A man who said he was tortured by Chicago police until he confessed to a murder he didn’t commit was released from prison after spending nearly 25 years behind bars.
Shawn Whirl walked out of Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg shortly after noon, two months after an Illinois appeals court overturned his 1991 murder conviction in the fatal shooting of Chicago cabdriver Billy G. Williams and one day after a Cook County judge dismissed the charges against him.
Whirl was convicted of robbing and murdering Williams on Chicago’s Far South Side when he was 20 years old and was sentenced to 60 years in prison. His murder conviction was overturned by a unanimous Illinois appellate court in August.
When they told Whirl he would be released, Whirl's attorneys said he described feeling "relieved, but also nervous because this feels surreal."
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"I just want to be able to start from somewhere to continue to correct this wrong," he said. "I’ve been in a think tank here in prison – I've utilized my incarceration to better myself. In order to be upset, you have to have room for anger. And I just don’t have room for that."
Whirl was one of the first people granted a new trial after a referral by the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, which was established in 2009 to investigate claims of torture by law enforcement.
Whirl testified in his evidentiary hearing that during his interrogation, he was slapped, stepped on and subjected to racial slurs by Det. James Pienta, who worked under former Lt. Jon Burge.
If he did not confess to the crime, Whirl claimed Pienta would use a set of keys to scrape his leg until it was bloody and raw, according to attorney Tara Thompson with the Exoneration Project.
Pienta took the stand at Whirl's evidentiary hearing for a new trial but declined to testify, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, Thompson said.
The special prosecutor could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday evening.
"This case shows that it is never too late for the criminal justice system to right a wrong and to recognize the mistakes of the past," Thompson said in a statement. "We want Shawn's release to give courage and hope to those still locked up for crimes they did not commit."
The release will see Whirl join a number of men who, in recent years, have been released from prison because they were tortured into confessing at the hands of Burge's men. Dozens of men — almost all of them black — have claimed that, starting in the 1970s, Burge and his officers beat or shocked them into confessing to crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder.
Burge was convicted in 2010 for lying in a civil suit when he said he'd never witnessed or participated in the torture of suspects. He was released from prison in February after spending four and a half years in federal custody. Chicago also has paid out millions of dollars to settle lawsuits in cases related to Burge.