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David Protess

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Tortured by Police, Wrongly Imprisoned, Chicago Man Perseveres

Posted: 10/13/11 12:58 PM ET

For a man who has been dealt an horrific fate, Eric Caine remains undaunted. Easy going and loquacious, his words punctuated by an infectious laugh, Caine speaks of a hopeful future. Perhaps that is because his future has brightened in recent months. But perhaps it is also because his past is too painful to discuss.

Caine's ordeal began at age 20 at the South Side police station officially known as Area 2 -- unofficially dubbed the House of Screams. Shortly after the murders of an elderly couple in 1986, Caine was brought in for questioning by officers under the command of Jon Burge, the notorious police lieutenant who directed a campaign of torture against scores of suspects.

Caine became a suspect when another neighborhood resident, Aaron Patterson, named him in connection with the murders. While police claimed that Patterson also implicated himself, the evidence later showed that he had been "bagged," a form of torture akin to Water-boarding in which police intermittently suffocated him with a typewriter cover.

Now it was Caine's turn. He was kicked down a flight of stairs, pummeled in the gut and hit so hard in the head that his left eardrum ruptured. Dazed and defeated, Caine confessed to a crime he did not commit.

But at trial, police officers swore the confessions were voluntary, and jurors believed them. (The eardrum malady? Caused by a "sinus infection," the authorities claimed.) Separate panels convicted Caine and Patterson of murder in the first. Caine was sentenced to life without parole; Patterson got death.

As the two men languished behind bars, reporters (including my journalism students) began exposing the police torture scandal. In 2002, I presented evidence of Caine's and Patterson's innocence to Gov. George Ryan, who already had imposed a moratorium on executions because of the state's woeful record of sentencing innocents to death. Both men were suddenly hopeful.

Then, in a stunning development in January 2003, the governor commuted the sentences of all death row prisoners in Illinois -- and pardoned Patterson outright, setting him free. But with the spotlight on death cases, Caine, a lifer, was left behind, even though the evidence that freed Patterson applied equally to Caine. In effect, Eric Caine was punished for not being sentenced to death.

Caine would remain in prison for eight more years until a team of lawyers and law students with the Exoneration Project finally convinced the State to release him earlier this year. He took his first steps on freedom on March 16th -- the same day that Jon Burge was dispatched to federal prison for perjury and obstruction of justice in the police torture scandal.

By this time, Caine had served 25 years, losing his twenties, thirties, half of his forties and both of his parents.

Ever looking forward, Caine moved on with his life. He found an apartment, got a driver's license (made easier by 25 years without moving violations), volunteered at the Chicago Innocence Project and landed a part-time job while he waited to receive state compensation for his suffering.

But nothing comes easily for Caine. In yet another indignity, Cook Co. Judge Michael McHale on Wednesday denied Caine's request for a Certificate of Innocence, making it impossible for him to collect funds under an Illinois law that compensates officially exonerated prisoners.

Judge McHale acknowledged that Caine's confession had resulted from police torture and that no other evidence linked him to the murders. But without DNA, or compelling evidence that someone else committed the crime, the judge ruled that Caine had failed to meet the statutory requirement that he prove his innocence.

Caine's lawyer pushed back, pointing out that prosecutors had not contested Caine's sworn statements professing his innocence. The judge seemed surprised by this argument, even though it was mentioned in the legal brief that he presumably had read, but stood by his ruling. Barring a successful appeal, Caine will not receive the $199,000 awarded to long-serving prisoners who can prove a negative -- that they didn't do it.

The judge called his next case, and Caine exited the same courthouse where he had been unjustly tried for murder, as penniless as when he entered it.

Despite this latest setback, Caine was resolute. "It's not the first time I've been denied," he told me after the hearing. "I'll have to keep going through the fight. But I'm ready for the next round."

And the next round is looming. Caine's legal team is poised to file a multimillion civil rights suit against Burge, his fellow officers and the City of Chicago. In light of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's edict to settle all Burge lawsuits quickly, financial security should be within Caine's reach (barring another calamity.)

It is a quarter of a century and counting, but Eric Caine still intends to beat the system that tortured and confined him.