Police torture cases from Daley era vex Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said this week that Chicago will pay to defend former Mayor Richard M. Daley in lawsuits alleging police torture during his tenure. Wrong message, say critics.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted August 12, 2011 at 2:40 pm EDT

Chicago – A police torture saga that has cast a long shadow over Chicago City Hall for nearly three decades is resurfacing – and it is reviving criticism that the new administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel is too tied to former Mayor Richard M. Daley and the excesses of his tenure.

The murmurings began this week, when Mayor Emanuel said Chicago is obliged to pay the legal costs of Mr. Daley, a defendant in several civil lawsuits alleging that police abused suspects in criminal cases to obtain confessions. The cases allege that Daley is among those who conspired to cover up a systemic pattern of police torture when he was Cook County state’s attorney, and later as Chicago’s mayor.

The city is legally bound to pay for Daley’s defense costs because he is being sued for actions that allegedly took place during his official capacity as mayor, Emmanuel said. It’s not known what those costs will be, but there is no limit on either the amount or the duration of the city’s obligation, says Jennifer Hoyle, director of public affairs for the city’s legal department.

The ensuing outcry appears to have caught the new mayor somewhat by surprise. Critics complain that, with a $635 million budget deficit, Chicago can scarcely afford to spend untold new sums to mount legal defenses for Daley and other city officials named in the torture lawsuits. Settling with plaintiffs, they suggest, might yield a more judicious – and less expensive – outcome. Moreover, Emanuel’s announcement served to remind Chicagoans of the mayor’s close ties to Daley, dating back to the days when Emanuel was chief fundraiser for Daley’s mayoral campaign, and, some say, gave the appearance that the new mayor was acting to protect and defend the old one.

The whole stewpot of police torture cases is simmering anew because a federal judge recently ruled that Daley can be deposed as a defendant in a civil suit brought by Michael Tillman, who was exonerated and released from prison in 2010 after serving 23 years. Mr. Tillman’s case is one of more than 100 involving suspects who allege police torture under Jon Burge, a disgraced former Chicago police commander who is now serving time in federal prison.

The Burge saga has long been a sore spot for the black community, which believes the city has not showed sufficient accountability to the mistreated suspects, all of whom are black.

Daley is one of dozens of defendants in at least eight torture-related civil lawsuits still pending against the city, says Ms. Hoyle, of the law department. The city has no choice but to contract with private firms to represent the defendants, she says. The cases are so complicated, involving so many allegations against so many public officials, that the city cannot in good conscience represent all of them adequately or without the appearance of conflict of interest. “Different groups of defendants may have different positions in regards to different claims, so legally we can’t represent all of them,” she says.

Chicago has already spent $43 million to defend ex-Commander Burge and other police officials involved in the scandals and to pay settlements to 10 victims. More than half that amount went for legal defense of Burge and others. Burge, who was convicted in 2010 of perjury and obstruction of justice, is serving five years in a federal prison in North Carolina. Because a majority of torture cases date from the mid- to late-1970s, the statute of limitations has run out, preventing prosecutors from pursuing more serious charges against Burge and the rouge band of police personnel who worked under him. [Editor’s note: This paragraph has been modified to correct the number of people who have won settlements.]

Some critics say the city should settle with victims to finally put the matter to rest – for both moral and financial reasons.

“Continuing to defend the indefensible is not smart,” says Chicago Alderman Joe Moore. “I’m not suggesting we settle these cases without being mindful of the city’s fiscal health and sign a blank check. But, clearly, these people who were victims of Burge’s torture need to be compensated. To delay that justice for years is not a good thing.”

The city, for its part, says it must thoroughly review each case, because each involves different factors that may not qualify for an automatic settlement, such as one instance in which a plaintiff received a settlement but later filed a second civil suit to pursue additional compensation.

“We feel we have to treat each case own by its own merit, review allegations, and at least conduct due diligence,” Hoyle says.

Others say that even if Emanuel believes the city is legally obligated to pay defense costs, he should have been more vigorous in his condemnation of the Burge era, which stretched from 1972 to 1991. “By having city hall pay for Daley’s legal bills, Emanuel puts his own political down payment on the Burge case, whether he likes it or not,” Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass wrote Thursday.

Daley is immune from prosecution for his actions during his days state’s attorney – and during his days as mayor few were willing to challenge him. His critics say he looked the other way after the police torture allegations came to light in 1982, never ordering an investigation or bringing criminal charges against Burge. When a 1992 internal police department report described systematic torture between 1973 and 1986 involving 50 criminal suspects, Daley rejected the claims as unsubstantial. Daley did face questions under oath from a court-appointed special prosecutor in 2006, but many felt the exchange was too deferential to the mayor.

“[Daley] should have taken a much more aggressive role to see to it that it never happened [again]. He had authority over all of these people, and he neglected that authority,” says Leonard Cavise, a DePaul University law professor who is a member of a state commission that reviews prisoner cases alleging police torture. Chicago’s continued obligation to pay for legal defense of defendants is “an absolute scandal of the city finances,” he adds.

The US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1993 upheld Chicago’s legal obligation to pay for Burge’s legal defense. The city is also obligated to pay for any judgments made against him, Hoyle says.

Mr. Cavise questions that a legal basis exists for those payments and says the city should have worked harder to detach itself from Burge and others involved in the cases.

“As soon as you put a plastic bag over somebody’s head, you’re not working for the police department anymore, you’re working for yourself, you’re a torturer. That’s the argument the city should have made years ago,” he says.

Tillman received a certificate of innocence in February 2010 after spending more than two decades in prison. He says he was water-boarded, suffocated with a plastic bag, and beaten by Burge and his team, which sought a written confession from him in a 1986 rape and murder case.

Attorney Flint Taylor, who represents Tillman and several other torture victims in similar civil suits, says the cases are creating a “gravy train” for the private firms the city has hired to defend employees such as Daley.

“The corporate counsel and [Emanuel] need to get their head out of the sand,” Mr. Taylor says. “The real question here is, is the city going to defend torturers or are they going to compensate victims?”

Taylor is slated to take a deposition from Daley in federal court on Sept. 8 – the first time Daley would face grueling questioning about his knowledge of the torture allegations. But the the city’s legal department expects to ask the court to dismiss Daley from questioning, which Hoyle says makes it “premature” to assume the deposition will take place.

In separate court action involving Burge, a friend-of-the-court brief filed Wednesday with the Illinois Supreme Court seeks new hearings for 15 inmates who say their convictions are invalid because they are based on confessions coerced by torture. The brief, by a legal team led by ex-Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson (R), marks the first time during the Burge saga that plaintiffs approached the court as a group and not via individual cases.

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