An inmate who says Chicago police officers tortured him into confessing to a brutal rape could learn Thursday whether the Illinois Supreme Court will allow him to present evidence of coercion that was denied at trial, a ruling that could have implications for as many as 20 other inmates seeking similar appeals.
Stanley Wrice, 57, is among dozens of men -- almost all of them black -- who have claimed since the 1970s that former Chicago police Lt. Jon Burge and his officers used torture to secure confessions in crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder. Allegations persisted until the 1990s at police stations on the city's South and West sides.
While several of the incarcerated men with torture claims have been released, Wrice's case could have far-reaching impact on how Illinois deals with such cases in the future. Wrice, who is serving a 100-year sentence, insists he's innocent.
Allegations of abuse and torture have plagued the police department in the nation's third-largest city for decades and were a factor in former Gov. George Ryan's decision to institute a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000. Gov. Pat Quinn abolished the death penalty in Illinois last year.
An appeals court has already sided with Wrice, ruling that he should be granted a new hearing on his claim that Burge's officers used a flashlight and rubber hose to beat him in the face and groin until he confessed to a 1982 sexual assault at his home. Prosecutors are asking the state Supreme Court to overturn that ruling.
Wrice's defense attorney, Heidi Lambros, said she'll be looking for one word Thursday on the high court's opinion: "If it says 'affirm,' that's golden."
Burge is serving a 4 1/2-year sentence in federal prison following his conviction last year of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying in a civil suit when he said he'd never witnessed or participated in the torture of suspects.
Prosecutors have not disputed that Wrice was tortured but say they had enough evidence of his guilt to convict him even without the allegedly coerced confession, including testimony from two witnesses and the fact that an iron used in the attack was found in Wrice's bedroom, as were the victim's clothes.
But during oral arguments in September, justices challenged prosecutors on the strength of their evidence, noting that no physical evidence tied Wrice to the crime. The victim never identified him as one of her attackers, and a witness who did identify him has since recanted, claiming that police tortured him too.
In asking justices to reverse the appellate court's ruling, prosecutors have argued that the confession was the legal equivalent of "harmless error."
"Hopefully, the Supreme Court will clarify the law," said Myles O'Rourke, who argued the case for the special prosecutor's office. "We're just hoping that there's resolution."
Attorneys and legal experts say it's difficult to predict what the high court will do. Justices could affirm the lower court's decision, deny the decision or send the case back for a procedural step that was skipped, among a range of options. The court could also order that all inmates with credible torture claims get new hearings, as defense attorneys have asked in an amicus brief. Or justices could allow the cases to work their way through the courts one-by-one on their merits, as prosecutors want.
Just six of the seven justices considered the Wrice case after Justice Robert Thomas recused himself and did not hear oral arguments. No reason has been given for the recusal. In the event of a 3-3 split, the lower court ruling giving Wrice a new hearing would stand.
Joey Mogul, one of the defense attorneys representing men with pending torture claims against Burge and his officers, said the high court's ruling could have broad implications on her clients and others.
"I hope the Illinois Supreme Court recognizes that torture is so egregious that it never can be harmless error and that it takes the principled step of not only granting relief to Stanley Wrice but to the 15 other torture survivors who have never had the opportunity to present evidence of torture," Mogul said.