SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois Supreme Court justices challenged prosecutors Thursday about the strength of their evidence in the rape conviction of a man who says he was tortured into confessing by Chicago police officers.
In oral arguments in a case with potentially far-reaching impact on how Illinois deals with police torture cases -- and one that could lay the groundwork for similar appeals by as many as 20 other inmates -- prosecutors argued that the state had enough evidence to convict inmate Stanley Wrice without his confession. Wrice, now 57, claims he confessed only after being tortured by officers under the command of notorious Lt. Jon Burge 30 years ago.
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The justices asked whether proper appeals procedure was followed and pressed Special Prosecutor Myles O'Rourke about the state's other evidence, noting that there was no DNA or fingerprints introduced at trial when Wrice was convicted in 1983.
The case was brought to the high court by prosecutors, who are asking the justices to overturn an appellate court decision granting Wrice a new hearing on his torture claims. In response, his attorney made an impassioned plea to the justices to uphold the appellate ruling and take a stand against "the very bad blight from Jon Burge and these torture cases."
"This court should not tolerate the torture of its citizens within its walls," said defense attorney Heidi Lambros.
The outcome of the case is being closely monitored by the other inmates who say Burge's officers forced them to confess to crimes they didn't commit, and lawyers and experts say the case could open the door to new hearings for those men. The mother of one of those inmates attended the high court proceedings along with about 10 other Chicago-area activists.
Burge is serving a 4 ½-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.
Wrice is serving a 100-year-sentence. He is one of dozens of men, almost all of them young and black, who have claimed since the 1970s that Burge and his officers tortured them into confessing to crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder. Allegations persisted until the 1990s at police stations on the city's South and West sides.
Wrice says officers working for Burge used a flashlight and rubber hose to beat him in the face and groin until he confessed to the 1982 assault at his home.
Prosecutors have not disputed that Wrice was tortured, and O'Rourke called police torture "abhorrent" and said the state doesn't condone it. But, he said there was "overwhelming evidence" of Wrice's guilt, including testimony from two eyewitnesses and the fact that an iron used in the attack was found in Wrice's bedroom, as were the victim's clothes.
O'Rourke insisted the state had enough evidence to convict Wrice without the allegedly coerced confession. Prosecutors want justices to rule that the confession was the legal equivalent of "harmless error."
"The idea that the other evidence was somehow inconsequential was not the case," O'Rourke said.
But the justices pressed O'Rourke on the point. In a series of questions, Justice Charles Freeman asked whether there is any physical evidence linking Wrice to the crime.
"But again, no DNA?" Freeman asked at one point, to which O'Rourke answered: "No DNA back in 1982."
Justice Thomas Kilbride asked about a recent affidavit in which one of the two witnesses recanted, claiming Chicago police beat him into implicating Wrice.
Justice Anne Burke challenged the notion that the jury didn't rely heavily on the confession, asking whether it was the "most probative and damaging evidence" prosecutors can present.
At Wrice's original trial, the judge rejected his attempt to have his confession suppressed because of the torture, and a jury convicted him. Each of his attempts for a new hearing on his torture claims was turned down until December, when the Illinois appellate court ordered a new evidentiary hearing, citing a state Supreme Court ruling that "the use of a defendant's coerced confession as substantive evidence of his guilt is never harmless error." The court ruled Wrice had presented enough consistent evidence of his torture over the years that his claim should be reconsidered.
In granting Wrice a new hearing, the appeals court skipped a step in the post-conviction process, and justices repeatedly asked about the procedural hiccup Thursday, specifically about whether sending the case back for that step would be a viable option.
The attorneys agreed it was a possibility, but Lambros noted it would force Wrice to wait even longer for a disposition as the case works its way back through the courts.
The justices pursued an extended line of questioning about the skipped step, likely looking first for the narrowest issue in the case, said Doug Godfrey, professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law and a former prosecutor not involved with the torture cases.
Godfrey said finding another issue would mean justices won't "have to take on the huge issue of torture. You can, in essence, say, `Look, all the rules weren't followed below."'
Attorneys and legal experts say while it's difficult to predict what the high court will do, the court could order that all inmates with credible torture claims get new hearings, as defense attorneys have asked in an amicus brief. Or justices could allow the cases to work their way through the courts one-by-one on their merits, as prosecutors want.
Just six of the seven justices will consider the Wrice case after Justice Robert Thomas recused himself and did not hear oral arguments. No reason was given in court for the recusal. In the case of a 3-3 split, the appeals court ruling that gave Wrice a new hearing would stand, attorneys said.
Lambros said outside of court that she was encouraged by the proceedings.
"My sense is that Mr. Wrice is getting relief of some kind," whether it's a new hearing or the chance to refile his post-conviction petition. O'Rourke declined to speak after the hearing but said beforehand that he's pleased the justices agreed to hear the case.
It isn't clear when the court will rule. The court's press office a ruling will come "in due course."