Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday)

Taxpayers, victims pay price when city keeps fighting police misconduct suits


Endless courtroom fighting against restitutio­n for some victims of wrongful conviction­s has been a losing legal strategy for Chicago. It’s a bad look politicall­y, a financial burden for taxpayers and hard on victims.

The city should be looking for a better approach.

In recent years, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot condemned the “dark legacy” of former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his so-called “midnight crew” of police officers who tortured suspects; former Mayor Rahm Emanuel apologized for past police torture, and in 2015 the City Council and Emanuel approved reparation­s for torture victims.

Yet the city too often continues — in court case after court case — its strategy of costly legal battling instead of finding ways to bring cases to a close.

On March 14, the Cook County Board approved a $17 million settlement for Jackie Wilson, who spent more than three decades behind bars, following his wrongful conviction for the 1982 murder of two Chicago police officers. Wilson, who was freed in 2018 and received a certificat­e of innocence, was credibly found by the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission to have been tortured by police to obtain a confession.

But the city of Chicago, which also faces liability, is still fighting the Wilson case.

Private outside lawyers representi­ng the city have been paid more than $40 million as of last November to fight wrongful conviction cases. That doesn’t include the nearly $250 million paid out by the city, county and state in settlement­s, judgments and claims. And that’s just in the cases related to the Burge scandal.

A 2023 analysis by WTTW of all police misconduct settlement­s between January 2019 and June 2023 found the payout was $313 million for Chicagoans.

The outside lawyers, of course, get paid even if they lose.

Neither the city nor county should overpay for settlement­s, of course, because they must keep taxpayers’ interests in mind. But dragging out the lawsuits hasn’t exactly protected the government piggy bank.

Last year, for example, a federal jury awarded Adam Gray $27 million in damages from the city after he spent 24 years in prison for a 1993 Brighton Park murder and arson based on a confession he said police coerced from him when he was 14. His conviction was vacated in 2017 partly because the type of evidence used to support allegation­s of arson had since been discredite­d. The county, in contrast, settled earlier for $10.75 million for its share of the liability. Gray received a certificat­e of innocence in 2018.

Sean Tyler: The human toll of wrongful conviction

Chicago defense lawyer Russell Ainsworth, who has represente­d dozens of wrongfully convicted people across the country, says the city almost always fights lawsuits instead of compensati­ng victims of wrongful conviction­s and bringing the cases to a prompt conclusion. Other lawyers tell us the pattern continues.

Ainsworth said those who have been most victimized by city practices have to wait longest to get compensati­on because the potential payouts are higher.

“Responsibl­e risk management means identifyin­g those cases that represent a risk of a large outcome and resolving those cases as soon as possible,” Ainsworth said.

The city should at least consider whether it could settle some of these lawsuits for close to what it ultimately pays just for lawyers. For the most part, the city has not prevailed in many of these cases.

This issue isn’t going away, partly because there is a backlog of cases involving disgraced Chicago Police Det. Reynaldo Guevara. The city has agreed to pay $62.5 million to victims of Guevara, but as other cases get closer to trial, it typically gets harder to settle them because positions harden and plaintiffs’ lawyers have invested substantia­l amounts of resources in preparing for trial.

The delays have a human cost, too, as Matthew Hendrickso­n reported in Friday’s Sun-Times. Sean Tyler, who was granted a certificat­e of innocence last week after spending 25 years in prison for a child murder he didn’t commit, talked about how he can finally walk down the street knowing no one can look at him and call him a child murderer.

Tyler’s experience, and that of his brother Reginald Henderson, who also received a certificat­e of innocence last week, illustrate­s the emotional value of bringing wrongful conviction cases to a close in a timely manner.

Taking on this issue is not easy to do, because a mayor has to ask the City Council for significan­t sums to settle cases, which doesn’t sit right with some Council members, who fear settling too quickly will invite additional lawsuits or reward people who have engaged in criminal behavior in other instances. In some ways, it’s politicall­y safer just to let everything play out in the courts. Also, whether intentiona­lly or not, the delays have pushed the ultimate payouts in some cases from one administra­tion to the next.

But the goal should be to treat victims of wrongful conviction­s fairly while protecting taxpayers’ wallets. The city has been falling short.

 ?? PAT NABONG/SUN-TIMES FILE ?? Jackie Wilson, his wife, Sandra, and niece Candace gather outside Cook County Criminal Court in 2020. Wilson on March 14 received a $17 million settlement from the county, but Chicago is still fighting the case.
PAT NABONG/SUN-TIMES FILE Jackie Wilson, his wife, Sandra, and niece Candace gather outside Cook County Criminal Court in 2020. Wilson on March 14 received a $17 million settlement from the county, but Chicago is still fighting the case.

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