A federal civil jury on Tuesday awarded $5.2 million to Stanley Wrice in a verdict hailed by civil rights lawyers as a milestone. Wrice spent 31 years in prison after he gave a confession he said was coerced by two key members of the crew of disgraced former Chicago Police commander Jon Burge.
The verdict to Wrice, who had been convicted of a horrific 1982 rape in which the victim was tortured by an iron, came after seven days of testimony in which Wrice and five other witnesses took the stand to contend that the Chicago police officers who interrogated Wrice, Sgt. John Byrne and Detective Peter Dignan, had also tortured them into falsely confessing to crimes.
The jury heard Wrice, who is African American, testify that the two had beaten him with flashlights and with a rubber hose while hurling racial slurs and threats against him until he agreed to confess. Both Byrne and Dignan came into the courtroom and invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
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The jury award includes $4 million in general damages against the city, and $600,000 each in punitive damages against the two officers. That, said Wrice’s elated attorney Jennifer Bonjean, was a “breathtaking” result, showing the jurors had no doubt that Wrice was a victim of torture.
The city had been represented at trial by a team of private lawyers, as well as deputy corporation counsel Caryn Jacobs; the city aggressively challenged the truthfulness of any of the defense witnesses who claimed they had been tortured by Byrne and Dignan, who both worked under Burge. “The jury saw the truth,” Bonjean said.
Answering on behalf of the city, spokeswoman Kathy Fleweger provided a statement:
“Each case has its own specific facts and in the Wrice case, the city believes that he was properly charged and convicted of a particularly abhorrent and gruesome crime, for which he was sentenced to 100 years in prison. No court has ever found him innocent and his certificate of innocence was denied.”
Wrice contends he was asleep on his couch when the victim was attacked in the attic of the house, and that he was not involved. The local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police has strongly rejected claims that Wrice was innocent.
Flint Taylor, a founder of the People’s Law Office whose representation of a series of defendants helped expose the tactics used by Burge and his detectives to win confessions, called the verdict “a big moment in the anti-torture movement.”
Wrice’s case led to a 2012 state Supreme Court decision that evidence establishing a confession was coerced could never be considered “harmless.”
That ruling opened the door to Wrice’s conviction being overturned in 2014 after a new post-trial proceeding at which Cook County Circuit Judge Richard Walsh ruled that Byrne and Dignan “lied” about the way they treated Wrice. But a second Cook County judge ruled that there was sufficient evidence of Wrice’s guilt to deny him a “certificate of innocence.”
The verdict this week, defense lawyer Taylor said, ends “a disgraceful chapter in the annals of the city’s defense of the indefensible.” He said the city had “gone all out,” spending more than $3 million to fight Wrice’s lawsuit despite the evidence that he had been victimized by torture.
He said that the administration of Lightfoot had “taken an indefensible position embraced by the FOP: That all these victims of Burge’s right-hand men were liars. They tried to totally invalidate what is now accepted truth. The jury saw through that.”