CHICAGO (CN) – A man exonerated of murder after 24 years in prison can proceed with claims that police systematically tortured him and other black suspects into making false confessions, and that former Mayor Richard Daley and other authorities ignored such abuses.
During the early morning hours of July 21, 1986, police found Betty Howard’s body in a vacant apartment of her building.
Michael Tillman, who lived in the same building, voluntarily went to the Area 2 police headquarters house later to face interrogation by the-detectives Ronald Boffo and Peter Dignan. Tillman says he spent the next four days in police custody, cut off from the outside world and tortured by various officers until he incriminated himself.
According to the complaint, officers struck Tillman’s head and stomach, causing him to vomit, and also hit him in the back and head with a telephone book, causing his nose to bleed and then forcing him to clean up the blood.
They also pressed their thumbs against Tillman’s ears, pushed his head back, poured 7-Up into his nose, hit him with a flashlight and waved the flame from a cigarette lighter under his arm.
At one point, then-Detective Jack Hines drove Tillman to a secluded location, forced him to his knees, held a gun to his head and threatened to kill him “like you killed that woman.”
Tillman said he eventually agreed to cooperate and falsely admitted involvement with the crime. He said he never had the chance to speak with a family member or an attorney.
Meanwhile, police assaulted another suspect, Steven Bell, until he agreed to make a statement implicating himself and Tillman. Though Bell was acquitted, Tillman was convicted of murder. The trial judge rejected Tillman’s motions to suppress the confession.
In 2010, after Tillman had spent 24 years in prison, the Cook County special prosecutor vacated the conviction. Tillman soon brought suit against a litany of defendants, ranging from the officers who allegedly tortured him to former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Tillman’s suit detailed both the abuses he suffered and what he framed as an extensive pattern of torture and coerced confessions in Area 2. He also claimed Daley, as then-state’s attorney, and others intentionally declined to investigate such practices.
Higher-ups continued to defend Area 2 detectives, even after public hearings and an Amnesty International report indicated that the group, led by then-Police Commander Jon Burge, systematically tortured black suspects.
The defendants filed various motions to dismiss Tillman’s suit earlier this year, and U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer agreed in part.
Pallmeyer began by rejecting the motion to dismiss Tillman’s claim that he was deprived of a fair trial because the state had failure to disclose exculpatory evidence.
“The imagination need not stretch far to conclude that, had the indicated findings of torture at Area 2 been in evidence, not to mention the defendant officers’ testimony confirming the alleged torture of Tillman himself, there might have been a different result at trial,” Pallmeyer wrote.
Daley, who also served as mayor, will not have to face these claims, however.
“Daley’s alleged decision to defend Burge in civil suits, rather than heed the advice of his senior staff and sue Burge, does not support the conclusion that exculpatory information was suppressed,” Pallmeyer said.
In short, none of the actions Daley took to defend Chicago police constituted “suppression” of evidence, because evidence of police torture was already public. The claims can proceed against other municipal defendants who Tillman specifically alleged were personally involved.
The court also granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss Tillman’s claims for false arrest, finding that the two-year statute of limitations had expired.
It also threw out his section 1983 claim for torture because Tillman already “had a ‘complete and present’ cause of action immediately following his 1986 interrogation” and did not file until 2010.
Though his torture clam is out, Pallmeyer said Tillman can still advance claims of coercive interrogation against all but Daley.
Tillman failed to provide “any controlling authority for a finding of liability under a ‘failure to investigate’ theory,” the judgment explained.
The statute of limitations on this point was tolled until his conviction was overturned.
Daley is not off the hook for his alleged obstruction of efforts to stop police torture, as Tillman’s state-law claims of conspiracy and intentional infliction of emotional distress can proceed.
Unlike similar plaintiffs who have accused Chicago police of torture, Tillman explained his allegations in great detail, Pallmeyer found. For example, each defendant’s specific role is noted, and Tillman also identified more than 30 other alleged victims of police torture who are black.
Throughout the judgment, the court noted that the government has implicitly acknowledged that Area 2 officers tortured suspects like Tillman, such that his “allegations are more than splatter-paint.”
“The fact that Tillman’s conviction was eventually overturned, and that he was issued a certificate of innocence highlights this point: it was only after the pattern and practice of police torture at Area 2 came to light through official channels that Tillman’s post-conviction petition was granted,” Pallmeyer said.