Eric Caine had millions of reasons to smile, so why the glum expression when we met at our favorite eatery on July 25?
The previous day, the Chicago City Council had approved a $10 million settlement of his lawsuit against Comdr. Jon Burge and the cops who tortured him into falsely confessing to a double murder in 1986. The settlement ended his 27-year legal ordeal that included a quarter of a century behind bars. The murder charges were dropped and he was freed in 2011 on the same day that Burge was sent to prison for lying about the torture scandal and obstructing justice.
I have chronicled Caine's fight to clear his name ever since: the ruling by a Cook County judge to deny his certificate of innocence because of a bizarre quirk in the law; the legislation proposed to remedy the problem; the judge's decision to reverse himself and proclaim Caine innocent; his move to the western suburbs and his first vote in a presidential election.
Now, as I slid into a booth across from him at Winberie's in Oak Park, I assumed he would feel triumphant. I assumed wrong.
"I'm afraid to drive home from here," Caine explained. "I'm afraid to pull into my parking space. I'm afraid to go into my apartment."
Home for the 47-year-old Caine is River Forest, an upscale, predominantly white suburb that adjoins racially mixed Oak Park. (Caine, like all the Burge torture victims, is black.) One of River Forest's best-known residents is Anita Alvarez -- the Cook County state's attorney who was a young prosecutor when Caine was wrongfully convicted. Caine landed in Alvarez's neighborhood with the help of a church group that found an apartment there for the recently freed exoneree.
Caine's fears about living in River Forest were first realized in March, he said, when he was blocked from parking behind his building by a black truck, its bubble lights flashing. A squad car quickly pulled up from behind and boxed him in, according to Caine.
That is when he encountered Officer Benjamin Laird. Emerging from the truck in plainclothes, Laird announced that Caine was under arrest. His offense: driving with a suspended license.
Caine produced his permit from the Secretary of State, he said, but Laird was not finished. "He demanded to know if I had drugs or guns," Caine said. "Then he asked how much I paid for my car." After radioing his sergeant, Laird and the cop in the squad car drove off.
The incident left Caine shaken. He tried to put it out of his head, but a short time later his doorbell rang. "River Forest police!" shouted a familiar voice. It was Officer Laird, claiming he was investigating an incident of domestic violence at his apartment, Caine recalled.
Caine opened the door, puzzled by the allegation. Laird said he wanted to look around the place. At this point, Caine's girlfriend Tina intervened. "I told the officer, 'Everything's fine, look at me,'" she recalled in an interview. Laird then disappeared next door and did not return.
For weeks, Caine noticed that River Forest police cars seemed to follow him when he left for work (at a temp agency) or returned home. Once, Caine says, he was issued a speeding ticket -- while still in his parking space.
But he did not see Laird again until the night of July 15. That is when he and another exonerated prisoner, Marvin Reeves -- also a police torture victim -- were sitting in Reeves' car in front of Caine's apartment.
"Officer Laird ordered me out of the [passenger's seat] and made me stand spread eagle against the trunk of Marvin's car," Caine said. Clutching a cellphone in his left hand, Caine said he wanted to call his lawyer. "He [Laird] grabbed my cellphone and tossed it on the hood of his [squad] car," Caine said. After patting him down, Laird cuffed Caine's hands behind his back, seated him on the sidewalk and eventually brought him to the River Forest police station. Caine was charged with resisting arrest and aggravated assault of a police officer -- for "clenching his fists," according to the misdemeanor complaint filed at the station.
Caine posted the $150 bond and was released, but not before Laird had a parting shot: "Why can't you act like normal blacks?'" Yeah, Caine thought, the kind that get railroaded.
In an interview, Reeves confirmed Caine's version of the arrest. "All of a sudden, the officer shined his flashlight in my car," Reeves said. "When he saw Eric, he ordered him to get out for no reason and pushed him against my trunk. Eric never threatened him, verbally or physically." The last thing Reeves saw before being ordered to leave was Caine in handcuffs, on the ground, next to Laird's squad car.
Asked to comment, James O'Shea, River Forest Deputy Chief of Police said that "I do not have any claims from Eric Caine that he was falsely arrested or harassed." O'Shea declined to discuss Caine's arrest since it is a pending criminal case. Asked about the racial composition of the River Forest force, O'Shea said there were three minorities on a full-time force of 27 sworn officers.
On Aug. 2, Caine is scheduled to appear in court to answer the misdemeanor charges. He hopes Alvarez's prosecutors will not drop the case. "First off, we'll demand the video from Officer Laird's car and the recordings taken at the River Forest police station," Caine said. "They'll show the truth."
Most likely, the case will be continued. That will give Caine the chance to spend part of his settlement on a home in Oak Park, a progressive community that has long embraced diversity.
As for Officer Laird, he will have a lot of time on his hands when Caine gets out of Dodge. Perhaps he will use it constructively, say by solving actual crimes. But left unchecked, Laird just might place Caine's photo near the WANTED posters on the police department's bulletin board. Above the photo, the caption might read:
NEWLY FREED BLACKS
Postscript. On the eve of Eric Caine's court date, he was arrested in River Forest for allegedly driving on a suspended license. The arresting officer was Benjamin Laird. Officer Laird handcuffed Caine and he was taken to Cook County Jail, where he posted a $1,200 bond.