February 03, 2012
The Chicago Tribune
State high court reaffirms ban on confessions obtained through torture
By: Steve Mills
The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a confession obtained through torture can never be considered harmless error, upholding a lower court's decision in a brutal rape case that said that when police use physical coercion to force someone to confess, the incriminating statement must always be thrown out.
The decision, which had been expected for months in the legal community, came in the case of Stanley Wrice, who was convicted in 1983 of rape but had long alleged he had been tortured by officers working for disgraced former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge.
The court's 6-0 ruling, which means Wrice is entitled to a hearing to determine if his confession was a product of torture, represented another milestone in the long-running scandal surrounding Burge and his crew of officers, who have repeatedly been accused of abusing African-American suspects in the 1970s and 1980s at their South Side police station. Among their alleged methods: beatings, electric shock and Russian roulette.
Defense attorneys had feared that any break in the court's tough stance, established a quarter-century ago in a police killing case, would close off avenues of appeals for those who allege they were tortured during Burge's tenure. Prosecutors had hoped the court would issue a ruling allowing them to use tainted confessions when other evidence against a suspect is overwhelming.
The decision, written by Justice Mary Jane Theis, strongly supported the defense and dismissed claims from prosecutors that it might lead to frivolous claims by defendants.
"We believe that this type of coercion by the state ... constitutes an egregious violation of an underlying principle of our criminal justice system...," Theis wrote for the state's high court, adding that the ruling in the 1987 case establishing such a principle "still has some vitality."
"The opinion is crystal clear," said Heidi Lambros, an attorney with the Office of the Appellate Defender who represents Wrice. "There was torture at Area Two, and they're not going to tolerate it. If I'm a Burge torture claimant, I'm going to use this opinion and see if I can get my hearing."
Locke Bowman, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University and the author of a friend-of-the-court brief, said the ruling affects Wrice and perhaps 15 other inmates who say they were tortured by Burge or his officers and are seeking court hearings.
"It's a principle that some people had started to question," Bowman said of the issue in the case. "It's a relief to have this reaffirmed."
Wrice was arrested in September 1982. According to Chicago police, Wrice and some friends had been driving around when they saw a woman on the street, picked her up and took her to Wrice's South Side home. There, they repeatedly raped her, then beat her and burned her with a hot clothes iron and other material they had set on fire. Afterward, they dressed her and left her on the street. She awoke outside, then walked to a gas station and sought help.
Wrice, according to police, admitted only that he dropped a burning iron on the victim's thighs, though other witnesses said he raped her.
He went to trial in 1983, alleging that Sgt. John Byrne — long considered Burge's right-hand man — and Detective Peter Dignan struck him repeatedly with a flashlight and rubber hose while he was being held in the basement of the Area Two police headquarters. A judge, however, turned aside his claims that his statement was coerced. Wrice was convicted of rape, deviate sexual assault, armed violence and unlawful restraint. He was sentenced to 100 years in prison.
Later, the armed violence and unlawful restraint convictions were thrown out. Now 57, Wrice is scheduled to be released in 2041.
Wrice filed several appeals, to no avail. But he filed a new claim after a special prosecutor's report in 2006 that largely substantiated the widespread claims of abuse under Burge. A Cook County Circuit Court judge refused to allow him to proceed with his appeal, but the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the trial judge and ruled in Wrice's favor, saying a coerced confession was never what courts call harmless error.
A special prosecutor named to handle the remaining Burge-related cases — retired Judge Stuart Nudelman — appealed the Appellate Court's ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court, arguing that, when there is overwhelming evidence of guilt, a judge should use a harmless error test, weighing the confession against the other evidence rather than automatically throwing out a confession because it was coerced.
In legal briefs filed in the case, attorneys and others had urged the court to stand by the 1987 ruling that a coerced confession is never harmless error. That ruling came in the case of Andrew Wilson, the convicted cop-killer who received a new trial after he prevailed on his claims that Chicago detectives beat him and burned him against a hot radiator while they questioned him.
Lambros had argued that coerced confessions should always be thrown out. Special prosecutors argued that a balancing was needed. Whether they will proceed with the hearing the court ordered is unclear; prosecutors have been reluctant to have Burge detectives as witnesses, even when called by the defense, because they have asserted their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when questioned about torture.
Nudelman could not be reached for comment.
Since the Burge scandal broke with the Wilson case, four Death Row prisoners have been pardoned and a half-dozen or so inmates serving lengthy prison terms have been released as part of deals with prosecutors, in many cases after they had won some kind of relief in the courts. The city of Chicago has borne a significant financial cost for the scandal as well, paying out more than $30 million in settlements, judgments and other costs of lawsuits.
Burge was convicted in federal court in 2010 of perjury and obstruction of justice charges for lying when he said under oath in a lawsuit that he had never taken part in or witnessed any torture. He went to prison in 2011 and is serving a 41/2 year sentence.