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Jon Burge looms over high-stakes police torture trial at federal courthouse

Stanley Wrice spent 31 years in prison for a brutal gang rape and assault of a woman he says he did not commit.

Stanley Wrice, center, exits theDirksen Federal Building after his first day of court for being wrongfully imprisoned, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, in Chicago. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Stanley Wrice, center, exits the Dirksen Federal Building Thursday after the first day of his civil trial. He’s suing, alleging he was tortured by police and wrongfully convicted.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Six years ago, a Cook County judge gave Stanley Wrice his freedom back.

A little less than a year after that, a second judge stopped short of calling Wrice an innocent man. He said there was “substantial evidence” that Wrice participated in a brutal, September 1982 gang rape and assault of a woman on the South Side.

Now, a federal judge has said Wrice’s claim of innocence is “central” to a civil trial that got underway Thursday at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. Wrice alleges two retired Chicago police officers — Sgt. John Byrne and Detective Peter Dignan — tortured him into giving a false confession that put him in prison for 31 years.

It’s a contentious, high-stakes case that has been winding through Chicago’s federal courthouse for more than five years. Wrice’s lawyers say Mayor Lori Lightfoot has refused to add it to the list of such cases settled out of court. And looming over all of it is a defendant U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber dropped from the case last month: The estate of the notorious Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.

Jennifer Bonjean, Wrice’s lead attorney, said it’s the first time in decades City Hall did not try to settle a Burge-related case without trial. Byrne and Dignan served under Burge, who died in 2018.

In a 10-page ruling at the end of January, Leinenweber said Wrice’s attorneys had failed to show Burge knew of Wrice’s alleged torture, though he said “there can be no doubt that Burge was at the helm of a vast and vicious torture regime.”

Attorneys began Thursday to lay out their competing theories of the case in opening statements. Bonjean told jurors Wrice was wrongfully convicted in a “grave miscarriage of justice” that took 31 years to be corrected, while the real perpetrators of the crime got off with light sentences.

Andrew Hale, a lawyer representing the two officers, held up actual pieces of evidence collected in 1982 — including the iron used to burn the victim — and told them “Stanley Wrice was properly charged” and “properly convicted.”

Hale told jurors there’s been “no finding that he’s innocent.”

The assault in question took place in Wrice’s second-floor attic in the early-morning hours of Sept. 9, 1982, records show. The victim was sexually assaulted, beaten and burned with the iron on her face, neck, breasts, legs and buttocks.

Though Wrice was in the house and went upstairs twice — seeing the woman on a bed with several others — Wrice has insisted he did not see, hear or suspect anything was amiss. Bonjean explained to jurors that Wrice’s home was a “party house,” where young people often carried on and made noise. Hale suggested that defied belief.

Bonjean also said Wrice left at one point to call his girlfriend from a pay phone.

When he was arrested and taken in for questioning, Wrice claims Byrne and Dignan tortured him until he gave a confession to a prosecutor. He said Byrne hit him in the head with a flashlight and Dignan hit him with a rubber object. Bonjean described it Thursday as a “rubber billy club or a hose” that was flexible, hard and covered in tape.

“They just kept hitting me,” Wrice insisted during a previous hearing in December 2013. “Hitting me, hitting me, hitting me.”

Byrne and Dignan invoked their Fifth Amendment right not to testify during that hearing, and they are expected to do so again during the trial.

Cook County Judge Richard Walsh 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. Wrice walked free.

Still, the next fall, Cook County Judge Thomas Byrne denied Wrice a “certificate of innocence,” declaring there was “substantial evidence” that Wrice “actively participated” in the assault.

The trial in Leinenweber’s 19th-floor courtroom is expected to last two weeks.