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David Protess Headshot

Costs Spiral in Police Torture Scandal

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Eric Caine was wary of man's best friend, but he took a job as a dog-walker in 2011 because he needed the money. Besides, work was hard to come by for a 45-year-old African-American just released from prison after 25 years -- even though he hadn't committed the crime. Caine figured he'd avoid pit bulls and bide his time until state restitution came through for his unjust imprisonment.

It took more than a year, however, before Caine received a check for the maximum allowed under Illinois law -- $199,150, less than $8,000 for each year of suffering.

Meanwhile, Caine landed a full-time job at a laundry service in a Chicago suburb, but didn't have transportation reliable enough to keep it. So he turned to a temporary employment agency. That helped pay the bills, though the work wasn't steady, at one point leaving him unemployed for two months.

Like many exonerated prisoners, Caine came to realize that his best hope for survival -- and justice -- was to file a federal lawsuit against the authorities responsible for his wrongful conviction. (While restitution in Illinois is based on a formula and guaranteed to exonerees, federal civil rights suits are generally a crap shoot.) In Caine's suit, the defendants would be the City of Chicago and, most notably, Jon Burge, the disgraced police lieutenant who never met a suspect he didn't like to torture.

Cops working under Burge's command had extracted a false confession from Caine in 1986 after repeatedly beating him in a badly misguided effort to solve a double homicide on the city's South Side. The confession had been the cornerstone of Caine's conviction, which was finally tossed out in the wake of the Burge scandal. Burge himself was eventually convicted for lying about the widespread torture and dispatched to a federal prison -- on the same day that Caine was freed. Suing Burge and his henchmen for violating Caine's civil rights seemed a reasonable route to meaningful compensation.

Not so fast. For the past year, lawyers for Burge and the city have tied up Caine's case in depositions, interrogatories and a dizzying array of legal maneuvers. This made no sense to Caine because he indisputably had been tortured, with a ruptured eardrum and a court-issued certificate of innocence to prove it.

A few days ago, Caine finally learned the reason for the repeated delays. A new report revealed that the city was doling out millions of dollars each year to a cadre of lawyers dedicated to ferociously fighting lawsuits against Burge. The report, by civil rights lawyer G. Flint Taylor (who represents several torture victims but not Caine), relied on the city's own documents to identify seven law firms hired to defend most of the Burge cases.

The taxpayers' tab for legal fees alone: $19.3 million. Almost 40 percent of this amount was dispensed in the last three years.

Caine quickly noticed that the firms contesting his own lawsuit had received $467,976, even though he'd just filed the claim in 2012. How ironic, he thought, that lawyers defending the cops had already pocketed more than twice what the state had given him for 25 years of cop-inflicted suffering. "A crying shame" was all the normally loquacious Caine could muster.

Most of the money went to The Sotos Law Firm, a group of all-white lawyers (the torture victims are all-black) based in west suburban DuPage County. Headed by James G. Sotos, the firm's website proclaims that "our Chicago area excessive force defense attorneys have a reputation among the toughest defenders of law enforcement professionals in the business." The site adds, "These cases often involve public opinion as much as fact and our lawyers know how to manage the message..."

Apparently so, Caine thought. Otherwise, why would Mayors Daley and Emmanuel steer more than $8.6 million in police brutality cases to Sotos' firm alone since 2003?

But Sotos has not always delivered in return. Famously, he represented the city on the losing end of a $21 million jury verdict against Reynaldo Guevara, a Chicago cop from the Northwest Side. Caine noticed, with delight, that his own lawyers at Loevy & Loevy had beaten Sotos badly in that case.

Clearly, legal fees are not the only drain on the city's coffers. Besides the $19 million and change to defend the police torturers, there are the payments to the tortured. That's another $41.6 million in settlements and judgments in Burge cases, according to Taylor's report. Add $10.2 million in Cook County payments for special prosecutors and the like, and the grand total for defending Burge cases reaches a whopping $71.1 million.

It gets worse. The costs of the scandal are spiraling, with more than $15 million spent since the middle of last year, and several lawsuits (including Caine's) still pending or on the horizon.

And these numbers don't include the $3,000-a-month police pension that Burge has continued to receive while he is in prison. A court battle is raging over this issue.

Caine shakes his head. He wonders if the city could have used the money to prevent school closings or hire more cops to keep the children safe. And why are the lawyers getting so much?

One reason is political, according to Taylor. Mayors curry favor with law firms by giving them sweetheart deals, even if the work they do is repugnant to some voters. "This is 'pinstripe patronage' gone completely wild," Taylor tells me, "and it demonstrates that the city remains on the wrong side of history in the torture scandal." Another reason is that lawyers know how to stall, sometimes delaying a lawsuit for so long that an indigent plaintiff might settle for less than his claim is worth.

Caine insists, however, that the Burge legal team will cave before he does. How will he support himself while lawyers continue to make money off his case? "I just completed an assessment test for a post office job -- and I qualify!" he proudly declares. "Now I'm awaiting the next move."