EDITORIAL: Lessons of the Jackie Wilson murder trial saga
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We are disgusted, too.
A judge on Thursday ordered a new trial for a convicted cop killer, Jackie Wilson, ruling that his two previous trials were unfair because a key piece of evidence against him was extracted through police torture.
We, like so many Chicagoans, are disgusted that almost 40 years after two honorable police officers were killed, their families have not been granted the small peace that might come with an end to this judicial farce.
But we also know the judge was doing his job — and doing it right.
The blame for this endless travesty lies not with the judge, or with Wilson’s defense attorneys. The blame lies with a crew of rogue officers who once had so little respect for our criminal justice system that they beat confessions out of suspects. Now those bad confessions, transparently worthless, continue to haunt.
The simple hard truth is that Jackie Wilson, whatever the character of the man, has yet to receive a fully fair trial. And our disgust is with the original sin of police torture.
As Cook County Circuit Court Judge William Hooks thoroughly documented in a 119-page opinion, former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his associates at the time of the slayings routinely tortured African-American men to get confessions, including Wilson.
One after another since then, cases from the Burge era have been put under the microscope, and men who were put behind bars on the basis of statements extracted through torture have been freed. A parade of wrongful convictions have been made right, and cops have been put on notice to play by the rules.
On Feb. 9, 1982, Jackie Wilson’s brother, Andrew, shot two officers, Richard O’Brien and William Fahey, after the officers pulled him over. The slayings dominated the news, especially coming less than a week after another police officer was shot and killed as he escorted a robbery suspect.
Prosecutors have claimed for years that Jackie Wilson shared responsibility for the murders, though he did not pull the trigger, because he alerted his brother that one of the officers was still alive after Andrew Wilson shot him, which led Andrew Wilson to fire again.
But in tossing out Wilson’s so-called confession, Judge Hooks on Thursday vaporized that piece of evidence. He ruled that the police had obtained Wilson’s confession through torture. Wilson claimed the police had put a gun in his mouth, hit him over the head with a phone book, struck and kicked him and used electric shocks.
In 2015, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission concluded after an extensive investigation there was credible evidence Jackie Wilson had been tortured by police officers working for Burge. While noting Wilson’s extensive criminal history and the discrepancies in his description of the torture that took place, the commission sent the case to the Circuit Court for review.
Upon reviewing, Hooks agreed Wilson had been tortured.
Michael O’Rourke, the special prosecutor in the Wilson case, has said he will appeal Judge Hooks’ ruling and, if that is unsuccessful, proceed to a new trial. He will seek a new trial, he said, even though — as Hooks noted — the main witness to the slayings testified that Jackie Wilson appeared only to be standing in shock as his brother shot the cops.
As the sordid history of police torture in Chicago has come light — in many ways beginning with the Wilson brothers’ case — more men have come forward with claims. The Torture Inquiry Commission, whose funding was expanded in the new state budget, still is investigating 476 cases.
What is Jackie Wilson guilty of? We wouldn’t dare to say. Not until a judge or jury has looked, for really the first time, at the true and honest evidence.
As Judge Hooks said, every defendant deserves a fair day in court.
“All rights matter,” he wrote. “The rights of the good, bad and ugly all count.”
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