CHICAGO (CN) – Black men whom Chicago police brutally tortured and coerced into false confessions have no recourse after waiting too long to sue, city officials argued before the 7th Circuit today.
The federal appeals court heard oral arguments Wednesday in yet another suit filed by men tortured under the command of disgraced and imprisoned Chicago Police Lt. Jon Burge.
During the 1980s, Burge and his subordinates suffocated black male “suspects” 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.
Expired statutes of limitations have tanked the civil claims of many of Burge’s victims.
Just this past May, the 7th Circuit barred new claims from a man who accepted a $3,000 settlement in 1988 after police used a cattle prod on his genitals.
U.S. District Judge John Darrah threw out the suit at issue today, finding that plaintiffs – Melvin Jones and other torture victims – had not been diligent enough to have the statute of limitations waived.
Darrah had noted that Jones, a homeless man, was interrogated about a murder for no reason.
“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 Sept. 17, 2013, dismissal states.
Eventually, “Burge announced, ‘You see, it’s just me and you. No court and no state are going to take your word against a Lieutenant’s word.’ Jones was also gagged with a sock and struck on the head with a stapler.”
A detective’s false testimony that Jones had confessed ultimately led to a murder conviction.
Jones’ attorney, Victor Henderson, told a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit on Wednesday that Jones and his co-plaintiffs should not be penalized for failing to sue earlier.
Echoing Burge’s words to his victims, Henderson said, “Our clients were raising their claims from Day 1.”
“They were screaming and hollering from the rooftops, but no one believed them,” Henderson continued. “There was the choice of listening to a poor black person accused of murder or a well-placed policeman.”
The law should treat torture like murder, for which there is no statute of limitations, Henderson continued.
Noting that “for their own reasons, the legislators don’t want to change the law,” Henderson said Chicago’s criminal “system is top-to-bottom broken.”
“When the Legislature is also broken, the only place we can look is a courtroom,” he continued.
Judge Frank Easterbrook seemed consistently skeptical. “I don’t see why it matters that the defendants were government employees,” Easterbrook said.
Noting that “it was once very difficult to persuade white jurors” of civil-rights violations, Easterbrook asked, “Did that abolish the statute of limitations?”
Wood said she wondered why plaintiffs did not sue before when “an actionable thing had occurred, no doubt about it.”
Henderson did not falter. “There’s a presumption in what you’re saying that if you complain you’ll have access to justice,” he said.
A code of silence in Chicago “at the highest levels of government” left torture victims without real recourse, such that the limitations period never should have run, the lawyer argued..
This was grounded in racism, Henderson emphasized, noting that the end of segregation was not founded on a legal change. “Nothing changed except people’s view of what was right,” he said. “The question for justice at the end of the day is how it treats people on the margins and fringes.”
Wood picked up this logic when facing the defense and noted that these were exactly the kind of claims that the 14th Amendment was intended to protect. “We have physical abuse of African-Americans by state officials, when the courts were not open for redress,” she said. “Does this outcome reward dishonesty?”
Representing Burge, ex-Mayor Richard Daley and others, Henry Gates said: “No one has argued that the federal courts were blind. They were always open.”
Wood pressed on: “Say it’s 1993, and Jones files this case, and every single witness for the police lies on the stand, and Jones loses. Now he tries to come back, but res judicata would prevent reconsideration.”
“That’s all speculative,” Gates countered, incredibly. “We have no idea that that would’ve happened.”
The court seemed sympathetic to Henderson’s case but also poised to focus on the procedural question, which looks unfavorable for the torture victims.
Judge Wood said: “I’m trying to get concrete, away from only ‘ghastly things happened,’ which we know.” She also asked: “did the police have some obligation to come forward and talk about the torture?”
Henderson replied: “They lied in the reports; they lied in courts; judges turned their heads to the lies. The conspiracy continues today.”
Henderson also dismissed the relevance of some of his clients’ failure to be exonerated. “Torture, whether they are guilty or not, is something for which they should be allowed to sue,” he said.
Jones, the one plaintiff who was exonerated, eventually became homeless and died earlier this year.
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