On the surface, Stanley Wrice is just another lifer, serving his 29th year of a 100-year sentence, killing time until time kills him.
The Illinois Department of Corrections website describes him as black, male, 5 ft. 11 in., 195 lbs. No marks, scars or tattoos. Sentenced for rape and deviate sexual assault. Projected discharge date: 2041.
Those are the facts.
Here is the truth: Wrice was wrongfully convicted, and three decades later he finds himself at the center of one of the most controversial legal battles of our time. The question that will soon be resolved by the Illinois Supreme Court: Can police torture be legally harmless?
In the midnight hours of Sept. 9, 1982, Karen Byron, a 32-year-old white woman who lived on Chicago's South Side, could not sleep and headed to the local liquor store. She did not make it home.
Taken by three black men to the upstairs bedroom of a nearby residence, Byron was gang-raped and burned repeatedly with torched paper and a clothes iron. Dumped in the back yard, Byron stumbled to a gas station. The attendant called the cops.
The next day, police arrested the three men believed to be her assailants -- and Stanley Wrice, 28, who lived with others in the residence where Byron had been tortured.
More torture followed, this time of the suspects at the Area 2 police station commanded by the notorious Jon Burge. The suspects would tell a similar story: Ttey were dragged to the basement, beaten with a rubber hose, punched, kicked and threatened with lynching. Eventually, each of the men confessed.
Wrice's injuries to his groin, legs and back were so severe that he required treatment by a paramedic and a physician -- after being arrested for allegedly raping Byron. But two of Burge's cops, Det. Peter Dignin and Sgt. John Byrne, would claim that Wrice had confessed "voluntarily." And two witnesses, Bobby Joe Williams and Kenneth Lewis, would insist they were in the home that night and saw Wrice participate in the crime.
Although Byron did not identify Wrice as her assailant, and Wrice quickly recanted his statement to police -- swearing he was only in the home for part of that night and unaware of the crime -- a Cook Co. jury believed the two cops and the pair of witnesses. A judge sentenced Wrice to a century.
Meanwhile, the other three alleged assailants pled guilty, cutting sweet deals that spared them Wrice's fate.
Case closed. For the time being.
As Wrice languished behind bars, Chicago journalists and lawyers began exposing the police torture scandal at Area 2. A special prosecutor launched an investigation, documenting more than 100 cases of torture -- including Wrice's. But the special prosecutor concluded that Jon Burge and his "Midnight Crew" could not be charged because the statute-of-limitations in Illinois had expired.
Undeterred, the feds stepped in. As part of an ongoing F.B.I. investigation, Burge was arrested, convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, and recently began serving a 54-month sentence. Sources close to the investigation say that Burge's underlings -- including Dignin and Byrne, who allegedly tortured Stanley Wrice and others -- have been targeted by the F.B.I.
These developments were enough for Wrice's lawyer, Assistant Appellate Defender Heidi Linn Lambros, to push for a court hearing on the new evidence that challenged the credibility of Dignin and Byrne. She convinced the Illinois Court of Appeals to order the hearing. It was looking good for Wrice.
But another special prosecutor appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. His argument: the torture of Wrice was "harmless error." Say again? The inhumane acts of Burge's men were legally trivial -- because the eyewitness testimony against Wrice was enough for a jury to convict him.
Wrice's confession had unquestionably resulted from torture, the special prosecutor conceded, but he should remain locked up for 100 years based on the claims of Bobby Joe Williams and Kenneth Lewis.
The justices of the Illinois Supreme Court agreed last March to hear the case. By this time, Stanley Wrice had spent half of his life behind bars.
Kenneth Lewis had died, but his original statements were still revealing. Lewis claimed that he had witnessed the assault against Byron, left to get barbequed chicken, returned for more of the rape, and left again without calling the cops. Lewis could not explain why none of the other witnesses -- including the actual assailants -- ever saw him that night.
The sole surviving eyewitness, Bobby Joe Williams, admitted to the students that he had lied at Wrice's trial. He, too, had been tortured by Area 2 police into falsely implicating Wrice, and later pressured by the prosecution to repeat his bogus story on the stand. "I realized my testimony was false, but I was afraid to tell the truth," Williams said in an affidavit he signed for the students.
The young reporting team also tracked down the surviving perpetrators, Michael Fowler in Minneapolis and Rodney Benson in Eldorado, Arkansas. Both told similar tales of torture at the hands of Dignin and Byrne. Both signed affidavits admitting they were in the upstairs bedroom that horrific night.
Stanley Wrice was innocent, they swore.
His case against Wrice in shambles, the special prosecutor has nonetheless blindly persisted in arguing that police torture is legally harmless. Like some prosecutors who are more concerned with winning than justice, with finality than truth, the special prosecutor is fighting to preserve the original jury verdict from 1983. He also does not want a civil rights suit demanding huge money damages brought against the City of Chicago, a realistic concern if Wrice prevails.
Now it's up to the Illinois Supreme Court. The justices can agree with the special prosecutor and keep Wrice where he is for the rest of his life. More likely, they will return the case to a Cook Co. judge for a hearing on the new evidence of Wrice's innocence.
But the justices have another option. They can declare, once and for all, that torture is never harmless and order a new trial. Since there is no longer any evidence to re-try Wrice, the Court would, in effect, be setting him free. The ruling is expected before Christmas.
Wrice has been waiting for this moment since his youth. His daughter, Gail, has been waiting virtually her entire life.
Free Stanley Wrice in time for the holidays. And fill his cell with the cops who destroyed his life.