The potentially landmark civil trial that confronts the sensitive question head-on of whether there's a code of silence and protection ingrained in Chicago's police department was turned over to the jury Wednesday.
The case stems from the conviction of off-duty officer Anthony Abbate's notorious 2007 beating of a female bartender half his size. A surveillance video recording of the attack on Karolina Obrycka went viral and she sued Abbate and the city for damages.
In closing remarks Wednesday morning, just before jurors withdrew to deliberate, Obrycka attorney Terry Ekl said plaintiffs had shown there is "an active, live code of silence" that leads police to ignore or cover-up their colleagues' bad behavior.
"That (code) has existed for a long, long time," he said. "You have an opportunity to do something about it."
If jurors find in Obrycka's favor, they would also have to calculate an appropriate damages figure for emotional pain. The jury headed home Wednesday afternoon without reaching a verdict after five hours of deliberations. Due to previous scheduling conflicts, they will resume Tuesday.
The issue of an alleged code of silence in the Chicago Police Department has cropped up at other trials, but legal experts say this is the first where the issue is front and center -- the focus of nearly all testimony. A verdict for the plaintiff would establish a precedent and could open the floodgates to similar legal action.
Other far-reaching consequences could include renewed calls for reforming the city's department, said Flint Taylor, a defense attorney who isn't linked to the case but has represented clients alleging abuse by police.
An air of impunity bestowed by the code, Ekl told jurors Wednesday, emboldened the hulking Abbate to walk behind the bar at Jesse's Shortstop Inn on Feb. 19, 2007, throw the slight bartender to the ground, and then repeatedly punch and kick her.
"He doesn't have any concern at all ... because it is in his DNA: Commit crimes and nothing happens to you," Ekl said.
Only later that night, he added, did Abbate realize a surveillance camera may have captured his attack, and he began frantically making calls to ask colleagues for help in keeping the matter quiet.
"He knew he had to trigger this code," Elk said. He alleged that the officers who Abbate relayed the information to also got "wheels of the code of silence" turning.
But in her closing arguments Tuesday, city attorney Barrett Rubens told jurors that a drunk, out of control Abbate was acting on his own behalf the night of the beating -- not on behalf of police or out of any sense of police entitlement.
"He wasn't," she said, "(a) monster that the city created."
The fact that Abbate was eventually charged and convicted, Rubens said, proved that the system worked. Abbate was convicted of aggravated battery in 2009 and sentenced to probation.
Abbate was the first witness at the civil trial, testifying he was bent on drowning his sorrows on the day of the beating because he had just learned his dog was dying from cancer. He told jurors, "I was on a mission to get inebriated."