When the criminal justice system gets you in its grip, it does not let go easily. The screws can tighten harder for the innocent, as law enforcement loathes admitting its mistakes. Take the case of Stanley Wrice.
Convicted for his role in an interracial gang rape in 1982, Wrice claimed his confession was bogus -- the product of torture at the hands of Cmdr. Jon Burge's "midnight crew." But few believed him, and Wrice was slammed with a 100-year sentence.
In his second decade behind bars, journalists and lawyers documented scores of cases of police torture under Burge, and medical records helped prove Wrice was one of the victims. But few believed he was truly innocent. An independent witness, Bobby Joe Williams, said Wrice was involved. So prosecutors called his tortured confession "harmless error."
After the century turned, Burge was dispatched to prison for lying about the torture and fresh questions were raised about Wrice's case. But a Cook County judge denied his request for a hearing, ruling the evidence was too old to consider.
Wrice's lawyer appealed, and, in 2010, a three-judge panel at long last ordered the hearing. Wrice could taste freedom. But special prosecutors appealed the ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court, delaying the matter for another year.
By this time, Wrice was 57-years-old and suffered from severe hypertension. But hope springs, and in 2011 more new evidence emerged. Witness Bobby Joe Williams recanted his testimony, swearing in an affidavit for students with the Chicago Innocence Project that he had been beaten into falsely implicating Wrice. And two of the actual perpetrators -- men who plead guilty to the crime -- also signed affidavits for the students swearing that Wrice was not involved. But special prosecutors ignored the mounting evidence of Wrice's innocence and persisted in claiming that his torture was "harmless error."
Finally, on Feb. 2, 2012, a unanimous Illinois Supreme Court flatly rejected prosecutors' arguments and ordered that the evidence be heard. Coerced confessions "can never be harmless error," the justices scolded. As reported here, Wrice's eldest daughter excitedly made plans for her father to stand up at her wedding in August.
But the justice system had other plans for Wrice. Following procedure, the high court returned the case to Cook County Judge Evelyn B. Clay -- the same judge who had denied Wrice's hearing in the first place. Seeing an opportunity, special prosecutors refused to concede defeat. They decided to stall. Ten months passed as Judge Clay granted one continuance after another. Wrice missed the wedding. Then they made an astonishing argument: Wrice did not deserve a hearing after all -- because he had voluntarily confessed before he was tortured. The judge promised to rule on Jan. 25.
Despite Chicago's first snowfall of the year, Judge Clay's courtroom was bustling with activity, typical for a jurist who hears only felony cases. A Cook County prosecutor for 15 years, Clay was elected to the bench in 1996 and retained twice. She became a presiding judge, the only African-American woman to be chosen for that position. Her courtroom was a magnet for controversial cases -- "heaters," they are called -- and today was no exception.
Besides the journalists present, a bevvy of courtroom observers caught the proceedings. Heidi Linn Lambros, Wrice's attorney for the past 11 years, nervously chatted with co-counsel Jennifer Bonjean as they awaited the ruling. Seated opposite them were assistant special prosecutors Rafael Bombino and Brian StefanIch.
As reported previously, Bombino and StefanIch are part of a team of all-white lawyers (the Burge victims are all black) that work for private firms at taxpayers' expense -- $1.6 million in county funds over the last three years. Their benefactor is special prosecutor Stuart Nudelman, a retired judge who appears to relish keeping men like Stanley Wrice behind bars.
The prisoner, consistent with custom, was conspicuously absent from court today. Wrice will learn his fate from Lambros in a prearranged phone call to the Pontiac Correctional Center.
At 12:35 p.m., Judge Clay ascended to the bench, written opinion in hand. Still standing, she wasted no time getting to the point. "I am going to read the conclusion," she began. "For all the foregoing reasons, this court finds that [Stanley Wrice] has made a substantial showing that his constitutional rights were violated. Accordingly, the post-conviction petition will be granted and the petition will be advanced for an evidentiary hearing on all of [Wrice's] asserted claims."
Smiling at Lambros, who cried tears of joy, the judge handed copies of the opinion to both sides.
Among the reasons Clay cited: "[Wrice] has successfully provided new evidence in support of his claim that he was physically coerced into confessing by Area 2 officers," she wrote. "Moreover, witness Bobby Joe Williams fully recanted his trial testimony against [Wrice]... and detailed the physical abuse committed by [Area 2 officers.]
"Furthermore, [Wrice] has successfully established a substantial showing of actual innocence where he has provided this court with the newly discovered affidavit of Williams... and affidavits from co-defendants Rodney Benson and Michael Fowler who have come forward to say that [Wrice] did not participate in the rape and assault."
The judge ordered that the hearing should also determine whether the State's Attorney's Office suppressed evidence that Wrice and Williams had been "physically coerced."
After skimming the six-page opinion, the lawyers agreed to meet again in court on Feb. 22. "This is everything. Unbelievable. I can't wait to talk with Stanley," Lambros said outside the courtroom.
Indeed, the opinion, while short on style points, is a legal bombshell. Wrice will be the first prisoner since Victor Safforld in 2009 to have a full-blown hearing on the evidence of torture. A judge freed Safforld after his hearing and blasted the Burge cops. And Wrice's hearing will be watched closely by at least 14 other prisoners whose claims of tortured false confessions have not been heard. That number could rise to 117 prisoners if the supreme court decision that bears Wrice's name is taken literally -- that police torture is never legally harmless.
The next move belongs to special prosecutor Nudelman, who has yet to defend a Burge case at a hearing. Who will Nudelman call to the stand? The two cops who extracted Wrice's confession? If history is a guide, they will plead the Fifth Amendment to avoid their former boss's fate. Bobby Joe Williams, the independent witness? He will testify the same cops tortured him. The victim? Now deceased, she did not identify Wrice as one of her assailants. Fellow prosecutors -- to find out if they suppressed evidence?
Clearly, a hearing would be costly to the taxpayers and another precedent-setting embarrassment to the justice system. If Nudelman somehow believes Wrice participated in the rape, he still has served about the same time as the average prisoner convicted of first degree murder.
The prisoner will turn 60 in April. It's time to loosen the screws, remove the vise and stop using the law as an instrument of torture. Let Stanley Wrice return to his family.