Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration is poised to embark on defending two of the most notorious of Jon Burge’s midnight crew—former Chicago Police Sergeant John Byrne and Detective Peter Dignan—in a federal lawsuit brought on behalf of 65-year-old Stanley Wrice, whom they are alleged to have tortured and sent to prison for more than three decades.
Barring an unexpected last minute settlement, the trial will open next Thursday in U.S. District Court Judge Harry D. Leinenweber’s courtroom, where Managing Deputy Corporation Counsel Caryn Jacobs and Andrew Hale, a private lawyer who has been paid $1.5 million to date for his work on the case, will try to convince a jury that Byrne and Dignan did not torture Wrice in the bowels of Area 2 Chicago Police Headquarters in 1982.
For 30 years, since the civil rights case of torture victim Andrew Wilson went to trial, the city’s lawyers in past administrations had ultimately agreed to reasonably settle each and every subsequent torture claim, making the refusal in Wrice’s case especially striking.
Wrice was picked up with several co-defendants on Sept. 9, 1982, for the alleged rape of a white woman the previous day and taken to Area 2, where they all claimed to have been serially tortured by Byrne and Dignan.
While handcuffed in a cell, Wrice alleges, he was repeatedly beaten with a long metal flashlight and a rubber nightstick—a trademark of the torturers—about the head, arms, legs, and genitals before he gave a confession. Medical evidence fully supports his injuries.
Three of the others picked up with him also say they were beaten with the same rubber nightstick, while one was also subjected to another of Byrne and Dignan’s favorite tactics—simulated suffocation with a plastic bag. Racist taunts allegedly accompanied this wanton brutality and one of the men was threatened with hanging, told — using a pejorative — that other black men had been hung, and threatened to kill him if they ever saw him in a white neighborhood.
Before Judge Leinenweber, Byrne and Dignan no doubt once again will invoke the Fifth Amendment when asked whether they tortured Wrice, his co-defendants, and other African American men known to have been similarly tortured. Their silence can be held against them, as should prior findings of several courts, including the Illinois Supreme Court, and a Cook County special prosecutor, that Byrne and Dignan’s midnight crew was the engine that drove the pattern and practice of police torture at Area 2.
When Wrice was finally exonerated in 2013 after 31 years behind bars, presiding Judge Richard Walsh specifically found that Byrne and Dignan committed perjury at Wrice’s criminal trial when they denied torturing him and his associates.
In the last five years Lori Lightfoot, re-inventing herself as a police reform advocate, has herself made some strong statements about the Burge torture scandal and the police code of silence.
In 2016, the Police Accountability Task Force, which Lightfoot chaired, unequivocally stated “from 1972 to 1991, CPD detective and commander Jon Burge and others he supervised tortured and abused at least 100 African-Americans on the South and West sides in attempts to coerce confessions.”
Wrice and his associates are important members of that group of torture survivors and Byrne and Dignan lead the group of “others he supervised.”
After Burge died in September 2018, then mayoral candidate Lightfoot stated that “with the passing of Jon Burge, we must reflect on the dark legacy that he embodied, so many lives shattered, and a horrible stain on the legitimacy of policing that resonates today.”
And less than a month ago she stood with her interim police superintendent, Charlie Beck, who invoked the “horrific actions” of Burge and his crew as a “tipping point” that “resulted in a huge loss of trust and confidence by the community in their police departments. … even more dramatically, there’s a human cost.”
Nonetheless, in what appears to be a decision that smacks of blatant hypocrisy, Lightfoot’s handpicked lawyers stand ready to defend the indefensible.
Hale, who was sanctioned by former Chief U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo for misconduct in a previous torture trial, stands to make another million on the Wrice case, in addition to the $1.5 million he has already received.
In all, over the years, the city has paid Hale more than $30 million for defending police misconduct cases, including those against his publicly professed heroes—Burge and his “right hand men,” Byrne and Dignan.
Unlike the torture survivors who have obtained $6 to $10 million dollar settlements from the city, Wrice has not received a certificate of innocence from the Cook County Courts. In the past 15 years, prior administrations have settled those cases where guilt or innocence is not thus resolved, in the $2 million to $4 million range.
That seems fair here. If the case is tried, upwards of $4 million will have been spent defending the indefensible, Wrice and several of his fellow torture survivors will have been revictimized, and Mayor Lightfoot’s strong statements condemning the dark history of police torture will be exposed as a sham, designed to curry political favor.
She stands at a legal and political crossroads; the question is whether she will stand with the torturers or torture victims. As lawyers like to say, “The jury is still out.”
Flint Taylor is a founding partner of the People’s Law Office in Chicago, and has represented clients, though not Stanley Wrice, in torture cases. He is the author of The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago.