What started with three unarmed men attempting to burglarize a Southwest Side electronics store one night in April 2012 ended in a hail of gunfire from Chicago police officers as the friends tried to flee the scene in a stolen van. One of the men died. The other two suffered life-altering injuries and faced murder convictions.
A jury found John W. Givens and Leland Dudley, both 32 at the time, responsible for the death of their friend, 27-year-old David Strong, under Illinois’ felony murder statute in 2015. Judge James Linn sentenced Givens and Dudley to more than 30 years in prison.
As the two men fought their cases in criminal court, they waged another legal battle in civil court. Along with Strong’s estate, Givens and Dudley sued the city over police officers’ decision to fire at least 75 rounds into the getaway van. The civil suit was filed in 2012, in Cook County Circuit Court. Judge Bridget J. Hughes threw out Givens’ and Dudley’s claims for compensation for their injuries. But a jury awarded Strong’s estate $1 million in their wrongful death claims, according to court records. However, the financial relief didn’t come to Strong’s family, including his 10-year-old son. The judge quickly nullified the verdict based on the jury’s answers to two special interrogatories prepared by the city.
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Interrogatories are written questions about the facts of a case that any party in a lawsuit may ask a jury to answer separately from their verdict. Despite their findings that Strong’s estate deserved compensation, when the jury was asked whether they thought police officers engaged in a legally unjustified course of action, “which showed an actual or deliberate intention to harm David Strong,” they answered no. When asked whether the officers acted in an unjustified manner, “which showed an utter indifference or conscious disregard for the safety of others,” they also answered no.
These kinds of special interrogatories, usually presented to juries in state court after their verdicts in civil suits, function to reverse monetary damages they award. Attorneys representing the city of Chicago have used the maneuver in other police killing cases over the years. While juries aren’t typically told that their answers to the interrogatories could reverse their verdicts, defendants can use them to do just that. Hughes agreed with the city that these answers invalidated the jury’s decision to award Strong’s family $1 million.
But on Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the First District Appellate Court issued an opinion that reversed the decision, reviving not just the possibility of a $1 million in compensation for Strong’s estate but also for Dudley and Givens to revive their injury suit against the city. The appellate court’s decision reversed the trial court’s determination that Givens’ and Dudley’s convictions for murder, aggravated battery to a police officer, and possession of a stolen vehicle disqualified them from seeking civil damages.
“I’m ecstatic,” Givens’ mother, Valencia Givens, said Thursday about the appellate court decision. The shooting left her son bound to a wheelchair, and she thinks the city owes him compensation for his physical and psychological injuries. “It plays a big part in John’s life, the memories of going through all of that.”
Justice Terrence Lavin delivered the appellate court’s decision, with Justices Nathaniel Howse and Cynthia Cobbs concurring. The appellate panel characterized the special interrogatories presented by the city as convoluted and confusing. The questions posed to the jury were “impermissibly compound” in their wording, and for that reason alone they “were improper and should be stricken,” the opinion said. The appellate court found that the question about officers’ deliberate intention to harm Strong was “impossibly narrow,” while the one about their conscious disregard for the safety of others was “too broad.”
The justices also found that Hughes, the trial court judge in the civil case, had improperly excluded testimony by an investigator and supervisor from the Independent Police Review Authority (now the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, or COPA). The two employees had initially found the officers’ shooting that night to be unjustified. “You don’t shoot unarmed burglars,” the supervisor, Lorenzo Davis, told The Chicago Tribune in 2016. “You move out of the way of the vehicle. You don’t fire into a vehicle.” The agency eventually fired Davis and the investigator and ultimately ruled that the shooting was justified. The COPA didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The city can request a rehearing from the appellate court within 21 days of the opinion being issued and could also petition the Illinois Supreme Court to consider an appeal. In other words: It’s still possible that the city won’t pay Strong’s family, and that Givens and Dudley won’t be able to sue the city for their injuries. A spokeswoman for Chicago’s law department said Wednesday the city’s lawyers are still “assessing next steps.”
Legal experts predict that the appeal is likely and not simply because the city’s lawyers are worried about the payouts to Givens, Dudley, and Strong’s estate. The city might also hope to avert setting a legal precedent that would allow other people convicted under the felony murder statute to sue them for deaths and injuries caused by cops, the experts said.
‘Shifting Blame’ in a police shooting
Dudley’s and Givens’ murder convictions highlight Illinois’ history of charging people for murder when someone else — such as a police officer — kills their accomplices in another crime. Known as the felony murder rule, the law allows someone accused of a forcible felony, such as armed robbery, arson, or carjacking, to be held accountable if someone dies as a result of the crime.
State lawmakers recently changed the statute as part of the massive criminal justice overhaul signed into law earlier this year. If the same scenario from the bungled burglary played out today, Dudley and Givens couldn’t be charged with murdering Strong. But the changes to the law are not retroactive.
In January, Gov. J.B. Pritzker pardoned Givens, and the Illinois Department of Corrections paroled him back to the Chicago area. Givens, now 42, has been focused on finding employment. His mother and attorneys said he was quickly able to secure a job cutting meat while seated in a slaughterhouse, but he had to quit within five months because of persistent pain in his legs. He is now uninsured, in need of a new wheelchair, and confronting how his disability makes it harder to find work.
Marissa Jackson, a third-year law student at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, is currently preparing Dudley’s executive clemency petition. Jackson said the old felony murder statute allowed the police “to avoid scrutiny by shifting blame from their own reckless and unjustified actions to accomplices like [Givens and Dudley], who neither killed nor intended to kill anyone.”
Dudley, now also 42, lost nearly 40% of his skull in the shooting and suffers from brain damage, seizures, and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result, according to his attorneys. He remains incarcerated at the Centralia Correctional Center. Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions will soon be filing a clemency petition on his behalf, according to Steven Drizin, Jackson’s supervisor and co-director of the Center.
Drizin called the appellate court decision to allow Givens and Dudley to pursue civil claims an incomplete victory.
“[Dudley] may be able to recover damages in the future for what the police officers did to him, but what he really needs is to be released as soon as possible,” Drizin said.
The year after Givens and Dudley were convicted, the Independent Police Review Authority released a trove of records and video from police shootings, including theirs.
The dashcam and surveillance tapes showed more than a dozen officers milling around the street outside the Little Village shop moments before a van bursts out of a closed garage door in reverse, appears to graze one of the officers, and plows into a parked truck on the curb. The hailstorm of police bullets didn’t stop until officers shot out the van’s tires.
The nearly two dozen officers at the scene were responding to a 911 call from a neighbor living above the electronics store who reported the break-in. The appellate court opinion released Tuesday noted that even though Givens, Dudley, and Strong didn’t comply with cops’ orders to come out of the shop with their hands up, the officers on the scene were warned several times over their radios that the burglars were preparing to exit the adjacent garage in the van. Still, they crowded densely around the garage door and began shooting as soon as they perceived officer Michael J. Papin to be run over, even though he wasn’t.
In the event of a retrial, the fired IPRA staffers’ testimony could undermine the city’s claims that the shooting was justified based on the officers’ assessment of danger in the situation and alleged injuries to Papin.
Attorney Brion Doherty, who represented Strong’s estate and Givens in the civil suit, says Papin’s injuries were exaggerated in reports filed by his fellow officers and weren’t supported by much more than photographs of his reddened flank. He also argues that the van grazing Papin didn’t amount to the type of aggravated battery that would justify deadly force. Papin reported only a minor injury. He didn’t fire any shots himself, according to documents released by the city. Two of Papin’s fellow officers, Anthony Rosen and Michael Curry, however, each fired 18 times. Six others fired between one and 11 shots at the van.
Civil rights attorney Elizabeth Mazur said she and other attorneys who regularly sue the city over police violence in state and federal court will closely watch the outcome of this case. She said it is a powerful example of how police often make crime scenes more — not less — dangerous when they arrive. From her perspective, the courts are responding to broader public discourse about police’s role in public safety.
“As a civil rights attorney who’s filed claims against police for excessive force, it’s always risky to bring a case when your client or the estate is of someone who’s engaged in unlawful conduct,” Mazur said. “It’s interesting that the jury found in favor of the estate of Mr. Strong, and I think that’s recognizing that even though he was involved in committing this crime, he shouldn’t have been summarily executed for it.”