CHICAGO — An inmate who says Chicago police officers tortured him into confessing to a brutal rape can present evidence of coercion that was denied at trial, the Illinois Supreme Court decided Thursday in a ruling that could have implications for more than a dozen other inmates seeking similar appeals.
Justices ruled Stanley Wrice should be appointed counsel and that his post-conviction case should be allowed to continue. Wrice, 57, is among dozens of men — almost all of them black — who have claimed since the 1970s that former Chicago police Lt. Jon Burge and his officers used torture to secure confessions in crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder. Allegations persisted until the 1990s at police stations on the city's South and West sides.
While several of the incarcerated men with torture claims have been released, Wrice's case could have far-reaching impact on how Illinois deals with such cases in the future. Wrice, who is serving a 100-year sentence, insists he's innocent.
Allegations of abuse and torture have plagued the Police Department in the nation's third-largest city for decades and were a factor in former Gov. George Ryan's decision to institute a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000. Gov. Pat Quinn abolished the death penalty in Illinois last year.
An appeals court had sided with Wrice, ruling that he should be granted a new hearing on his claim that Burge's officers used a flashlight and rubber hose to beat him in the face and groin until he confessed to a 1982 sexual assault at his home.
The high court ruled that the appeals court skipped a procedural step in granting the evidentiary hearing but that the trial court was also wrong not to allow his post-conviction case to proceed. The ruling paves the way for a new hearing and perhaps a new trial.
Andrew Levine, special assistant prosecutor, said his office is still reviewing its legal options — including asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
"That's definitely one of the options," he said.
Prosecutors haven't disputed that Wrice was tortured but say they had enough evidence of his guilt to convict him even without the allegedly coerced confession, including testimony from two witnesses and the fact that an iron used in the attack was found in Wrice's bedroom, as were the victim's clothes.
In asking the high court to reverse the appellate court's ruling, prosecutors argued that the confession was the legal equivalent of "harmless error."
Justices strongly disagreed.
"Use of a defendant's physically coerced confession as substantive evidence of his guilt is never harmless error," the opinion by Justice Mary Jane Theis reads. Five other justices concurred, while a seventh justice didn't participate in the case.
That the court spelled out its position on the issue of harmless error not once but twice in the opinion "is an indication of how very clear they wanted to be about this principle, which is important not just in legal terms but in moral terms," said Locke Bowman, one of the defense attorneys representing men with pending torture claims against Burge and his officers.
While the court didn't order new evidentiary hearings for the other inmates with torture claims as Bowman and others had sought, "its opinion points the way forward for the other Burge victims," he maintained.
Wrice's defense attorney Heidi Lambros said she was thrilled with the decision, saying "we got everything that we asked for."
Wrice's daughter, Gail Scott, called the ruling "a dream" and said she couldn't stop crying Thursday because she was so happy. Scott, 30, met her father for the first time in October when she visited him at Pontiac Correctional Center.
Optimistic about the outcome of the case, Scott has already written to ask Wrice to walk her down the aisle at her wedding in August.
Burge is serving a 4 1/2-year sentence in federal prison following his conviction last year of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying in a civil suit when he said he'd never witnessed or participated in the torture of suspects.
Karen Hawkins can be followed at www.twitter.com/khawkinsAP