CHICAGO — A man who claims Chicago police tortured him into confessing to a brutal rape decades ago will seek a new trial Thursday from the Illinois Supreme Court in a case that could lay the groundwork for similar appeals by as many as 20 other inmates.
Stanley Wrice, who has been imprisoned for more than 30 years, says officers working for notorious Chicago police Lt. Jon Burge used a flashlight and rubber hose to beat him in the face and groin until he confessed to the 1982 assault at his home.
Burge is serving a 4 1/2-year sentence in federal prison following his conviction last year of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying in a civil suit when he said he’d never witnessed or participated in the torture of suspects.
While the outcome of Wrice’s case is being closely monitored by several other inmates who say Burge’s officers forced them to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, prosecutors insist Wrice had his day in court and would have been convicted even without the confession. They’ve argued the court should consider the alleged torture as the legal equivalent of a “harmless error” that didn’t affect the outcome of the case.
Attorneys and legal experts say while it’s difficult to predict what the high court will do, Wrice’s case could influence how Illinois courts handle decades-old allegations of police torture going forward. The court could order that all inmates with credible torture claims get new hearings, as defense attorneys have asked in an amicus brief. Or justices could allow the cases to work their way through the courts one-by-one on their merits, as prosecutors want.
The Wrice case is an opportunity for the court “to clarify the situation and create a road map for these victims to have their cases heard in a meaningful way, up or down, and move toward putting this all behind us,” said Locke Bowman, legal director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University, who represents several alleged torture victims.
It’s not clear whether the court will address the wider issue. Ultimately, the ruling could be focused just on whether Wrice has met the legal requirements to get a new hearing, or it could be more sweeping, said Doug Godfrey, professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law and a former prosecutor not involved with the torture cases.
“This can let the Illinois Supreme Court go all over the place if it wants to, or it can be really narrow,” Godfrey said. “They can use this as a vehicle to talk about the (police) torture cases” in general.
Justices have received briefs from both sides on the harmless error question, but they’ll have wide discretion on what they ask attorneys about, he said.
In a friend-of-the-court brief, ex-Gov. Jim Thompson, former U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III and more than 60 current and former prosecutors, judges and lawmakers asked for new evidentiary hearings for inmates who say their convictions were based on coerced confessions. The brief marked the first effort on behalf of alleged Burge victims as a group and not separate individual cases, attorneys said.
Wrice is one of dozens of men, almost all of them young and black, who have claimed since the 1970s that Burge and his officers tortured them into confessing to crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder. Allegations persisted until the 1990s at police stations on the city’s South and West sides.
A Cook County paramedic and a doctor at the jail testified that Wrice told them about the alleged beating and that he had injuries consistent with his claims at the time of his arrest, including blood in his urine and bruises.
The trial judge rejected Wrice’s attempt to have his confession suppressed because of the torture, and a jury convicted him. Each of his attempts for a new hearing on his torture claims was turned down until December, when the Illinois appellate court ordered a new evidentiary hearing, citing a state Supreme Court ruling that “the use of a defendant’s coerced confession as substantive evidence of his guilt is never harmless error.”
The court ruled Wrice had presented enough consistent evidence of his torture over the years that his claim should be reconsidered.
The state’s position is that the harmless error reading by the appellate court “is not the law,” said special prosecutor Myles O’Rourke. Aside from the confession, the evidence against Wrice at trial included testimony from two eyewitnesses and the fact that the attack happened in his bedroom, prosecutors say.
The then-assistant Cook County state’s attorney who prosecuted the case, Terry Gillespie, said he’s still sure of Wrice’s guilt and that he doesn’t believe the jury convicted him on just the confession.
Defense attorneys insist that upon closer inspection, the case against Wrice falls apart. The victim didn’t identify him as one of her attackers, and no physical evidence such as fingerprints or DNA linked him to the crime. One of two eyewitnesses has since recanted, alleging that he, too, was beaten by police to implicate Wrice.
Wrice has maintained that he was home at the time of the attack but that he didn’t participate or know it was happening. He’s serving a 100-year sentence.
If the appeals court ruling in Wrice is allowed to stand, prosecutors argue that all inmates will be encouraged to claim their confessions were tortured in order to automatically get new hearings, removing the court’s discretion to review the merits of each case.