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Lightfoot

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, pictured last year, led a 2016 city task force that found that late Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and detectives he supervised “tortured and abused at least 100 African Americans.” After she became mayor in 2019, however, attorneys for the city continued their decades-old practice of refusing to admit the torture pattern.

Nam Y. Huh

Mayor Lori Lightfoot Says Police Tortured ‘At Least 100’ Black Chicagoans, But Her Law Department Tells A Different Story

For years, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has condemned the torture carried out under Jon Burge, the late police commander.

In 2016, she led a city panel that concluded Burge and detectives he supervised “tortured and abused at least 100 African Americans on the South and West sides in attempts to coerce confessions.”

During her mayoral campaign, Lightfoot blamed Burge for “so many lives shattered” and a “dark legacy” that left a “horrible stain on the legitimacy of policing that resonates today.”

As mayor, Lightfoot has kept talking about Burge, calling the commander “notorious” and saying a prison sentence he received stemmed from “torturing murder suspects for years.”

But the city’s Law Department under Lightfoot has continued a decades-old city practice in federal court. A WBEZ review of Burge-related wrongful-conviction lawsuits found five in which the Lightfoot administration has addressed whether there was a torture pattern during the Burge era. In all five cases, the city has refused to admit it.

A 2019 suit brought by James Gibson, whose double-murder conviction was thrown out after he spent nearly three decades behind bars, included a claim that it was “well documented” that officers under Burge “regularly engaged” in torture while interrogating suspects.

Lightfoot’s administration denied that claim.

“After I went through all these appeals, exonerated, dismissal of charges, certificate of innocence,” Gibson said, “the city lawyers come and say, ‘No, this didn’t happen.’ ”

Gibson said it felt like “the knife had gotten pulled out of my back and was stuck in my heart.”



Chip Mitchell

James Gibson’s double-murder conviction was thrown out in 2019 after he spent more than 29 years behind bars. That year he brought a lawsuit against the city that claims it has been “well documented” that officers under the late Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge “regularly engaged” in torture while “interrogating suspects, especially young African American suspects, in order to ‘solve’ crimes.” Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has denied that claim.

Chip Mitchell

Lightfoot’s administration had to deal with the torture pattern again in a lawsuit brought by Stanley Wrice, who spent 31 years behind bars after alleged abuse by Burge-supervised detectives.

At the suit’s trial last year, Wrice’s attorneys put four other alleged victims of those detectives on the witness stand. All four had received settlements from the city, three of them under a 2015 “reparations” ordinance that restricted payouts to people with a “credible claim of torture or physical abuse.”

During the trial’s closing arguments, nevertheless, an attorney for the city said the testimony of these witnesses amounted to “fairy tales.”

Lighfoot’s approach is “two-faced,” Chicago-based civil rights attorney G. Flint Taylor said.

“On the one hand, the mayor has spoken out about police torture and the pattern and practice of police torture under Burge and condemned it publicly,” said Taylor, who has spent much of his career exposing the abuse by bringing lawsuits against the city.

“On the other hand, when it comes to cases in court, her administration has denied it and continued to pay millions and millions of dollars to private attorneys [for] meritless defenses,” Taylor said. “Someone has to say to her, ‘Stop.’ ”

Duty to be truthful

The top attorney for the city, Celia Meza, did not answer written questions from WBEZ about the Lightfoot administration’s positions on the torture pattern. Neither did the mayor.

A spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department sent a statement that said “the city does not comment on ongoing litigation.”

Former Chicago Ald. Dick Simpson, a Lightfoot political supporter who helped lead her transition into office, said the administration is refusing to admit the torture pattern in court for a simple reason: to keep a lid on judgment and settlement amounts.

“It’s an attempt by the attorneys to carry out their fiduciary responsibility — their responsibility to protect the money of the taxpayers,” Simpson said. “The victims of that torture — who served 20 or 30 years in prison, often — the people do deserve compensation.”

The dispute, he said, often boils down to how much compensation.

Simpson, who has studied police misconduct as a University of Illinois at Chicago political scientist, said it can also be hard to distinguish the real torture victims from people just trying to get out of prison or win a big settlement.

“Anyone who was convicted in that era could claim, if one of the detectives or police were from the Burge squads, that they were tortured — whether they were or not,” Simpson said.



Burge

Former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge exits the federal courthouse in that city on May 24, 2010, during his obstruction of justice and perjury trial. After serving a prison sentence in that case, Burge died in 2018. Before she was Chicago mayor, Lori Lightfoot chaired a city task force that concluded Burge and detectives he supervised “tortured and abused at least 100 African Americans.”

Charles Rex Arbogast

If attorneys for the Lightfoot administration can prove a Burge torture claim is bogus, they owe it to the city to fight the claim “tooth and nail,” said Judson H. Miner, the city’s corporation counsel under mayors Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer.

But Miner said attorneys also have a duty to be truthful: “Lawyers never have the right to either lie or let a witness lie on the stand about whether or not there was a pattern of torture — if, in fact, there’s a well-documented history and pattern of torture.”

A well-documented pattern is what led to the reparations ordinance, under which the city paid $100,000 to 57 people who had not already settled with the city for at least that amount.

Under a resolution passed with the ordinance, Chicago Public Schools includes Burge units in the history curriculum for middle and high school students. That curriculum describes the abuse by the commander and his crew as a “systemic pattern of torture” and “CPD’s pattern and practice of torture.”

Beating and confession

If Lightfoot’s administration started admitting the pattern, Gibson would have a stronger case for the compensation he says he has demanded: $65 million. The city’s two largest Burge-related settlements to date, according to Taylor, were both for $10.2 million.

Gibson, 54, admits he was in a gang during his teen years but says he straightened out and went to college in Texas.

In 1989, he was home for Christmas when insurance agent Lloyd Benjamin and his client Hunter Wash were fatally shot at Wash’s auto-garage in the Englewood neighborhood.

The police picked up Gibson, who was 23, and held him without charges for three days.

“They started to smack on me, punch on me, kick on me and eventually crack my ribs and [hurt] my testicles, and they burnt the tattoo off my arm,” Gibson said.

Gibson eventually gave the detectives a statement that put him at the garage during the shooting. That confession became the key evidence in his 1991 murder conviction, which led to a sentence of life in prison without parole.

But Gibson insisted his confession was false — that he gave it to stop the abuse. He embarked on a decades-long legal effort to get the conviction thrown out. That effort gained traction in 2013, when his claim arrived at an Illinois commission set up to review Burge cases.

“I might have sold drugs when I was a little kid,” Gibson said. “But that doesn’t [justify] the fact that they violated my rights and falsely imprisoned me and locked me up.”

Gibson was behind bars for more than 29 years. Beyond compensation for that time, he says he wants Lightfoot’s administration to tell the truth in court — to admit the torture pattern.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.

The Denials

In five federal wrongful-conviction lawsuits, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has refused to admit a pattern of torture linked to Cmdr. Jon Burge:

Aug. 5, 2019: In a lawsuit brought by Anthony Jakes, Lightfoot’s administration denied a claim that “members of the Chicago Police Department” during the Burge era “routinely manufactured evidence against innocent people by coercing, manipulating, threatening, pressuring, and offering inducements to suspects and witnesses.” In 1991, Jakes was 15 years old when he signed a confession to being a lookout in the murder of Rafael Garcia outside a sandwich shop in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. Jakes said detectives under Burge beat the confession out of him. In 1993, nevertheless, he was convicted of murder and attempted armed robbery and sentenced to 40 years in prison. He was released on parole in 2012. The following year, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission found credible evidence that the detectives coerced Jakes into signing the confession. In 2018, the conviction was vacated and the case against him was dismissed. Jakes brought the suit in 2019. Later that year, a court granted him a certificate of innocence.

Sept. 6, 2019: In a suit brought by James Gibson, Lightfoot’s administration denied that it has been “well documented” that officers under Burge “regularly engaged” in torture while “interrogating suspects, especially young African-American suspects, in order to ‘solve’ crimes.” In 1989, Gibson was 23 when he gave detectives under Burge a statement that put him at an automobile-repair garage in the Englewood neighborhood where Lloyd Benjamin and Hunter Wash were both fatally shot. Gibson filed a complaint with the Police Department that said the detectives beat him while he was in custody. In 1991, however, he was convicted of the murders and sentenced to life without parole. In 2015, the state commission on torture found credible evidence that the detectives tortured Gibson. An Illinois appellate court vacated the conviction in 2019, and the case against him was dismissed. Gibson brought the suit in 2019. A court granted him a certificate of innocence last year.

March 2, 2020: In closing arguments at the trial of a suit brought by Stanley Wrice, an attorney for Lightfoot’s administration said a witness who testified about torture by Burge-led detectives “has no credibility” and that three other witnesses had told “fairy tales about being beat up by the defendants.” The city had paid Burge-related torture settlements to all four witnesses. Three of those payouts stemmed from a 2015 “reparations” ordinance that required each to have a “credible claim of torture or physical abuse.” In 1982, Wrice was 28 when he allegedly confessed to participating in a rape and beating in the South Shore neighborhood. He claimed that detectives under Burge beat him. The next year, however, he was convicted and sentenced to 100 years in prison. A 2007 bid by Wrice to overturn the conviction was the subject of a 2012 ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court, which held that a physically coerced confession “is never a harmless error.” In 2013, a judge threw out the conviction, concluding that detectives under Burge had tortured Wrice into confessing and then covered up the abuse. In 2014, Wrice brought his lawsuit against the city of Chicago. A court that year denied his bid for a certificate of innocence, but the suit proceeded. At the trial last year, a jury awarded Wrice $5.2 million.

June 3, 2020: In a suit brought by Arnold Day, Lightfoot’s administration denied that it was “common for suspects interrogated by the Chicago Police Department” during the Burge era “to falsely confess under extreme duress and after suffering abuse to committing crimes to which they had no connection and for which there was scant evidence to suggest they were involved.” The city also denied that CPD had a “widespread practice” of coercing suspects using physical and psychological violence. In 1992, Day was 18 when detectives under Burge held him until he confessed to roles in two unrelated shooting murders — including Rafael Garcia’s killing, the crime for which Jakes was convicted. Day said he was coerced to give those confessions. In 1993, a jury acquitted Day of the Garcia murder after he presented evidence he was elsewhere during the crime. In 1994, however, a different jury convicted him of the other murder, whose victim was Jerrod Erving. Day was sentenced to 60 years in prison. In 2017, the state torture commission found credible evidence that the detectives physically abused Day. The conviction was vacated in 2018, and the case against him was dismissed. A court granted Day a certificate of innocence in 2019. He brought his suit later that year.

May 7, 2021: In a suit brought by Corey Batchelor, Lightfoot’s administration denied the substance of findings and opinions by city officials, federal judges, federal juries, a special prosecutor and other public officials about the Burge-led torture. For example, her administration denied that CPD Office of Professional Standards director Gayle Shines approved as “compelling” an OPS investigator’s landmark 1990 findings about the torture. The investigator identified 50 instances in which detectives under Burge subjected Black suspects to torture or other abuse. In 1989, Batchelor and Kevin Bailey were 19 when arrested in the stabbing death of Lula Mae Woods, the wife of a retired police officer, at her South Side home. Both Batchelor and Bailey gave confessions. Both men said their confessions were false and were beaten out of them by detectives who had worked under Burge. In 1990, Bailey was convicted of first-degree murder, armed robbery and burglary. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison. In 1991, Batchelor was convicted of the same crimes and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Batchelor was released on parole in 2004. DNA evidence eventually added weight to their innocence claims. In 2018, both convictions were vacated and the charges were dismissed. Bailey and Batchelor, according to the special prosecutor who reviewed the case, agreed not to seek certificates of innocence. Batchelor filed his suit later that year.

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