Illinois high court orders hearing in cop brutality case
Former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge leaves the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago on Tuesday morning, June 29, 2010. (José M. Osorio/ Chicago Tribune)
The decision, which had anticipated for months by the legal community, came in the case of Stanley Wrice, who was convicted in 1983 of rape but had long alleged that he had been tortured by officers working for the disgraced former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge.
The court’s 6-0 ruling means Wrice will get a hearing in circuit court to determine if his confession was a product of police torture. The decision represents another milestone in the long-running saga of Burge and his crew of officers, who repeatedly have been accused of abusing African-American suspects in the 1970s and 1980s at a South Side police station.
Defense attorneys had feared that any break in the court’s tough stance would lead to the kind of abuse seen during Burge’s tenure. Prosecutors had hoped that the court would issue a ruling allowing them to use tainted confessions when the other evidence against a suspect was overwhelming.
“We believe that this type of coercion by the state ...constitutes an egregious violation of an underlying principle of our criminal justice system...” the court wrote.
The vote in the case was 6-0 because Justice Robert Thomas did not take part in the case.
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. Afterwards, 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 being held in the basement of the Area Two police headquarters. A judge, however, turned aside his claims that his statement was coerced and Wrice was convicted of rape, deviat 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. The Illinois Appellate Court ruled in his favor, saying a coerced confession was never what courts call “harmless error.” Prosecutors had argued that when they have 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. The Illinois Supreme Court then heard the case.
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed last year, a group of prominent lawyers, politicians and community activists urged the Illinois Supreme Court to stick with its previous ruling that a coerced confession is never harmless error. That ruling came in the case of Andrew Wilson, a convicted cop killer who received a new trial after he prevailed on his claims that he had been burned against a hot radiator during questioning.
Wrice’s attorney, Heidi Lambros of the Office of the State Appellate Defender, argued that it was crucial to always bar coerced confessions, writing that “adherence to the Wilson rule is critical to send a message that this type of egregious police misconduct will not be tolerated in Illinois.” Special prosecutors appointed to handle a number of lingering Burge-related appeals argued that some balancing was needed.
Federal prosecutors later charged Burge with perjury and obstruction of justice for lying when he said under oath in a lawsuit that he had never taken part in or witnessed any torture. Burge was convicted and currently is serving a 4 1/2 year sentence in a federal prison in North Carolina.