Federal Appeals Court Rejects Case of Torture Survivor

Federal Appeals Court Rejects Torture Survivor’s Case

BY G. Flint Taylor 
Published June 26, 2014 in recognition of International Day of Support for Victims of Torture
This article originally appeared at In These Times

‘[G]iven all the things you know now and all the corruption that came to light … don’t you think that it’s a thin reed on which you’re attempting to hang your resolution to say, given all of that, $3,000 is a fair settlement?’

As declared by the United Nations in 1997, June 26 is International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Unfortunately, the U.S. Court of Appeals may have set an alarming precedent for torture survivors around the country with its decision in victim Darrell Cannon’s case late last month.

On May 27, the court shocked Cannon and his supporters by opting to deny him full compensation for the brutal treatment he incurred at the hands of the Chicago Police Department starting in 1983. Led by the notorious Commander Jon Burge, who was fired from his position in 1993 and convicted of perjury in 2010, the Chicago Police victimized at least 120 African-American suspects over the course of two decades, including Cannon, who was tortured before being imprisoned unjustly for 24 years. Despite a number of other survivors receiving millions of dollars from the city of Chicago, Cannon was left with almost nothing—suggesting that the U.S. legal system is all too willing to abandon survivors behind a smokescreen of denial and victim-blaming.

Cannon’s lawyers argued his case in front of the three-judge federal appeals court in January of 2013. (Full disclosure: the author represented Cannon in the U.S. Court of Appeals.) After sympathizing with Cannon’s situation at oral arguments, the court withheld its decision for 16 months. Then, in a stunning reversal of form, it rejected his appeal in a lengthy opinion written by the very judge who had most strongly backed Cannon’s position during the arguments.

Cannon’s criminal case

Darrell Cannon’s 31-year quest for justice began in November 1983, when he was arrested for the murder of a drug dealer by a contingent of midnight-shift detectives who worked for Jon Burge. They allegedly dragged him to a police car, where Cannon says Detective Peter Dignan told him that they had a “scientific way of questioning n*ggers. When Cannon refused to talk, he says Sergeant John Byrne, who was Burge’s self-admitted “right hand man,” and Dignan took him to a remote site on the far southeast side of Chicago, where they enacted a mock execution. After pretending to put a shell in his shotgun, Cannon recounts that Dignan forced the barrel of the gun into his mouth and pulled the trigger. Dignan allegedly repeated this action two more times. On the third, Cannon says he believed that the back of his head had been blown off.

When Cannon still refused to confess to the murder, he says, Byrne and Dignan threw him into the backseat of their car, pulled down his pants, and repeatedly shocked him on the genitals with a cattle prod. Racked with pain, Cannon agreed to cooperate; after the torture stopped, he withdrew his agreement. Cannon alleges that Byrne and Dignan then administered another round of electric shocks, this time shoving the cattle prod into his mouth. Cannon then relented and gave a false confession that implicated himself in the murder.

During his trial in 1984, Cannon moved to suppress his confession because it was given under torture, but the motion was denied by Cook County Circuit Judge Thomas Maloney. (Maloney would later go to federal prison for taking bribes.) Later that year, Cannon was convicted, but his conviction was reversed on appeal, due to racial discrimination during jury selection. Cannon was then held in prison for a decade on murder charges; finally, in 1994, he was re-tried, only to be re-convicted after Maloney’s successor, John Morrissey, denied him the right to introduce newly uncovered evidence that included 28 cases of Chicago Police torture, including 16 in which Byrne and Dignan were accused of abusing other African-American suspects. On appeal in 1997, the Illinois Appellate Court ordered the trial court to conduct a new hearing on Cannon’s motion to suppress his confession, at which time he could introduce the newly uncovered torture evidence. In doing so, the Court strongly condemned the prosecutors’ arguments, saying, “In a civilized society, torture by police officers is an unacceptable means of obtaining confessions from suspects.”

Back in Cook County Criminal Court, Cannon’s lawyers presented evidence of other acts of torture by Byrne and Dignan. They also produced a 1990 Chicago Police Department Report that officially found that there was “systematic” torture and abuse under Burge. The same report noted that Byrne and Dignan were “players” in Burge’s pattern and practice of barbaric cruelty. Cannon’s lawyers also offered a previously suppressed 1994 CPD report that specifically found Cannon had been tortured by Byrne and Dignan, as well as expert psychological evidence that further corroborated Cannon’s claims of torture.

In 2004, the prosecution dismissed Cannon’s case altogether, likely on the unstated grounds that Cannon’s confession had indeed been made under torture. However, the Illinois Prisoner Review Board refused to release him because of a parole hold from a prior conviction. Finally, in 2007, after two parole hearings and an order from a Cook County Judge, Cannon was released from prison after serving 24 years—nine of which he served in Tamms supermax prison.

Cannon’s civil case

After his criminal case was dismissed in 2004, Cannon filed a torture and wrongful conviction lawsuit in federal court. But he faced a significant hurdle. In 1986, while in a rural southern Illinois prison, Cannon had filed a handwritten damages complaint alleging that he was tortured by Byrne and Dignan. In response two years later, the city of Chicago offered him a nuisance value settlement amounting to $3,000. Cannon’s court-appointed attorney—a general practice lawyer who had never worked on a civil rights case, let alone one about torture—advised him to take the deal. Cannon received $1,247 of his settlement; his lawyer took the rest. And as part of the deal, he signed a broadly worded release that included all claims related to his torture that might arise in the future.

When Cannon filed his second damages suit after being released from prison, the city and police defendants attempted to dismiss it. They argued that Cannon’s paltry 1988 settlement agreement prevented him from seeking more compensation against city officials on all of his claims. Meanwhile, starting in 1989, evidence began to surface that the city of Chicago had engaged in a widespread campaign throughout the last decade to conceal Burge’s sadistic practices. In 2006, Judge Amy St. Eve held that this cover-up constituted a fraud by the police defendants and the city—thereby nullifying Cannon’s 1988 settlement. In other words, had Chicago not engaged in concealing the reign of torture by Burge and his cronies, Cannon might have found it much easier to argue that he, too, had been included in the string of victims, and to demand more compensation as a result.

In July 2007, the Chicago City Council held hearings on the Burge torture scandal. There, several Council members, along with U.S. Member of Congress Danny Davis, publicly urged Mayor Richard M. Daley to settle all of the outstanding torture cases, including Cannon’s. Within months, the city had settled four of the five cases for a total of $19.8 million—and offered Cannon nothing. Instead of settling, the city poured extensive legal fees into further contesting Cannon’s case.

Then, in 2011, Judge St. Eve reversed her prior ruling. This time, she sided with the city, deeming the cover-up irrelevant to the issue of fraud. Cannon knew he had been tortured, she said; therefore, he had not been deceived and was not entitled to anything more than his scant original $1,247.

Cannon appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and in January 2013, a three-judge panel of that court heard oral arguments in the case. Led by Judge Ilana Rovner, the court repeatedly upbraided the city’s attorney. Rovner herself passionately rebutted the lawyer’s assertion that the police defendants simply denied that they tortured Cannon, stating that “they didn’t just ‘deny’—they lied, they cheated, they committed fraud, they committed cover-ups.”

“Here are the facts,” she continued. “These officers take a man with a prior murder conviction. Then they lie, then they torture him into making a statement that leads to a second murder conviction, then they lie about it, then they destroy evidence, then they engage in this incredibly lengthy cover-up with other city officials. You’ve got to help me. [On] [w]hat planet does he have a [fair hearing] in the courts under those circumstances?”

As the beleaguered city lawyer concluded his argument, Judge Sarah Barker, a former U.S. attorney from Indiana, focused on the insufficient settlement given to Cannon in 1988:  “[G]iven all the things you know now and all the corruption that came to light … don’t you think that it’s a thin reed on which you’re attempting to hang your resolution to say, given all of that, $3,000 is a fair settlement?”

The Federal Court of Appeals decision

On May 27, 2014, the Appeals Court, in a lengthy opinion authored by the same Judge Rovner, upheld the District Judge’s decision. In its opening paragraph, the court set the tone for its decision:

This appeal casts a harsh light on some of the darkest corners of life in Chicago. The plaintiff, at the time of the events giving rise to this suit, was a general in the El Rukn street gang, out on parole for a murder conviction, when he became embroiled in a second murder. Among the defendants are several disgraced police officers, including the infamous Jon Burge, a man whose name evokes shame and disgust in the city of Chicago.

After reciting a version of the facts that highlighted the details of Cannon’s criminal case while forgoing any recitation of the voluminous record of cover-up that supported his claim, the court proceeded to reject, one by one, all of the arguments that Judge Rovner and her fellow panel members had previously embraced.

The court held that Cannon was bound by the provisions of his 1988 release, and he had thereby forfeited his wrongful conviction claim. Moreover, it refused to acknowledge that this settlement was the product of fraud. In doing so, the panel ruled that although Cannon “knew that Byrne and Dignan were lying” when he signed the release, and that these officers “surely would have lied about torturing others,” Cannon and his court-appointed lawyer purportedly could have “pursued other avenues” to obtain evidence that there was a pattern and practice of torture by the officers who tortured him. Obviously, Cannon and his lawyer would have been working against a wide-ranging campaign to cover up Byrne and Dignan’s torture—but the court, after emphasizing this fact during oral arguments, refused to acknowledge its determinative significance in its written decision.

Furthermore, the panel went so far as to erroneously assert, in the face of a strong evidentiary record to the contrary, that all of the city’s efforts to cover up the evidence of torture came after Cannon settled his case. In doing so, it also minimized the breadth and depth of the cover-up and the role of high-ranking officials in it, essentially reducing the decades of perjury by Cannon’s torturers in numerous cases to a “he said, they said” controversy.

The court then highlighted Cannon’s criminal history, noting that he was a gang leader and a “convicted murderer out on parole” at the time of his arrest.

“It is difficult to conceive of a just outcome given the appalling actions by almost everyone associated with these events,” wrote the panel.

In conclusion, the court rightly asserted that the case “casts a pall of shame over the city of Chicago,” singling out “the police officers who abused the position of power entrusted to them” and the “city officials who turned a blind eye to (and in some instances actively concealed) the claims of scores of African-American men that they were being bizarrely and horrifically abused.” Even so, however, it refused to find that Cannon’s $1,267 net settlement was unfair.

“What the officers did to Cannon was unconscionable,” the court now argued. “The settlement was not.”

The pall of shame darkens

Even as the court acknowledged the systematic torture of African-American Chicagoans, however, its emphasis on Cannon’s criminal history implied that his gang membership and prior murder conviction somehow negated his treatment at the hands of city police. In doing so, it effectively blamed Cannon for his own ordeal. Considering that Cannon has now devoted his life to quelling gang violence as a CEASEfire supervisor—and that Byrne and Dignan narrowly escaped perjury conviction alongside Burge—such justification seems particularly ill-founded. On June 9, Cannon’s lawyers asked the full court to reconsider the three-judge panel’s decision, a request that is very seldom granted.

The U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision, though gut-wrenching, is unfortunately not unheard of, particularly with regard to Chicago’s torture history. Over the past 40 years, state and federal courts as well as prosecutors have very seldom been open to providing fair justice to the African-American survivors of Burge-related police torture.  More than 100 were sent to prison—a dozen to death row—on confessions tortured from them. At least 20 remain there, some 25 to 30 years later. While relatively few have been fairly compensated for their torture and wrongful convictions, many more, like Darrell Cannon, have received either nothing or a mere pittance.

In Cannon’s case, had the highest federal court in the Midwest ruled in his favor, it would have been unequivocally declaring that the Chicago police torture cover-up reached up to the highest levels of the local power structure and had lasted for more than three decades. And just as importantly, it would have likely aided others who were put behind bars by Burge, Byrne and Dignan and sent a message to the city that it should fairly compensate all Burge torture victims. But in an all-too-familiar display of failing judicial courage, Judge Rovner and her colleagues chose to retreat instead. Their failure to do the right thing leaves us, once again, to contemplate the words of comedian and people’s philosopher Lenny Bruce, who once famously said, “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.”



Convictions Tossed for Two Clients of People’s Law Office

Lewis Gardener and Paul Phillips were wrongfully convicted of acting as lookouts for a 1992 murder and spent nearly 15 years in prison.  In January of this year, lawyers from People’s Law Office filed a petition seeking to overturn their convictions.  Yesterday, June 24, 2014, the State’s Attorney agreed and asked the judge to vacate the convictions.

Gardner and Phillips at People's Law Office (photo by Chicago Tribune)Phillips and Gardener were 15 and 17 at the time of the crime and were coerced into giving false confessions.  In total, police obtained false confessions from seven people in the case, establishing the false police theory that three participated in the shooting and four others (including Phillips and Gardener) acted as lookouts.

One of these co-defendants, Daniel Taylor, was convicted and ultimately exonerated, after it was exposed that police and prosecutors withheld crucial evidence.  One of those pieces of evidence was that Taylor was in police lockup at the time of the murder.

The next step for Phillips and Gardener is to obtain Certificates of Innocence so they can receive compensation for the years they spent in prison for a crime they did not commit.

For more coverage of this recent development, read the Chicago Tribune story by Steve Mills: Judge Tosses Convictions of 2 Who Spent 15 Years in Prison

This case is part of our ongoing commitment to helping fight wrongful convictions and cases of false imprisonment.  The injustices of the criminal legal system in this country run deep and wide and these examples of wrongful conviction expose the problems in the system.  For more information on our work on the issue, visit the Wrongful Convictions page on this site.

If you or a loved one were wrongfully convicted and you are interested in filing a civil rights lawsuit, contact our lawyers at (773)235-0070.

Traiciona la democracia la prisión de Oscar López


1 junio 2014


Con 71 años de edad y 33 años de cárcel cumplidos en prisiones remotas, muy distantes de su país, acusado de conspiración sediciosa, pero sin que se le haya probado delito de sangre alguno, Oscar López Rivera es símbolo de una flagrante deshonra para sus carceleros y una afrenta a la democracia que falla en respetar los derechos humanos.

Porque Oscar López Rivera, al margen de su ideología y de sus aspiraciones, es un ciudadano que dedicó dos años de su vida al servicio militar activo, en la guerra de Vietnam, y que se sacrificó duramente por el mismo Estados Unidos que ahora se empeña en mantenerlo aislado, tratando de acallar los reclamos para que lo excarcelen e intentando mantenerlo fuera del foco de la atención mundial.

Pese las peticiones unánimes del pueblo y desde todos los sectores, e importantes voces desde la comunidad internacional, Oscar López sigue recluido en la prisión de Terre Haute, Indiana, y el gobierno de Estados Unidos persiste en ignorar el reclamo para que el anciano activista político y líder comunitario salga a hacer compañía a sus familiares, principalmente a su única hija y a su nieta.

Habría que preguntarse cuál es el empecinamiento de un gobierno, el de Estados Unidos, que presume de sus acciones en favor de los presos politicos del mundo entero -en Ucrania, con Yulia Timoshenko; en China, con el artista Ai Weiwei; en Venezuela, con el opositor Leopoldo López; en Cuba, con el exprisionero Guillermo Fariñas, y hasta en Rusia con el grupo feminista punk “Pussy Riot”, – pero que en su propia casa mantiene sepultado a un puertorriqueño que, de 1986 a 1998, sufrió uno de los regímenes carcelarios más crueles que existen, el de confinamiento en solitaria en la prisión de Marion, Illinois. En Marion, cárcel de extrema seguridad construida en 1963 para sustituir la de Alcatraz que acababa de cerrar, Oscar López superó más de una década sin contacto alguno con familiares o amigos.

El hecho mismo de que, en contradicción con las políticas carcelarias de casi todos los países del mundo, a Oscar se le mantenga en una prisión tan alejada de Puerto Rico, lo que obstaculiza las visitas regulares de sus familiares, es una forma de tortura incomprensible por parte de una nación que proclama su vocación humanitaria. El presidente Obama, que alegó sentirse conmovido al visitar la histórica celda de Nelson Mandela en Robben Island, Sudáfrica, debe saber que en la cárcel de Terre Haute, en Indiana, hay un hombre acusado por los mismos “delitos” que Mandela -la misma figura legal: conspiración sediciosa-, que, a diferencia del líder sudafricano, ha cumplido seis años más de cárcel: de 27 que padeció Mandela, a 33 que acaba de cumplir Oscar López.

Obama tiene la potestad de indultarlo hoy mismo, y debe hacerlo. No se le pide clemencia, sino que cumpla un mandato moral de respeto a la condición humana y, por lo demás, un acto de dignidad, valentía y autovaloración hacia un hombre de principios contra el que se ceban la venganza de estado, el discrimen ideológico, la prostitución de la justicia, la presión de agencias federales de seguridad y la crueldad.

La excarcelación de Oscar López no debe seguir posponiéndose, y el reclamo para su liberación tendrá que seguir siendo unánime y no caer en las trampas del pesimismo o las cábalas políticas electoreras. Los asuntos internos de Estados Unidos, incluso sus procesos eleccionarios, no tienen que importarle a nadie a la hora de exigir la inmediata devolución de ese ser humano a la tierra a la que pertenece, la que lo vio nacer. Es un hombre mayor que ha demostrado una conducta ejemplar y que no merece enfermarse o incapacitarse en prisión, algo que causaría gran dolor e impotencia a todo su pueblo.

El gobierno de Estados Unidos está moralmente impedido de interceder por ningún preso político, en ningún lugar del mundo, mientras continúe el presidente burlándose de la memoria de Mandela y violando los derechos civiles, políticos y el derecho a la libertad de Oscar.


The ongoing imprisonment of Oscar López is a betrayal of democracy


June 1, 2014


At 71 years of age and having served 33 years in remote prisons, far away from his country, accused of seditious conspiracy, but never having been found guilty of shedding any blood, Oscar López Rivera is the symbol of a flagrant dishonor for his jailers and an affront to democracy that fails to respect human rights.

Because Oscar López Rivera, beyond his ideology and his aspirations, is a citizen who dedicated two years of his life to active military service, in the Vietnam War, and who rigorously sacrificed himself for the very United States that is now engaged in keeping him isolated, trying to silence the calls for his release and intending to keep him out of the spotlight of worldwide attention.

In spite of the unanimous demands of the people and from every sector, and important voices in the international community, Oscar López is still held in the prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, and the United States government persists in ignoring the call for the release of this elderly political activist and community leader, so that he can be with his family, mainly his only daughter and his granddaughter.

One must ask why the government of the United States would be so stubborn, a government that boasts of its actions for the rights of political prisoners in the whole world – in Ukraine, with Yulia Timoshenko; in China, with artist Ai Weiwei; in Venezuela, with the opposition leader Leopoldo López; in Cuba, with ex-prisoner Guillermo Fariñas, and even in Russia with the feminist punk group “Pussy Riot” – but in its own country keeps buried alive a Puerto Rican who, from 1986 to 1998, suffered one of the most cruel prison punishments that exists, that of solitary confinement in the prison of Marion, Illinois. In Marion, a super-maximum security prison built in 1963 to replace Alcatraz, which had just closed, Oscar López managed to survive more than a decade with absolutely no contact with his family or friends.

The very fact that, contrary to the criminal justice policies of almost every country in the world, Oscar is held in a prison so distant from Puerto Rico, hindering regular family visits, is a form of incomprehensible torture by a nation which purports to have a humanitarian calling. President Obama, who claimed to feel moved when he visited the historic cell of Nelson Mandela in Robben Island, South Africa, should know that in the prison at Terre Haute, in Indiana, there is a man accused of the same “crimes” as Mandela – the same legal charge: seditious conspiracy – for which, different from the South African leader, he has served six years longer in prison: Mandela endured 27 years in prison; Oscar López has just marked 33 years in prison.

Obama has the power to release him today, and he should do so. He’s not being asked to pardon, but rather to fulfill a moral mandate of respect for the human condition and, apart from that, an act of dignity, valor, and self-worth for a man of priniciples against whom state vengeance, ideological discrimination, the prostitution of justice, pressure by federal security agencies, and cruelty are imposed without mercy.

The release of Oscar López cannot keep being postponed, and the call for his freedom must continue to be unanimous and not fall into the trap of pessimism or electoral political cabals. Internal affairs of the United States, including its electoral processes, need not matter to anyone when it comes to returning this human being to the land he belongs to, that saw him come to life. He is an older man who has conducted himself in exemplary fashion and who does not deserve to get sick or incapacitated in prison, something that would cause great pain and impotence to his entire people.

The government of the United States is morally impeded from intervening on behalf of any political prisoner, in any place in the world, while the president continues to mock the memory of Mandela, violate civil and political rights and Oscar’s right to freedom.

33 Day Walk for Oscar López Successful

By: Alberto Rodríguez


Photo Credit: Lin Benitez

May 2014 was an exciting and historic month in the three decade long campaign to free Puerto Rican Political Prisoner, Oscar López Rivera. Oscar is the longest held Puerto Rican Political Prisoner convicted in  U.S. federal court for seditious conspiracy for his commitment to the independence of Puerto Rico. Commemorating the anniversary of his 33 years in captivity, the campaign for his release organized “la Caminata Nacional 33 en 33 por Oscar.” (33 in 33 Walk for Oscar). This walk began April 27 in the small central
town of Gurabo and toured 33  towns in 33 days to raise awareness about the case of López Rivera and to gather support for the  call for his release.

Each day one town was connected with another in a  333 mile walk through winding mountainous roads. While a small, hearty core group of activists and supporters participated in consecutive daily walks, each town added its own flavor, sometimes its own mayor, and often hundreds of walkers —  an eclectic group of young people, seniors, athletes, elementary, high school and college students, unions, musicians, civic and religious groups, elected officials, those in wheel chairs  and the able bodied, pro-independence activists,  supporters of the present political status with the U.S., as well as supporters of statehood.


Photo Credit: Alina Luciano

People in small rural villages and barrios stood and waited at their front gates for the “Caminata”. Passing cars blasted their horns and shouted their support. Children came out of their classrooms to shout approval and display signs they made themselves, of love and support for Oscar. Some schools even allowed their students to leave the classroom to join the walk.

When the walk reached each town’s plaza, a beautiful cultural event took place with music and poetry. Under a blazing afternoon sun, children sang while others read their writings dedicated to Oscar.

IMG_2064565501790 (2)

Photo Credit: Lin Benitez

As the walk in the mountains was underway, another event took place in San Juan called “Al Mar X Oscar” (To the sea for Oscar), inspired by a letter from prison to his granddaughter Karina, in which he wrote, “… after the family, what I miss the most is the sea. It’s been 35 years since the last time I saw it.” On a beautiful Sunday afternoon on May 25, hundreds marched along the waterfront of Old San Juan while row boats, paddle boats, rafts, kayaks, fishing boats, long Asian inspired dragon boats, jet skis, practically anything that could float accompanied them. At the foot of the century old walls of the Spanish fort, El Morro, the water crafts landed with a “cabezudo” papier-mache puppet head representing Oscar wading on shore symbolically representing his arrival to Puerto Rico by sea. Oscar’s daughter Clarisa López and granddaughter Karina Valentín emotionally greeted the symbolic Oscar. At a cultural and political rally held in front of El Morro, Clarisa stated, “We are going to achieve what seems the impossible … returning my father to the motherland …” The multitude present shouted their approval.

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Photo Credit: Cultura Profética

On May 29 the Caminata arrived in front of the Federal Building in San Juan after successfully visiting 33 towns in 33 days. In solidarity with the Caminata, Oscar walked 333 miles in those 33 days, in the prison yard. The women who meet the last Sunday of  every month on the Dos Hermanos Bridge demanding Oscar’s release marched from the bridge in Old San Juan to the Federal Building in the financial district of San Juan.Headed by Oscar’s daughter Clarisa and the President of the Bar Association, Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, dressed in pink t- shirts, with flags and posters with messages of support. Then the Caminata arrived, headed by a giant key held by some of the former Puerto Rican Political Prisoners released in 1999 by presidential commutation of their excessive sentences. Behind them were delegations from each of the towns that the Caminata had marched through, along with artists, athletes and members of different political parties as well as civic and religious organizations. The Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, and former political prisoner Rafael Cancel Miranda were present. A rally of celebration and joy followed the end of the Caminata. Oscar’s attorney Jan Susler, a partner in the People’s Law Office, stated that the work in Puerto Rico around Oscar’s release was having positive results in the U.S. She mentioned that this year’s Puerto Rican Parade in New York was paying tribute to Oscar and calling for  his release. She said, “I ask you to continue with that consistency, that emotion that inspires us to continue working for Oscar’s release.”

The Puerto Rican people have sent a powerful message to the White House that we want Oscar López Rivera released from U.S. custody now. In the midst of the worst economic crisis the island has experienced in decades, high energy and food costs, mass exodus to the U.S., primarily of the young and the educated, a crumbling education and health system, a rise in crime and the insecurity and anxiety it creates; Oscar López has not been forgotten, and the call for his release is front and center. In a recent editorial of El Nuevo Día, the most widely read newspaper in Puerto Rico with a clear pro-American editorial position stated the following:

At 71 years of age and having served 33 years in remote prisons, far away from his country, accused of seditious conspiracy, but never having been found guilty of shedding any blood, Oscar López Rivera is the symbol of a flagrant dishonor for his jailers and an affront to democracy that fails to respect human rights. In spite of the unanimous demands of the people and from every sector, and important voices in the international community, Oscar López is still held in a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. The United States government persists in ignoring the call for his release. The government of the United States is morally impeded from intervening on behalf of any political prisoner, in any place in the world, while the president continues to mock the memory of Mandela, violate civil and political rights and Oscar’s right to freedom.

Photo Credit: Alina Luciano

From his jail cell, Oscar López says, “I can’t afford to think about freedom. The future is very unpredictable and I have no clear idea of when I will leave prison. I don’t like illusory optimism.”  As a former Puerto Rican political prisoner myself, I can fully understand the need to guard oneself from such thoughts and dreams. Here in Puerto Rico, there is a mass sense of optimism and faith that President Obama will do the right and just thing and release Oscar. This optimism is not idealistic or unfounded but very much rooted in a proud history of witnessing our political prisoners walking out of the gates of U.S. prisons. Here, there is faith in the power of a united Puerto Rican people demanding in one loud, clear and unwavering voice “Free Oscar López Now!”

Brian Jacob Church Defense Team Statement

We are disappointed that Judge Wilson sentenced the NATO 3 to additional time in prison, albeit far less that the State’s request for 14 years. Our client Brian Jacob Church should be released at the outside in 6 months.

It is quite disturbing that even after the jury resoundingly rejected all the terrorism charges the States Attorney in comparing the case to the Boston bombing continued to demonize the defendants and seek harsh sentences as if this were a terrorism case.

We continue to strongly believe that the entire “terrorism” prosecution was politically motivated by the States Attorney, Chicago Police and Mayor Emmanuel, in an effort to justify the obscene amount of resources and propaganda, including spying and infiltration, devoted to creating climate of fear leading up to the large non-violent protest against NATO. The terrorism arrests days before the large Sunday demonstration was an effort to intimidate the potential peaceful protesters and encourage the police to use unnecessary force against the people who demonstrated.

We think the opinion piece by Mark Brown of the Chicago Sun Times captures the sentiment of many people who followed the legal proceedings “But I will always believe the NATO 3 never posed as great a threat to the freedom of the people of Chicago as those who assigned police officers to infiltrate dissident political groups in search of potential “criminals”— and by those who chose to define those criminals as terrorists.

Oral Argument Set for Occupy Chicago Appeal

Today, we received word that the oral argument has been set for the Occupy Chicago Appeal.  The oral argument will be May 13, 2014 at 10:30 a.m. in the Appellate Courtroom, First District of Illinois, at 160 N. LaSalle, Chicago, IL.  The argument will be open to the public, although people need to show a state-issued ID in order to enter the building.

The case, City of Chicago v. Alexander, Tieg, etc. 1-12-2858 is in appellate court after a judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County ruled in favor of Occupy Chicago.  The case dates back to October of 2011, when approximately 300 activists associated with Occupy Chicago were arrested on two consecutive Saturdays for violating a City Municipal Ordinance mandating a curfew in all City parks.

Attorneys from People’s Law Office (PLO), along with other attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) represented those arrested.  Nearly 100 of the arrestees opted to challenge their arrests and the PLO and NLG attorneys drafted and filed a Motion to Dismiss the charges based on the First Amendment.  We argued that the Municipal Ordinance violated the Free Speech of those arrested.  We were ultimately successful and a judge found that the ordinance was unconstitutional on its face and as applied to the activists who were defendants.

For more about the case, read these two articles on this site:
Free Speech and the Criminalization of Occupy
Occupy Chicago Appeal will Review City Ordinance’s Limits on Free Speech

In addition, below are briefs from both the City of Chicago and the NLG attorneys representing Occupy Chicago defendants.

Documents from Occupy Chicago Appeal

City of Chicago’s Appeal Brief – May 8, 2013

Occupy Chicago Response Brief – September 30, 2013

City of Chicago’s Reply Brief - December 12, 2013


Documents from Trial Level Court

Decision Ruling in Favor of Occupy Chicago - September 27, 2012

Occupy Chicago Reply to City – February 10, 2012

Original Occupy Chicago Motion to Dismiss - November 4, 2011

Burge Torture Victims Deserve Reparations, Say Amnesty Int’l Protesters

THE LOOP — Hundreds of Amnesty International protesters rallied in Daley Plaza Friday to demand reparations for police torture victims of notorious Jon Burge, but the aldermen sponsoring a reparations ordinance were not among them.

About 200 protesters marched to Daley Plaza from the JW Marriott in the Loop, where Amnesty International USA is holding its annual general meeting this weekend. They carried banners bearing the names of the estimated 118 people tortured by Police Cmdr. Burge and his “midnight crew” from the ’70s into the ’80s. The city has paid Burge’s victims an estimated $57 million.

 G. Flint Taylor, of the People's Law Office, tells demonstrators, "This scandal will not end until all the men receive reparations for the torture."<br /><br />

Protesters chanted, “City Hall, we want justice.”

“This scandal will not end until all the men receive reparations for the torture,” said G. Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office, one of the leading attorneys in the torture cases.

“People power is gonna keep this issue alive,” added Darrell Cannon, a Burge torture victim.

Protesters backed the reparations ordinance sponsored last year by Aldermen Howard Brookins Jr. (21st) and Joe Moreno (1st). It calls for the city to issue a formal apology to victims and create a $20 million fund for compensation, including medical and psychological treatment as well as vocational training and City College education, and for the subject to be taught in Chicago Public Schools.

Yet Brookins and Moreno did not attend the rally.

“They were invited, but this was an Amnesty International, a people’s gathering,” Taylor said. “We know they’ll be with us when the ordinance is heard in the City Council.”

“Let’s say that maybe they had other affairs to attend to,” Cannon added. “We’ll continue to press on.”

Brookins said he was unaware of the rally, but welcomed the support.

“I think the more hands in this the better,” Brookins said. “I need every hand on deck.”

The proposed ordinance has been on the Finance Committee agenda over the last few months, but has been deferred when Brookins, the sponsoring alderman, didn’t show up. He has kept a low profile at City Hall since his chief of staff was charged with bribery in February following a federal sting.

 "People power is gonna keep this issue alive," said Burge torture victim Darrell Cannon.<br /><br />

“People power is gonna keep this issue alive,” said Burge torture victim Darrell Cannon.View Full Caption

DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Joey Mogul, of the People’s Law Office, said Brookins’ commitment had not flagged.

“So at this point we’re going full speed ahead,” she added. “We’re gathering support for this ordinance. We think it can be passed, should be passed and will be passed.”

Brookins said he expected the subject to be on the committee agenda before the May City Council meeting.

“Ald. Moreno and I are looking for a way to do this so that we don’t get the pushback from the rest of our colleagues,” Brookins added. “We know it’s gonna be difficult because the city is strapped … but we think it’s the right thing to do.”

Amnesty International USA Executive Director Steven Hawkins said the group supports reparations, as they’re called for in the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which has been ratified by the United States. It forbids torture, but also establishes “what obligations governments owe victims of torture,” Hawkins added. “So our position here is that, yes, the city owes these guys.”

This article was originally published in DNAinfo Chicago. By, Ted Cox on April 4, 2014 

Wrongful Conviction Suit Filed for Kristine Bunch

Kristine Bunch, falsely convicted files civil rights lawsuit in Indiana

People’s Law Office has filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Kristine Bunch, who was falsely convicted in 1996 of the arson murder of her three-year-old son.  Kristine was the victim of junk arson “science” in which fire investigators made unsubstantiated and unscientific claims that fires were arson, when in fact they were entirely accidental.  In Kristine’s case, when the investigators found evidence that the fire was not intentionally set, they deliberately suppressed those findings and rewrote their report to hide the exculpatory information.

Kristine’s case was tragic from the outset.  A young single mother, she lived in a mobile home in southern Indiana with her beloved three-year-old Anthony.  Early in the morning of June 30, 1995, fire roared through her home.  Although she tried to rescue Anthony, who was sleeping in a separate room, the fierce flames drove her back and she was unable to reach him.  Devastated, she tried to assist investigators to determine what had caused the fire, but, in the words of the lawsuit, these investigators “wrongfully lept to the conclusion that she had intentionally set the fire and then proceeded to fabricate evidence that supported, and hide evidence that undermined, that incorrect conclusion.  Years later it was revealed that the evidence which caused Plaintiff’s conviction was fabricated and unreliable and that these Defendants had deliberately suppressed evidence which showed that the fire was not arson, but was in fact accidental.”

Although there was no motive for Kristy to kill her son- she was a devoted mother who loved to care for and play with Anthony- that did not stop investigators.  After leaping to their deeply flawed conclusion, the investigators destroyed the likely cause of the fire- faulty wiring which had previously caused multiple electrical problems in the home.  The Indiana investigators identified what they claimed were “pour patterns,” where fire accelerants had supposedly been poured, and sent this evidence to federal investigators, telling them to find the chemical residue of such accelerants.  When the federal agency found that there were no traces of accelerants in the areas where there were allegedly “pour patterns,” the state and federal authorities changed the report to falsely claim that there were such traces.  Additionally, the investigators also falsely claim that there were such traces.  Additionally, the investigators also falsified the report by failing to reveal that all the chemical residues that were found in the home were consistent with kerosne, which was caused by the use of a kerosene heater in the home for several years.

As a result of the suppression of the exculpatory portions of the report, Kristy was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison.  After several years of incarceration her case was investigated by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University School of Law.  During this investigation, the Clinic discovered the suppressed reports of the investigators, and was also able to establish that any conclusions that the fire was intentionally set were based on junk science, where arson investigators repeated opinions as to the origins of fires that had no basis in science.  In 2012, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed Kristy’s conviction, finding that the State had violated her constitutional rights in suppressing the exculpatory reports and that if this evidence had been disclosed back in 1996 she would not have been convicted.

Kristine suffered mightily as the result of the wrongful prosecution and false conviction.  She was forced to give up custody of her new baby, born after the fire, and lived for 17 years in prison, knowing that she was innocent but, realistically might never be able to overturn the conviction and gain her release.  While this lawsuit can never regain the lost years of Kristy’s life, we intend to obtain compensation for those lost years and obtain redress against investigators who must be held accountable for their unsubstantiated opinions and their suppression of evidence.

Read the complaint in her civil rights lawsuit.

For news coverage of Kristine’s case:
Woman Gets New Trial in 1996 Murder, Arson Case  Indy Channel March 21, 2012
Woman Accused of Setting Fire That Killed Son to Get New Trial Indy Channel August 8, 2012
State Drops Charges in 1995 Fire That Resulted in Death of Son Indy Channel December 18, 2012

Read more about our work on this issue on the Wrongful Convictions page.

Settlement in Death of Hassiba Belbachir

for immediate release
April 4, 2014


On April 3, 2014, People’s Law Office attorneys obtained a seven-figure settlement for the family of Hassiba Belbachir, a vibrant 27 year old Algerian Muslim woman who died on March 17, 2005, abandoned and alone on the cold floor of a cell in immigration detention at McHenry County Jail.

A social worker at the jail who saw Hassiba on March 14, three days before she died, noted that she was suicidal; had a “major depressive disorder;” sobbed throughout the interview; was very depressed; experienced feelings of agitation, anger, anxiety, depression, hopelessness and helplessness; and believed she was dying, telling the social worker, “death is dripping slowly, drop by drop . . . I’d rather die than live like this.” The social worker deliberately ignored Hassiba’s desperate pleas for help, had no further contact with her, and didn’t bother to tell corrections officers that Hassiba was suicidal. On March 17, Hassiba wrapped her socks around her neck and took her own life.

In ruling that the social worker must stand trial for violating Hassiba’s civil rights, the U.S. Court of Appeals stated:

She was not a criminal and was no danger to any person in the jail, whether staff member, detainee, or visitor. She was an obvious suicide risk who should have been hospitalized or at least placed on suicide watch, during which a guard would have glanced into her cell every 10 minutes. [...]

The defendants could have placed Belbachir in a mental hospital or at least on suicide watch. These were simple and obvious precautions against a risk of suicide. A severely depressed person who has hallucinations, acute anxiety, and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and who cries continually, talks incessantly of death, and is diagnosed as suicidal, is in obvious danger, and if the danger (known to a defendant) can be averted at slight cost, the failure to try to avert it is willful.

Belbachir v. County of McHenry, 726 F.3d 975 (7th Cir. 2013). [Audio of the June 6, 2013 oral argument is available at: http://media.ca7.uscourts.gov/sound/2013/sp.13-1002.13-1002_06_06_2013.mp3.]

Hassiba is survived by her six older siblings, who describe her as having a personality full of joy, that she was like a candle who could light up an entire room. Her brother Mohammed, a veterinarian in France, compared the effect of her death on the family with the destruction of the earth from a meteorite.

It is important to place Ms. Belbachir’s tragic and untimely death in the context of the expansion of immigration detention which routinely violates the human and civil rights of detainees, while it is seen as a profitable business by jail administrators. Her death in 2005 took place on the eve of the opening of a large unit to house ICE detainees in McHenry County, funded with more than $6 million in federal tax dollars. By 2009, by the sheriff’s own admission, renting jail cells to ICE netted the county some $55 million.

Between 2003 and 2013, at least 141 ICE detainees died in custody. While it is impossible to determine the number who took their own lives — Hassiba’s death is listed as an asphyxia — she is clearly one of at least 17 similar deaths in that ten year period.

Attorney Janine Hoft said, “This substantial settlement honors the memory of Hassiba Belbachir and reinforces the necessity to treat all persons in custody with dignity, respect and adequate care. Detainees caught up in our confusing, arbitrary and broken immigration system deserve humane treatment. No one else should die of desperation in our prisons, jails or immigration detention centers.”


Rachid Belbachir, her cousin, active in Chicago’s Muslim community, who administers her estate, said, “as a member of the family and Chicago’s Muslim community, I am satisfied that justice for Hassiba is at long last achieved. We hope and pray that the social worker, those who employed her, and those who work at the jail have learned a lesson such that no other immigration detainee will ever have to suffer from having his or her serious needs ignored, and such that no other family will ever have to suffer the loss of a loved one in immigration custody.”

Janine Hoft or Jan Susler 773 235 0070

PLO Files Koschman Civil Rights Case

PLO lawyer G. Flint Taylor and MacCarthur Justice Center lawyer Locke Boweman today filed a ten Count, 44 page Complaint on behalf of Nanci Koschman, whose son was killed nearly 10 years ago by Richard J. Vanecko, who is the nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. The Complaint names as defendants Vanecko, several as of yet unidentified Daley family members, and 25 Chicago police and Cook County prosecutors, including former Chicago Police Superintendents Phil Cline and Jody Weis, former State’s Attorney Richard Devine, and current State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, in a continuing cover-up conspiracy that was designed to deny Mrs. Koschman of her Constitutional rights and to protect the Daley family from criminal prosecution, civil liability, and political embarrassment.

To read more about the case follow these links:

March/April 2014 Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Law Report.