Just before the City of Chicago, apparently with Mayor Lightfoot’s blessing, took the Stanley Wrice case to trial last month, I wrote that it was still not too late for the city to offer a fair settlement to compensate Wrice for his brutal torture and coerced confession. The mayor stood, I wrote, “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.’”
Ignoring history, the overwhelming evidence of systemic police torture, her own prior admissions and this warning, ship Lightfoot steamed ahead to trial with the officers represented by a team of five lawyers, four of whom were Andrew Hale and his coterie of private lawyers collecting handsome sums of additional “pinstripe patronage” at the taxpayer’s expense.
This crew, captained by Lightfoot’s handpicked Deputy Corporation Counsel Caryn Jacobs, set out to win the case at all costs, both financial and political, by slandering all six of the witnesses who averred that they had been tortured by Jon Burge henchmen John Byrne and Peter Dignan.
Preening around the courtroom they unabashedly attacked these torture survivors as a pack of liars, and took every opportunity to remind the jury that Wrice had confessed to participating in a brutal rape of a white woman — a charge that Wrice once again steadfastly denied during his testimony.
On the other hand, Dignan and Byrne chose not to sit through the trial, save for their appearance on the witness stand to take the Fifth Amendment when asked about their torture of Wrice and numerous other victims. Instead, their surrogate, Fraternal Order of Police Local 7 vice president Martin Preib, a close personal and political ally of Burge, Dignan, and Byrne, sat as their watchdog throughout the trial. Well before trial Preib had written a letter to Lightfoot on union stationary, urging her not to settle the case, claiming that the whole torture scandal was a hoax.
At the conclusion of the eight-day trial, the nine-person jury retired to deliberate late on March 2. Composed of seven women and two men, four of whom were of color, they selected a twenty-three-year old white woman as their foreperson. After approximately five hours of deliberation the following day, the jury announced its verdict against the officers and for Wrice on his coerced confession and conspiracy claims, and for the defense on the fabricated evidence claim. The damages award was most telling — $4 million in compensatory damages, and $600,000 apiece against Byrne and Dignan individually. The punitive damages award — extremely high in a police brutality case — spoke volumes about what the jury thought of Byrne and Dignan’s systemic conduct — a condemnation that was made despite the fact that Burge’s name could not be spoken before the jury.
So what does this verdict mean to the taxpayers? Instead of the two to four million that would have been a reasonable eve of trial settlement, (and one that would have been accepted if offered) the city now owes the four million dollars, plus the fees of Wrice attorney Jennifer Bonjean and her team. The City is held responsible for those compensatory damages and fees, and – though state law forbids it– has often ended up paying the punitive damages assessed against the officers And, of course, the City also owes the additional fees that Hale and company racked up trying the case.
So, instead of the $2-4 million an eve of trial settlement would have cost, the city now stands to owe more than $8 million in addition to the $2 million already paid in pinstripe patronage. And if the City decides to continue to fight this case the attorneys’ fees meter will continue to run.
Before the trial began a second set of taxpayer financed defense lawyers won a motion separating the case against the city, which rests on whether the torture was part of a pattern and practice, to be decided later. That case appears a slam dunk for Wrice and Bonjean because all they have to show is that the torture of Wrice by Byrne and Dignan was part of a policy and practice of torture that was conducted under the command of Burge — a practice that is now an uncontestable reality that City policymakers, most particularly Lightfoot, Rahm Emanuel, interim Superintendent Beck and the Chicago City Council have admitted, and a raft of federal and state courts have unequivocally affirmed. Lawyers (including the author) will be lining up to question these unquestionably material policymaking witnesses.
So Lightfoot is now not only confronted with a financial dilemma – – -whether to stop the unjustifiable bleeding of taxpayer money – – – but also whether she will now at last intervene to stop her lawyers from chasing the unconscionable agenda of the Fraternal Order of Police and own up to what she preached about Chicago police torture when she was a candidate for office.
The jury has spoken. Will Lightfoot?
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.