Exonerated man files $100M lawsuit against Chicago and police detectives

A man who served 34 years for a murder conviction that was overturned last fall has filed a $100 million lawsuit in federal court against the city of Chicago and the detectives alleged to have framed him.

The suit by James Allen, 72, alleges that police coerced him into confessing to a 1984 murder in Chicago by threatening him with the death penalty if he didn’t. Allen charges that he falsely admitted to the killing before a grand jury after one detective fed him what to say.

Allen, who is Black, was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 after a Cook County jury convicted him in the murder of Robert Ciralsky, a white man who was shot to death in front of his Hyde Park home one late summer evening in 1984. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, then headed by Richard M. Daley, alleged that Allen was part of a hit squad hired by a ring of notorious narcotics kingpins to kill Ciralsky, who owned a drug store in the Washington Park neighborhood, because he had refused to keep supplying them with quinine that they needed to dilute heroin. Prosecutors said Allen acted as the getaway driver for two other men who staged the contract murder to look like a botched armed robbery.

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Courtesy of friends of James Allen

James Allen in the mid-1970s

Allen, who at the time of the indictment was already in prison for another killing that he says he had no part in, was cleared of the Ciralsky murder in September by Cook County Associate Judge Sophia Atcherson after prosecutors suddenly ended their opposition to his petition to reverse his conviction. Since 2009, another man incarcerated in state prison has confessed to killing Ciralsky in multiple affidavits and depositions, absolving Allen of any involvement.

Allen’s suit names as defendants the city, the estates of two deceased Chicago police detectives — Michael Pochordo and George Rotkvich — and the detectives’ supervisor at the time.

The Chicago Law Department declined to comment on the suit. “The Law Department has not yet been officially served with the complaint through the proper legal channels,” a spokeswoman wrote in an email to Injustice Watch. The defendants will have three weeks to file a written response in court.

In the complaint, Allen’s attorneys lay out the story that their client has been telling since days after he admitted involvement in the hit on Ciralsky in testimony before a Cook County grand jury. The suit alleges that Pochordo and Rotkvich showed up at Stateville prison in December 1985, told Allen that an informant had implicated him in the murder-for-hire scheme, and laid out details of the plot and those involved. Allen told the detectives that he didn’t know about Ciralsky’s killing.

Days later, though, the detectives returned, this time with an assistant state’s attorney and an investigator from that office’s gang crimes unit. When Allen refused to speak with them, he was left alone in a room with Pochordo, according to the suit.

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At that time, Pochordo threatened Allen with the death penalty if he didn’t cooperate and warned that this was “his opportunity to help himself,” the suit says. The detective allegedly wanted Allen to repeat the story that he’d shared with him in his initial visit. “Under intense duress and coercion due to Pochordo’s threat of a death sentence, plaintiff implicated himself in the murder of Ciralsky and corroborated the false details provided to him by Pochordo to [the assistant state’s attorney],” according to the suit.

In February 1986, Allen testified to a grand jury about his involvement in Ciralsky’s killing, saying he acted at the behest of the drug kingpins. In the suit, Allen alleges that the testimony was false. Pochordo provided him with transcripts of the testimony of two others allegedly involved in the killing, Franklin Freeman and Darryl Moore, so he would corroborate their accounts in his grand jury appearance, the suit says.

Freeman, who ended up being Allen’s only co-defendant, was acquitted in a jury trial after he showed that he was in Atlanta at the time of the murder. Moore, a notoriously unreliable jailhouse snitch, was never charged in Ciralsky’s killing. It later was learned that the state’s attorney’s office had paid more than $66,000 to Moore for testifying against Allen in his earlier murder case.

Allen began recanting his grand jury testimony days after giving it, according to notarized letters he sent to his co-defendants’ lawyers. Freeman and Moore also recanted multiple times over the months that followed, also alleging coercion from Pochordo.

As is typical in these types of lawsuits, Allen is claiming the detectives violated his federal and state constitutional rights and also alleges that the city had long-standing policies and practices in place that allowed the officers to commit these violations.

In arguing that Pochordo’s actions were part of a pattern of misconduct by the detective, Allen’s attorneys recounted the details of Allen’s earlier conviction for the 1984 murder of Carl Gibson, a case also built by Pochordo with the paid help of Moore and involving a co-defendant’s coerced confession. The suit alleged that Pochordo framed Allen because he was a paroled “cop killer.” At the time of the Gibson and Ciralsky murders, Allen was on parole after serving more than 13 years for a felony murder conviction involving the death of a Chicago police officer. In that case, Allen and two associates intended to stick up an armored truck but were interrupted by police officers who fired a hailstorm of bullets, killing Allen’s co-conspirators and injuring one of the cops. Allen was held responsible when the officer eventually died.

Allen’s attorneys also recounted allegations of misconduct against Pochordo from another pending civil rights suit filed by Adam Gray. In that case, Pochordo was accused of manipulating a photo lineup, fabricating evidence, and helping coerce 14-year-old Gray to confess to a 1993 arson that killed two people. Gray was exonerated in 2017 after more than 20 years in prison.

Allen’s attorney, Chet Cameron, said his legal team plans to file a petition for a certificate of innocence in Cook County Circuit Court. “We are 100% committed to securing Mr. Allen’s prompt release from custody and pursuing justice on his behalf,” Cameron said. The certificate would allow Allen to collect damages from the state for wrongful imprisonment for Ciralsky’s murder. Allen is also appealing a 2021 denial of his post-conviction petition to present new evidence of his alleged innocence in Gibson’s murder.

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