Stanley Wrice

Wrice with Assistant Appellate Defender Heidi Linn Lambros (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Wrice with Assistant Appellate Defender Heidi Linn Lambros (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

A tortured confession to a savage crime

Based in part on an alleged confession that he attributed to police torture, Stanley Wrice was convicted by a Cook County jury and sentenced to 100 years in prison for the abduction, rape, and deviate sexual assault of a 32-year-old Chicago woman on September 8, 1982. Wrice, then 28, was arrested the day after the crime and spent the next 31 years, three months, and three days behind bars before he was exonerated and freed in 2013.

Wrice’s exoneration followed a landmark decision that the Illinois Supreme Court handed down in his case in February 2012. Holding that the use of a physically coerced confession as evidence of guilt at a criminal trial “is never harmless error,” the Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court for a hearing on the merits of Wrice’s torture claim.

From the beginning, Wrice had alleged that he had been severely beaten by Chicago Police Detective Peter Dignan and Sergeant John Byrne—who worked under Jon Burge, a police lieutenant who was promoted to commander before he was suspended in 1991 and fired in 1993 for systematically torturing African American suspects.

On December 12, 2013, at the conclusion of the hearing that the Supreme Court had ordered 22 months earlier, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Richard F. Walsh threw out Wrice’s conviction on the grounds that the torture evidence stood unrebutted and that a key prosecution witness had recanted his trial testimony. The prosecution then dropped the charges  and Wrice, 59, was released.

The crime for which Wrice had been convicted was unspeakably savage. The victim, Karen Byron, who was white, testified that she had been walking to a liquor store when several African American men offered her a ride, which she accepted. The men took her to a two-story bungalow where she was beaten, severely burned by hot metal objects pressed against her skin, and repeatedly raped. When the men finally released her, Byron stumbled into a filling station, where the attendant called police. She was treated at a hospital for burns covering more than 80 percent of her body.

From Byron’s description, police located the bungalow in the 7600 block of South Chappen Avenue where they arrested Wrice and three other African American men—Michael Fowler, Rodney Benson, and Lee Holmes. Byron did not identify Wrice, but she did identify the other three men, all of whom proceeded to plead guilty pursuant to plea agreements. Fowler was sentenced to four years in prison, and Benson and Holmes only to 30 months’ probation.

Before Wrice’s 1983 trial, he made a motion to suppress the confession, contending that  Dignan and Byrne had taken him to the basement of Area 2 police headquarters, where Dignan said he was “fixing to do some police brutality.” Wrice testified that after he told the officers he was not involved in the crime, they repeatedly struck him in the head, arms, kneecaps, and groin with a 16-inch flashlight and a piece of rubber. A physician and paramedic who examined Wrice the day after his arrest testified that he sustained injuries that were consistent with his torture allegation, but Dignan and Byrne denied the allegation and Judge Thomas R. Fitzgerald denied Wrice’s suppression motion.

At the trial, in addition to introducing Wrice’s alleged confession, prosecutors called two purported eyewitnesses, Bobby Joe Williams and Kenneth Lewis, who testified that they had seen Wrice rape the victim and burn her with a hot spoon. Williams added that after the rape and assault Wrice admitted that he had “burned the bitch.” Although there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and although the victim had not identified him, the jury quickly returned a verdict of guilty.

Judge Fitzgerald sentenced Wrice to consecutive terms of 60 years for rape and 40 years for deviate sexual assault—a total of 100 years. The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the conviction on August 15, 1985, but made the sentences run concurrently rather than consecutively, in effect reducing the sentence to 60 years.

After a pro se petition for post-conviction relief filed by Wrice was denied by the Circuit Court, Assistant Illinois Appellate Defender Heidi Linn Lambros was assigned to represent him on appeal. The appeal was denied, at which time Wrice lost his right to an appellate defender.  Lambros believed in him so strongly, however, that she continued to work on the case on her own time.

New life was breathed into the case on July 9, 2006, when Special Prosecutor Edward J. Egan, who had been appointed four years earlier by Chief Criminal Court Judge Paul S. Biebel to investigate police torture, listed Dignan and Byrne as among about a dozen Burge underlings who systematically tortured suspects to extract confessions in Area 2 during the 1980’s.

Citing the special prosecutor’s report, Wrice sought permission of the Circuit Court  to file a successive petition for post-conviction relief. His pro se request was denied, but Heidi Lambros appealed and on December 2, 2010, the Illinois Appellate Court ordered the Circuit Court to conduct a hearing on Wrice’s torture claim.

Prosecutors appealed the Appellate Court decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. While the appeal was pending, Bobby Joe Williams recanted his trial testimony, providing an affidavit on March 7, 2011, to students working with the Chicago Innocence Project. Wrice alleged in the affidavit that Dignan and Byrne had tortured him, forcing him to falsely implicate Wrice.

Before Wrice’s trial, the Williams affidavit continued, an African American female attorney at the Cook County Criminal Courts Building showed him photographs of Karen Byron’s injuries and threatened to charge him with the crime unless he testified against Wrice. Williams did not know who the attorney was, but Assistant State’s Attorney Bertina E. Lampkin, the lead prosecutor in the case who later became an Illinois Appellate Court judge, matched his description.

Two of the men who had pleaded guilty to the crime—Fowler and Benson—also provided affidavits to the Chicago Innocence Project students stating that neither Wrice nor Kenneth Lewis, the second eyewitness who had claimed to have seen Wrice rape and assault Byron, had been present during the crime. By the time Fowler and Benson made the affidavits, Lewis was deceased.

On February 2, 2012, the Supreme Court, with a unanimous opinion written by Justice Mary Jane Theis, affirmed the Appellate Court decision ordering a hearing on Wrice’s torture claim. The ensuing hearing, as explained above, culminated in Wrice’s exoneration and release.

At the time of Wrice’s release, the cases of 25 prisoners who were convicted in part as a result of confessions obtained by Burge and his subordinates were pending review by the Circuit Court in light of the Theis decision. — Rob Warden