By now many people know of the shameful legacy of police torture here in Chicago. Thus far only one of the perpetrators, Jon Burge, has been held to account. Recently, a Court of Inquiry in Texas found probable cause to arrest former prosecutor for deliberately hiding exculpatory evidence from Michael Morton who spent decades in prison for a crime he did not commit, but this is unusual. Most of the time nothing happens to police or prosecutors who hide exculpatory evidence.
We also have a sordid and storied history of shenanigans with evidence here in Chicago. Emblematic of this was the "street files" scandal in the 1980s -- when it was discovered that there were reports being written by police officers that weren't being turned over to the defense. Since the time of the revelation of these secret reports, the city of Chicago police department has been making available hand-written notes (called general progress notes) and supposedly this problem of secret files is gone.
Not so much. In the mid-1980s, a man named Nathson Fields was convicted of a double homicide and sentenced to death. Although he has now been cleared, he spent eighteen years in prison and seven on bond after the grant of a new trial before he was acquitted. According to his pending civil rights complaint, he was imprisoned as a direct result of police and prosecutorial misconduct including the hiding of exculpatory evidence. Here is the kicker, the hidden file, the one with evidence that showed not only Mr. Field's innocence, but the police attempt to put another murder case on him -- an attempt they had to abandon when they discovered he was in custody at the time of the offense -- but it appeared 28 years later. Here is how they get away with it.
If you or I get a subpoena for documents, we are supposed to do our best to find them and produce them. A subpoena, after all is a court order. But the Chicago police see it differently: the Police Department has a policy under which investigative files deemed "open" (as opposed to cleared and closed, for example) are not considered subject to subpoenas; C.P.D. has never provided notice that it was withholding information pursuant to that policy. When Chicago police department subpoena processors encounter a subpoena for documents relating to an "open" investigation (which they pretended Fields was as there was still someone they wished to question), their practice is to contact legal affairs for further instruction pursuant to the C.P.D. policy that open files are not subject to a subpoena -- and that it is the attorneys in the legal affairs department who determine whether any components of an "open" file will be produced.
So where have the files been all these years? In files in the file cabinets in the boiler room at the police station at 51st and Wentworth. That's right, there are cabinets full of files from cases that their lawyers never saw, there are likely many people whose cases should be overturned because of this trick -- pretending these cases are still open and thus ignoring a court ordered subpoena. Lawyers for Mr. Fields have asked the federal court to issue and order not only to inspect and produce in their case, but to preserve and protect all of these files.
If these files are in the basement at this police station, I would imagine it's highly likely that there are other boiler rooms in other police stations hiding similar files.
According to Buddha "Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth." For decades now, much of the truth has laid hidden behind obfuscation and literally in the basement. It is time for that to stop.