CHICAGO (CN) - Black men whom Chicago police brutally tortured and coerced into false confessions decades ago have no grounds to sue now, the 7th Circuit ruled.
Laying the groundwork for a comeuppance that landed him in prison, Chicago Police Lt. Jon Burge and his subordinates suffocated black male "suspects" in the 1980s with plastic bags, shocked them with cattle prods, burned them with cigarettes and put loaded guns to their heads.
The Illinois Legislature noted that Burge may have overseen the torture by electric shock of a 13-year-old boy.
Melvin Jones joined other men Burge had victimized in a federal complaint for damages, but U.S. District Judge John Darrah dismissed the suit last year, despite finding that Jones had been convicted of murder based on a detective's false testimony.
During his unwarranted interrogation, Burge told the homeless Jones: 'You see, it's just me and you. No court and no state are going to take your word against a Lieutenant's word,'" Darrah wrote.
He noted that Jones was "gagged with a sock and struck on the head with a stapler," and that "Burge pulled Jones's pants down to his ankles and attached a homemade electrocution device to his body, electrocuting Jones on his left foot, left thigh, and penis while Jones screamed in protest."
The 7th Circuit held impassioned oral arguments on the Jones case in September, but the federal appeals court on Thursday left the suit among a long line of claims against Burge tanked by expired statutes of limitations.
Incidentally, Burge still receives a $4,000 per month pension.
"Plaintiffs have not been diligent in pursuit of their rights," Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for a three-member panel.
Jones, who "took almost 30 years to sue," was joined as a plaintiff by "Burton [who] took 23, Dungey [who took] 13, Tillis [who took] 10, and Freeman [who took] eight," according to the ruling.
"All five knew from the day they were subjected to torture that they had been injured, and by whom," Easterbrook wrote.
At oral arguments, the plaintiffs attributed their delays to a code of silence at the highest levels of Chicago government that left torture victims without real recourse.
"They were screaming and hollering from the rooftops, but no one believed them," their attorney Victor Henderson said. "There was the choice of listening to a poor black person accused of murder or a well-placed policeman."
The appellate panel was not convinced. "Victims of injury are not entitled to decide for themselves that suit would be futile and to grant themselves extra years, if not decades, in which to pursue litigation," Easterbrook wrote. "They must file suit and try. Instead, plaintiffs waited on the sidelines hoping that the acts of others would tarnish Burge's reputation and make a suit easier to win. That is not the sort of diligence required to establish equitable tolling," which would prevent the limitations period from running.
Though Henderson said earlier litigation would have been pointless, Easterbrook noted that "reports of Burge's misconduct were circulating publicly by 1990" and that "Burge was suspended in 1991 after his supervisors concluded that he had tortured suspects."
The opinion may have broad procedural implications for civil-rights claimants whose injuries are part of a broad shared pattern of governmental abuse.
"Claims based on out-of-court events, such as gathering of evidence, accrue as soon as the constitutional violation occurs," it states. "That's because misconduct by the police need not imply the invalidity of any particular conviction. Each episode of torture carries its own period of limitations. What plaintiffs want to do is tack different victims' periods of limitations together, so that if, say, police tortured Freeman in 2004 (as he alleges), then Burton, who was tortured in 1989 and whose time to sue had expired in 1991, would have his claim revived and be allowed another two years in which to sue."
In tossing that possibility, Easterbrook the lack of precedent showing "that fresh misconduct with respect to one person allows a different person extra time to sue." "Each injury starts a victim-specific period of limitations," he said.