Former Chicago police superintendent accused of lying in murder case

Robert Smith on March 14, 2022 sitting in a wheelchair outside his Roseland home.

Robert Smith on March 14, 2022 at his Roseland home. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

This story was produced by the Better Government Association, a nonprofit news organization based in Chicago.

Lawyers for an ailing 73-year-old man freed after 33 years in prison for a double murder now say they can prove a high-ranking officer lied under oath in a case tainted by a notorious squad of Chicago officers known for torturing suspects.

A motion filed Wednesday in Robert Smith’s federal case — seeking millions in damages for the decades he lost — says unearthed Chicago Police Department records show then-Lt. Philip Cline perjured himself by testifying he took Smith’s confession hours after the crime.

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The allegations are striking because Cline — who went on to serve as Chicago police superintendent under Mayor Richard M. Daley — has previously remained untarnished by the police torture scandal involving a group of detectives linked to disgraced former Cmdr. Jon Burge.

The filing includes attendance logs showing Cline was off the day Smith confessed, multiple police reports devoid of Cline’s name, and narratives from other detectives who said Smith confessed to them instead.

Reached by phone, Cline declined to discuss the allegations but noted the grisly nature of the underlying crime.

“If he gets a dime, it’s a miscarriage of justice,” said Cline, who is now executive director of the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation, which honors slain officers and supports their families.

Former Chicago Police Superintendent Phil Cline, foreground, speaks during a press conference on March 27, 2007, at Chicago Police Headquarters. Cline and top police officials have worked on a plan to reform the disciplinary process for officers facing credible allegations of brutality or other misconduct. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)

The new allegations against Cline are the latest twist in a scandal that has lasted more than three decades, involved more than 100 allegations of abuse and cost Chicago taxpayers more than $100 million in legal fees and payouts so far.

The case also highlights the way the city continues to rely on an expensive, hard-line defense of Burge-related lawsuits despite having acknowledged for years that abuse happened.

The city’s aggressive legal strategy clashes with its public message, said Aislinn Pulley, co-executive director of the Chicago Torture Justice Center, which advocates for the torture victims.

“All of these cases could be and should be easily resolved if the city stopped defending these torturous cops who have lengthy histories and wasting precious dollars that should be going to other essential services,” she said.

The city’s attorneys contend Smith is guilty and his abuse allegations are false, according to their filings in the case. They’re seeking forensic testing on fingernail clippings and other evidence they say could support their theory.

A Law Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the pending litigation.

‘Almost inconceivable’

The case against Smith began when he was 38, in the early morning of Sept. 19, 1987 after emergency crews responded to a house fire at his mother-in-law’s Roseland neighborhood home.

There, they found the bodies of Edith Yeager, 55, and her 87-year-old mother, Willie Bell Alexander, with their throats slashed.

Smith raised suspicions after he arrived with his wife, Yeager’s daughter, and became emotional. Officers later alleged he dove into a pool of blood on the floor. Smith said he scuffled with police who threw him into the blood.

Officers arrested him and reported he confessed later that night at the station to killing the women with a razor blade. Smith claimed in his confession he left the murder weapon at the scene, but it was never found, according to court records.

In the following days and months, Smith complained to medical personnel and police disciplinary officials he was beaten, kicked and choked and called racial slurs by police officers he was unable to identify.

At the time, Burge himself had been transferred to another post amid allegations of abuse in other cases. Cline was picked to replace Burge and lead his former squad of detectives, some of whom have since been implicated in the torture scandal.

Smith was convicted at trial in 1990 and handed a life sentence. In 2013, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission — formed to investigate allegations against Burge and his detectives — found Smith’s claims of abuse credible and the case “wholly circumstantial and very weak” without the confession.

In 2020, prosecutors asked a judge to toss out the conviction and Smith went free. A Cook County judge granted him a certificate declaring his innocence.

Last year, civil plaintiffs’ attorneys Stuart Chanen and Ariel Olstein filed suit seeking compensation for Smith, who is in poor health and uses a wheelchair. It was in poring through old records they say they found evidence to prove Cline lied several times about taking the confession.

In a motion filed in federal court, the attorneys cite a departmental attendance record that shows Cline was off work the day of Smith’s arrest and confession. Cline later signed off on a disciplinary investigation — spurred by Smith’s complaints that officers beat him — which included the finding that records showed he was absent.

Cline never authored a police report detailing Smith’s statement, and his name doesn’t appear in key reports written by other detectives who said they were there for the interrogation, records show. Smith’s attorneys say in the filing that none of the reports in the case place him in the room during the confession.

Robert Smith at home. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

Some evidence to support Cline’s attendance at the confession, however, comes from Smith himself. In a 1989 pre-trial hearing, Smith testified Cline was involved in his interrogation. Then again in a 2011 affidavit alleging the abuse, Smith also said Cline was involved in the interrogation.

Smith’s lawyers say their client has often voiced uncertainty about the names of the officers, and they argue he was confused during his interrogation.

Terry Ekl, a veteran local lawyer who sued the city over a high-profile scandal that happened on Cline’s watch, said it would be “almost inconceivable” for there to be no documentation in police reports of Cline’s presence at the confession.

“It’s even more difficult to understand if it’s one of the supervisors of the detectives, who then later testifies to the confession in court,” he said.

Still, Cline testified in two different hearings crucial to Smith’s conviction, records show.

In a 1989 pre-trial hearing at which Smith’s criminal defense team sought to throw out the confession, Cline testified that Smith told him: “I’ll tell you the truth now. I killed them. I slit both their throats with a razor blade.”

During a longer stint on the stand at the 1990 trial, Cline testified he told Smith his account didn’t match other witnesses, and Smith then told him he didn’t “know what went wrong” but that he killed the women, washed his bloody clothes, set the fire and went to buy drugs.

Cline defends testimony

In a November 2021 deposition in the Smith civil case, Cline was confronted with the discrepancies in the record. He said his earlier sworn statements in the case were truthful and he came in on his day off because of the double murder.

Cline also said in his deposition that he entrusted the report-writing to the other officers.

According to the records, the two former officers who wrote they took the confession were detectives William Pederson and the since-deceased Robert Rice.

Pedersen said in a deposition he had no memory of Smith’s interrogation. In 1991, Pedersen was charged with selling confidential records from government databases. He pleaded guilty and spent 15 months in prison.

As Cline rose to the top of the department, reporters raised unrelated questions about his credibility. The Tribune reported shortly before he won the superintendent post that Cline pleaded the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination rather than answer questions about warrants he approved. Cline told the Tribune he did nothing wrong related to the warrants.

Cline retired in 2007 amid scandals including the videotaped beating of a female bartender that later led to a civil jury verdict finding that the Police Department operated under a “code of silence” that shields bad cops.

Eileen Rosen, one of the lawyers the city hired to defend Cline, declined to comment. Lawyers for the officers Smith sued have denied he was abused or framed by anyone in the Chicago Police Department. According to records, Cline collects a $187,000 annual pension.

Smith’s lawsuit rests on allegations of abuse and misconduct by officers with ties to Burge, though the litigation does not definitively allege which officers beat him.

Reports show that one officer involved in the case was Daniel McWeeny, who has been sued alongside Burge repeatedly. Documents also show Smith’s case involved the late John Yucaitis, who the city suspended for 15 months for failing to stop or report the abuse of a suspect.

A federal jury convicted Burge of perjury in 2010 after finding he lied about his conduct in a civil deposition. He served 3½ years in prison and died in 2018.

$650,000 in legal bills, so far

The city has taken a well-worn approach to Smith’s lawsuit by hiring private lawyers who have been paid more than $650,000 for their work over roughly the last year. Those expenses add to the hundreds of millions of dollars the city has paid in recent decades to private lawyers to defend a Police Department with a long history of violence and misconduct.

Burge and his men played a huge role in that history.

The Chicago Tribune reported in 2019 the city had paid more than $27 million in fees and costs to outside lawyers in Burge-related cases. In addition, taxpayers had paid more than $80 million for settlements, reparations and other costs in those cases.

Former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge was accused of leading the widespread torture and abuse of Black men in the 1970s and 1980s. He died in 2018. (Walter Neal/Chicago Tribune)

Those expenses piled up as the city hired expensive private counsel and fought Burge-related cases for years. Despite those efforts, the city still sometimes lost millions at trial or in settlements.

For example, the city’s attorneys took in more than $6 million and spent five years fighting a lawsuit from James Kluppelberg, who spent a quarter-century in prison for an arson that killed a woman and her five children before prosecutors dropped his case in 2012. The city settled just before trial in 2018 for $9.3 million.

The city also hired private lawyers and went to trial against Stanley Wrice, who spent 31 years in prison for a vicious gang rape before a judge threw out his conviction. In 2020, jurors awarded Wrice $5.2 million.

Previous city attorneys cast the hard-line legal strategy as necessary to fight back against bogus claims and bring plaintiff’s lawyers down to earth in their demands. But they’ve taken this approach to Burge-related lawsuits even as the last two mayors acknowledged abuse happened.

The city gave reparations to torture survivors in 2015, Chicago Public Schools students are taught a curriculum on the police torture scandal, and the city council pledged to build a memorial to the victims of the abuse.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2013 publicly apologized for the abuse, and in 2015 he called Burge’s actions a “disgrace.”

Before she ran for office, Mayor Lori Lightfoot also acknowledged the widespread police violence.

She headed Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force, which in 2016 issued a report citing evidence that Burge and his subordinates had “tortured and abused at least 100 African-Americans” as part of a section dedicated to explaining why people of color often distrust Chicago police.

Mark Flessner, who served as top lawyer for the city from 2019 to 2020, said the city could limit its spending by bringing on more in-house lawyers to defend police, as some other big cities do.

Smith’s lawyers criticized the city for continuing to double down on these cases after acknowledging decades of abuse.

“The city is backing the perjurer over the innocent guy who spent 33 years in prison,” Chanen said.