CHICAGO – A group of attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday to demand new hearings for scores of imprisoned men who claim their confessions were extracted through torture at the hands of Chicago police officers.
The lawsuit gives new hope to more than 100 people who filed claims of torture with a commission of inquiry before its work was halted this summer due to state budget cuts. Only six of those cases have been referred to a judge for further action.
The suit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, is also a chance to learn the true extent of a scandal in which dozens of men – almost all of them black – claim that, starting in the 1970s, police Lt. Jon Burge and his officers beat or shocked them into confessing to crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder.
"It is time – it is past time – for there to be closure in the Burge scandal," said Locke Bowman, one of the attorneys on the case and legal director of the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center. "That closure will come about in one way and one way only – full, fair hearings for each and every one of the victims with a credible claim that his conviction rests in part or in whole on a confession produced by torture."
The mother of one of the petitioners, Johnnie Plummer, said at a news conference about the filing that she hoped the suit would be the beginning of a journey home for her son, who was arrested at age 15 for two killings and has spent the past 21 years behind bars. He claims officers beat him with a flashlight, struck him in the face and pulled his hair so he would confess.
"It's not fair," said Jeanette Plummer. "Twenty-one years is wasted. My son needs to come home. So do the other men. And I hope this petition that they filed will give my son a fair hearing, so I can see my baby come home. It's long overdue. I hope we get justice for Johnnie."
Burge was convicted in 2010 of lying under oath by testifying in a lawsuit that he'd never witnessed or participated in the torture of suspects. He is serving a 4˝-year sentence in federal prison for perjury and obstruction of justice.
But Bowman said that until all of these "forgotten group of men" get hearings, the scandal will "continue to fester, it will continue to plague us."
Former prisoner Darrell Cannon, who also spoke at the news conference, said his story is proof that with a fair hearing, the wrongfully convicted can get justice.
"On behalf of all those who are still locked up, I say unto you, 'Continue to keep your hope alive,'" said Cannon, who was freed after 24 years in prison when a review board determined that evidence used to convict him was tainted.
Cannon said police pretended to load a shotgun, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger to terrify him into confessing to a murder that he didn't commit. He said they also shocked him below the belt with an electric cattle prod.
The total number of torture victims is still unknown, Bowman said.
"It's fair to say there may well be scores," he said.
The petition filed Tuesday names 12 inmates who were first identified in 2006 in an investigation led by a special prosecutor.
The lawsuit says it also includes some or all of the 110 people who filed complaints with the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, which was effectively shut down in June by lawmakers who stripped it of all of its funding as they grappled with a budget shortfall.
The commission recently received a stopgap grant of federal money that will allow it to resume operations until the end of the year, when its director hopes the state will resume funding its work.
Bowman, however, believes the class action lawsuit will provide a more certain avenue to justice for those who have been wrongfully convicted because it comes with more clarity about the process and rules of evidence, and it clearly requires a judge to issue a decision in each case.
"Our view is that this is the only way that we can be assured that we will get definitively to the bottom of this scandal," Bowman said.