New Trial for Over Arrest Tainted by Corruption

     CHICAGO (CN) – A man who was let out of prison after a corruption probe took out his arresting officers deserves another chance to seek damages, the 7th Circuit ruled.
     Terrance Thompson, a former heroin-addict, had been standing on a street corner in September 2002 when officers from the Chicago Police Department’s Special Operations Section (SOS) allegedly detained him in their efforts to learn the location of a drug house.
     Thomson said he did not know the location, and that Officers Carl Suchocki, Tim McDermott, and John Burzinski then planted a gun on him and arrested him.
     A jury convicted Thompson of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon a year later and sentenced him to eight years in state prison.
     About three years into his prison term, the Cook County state’s attorney uncovered a longstanding pattern of misconduct within the SOS and opened an investigation into several officers, including Suchocki.
     More than a dozen officers were charged in 2006, and each officer ultimately resigned from the department, but Suchocki beat the charges.
     Thompson nevertheless petitioned to set aside his conviction, arguing that evidence of corruption fatally undermined the credibility of the officers who had testified against him.
     The State’s Attorney’s Office, which “had adopted a policy of dismissing cases in which Suchocki and the other SOS officers implicated in the investigation had made an arrest,” did not oppose the motion, according to the ruling.
     With his conviction vacated in December 2006, Thompson sued Chicago, as well as Officers Suchocki, McDermott, and Burzinski individually.
     A jury found Suchocki liable for just one violation of Brady v. Maryland, a landmark 1963 decision that found prosecutors must disclose exculpatory evidence before trial, and awarded Thompson $15,000 in damages.
     The 7th Circuit panel vacated that verdict Wednesday, however, after taking issue with several evidentiary rulings handed down by U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman.
     “The crux of Thompson’s Brady claim was that Officers Suchocki, McDermott, and Burzinski violated his right to due process by deliberately withholding crucial impeachment evidence before his trial and continuing to conceal it after his conviction while his appeal was making its way through the Illinois courts,” Judge Diane Sykes wrote for a three-person panel.
     Guzman’s evidentiary rulings improperly prevented Thompson from making his case, according to the 33-page opinion.
     First, Guzman should not have required that the citizen witness’ testimony involve incidents with facts and timing similar to Thompson’s case, the court found.
     “Requiring close factual similarity to Thompson’s case – in other words, requiring a Brady due-process violation or something very similar – misses the real point of this evidence,” Sykes wrote. “The pattern of misconduct within the SOS is the very impeachment evidence that the officers were alleged to have withheld in violation of the basic due-process disclosure duty under Brady.
     After Guzman excluded four of Thompson’s 11 proposed citizen witnesses, Thompson could call only two to the stand.
     Guzman additionally should not have barred the testimony of SOS officers who pleaded guilty to the charges against them, describing nine other incidents of police conduct, the court found.
     Concern that a jury “might be tempted to find the defendants liable based on the outrageous conduct of other officers … must be heavily discounted here because that risk is always present in a conspiracy claim, which by definition requires proof that the defendant formed an agreement with another to violate the plaintiff’s rights,” Sykes wrote.
     Guzman also improperly admitted evidence of Thompson’s criminal record by allowing the defense to ask about 12 specific dates – his arrests – when he had given a false name, according to the ruling. The court did nothing to prevent prejudice by instructing defense counsel refer to each arrest as “an important event in your life.”
     “We are quite sure that no juror failed to grasp that the 12 ‘important events’ were arrests,” Sykes wrote.
     “The jury’s award of damages – just $15,000 for more than three years of wrongful imprisonment – suggests that the way in which the alias evidence was admitted was indeed prejudicial,” she added. “The jurors may have concluded that Thompson was a chronic lawbreaker long accustomed to incarceration.”
     Finally, by excluding evidence of Officer Suchocki’s indictment, but failing to strike a reference to it in closing, Guzman improperly allowed defense counsel to argue that the conviction was not vacated based on Thompson’s innocence, the court found.
     Sykes noted that defense counsel for the officers had “made use of the unexplained indictment in precisely this way, saying in closing argument that ‘circumstances allowed [Thompson] to have his conviction dismissed after he spent three years in jail on an eight-year sentence. That should be reward enough.'”
     “Considered in combination, the errors prevented Thompson from fairly and adequately presenting his case to the jury,” Sykes added.
     The ruling lets Thompson seek a new trial on the claims that he lost and also on damages.

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