Black Man Finally Able to Sue Police Who Tortured and Falsely Imprisoned Him for 24 Years


Jack Bouboushian | Courthouse News Service

CHICAGO (CN) – A black man whose murder conviction was vacated after he spent 24 years in prison sued Chicago and two police detectives this week for the police torture that elicited his false confession.

Shawn Whirl filed a federal complaint Wednesday against Chicago and former police detectives James Pienta and William Marley.

Whirl’s murder conviction was vacated in 2015, three years after the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission found his coercion claims credible. Whirl says he was wrongly convicted after Pienta tortured him into giving a false confession.

“James Pienta is now known to be one of a clandestine group of Area 2 detectives who worked with, and later under the command and supervision of, former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, to systematically torture African American suspects during interrogations,” Whirl says in his 40-page complaint.

Burge oversaw the Chicago Police Department’s Area 2 headquarters on the city’s South Side. He was fired in 1993 after it was revealed that police in the violent crimes section had been torturing suspects to obtain confessions.

Though the statute of limitations largely shielded Burge from being charged with police brutality, the abuse in his district gave rise to a large number of civil lawsuits.

Burge was convicted of perjury in 2008, after a jury heard testimony that police suffocated suspects with plastic bags, electrocuted their genitals, and forced guns into their mouths during interrogations.

Burge, now 68, was found guilty of perjury and two counts of obstruction of justice in 2011, and sentenced to 4½ years in federal prison. He was released from prison in late 2014 to serve out his sentence at a Florida halfway house.

As many as 120 men, most of whom are black, may have been tortured by Burge’s squad. Chicago has spent more than $100 million to settle claims related to his misconduct, and to defend and prosecute his crimes.

Whirl was convicted of murdering taxi driver Billy Williams, who was shot to death on April 18, 1990.

During interrogation, Pienta repeatedly slapped Whirl in the face and scraped a key across a scratch on Whirl’s leg, telling him, “‘Shut up, nigger, you’re going to cooperate, you’re going to listen,'” according to Whirl’s complaint. He says he agreed to confess because he could not take the pain any longer. Detective Marley was there while he was being tortured but took no steps to stop it, Whirl says.

Whirl wanted to withdraw his guilty plea, but says his attorney advised against taking a potential death-penalty case to a jury when the prosecution’s primary evidence was his own confession.

So, Whirl says, he went to prison for 24 years for a crime he did not commit.

Those allegations are substantiated by statements from the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission and an appeals court, cited in Whirl’s complaint.

“Without the confession, the prosecution’s case against [Whirl] is weak,” the torture commission wrote.” There were no eyewitnesses who identified [Whirl] as the perpetrator. The murder weapon was not recovered. There was no forensic evidence connecting [Whirl] to the offense, other than a fingerprint from the front passenger side door of the victim’s cab.” (Brackets in complaint.)

“Whirl ‘had no prior criminal history’ and the motive for the robbery presented by the State was ‘anomalous.’

“Faced with the possibility of receiving the death penalty, and with his motion to suppress having been denied, [Whirl] entered a guilty plea to the homicide charge in return for the prosecution waiving its request for the death penalty.

“The confession ‘was the principal evidence introduced by the prosecution to support the guilty plea.’

“During the entry of the guilty plea [Whirl] stated that he did not commit the crime, and was only pleading guilty because of the possibility that he would receive the death penalty if convicted at trial.”

Whirl filed a petition under the Post-Conviction Hearing Act and the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission Act, which was denied after an evidentiary hearing, and he appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court. The Appellate Court vacated his conviction on Aug. 12, 2015, “and held that plaintiff was entitled to a new motion to suppress hearing on the question of whether his confession was tortured from him and should consequently be barred from evidence at a new trial,” according to the complaint.

It continues: “The Appellate Court found, inter alia, that ‘it is impossible to conceive how the State could prevail at a new suppression hearing,’ and that ‘without Whirl’s confession, the State’s case was non-existent.’

“On October 13, 2015, the prosecution dismissed all charges against plaintiff in a manner indicative of innocence, and on October 14, 2015, he was released from prison.”

Whirl seeks punitive damages for conspiracy, deprivation of fair trial, wrongful conviction, coercive interrogation, other civil rights violations, malicious prosecution, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

He is represented by G. Flint Taylor with the People’s Law Office, and Loevy & Loevy.

Published by Courthouse News Service.