CHICAGO — An Illinois Supreme Court ruling that gave one inmate new hope for freedom Thursday also could revive appeals by more than a dozen others who claim they confessed to crimes under torture by Chicago police officers, defense attorneys said.
Justices ruled Stanley Wrice can continue seeking a new hearing on evidence that officers beat him with a flashlight and rubber hose until he confessed to a brutal rape. Prosecutors contend they had proof to convict him of the 1982 crime, even without the confession.
Wrice, 57, is serving a 100-year sentence for a crime he insists he didn't commit. He's among dozens of men – almost all of them black – who have claimed since the 1970s that former Chicago police Lt. Jon Burge and his officers used torture to secure confessions in crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder. Allegations persisted until the 1990s at police stations on the city's South and West sides.
While several of the incarcerated men with torture claims have been released, Wrice's case could have far-reaching impact on how Illinois deals with such cases in the future. Defense attorneys say the decision in the Wrice case adds new momentum to their efforts to have their client's convictions thrown out.
The court didn't order new evidentiary hearings for the men as attorneys had sought in an amicus brief. But defense attorney Locke Bowman, who represents other men with torture claims, said the "opinion points the way forward for the other Burge victims."
Allegations of abuse and torture have plagued the police department in the nation's third-largest city for decades and were a factor in former Gov. George Ryan's decision to institute a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000. Gov. Pat Quinn abolished the death penalty in Illinois last year.
An appeals court had sided with Wrice, ruling that he should be granted a new hearing on his claim that Burge's officers used a flashlight and rubber hose to beat him in the face and groin.
The high court ruled that the appeals court skipped a procedural step in granting the evidentiary hearing but that the trial court was also wrong not to allow his post-conviction case to proceed. The ruling paves the way for a new hearing and perhaps a new trial.
Andrew Levine, special assistant prosecutor, said his office is still reviewing its legal options – including asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
"That's definitely one of the options," he said.
Prosecutors haven't disputed that Wrice was tortured but say they had enough evidence of his guilt to convict him even without the allegedly coerced confession, including testimony from two witnesses and the fact that an iron used in the attack was found in Wrice's bedroom, as were the victim's clothes.
In asking the high court to reverse the appellate court's ruling, prosecutors argued that the confession was the legal equivalent of "harmless error."
Justices strongly disagreed.
"Use of a defendant's physically coerced confession as substantive evidence of his guilt is never harmless error," the opinion by Justice Mary Jane Theis reads. Five other justices concurred, while a seventh justice didn't participate in the case.
That the court spelled out its position on the issue of harmless error not once but twice in the opinion "is an indication of how very clear they wanted to be about this principle, which is important not just in legal terms but in moral terms," Bowman said.
Many of the men have been claiming since their arrests decades ago that police abused them, but judges and juries never believed them, preferring to accept the word of officers. That changed after Burge was convicted in 2010 for lying in a civil suit when he said he'd never witnessed or participated in the torture of suspects. Burge is serving a 4 1/2-year sentence in federal prison for perjury and obstruction of justice.
Defense attorney Stan Willis, whose client Keith Walker has Burge-related torture claims, said the ruling helps ensure that Walker and others like him have a chance to get trials without confessions tainted by torture.
"Our position has always been even if they were guilty ... the fact that they were tortured was a substantial violation of due process and should never, ever be allowed to stand," Willis said.
Wrice's defense attorney Heidi Lambros said she was thrilled with Thursday's decision, saying "we got everything that we asked for."
Wrice's daughter, Gail Scott, called the ruling "a dream" and said she couldn't stop crying Thursday because she was so happy. Scott, 30, met her father for the first time in October when she visited him at Pontiac Correctional Center.
Optimistic about the outcome of the case, Scott has already written to ask Wrice to walk her down the aisle at her wedding in August.
Karen Hawkins can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/khawkinsAP