportunity to go to the City Council and say, “Chicago Police Officers intentionally and maliciously put this man in prison for more than 33 years for something he did not do, and the city must compensate him for that time and loss of liberty. We have to acknowledge what truly happened here.Otherwise, we will not learn from it; it will never be behind us; and this city will not heal.”

There is a second reason to do that.Time and time again the dollars paid in wrongful conviction cases, including Burge cases, show that an early reasonable settlement would have saved the city millions of dollars.Denying the Burge torture scandal and other wrongful convictions has not only long been bad public policy (because it is based on a lie), but it has also been bad fiscal policy.It is the Chicago taxpayers who are paying to support the Burge deniers.

As Lightfoot’s own 2016 report states, “To date, the city has spent upwards of $100 million on Burge-related settlements, judgments and legal fees.” And this is just a fraction of the even higher number that city taxpayers have paid with respect to additional non-Burge wrongful conviction cases.

Mayor Lightfoot, will you stand with the victims or the deniers?

Stuart Chanen and Ariel Olstein are Chicago civil rights attorneys who represent torture survivor Robert Smith.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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