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

PRESS RELEASE
for immediate release
April 4, 2014

JUSTICE FOR HASSIBA BELBACHIR AFTER 9 YEARS OF LITIGATION

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.”

Contacts:
Janine Hoft or Jan Susler 773 235 0070
janinehoft[at]aol.com
jsusler[at]gmail.com

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.

Legal Victory for Incarcerated Burge Torture Survivors

A Giant Step Towards Justice for the Burge Torture Survivors Who Continue to Languish Behind Bars

In an historic decision on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, Cook County Circuit Court Chief of the Criminal Division Judge Paul P. Biebel, Jr. ruled that all of the Burge torture survivors who remain incarcerated are entitled to pro bono representation in post-conviction proceedings, allowing them the opportunity to challenge the validity of their convictions. Judge Biebel also appointed Loyola Law School Dean David Yellen as a special master to work with attorneys from the People’s Law Office (PLO) and the MacArthur Justice Center (MJC) to identify all Burge torture survivors who remain incarcerated, and inform them of the availability of attorneys to represent them for free in post-conviction proceedings. This ruling affirms that the torture survivors have the right to a full and fair opportunity to present allegations that they were tortured, and effective legal representation in challenging their convictions on this basis.

It is a giant step forward on the path to justice for the Burge torture survivors who are still behind bars, as many of them do not have lawyers to represent them and have been denied a full and fair opportunity have their day in court to present evidence of the torture they endured.

The decision was in response to a class action petition filed by the PLO and MJC in October 2012, on behalf of Johnnie Plummer, Vincent Wade and all other Burge torture survivors who continue to languish behind bars. The petition argued that comprehensive relief, including new evidentiary hearings, must be afforded to incarcerated individuals who claim they were tortured or abused under Burge’s command at Area 2 and 3 Police Headquarters. Such comprehensive relief has been provided in other cities and counties throughout the country where systemic police misconduct and corruption has raised questions about scores of criminal convictions, including in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Tulia, Texas, West Virginia and the Ramparts scandal in Los Angeles.

There is no credible dispute that Burge and the detectives under his command routinely and systematically engaged in acts of torture. Yet many of the survivors of such torture remain behind bars and have been routinely denied the opportunity to present newly discovered evidence of systemic torture by Burge and his men. At the time of their original trials, these torture survivors challenged their coerced confessions, but they did not have access to the wealth of evidence that has since been uncovered documenting Burge’s reign of torture and abuse.

In his ruling, Judge Biebel noted that Burge’s conduct “has caused irreparable harm to many persons,” and that “it is of the highest importance that these remaining possible Burge-related cases be given resolution.” He further noted that Special Prosecutors appointed in 2002 concluded there was a pattern of misconduct that occurred with Burge and his associates. Thus, the alleged Burge victims who remain behind bars are both entitled to be identified and to be appointed representation because they have never had an opportunity to present claims that their confessions were coerced “with the benefit of substantial evidence now available to implicate Burge and those who worked under him.” When announcing his ruling from the bench, in front of a courtroom filled with attorneys, activists, and family members of the torture survivors, Judge Biebel also noted this was an “important endeavor” that was essential to bring to “a close an unfortunate chapter.”

Thus, all the individuals who can show:

1) His or her conviction was based in part upon a confession;

2) That the confession was the end result of an interrogation in which Burge or officers under his chain of command or direct supervision participated;

3) That her or she made an allegation of coercion in the context of his or her original proceedings, either at a motion to suppress or in some other clear and definitive way, that his or her confession was the product of physical abuse or torture, and those objections were overruled;

4) He or she remains incarcerated today; and

5) He or she has never had that the opportunity to present his or her claim of coerced confession with the benefit of the substantial evidence now available to implicate Burge and those who worked under him;

are entitled appointment of pro bono lawyers to represent them in post-conviction petitions.

Although he declined to certify a class of individuals entitled to relief or to automatically grant class members an evidentiary hearing, Judge Biebel assured a legal avenue for incarcerated torture survivors to challenge the coerced confessions that led to their convictions.

You can read Chief Judge Paul Biebel’s decision here.

If someone you know may be incarcerated who meets this category of criteria listed above, please send your information to the People’s Law Office or the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center.

For nearly 30 years, People’s Law Office has fought for justice for the survivors of Chicago police torture in appeals, post-conviction proceedings, civil rights lawsuits and in working with community members to fight for justice outside of the courts. Currently, we are working with the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial Project in advocating for reparations for the survivors of Chicago police torture. Please sign the petition supporting the Reparations Ordinance.

 

Closure Not an Option in David Koschman Case

By: G Flint Taylor

In the early morning hours of April 25, 2004, 21-year-old David Koschman and several of his suburban friends got into a verbal altercation on Chicago’s Division Street with a group of four drunken revelers. Koschman, 5’5″ and 125 pounds, got “mouthy” and a 6’3″, 230 pound ex-football player punched him in the face. Koschman, knocked unconscious, fell backward to the ground, where the back of his head crashed against the pavement. The ex-football player fled with one of his friends, while Koschman was rushed to the hospital where he remained unconscious in critical condition.

The ex-football player, it turns out, was RJ Vanecko, a nephew of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who was informed of the incident shortly after it occurred. Vanecko and his friends, who were also well connected to the ex-Mayor, were coming from a Daley family engagement party that was honoring Daley’s niece, Kathleen. An investigation was started, but shortly thereafter, the Commander and Lieutenant in charge of the investigation were informed that the unknown assailant might be the Mayor’s nephew. “Holy crap,” one of them exclaimed, and the investigation was stopped in its tracks.

David Koschman lay unconscious in the hospital, his mother at his side, for 12 days until his mother was compelled to make the agonizing decision to remove David from life support. His death was reclassified as a homicide, and the investigation was reactivated. Koschman’s friends were interviewed, and they accurately described the assailant as the biggest of the group. Vanecko’s friends and two bystanders were also interviewed, and Vanecko subsequently appeared at the police station with a high powered criminal defense lawyer retained by the ex-Mayor’s brother, and remained silent.

Despite possessing compelling evidence that Vanecko threw the killer punch, and that Koschman, while perhaps verbally combative, did not pose a physical threat, the CPD, with the concurrence of the head of the Cook County State’s Attorneys’ Felony Review Unit, decided not to charge Vanecko. They based this decision, which was reviewed by Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine and his top assistants, on purported identification problems and a theory of self-defense. Police Superintendent Phil Cline announced the decision and its dubious basis to the media in late May of 2004.

The case lay dormant for almost seven years until three Chicago Sun Times reporters began their own investigation. In response, the Chicago Police Department reopened the investigation, only to again close it without charges less than two months later. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez defended the decision, but nonetheless decided to have the Illinois State Police do yet another investigation. After first accepting the assignment, the ISP quickly withdrew after it became known that its newly appointed director was in charge of the Chicago Police Detective Division at the time of the 2004 investigation, and had later worked for Alvarez at the State’s Attorneys’ Office.

The Sun Times reporters continued their investigation, and in November of 2011, lawyers representing Nanci Koschman moved for the appointment of a Special Prosecutor. The case was assigned to Cook County Judge Michael Toomin, and State’s Attorney Alvarez vigorously opposed the motion, arguing once again that the evidence did not support charges against Vanecko. In April of 2012, Judge Toomin rejected Alvarez’ arguments, finding that the self defense rationale was constructed by the police and prosecutors “from whole cloth.” Judge Toomin appointed former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb to conduct the investigation to determine “(1) whether criminal charges should be brought against any person in connection with the homicide of David Koschman in the spring of 2004, and (2) whether, from 2004 to the present, employees of the Chicago Police Department and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office acted intentionally to suppress and conceal evidence, furnish false evidence, and generally impede the investigation into Mr. Koschman’s death.”

Webb and his staff from the Chicago law firm of Winston and Strawn then empaneled a special grand jury and conducted a 17-month investigation during which they examined 300,000 pages of documents and obtained evidence from 146 witnesses. Twenty-four of the witnesses testified before the grand jury, 10 of whom asserted their Fifth Amendment rights and were given use immunity. On December 3, 2012, the special grand jury indicted Vanecko for involuntary manslaughter, and, on September 18, 2013, Webb tendered a 162 page report to Judge Toomin which detailed the evidence that the Jury had developed during its investigation. Upon its tender, Webb publicly announced that his office had not sought additional indictments because:

(1) any prosecution as to actions taken by Chicago Police Department (“CPD”) or the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (“SAO”) personnel in 2004 are barred because of the three-year statute of limitations period, which was not otherwise extended under applicable state criminal law; (2) there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt any violations of Illinois criminal law as to actions taken by CPD personnel in 2011; and (3) there is no evidence of any kind suggesting any violations of Illinois criminal law as to actions taken by SAO personnel in connection with its participation in the Koschman investigation in 2011 and 2012.

The Report was sealed pending the resolution of Vanecko’s prosecution, which was transferred for trial to a Judge from a neighboring county. On January 31, 2014Vanecko pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, was sentenced to 60 days in jail, 60 additional days on home monitoring, and 30 months of probation. He also was ordered to pay $20,000 in restitution and to make an apology to Nanci Koschman, which he did that day in open court.

On February 4, 2014, Webb publicly released the Office of the Special Prosecutor’s (OSP) report. Curiously, the press release that accompanied the Report only addressed one issue — whether the former Mayor or his family was directly involved in influencing the investigation:

[T]he OSP conducted a thorough investigation of whether former Mayor Richard M. Daley, his family, or others at their direction, engaged in conduct to influence or attempted to influence the investigations CPD and SAO conducted in connection with the Koschman matter. As part of the OSP’s investigation into that issue, the Special Prosecutor’s staff, among other things, interviewed former Mayor Daley and eight of his relatives as well as fourteen members of his 2004 and 2011/2012 mayoral staff and security detail. Further, the issue of whether the Daley family or others at their direction exercised undue political influence on the investigations was also extensively pursued by the Special Prosecutor throughout the course of his investigation, including during each OSP interview of CPD and SAO personnel and in the OSP’s review of documents received pursuant to the Special Grand Jury’s subpoenas. As a result of investigating this issue, the Special Prosecutor has concluded there was no evidence that former Mayor Daley, his family, or others at their direction engaged in conduct to influence or attempted to influence, the investigations which CPD and SAO conducted in connection with the Koschman matter.

The media reaction was both quick and varied. The Chicago Tribune seized upon the release, and its front page headline read: “Daley Didn’t Aid His Nephew,” while the Sun Times, whose reporters had doggedly pursued the story for years, ran a front page headline across Daley’s picture that stated “What He Knew and When.” Nanci Koschman’s lawyers also questioned the featured Daley findings, and one, paraphrasing the police commander upon hearing that a Daley relative was involved, declared: “In this city, then and now, you don’t need a phone call, you don’t need a memo. When it’s Daley, it’s ‘Holy crap, what do we do?’” Both papers also ran editorials that strongly condemned the police and the prosecutors, and the Tribune, picking up on the “holy crap” theme, entitled its editorial “Collateral Clout.”

Contained in the Webb Report and its more than 800 footnotes were the following findings:

    • Ranking officials in the police department, as well as former Mayor Daley and a top aide, had been briefed nearly two weeks before the lead detective claimed that he first learned of the involvement of the Mayor’s nephew.
    • Investigators who twice declined to press charges knew Vanecko was Daley’s nephew.
    • Evidence wasn’t documented, witnesses weren’t interviewed, reports were altered, and four separate Koschman police homicide files went missing, only to be “found” after the 2011 re-investigation was concluded.
    • The case was first assigned to two detectives who both began vacations two days later. During the two weeks they were gone, no witnesses were interviewed. Koschman, meanwhile, died of his injuries.
    • A police commander described this turn of events as follows: “Vanecko is a suspect, he’s related to Daley, the investigation stopped at some point.”
    • The head of the State’s Attorneys’ Felony Review Unit declined to approve charges, claiming self-defense and lack of identification. When he was later asked to locate his folder on the case, he first said he didn’t make one, then subsequently told the special grand jury that he must have thrown it away.
    • Although the police concluded that two of Vanecko’s friends, when interviewed by the investigators, had concealed Vanecko’s identity and had participated in a post event rendezvous with him at a tavern, they were not charged with obstruction of justice.
    • The Koschman case — per CPD order — remained open and ‘in progress’ from 2004 until 2011 although no investigative activity at all took place during this time, but the open designation gave the CPD the basis to deny a reporter’s 2004 FOIA request.
    • In early 2011 Daley staffers scrambled to do spin control after the Sun Times filed a FOIA request.
    • The CPD, which reopened its investigation in January of 2011 after the Sun Times request, reassured the Mayor’s Office that it would be closed shortly thereafter.
    • The quote, “Fuck you! I’ll kick your ass,” attributed to David Koschman, was inserted as a last-minute “correction” into a draft of the investigating detectives’ 2011 closing report by their commanding officers. The quote did not previously appear in any police reports or handwritten notes.
  • The Deputy Chief of Detectives emailed response to the 36-page corrected report read “very nicely done” and was approved at his direction six minutes after it was submitted.

Despite this evidence, the Report was extremely guarded in the conclusions it drew:

    • There was “limited evidence that was arguably consistent with a theory” that the detectives who re-investigated the case and certain CPD commanding officers “manufactured” the CPD’s 2011 “phony self-defense determination.”
    • “The public could well conclude that the entire claim of self-defense came not from Vanecko, who was never interviewed, but, rather, was conjured up in the minds of law enforcement. A discerning citizen could well surmise that it simply is an argument made of whole cloth.”
  • The State’s Attorneys’ Office “concur[ed] in what one might charitably characterize as a rather creative exercise of the police investigative processes.”

A few days after the report was released, a special grand juror contacted one of the Sun Times reporters and vented his frustration at the police and prosecutors, including the head of the Cook County State’s Attorneys’ Felony Review Unit who decided not to charge Vanecko:

He’s sitting before us, saying that reasonable self-defense was warranted by Vanecko, whom he never interviewed… A 6’2″, 230-pound guy against a 5’5″, 125-pound guy. . . . Nobody in the room believed him. Most outrageous of anything I heard. Then, the fact that [he] threw away the felony review file on Koschman… We thought that was just amazing.

The juror also asserted that the questioning of Daley, which was read into the record, also left much to be desired:

It was brief, not illuminating at all. Didn’t really provide us any insider information, generic as it could be. Said he’d recused himself. Didn’t remember when he first learned about his nephew being involved.

Many unanswered questions still remain, and in the town that immortalized clout, the Sun Times, in a series of prominently displayed articles and columns, has continued to detail the evidence contained in the Report and ask hard questions aboutthe Daleys, the police, and the State’s Attorneys’ Office. Additionally, it remains to be seen whether the voluminous evidence developed during the OSP investigation will be released to the public, whether the U.S. Attorney and the FBI will conduct a serious investigation of its own, whether the SAO and the CPD will discipline any of their transgressors, and whether Nanci Koschman will sue the police and prosecutors for civil rights violations.

At this point, closure is not an option.

This article was originally published on March 17, 2014 on Huffington Post.

Illinois Court Rules Police Misconduct Complaints are Public

On March 10, 2014, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled in Jaime Kalven v. City of Chicago, 2014 IL App (1st) 121846 that police misconduct complaints and their investigations are public information and can no longer be kept secret by the Chicago Police Department.

In November 2009, the plaintiff, Jamie Kalven, an award winning journalist, made Freedom of Information Act requests to the Chicago Police Department, seeking two types of documents: (1) lists of Chicago police officers who accumulated the most police misconduct complaints in the entire City, commonly referred to as “repeater lists”; and (2) Complaint Register files, commonly referred to as “CRs,” related to the City’s completed factual investigations into allegations of official police misconduct against five officers charged with a pattern of abuse. After the City denied the requests, Mr. Kalven filed suit in the Circuit Court of Cook County.

The central issue in the case was whether records relating to police misconduct are public information under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. The Appellate Court’s rejection of the City’s arguments that the requested documents are exempt from disclosure under certain provisions of FOIA, is a watershed moment in the ongoing fight for police accountability and governmental transparency in Illinois.

Mr. Kalven is represented by a team of civil rights lawyers, including Ben Elson and Flint Taylor from People’s Law Office.  As part of our continued commitment to fighting against police brutality and misconduct, we recognize the importance of the public’s access to information regarding police abuse.

Illinois Appeals Court Ruling
Kalven v. City of Chicago, 2014 IL App (1st) 121846

Media coverage of the ruling

Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Tribune
CBS Chicago
Think Progress

For more information on our work fighting for police accountability, visit this page: Police Brutality

If you are the victim of police misconduct or brutality and would like to know more about the type of cases we handle, view our Areas of Practice or contact us at (773)235-0070

Illinois Attorney General Fights to Stop Jon Burge’s Pension Payments

By: G. Flint Taylor

In June 2010, former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge was sentenced to 4 1/2 yearsin prison for three torture-related felonies. But while Burge serves his time at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, N.C., he’s continued to collect his police pension—to the tune of some $36,000 a year. After his conviction, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, acting on behalf of the people of the state of Illinois, went to court in an attempt to stop that cash flow.

On Jan. 22, 2014, the Illinois Supreme Court heard arguments in Madigan’s case, People v. Burge. The question argued before the court was whether Madigan had the power to challenge the continuing lifetime payments to Burge.

City, county, state and federal taxpayers have already footed a bill amounting to more than $100 million over the course of two decades to investigate, prosecute and defend Burge and his cronies—and to compensate some of his victims. Still, Burge’s lawyers,likely funded by the Fraternal Order of Police based on past behavior, argued that thepolice pension board’s 2011 decision to continue to pay him could not be challenged in court. (The FOP did not return requests for comment.)

The board’s original 4-4 decision was based on the proposition that Burge’s conviction for lying under oath about whether he tortured detainees did not relate to, arise out of, or connect to his work as a police officer. Given the notorious circumstances of Burge’s sentencing, this resolution fostered widespread outrage, particularly in the African-American community. Madigan filed suit less than a month later to halt the payments.

After Cook County Associate Judge Rita M. Novak dismissed the case, the Illinois Appellate Court overturned her decision. In doing so, the court noted that Burge was “widely believed to have sanctioned and participated in physical abuse and torture of arrestees in order to obtain confessions.” Burge and the pension board then sought review of the decision in the Illinois Supreme Court. This high court, which only agrees to review about one in 20 cases, nonetheless granted Burge and the board the right to appeal.

During the arguments on January 22, the arcane-sounding legal issues discussed by justices and lawyers were framed by overarching concerns about the pension board’s 2011 decision. Those questions included whether the board’s evenly split decision, voted for only by the four current or former police officers present, had been a legally binding one. Another was whether it could be reasonably concluded that Burge’s eventual conviction—lying in federal court about whether he participated in the serial torture of arrestees during his tenure as a police officer—was, in fact, unrelated to his police work. And a third was whether the taxpayers can challenge such a decision via Madigan, given that neither Burge nor the board had an interest in appealing it.

But there are other older, equally troubling questions that surround the saga. Burge was first suspended in 1991 for allegedly torturing Andrew Wilson in 1982. The police board fired him for this offense in 1993, and his appeals were exhausted in 1995, making the decision final. Nonetheless, in 1997, Burge started to quietly collect his pension.

After the court-appointed special prosecutor’s 2006 report found that Burge had tortured Wilson “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a furor arose about the former commander living comfortably in Florida on his police pension. That report also led to a widely publicized City Council torture hearing in the summer of 2007, during which Alderman Ed Smith said Chicago could no longer allow Burge “to live off the fat of this city.” Meanwhile, the Chicago Sun-Times, in a banner editorial, urged Chicago to “PULL HIS PENSION.”

However, the Daley administration did nothing beyond funneling additional millions to defend Burge—and ultimately, Daley himself—in the civil cases brought by Burge’s exonerated victims in the following years.

The lingering doubts about Burge’s right to his pension were compounded in 2009, when former Chicago Police Superintendent LeRoy Martin testified at a deposition that, if Burge had been fired, he would have only been entitled to a lump sum payment of what he’d contributed to the superannuation fund over the course of his 21-year career, instead of lifetime checks supplemented by city funds. But contrary to the unambiguous decision of the police board and the reviewing courts, Martin then asserted that, in fact, the department had permitted Burge to retire, thereby protecting his right to collect his pension starting at age 50.

While this seems hard to fathom, Burge maintained in his 2010 trial that he’d retired in 1997 without mentioning his firing—testimony that went unchallenged by government prosecutors. And in 2011, the board opted to continue paying the pension Burge had begun to pocket more than ten years prior.

Attorney General Madigan’s current battle with Burge and his lawyers could go on for several years: If the Supreme Court deems that she has the legal right to challenge Burge’s payments, she’ll have to return to court again to do just that. To date, Mayor Emanuel’s lawyers have not joined forces with Madigan. And, like Daley before him, Emanuel has not spoken out on either side of the issue.

Burge, who rose in the ranks from patrolman to Commander in record time, has been said to have friends in high places. In an era where the Illinois Supreme Court and the legislature are potentially scaling back the hard-earned pensions of law-abiding public workers and their families, it will be telling to see, once again, just how high Burge’s clout reaches in this scandal-within-a-scandal.

This article was originally published on February 5, 2014 in In These Times.

 

PLO Attorneys File Petition to Help Two Ex-inmates Clear Their Names

Paul Phillips and Lewis Gardener, who were the 15 and 17 year old co-defendants of recently exonerated Daniel Taylor and Deon Patrick, and their lawyers from the People’s Law Office and Mayer Brown LLP, on Monday, filed petitions seeking their exoneration for a 1992 double murder committed on Agatite Street in Chicago. The petitions allege that the State’s Attorneys’ Office and the Chicago Police Department withheld for decades evidence that would have definitively established the mens’ innocence, and that they, like six of their seven co-defendants, were coerced into giving gave false interlocking confessions, the details of which were supplied by their interrogators.  The petitions further allege that two of the actual perpetrators of the crime have now been identified, one has confessed, and he has cleared Phillips, Gardener, and the rest of the “Agatite 7” of any involvement in the planning or commission of the crime.

As a result of their wrongful convictions, Phillips and Gardener each spent 15 years in prison and, after their 2007 release, three years on parole.

Read about Phillips and Gardner’s case here, in a Tribune article from January 27, 2014.

‘Sorry’ Not Good Enough for Chicago Torture Survivors

Rahm Emanuel needs to put his money where his mouth is.

BY G. FLINT TAYLOR AND JOEY L. MOGUL

In May of 1973, then-Chicago Police Detective Jon Burge allegedly suffocated and electric-shocked teenager Anthony Holmes until Holmes confessed to a murder he says he didn’t commit. Holmes then spent the next 30 years in prison. In 2010, after his release, he testified in the government’s successful prosecution of Burge for perjury and obstruction of justice.

While Burge serves his 4 1/2-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, N.C., he’ll continue to collect a pension; by contrast, Holmes says his time in prison left him with no health insurance and no long-term means of survival. And Holmes wasn’t the only person whose life was devastated by the former police commander’s alleged tactics—Burge allegedly supervised the torture and wrongful imprisonment of as many as 120 people. Now, though, anti-torture advocates are pressing the city to make reparations that might go some way toward allowing survivors like Holmes to get back on their feet.

On Sept. 11, 2013, the Chicago City Council approved $6.15 million settlements for each of the convicted police torture victims Ronald Kitchen and Marvin Reeves. After presiding over the Council meeting at which the settlements were approved, Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the city’s sordid 40-year history of torture and cover-up a “dark chapter in the history of the city of Chicago,” and a “stain on the city’s reputation.” When City Hall reporter Fran Spielman asked him whether this constituted the apology that Kitchen’s lawyers had demanded, Emanuel said yes—that “all of us” are “sorry for what happened. Let us all now move on.”

For years, the anti-torture movement—consisting of torture survivors, activists and their lawyers—had called for an apology from the city as part of a comprehensive set of remedies that would provide financial compensation, health care, educational opportunities and job training for torture survivors. And, they said, Emanuel’s seemingly impromptu “sorry” was nowhere near sufficient.

Headed by the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project (CTJM) and lawyers from the People’s Law Office, activists seized the opportunity of Emanuel’s response to present progressive 1st Ward Alderman Proco Joe Moreno with an ordinance thatwould encompass these remedies. Among other demands, the ordinance would require the city to administer financial reparations to all Burge torture survivors who are unable to sue for monetary damages because the statute of limitations for their claims has expired. The proposed ordinance would also provide all torture survivors and their families with tuition-free education at City Colleges; create a center on the South Side of Chicago that would provide psychological counseling, health care services and vocational training to those affected by law enforcement torture and abuse; require Chicago Public Schools to teach about these cases and sponsor the construction of public torture memorials. And it asks the city’s leaders to issue a formal apology to those who were tortured and their communities—not just an impromptu statement made to a reporter at City Hall.

After garnering the support of Alderman Howard Brookins Jr. as a co-sponsor, Moreno introduced the ordinance to City Council on Oct. 16, 2013.

Growing support for survivors

In the past few decades, movements demanding redress for egregious human rights violations have taken hold across the globe. In Chile, for instance, the government has provided reparations to more than 28,000 survivors of torture and imprisonment under the Pinochet regime. These include a monthly stipend, free health care for victims and their families, free education and the construction of numerous memorials, including the Museo De La Memoria Y Los Derechos Humanos in Santiago. Meanwhile, in Argentina, more than $3 billion dollars has been paid to the families of at least 15,000 men, women and children who were kidnapped, tortured and executed by the military junta in the 1970s. And in South Africa, a controversial reparations program has provided a small amount of financial compensation to a limited group of 18,000 apartheid victims (out of an estimated 100,000) who suffered physical, mental or emotional injury as a result of gross human rights violations and who had testified before or registered with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Though the U.S. government has largely resisted acknowledging its human rights violations, such as the widespread genocide of Native Americans, there have been instances where grassroots campaigns have forced both national and state governmental entities to admit to and provide redress for extreme racial discrimination and violence. For example, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided about $20,000 each in financial compensation to the surviving Japanese Americans who were forced to evacuate their homes and live in “Relocation Camps” during World War II. The Act also included an official apology that condemned the internments as the product of racial prejudice, war hysteria and the failure of political leadership.

In addition, the Florida state legislature approved a law in 1994 serving as an official apology for the violent race riot in 1923 that destroyed the Black community of Rosewood; the law provided financial remuneration of $150,000 to each of the nine remaining African-American survivors. And in 2002, the state of North Carolina publicly apologized to the survivors of the forced sterilization program that victimized 7,600 men, women and girls, a disproportionate number of whom were African-American, from 1933 to 1974. Eleven years later, the state authorized compensation to the survivors from a fund of $10 million.

Though the struggle for reparations for U.S. slavery has been unsuccessful to date, it is still alive. Every year since 1989, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) has introduced reparations legislation in Congress that would both acknowledge the fundamental inhumanity of slavery and establish a commission to study and propose remedies for enslavement’s impact on present day African Americans. This bill, named HR 40 after the unfulfilled Civil War promise of 40 acres and a mule for freed slaves, now has more than 40 co-sponsors.

Two decades of working for justice

Similar grassroots movements have also been a part of Chicago’s activist history. Two generations of progressive aldermen and an active anti-torture community have repeatedly compelled the Chicago City Council to confront the question of Chicago police torture—with mixed results. On Christmas Eve in 1990, the Council’s Finance Committee convened a hearing at which lawyers and community organizations presented newly uncovered evidence that established the systemic nature of police torture under Jon Burge’s command. For much of the next fifteen years, the movement focused on seeking justice for the torture victims who had been sentenced to the death penalty and on pursuing the appointment of a Cook County Special Prosecutor to investigate the alleged crimes committed by Burge and his men. In 2007, after Special Prosecutors Edward Egan and Robert Boyle issued a report that Burge tortured suspects “with impunity,” the Council held a hearing at which numerous aldermen condemned the city’s continuing defense of Burge and his confederates in the numerous pending civil suits that had been brought against them by exonerated torture survivors. (Burge himself was eventually sent to prison in 2011.)

On a more general scale, in 2010, several aldermen introduced a resolution that called upon Illinois to pass legislation that would make police torture a crime without a statute of limitations. Though that law did not pass, in January 2012, in response to a public campaign that focused on the police torture scandal, the Council unanimously adopted a resolution that declared Chicago to be a “torture-free zone.

As far as the future of the movement is concerned, Chicago reparations activists have declared their intention to follow in the path of domestic and international human rights efforts by convincing the city’s political leaders to provide eminently reasonable and fair redress to the Chicago police torture survivors and their family members. Aldermen Moreno and Brookins anticipate that a hearing on the anti-torture ordinance, which has been sent to the Finance Committee, will be convened this February. In the meantime, CTJM has launched a concentrated effort to persuade every alderman to support the bill, including promoting an online petition campaign.

Through his City Council floor leader, Pat O’Connor, and his Corporation Counsel, attorney Steve Patton, Mayor Emanuel has already voiced his reluctance to compensate the survivors who are legally barred from suing the city by the statute of limitations. But in the face of the more than $20 million Chicago has spent defending Burge, Emanuel’s claim that the city is too cash-strapped to make reparations rings hollow. Without doubt, it is now well past time for Emanuel and the City Council to put weight behind their apologies and to make amends to the torture survivors, their families and their communities for the suffering they have been subjected to by the city and its agents during the past four decades.

This article originally ran on In These Times website on January 6, 2014

The Legal Work Defending Independentistas in the U.S.

The National Lawyer’s Guild Work Defending Independentistas in the U.S.

By Michael Deutsch, with assistance of Jan Susler
Originally appeared on claridad.com

As a young lawyer relatively new to politics and prisons, my work with the Attica Brothers and with Rafael Cancel Miranda and the other Nationalist political prisoners in the early 1970’s, changed my life forever. In the case of the Puerto Rican political prisoners, their courageous commitment to the self-determination and independence of their country, and their warmth and humanity, despite the hardships of two decades in prison, greatly influenced the course of my own work as a lawyer over the next decades. It was the example of these extraordinary fighters, along with many other political prisoners with whom I have worked, that has fueled my continuing dedication to work for justice. To all past and present political prisoners I owe a deep debt of gratitude.

The National Lawyers Guild, which will be celebrating its annual convention in Puerto Rico this October, has a long history defending Puerto Rican militants and activists. Much of the beginnings of this work can be traced to Guild lawyers from the People’s Law Office (PLO) in Chicago meeting Rafael Cancel Miranda in the early 1970’s while he was a prisoner at Marion Federal Prison. It was through those prison visits with Rafael that many of us first learned of the history of the struggle against U.S. colonialism over Puerto Rico and the heroes of this resistance.

Through Rafael, Guild lawyers from the PLO learned of the four other Puerto Rican Nationalists also incarcerated in U.S. prisons since the 1950’s, – Lolita Lebron, Irvin Flores, Andres Figueroa Cordero, and Oscar Collazo. Lawyers from the PLO visited each of the prisoners – Lolita at Alderson, West Virginia; and Irvin, Oscar and Andres in Leavenworth, Kansas – and developed a lawsuit challenging some of their conditions of confinement, restricted visits, denial of access to Claridad – the independence movement weekly newspaper – and their continued incarceration. While the Nationalist Prisoners did not recognize the right of the U.S. to hold them as criminals, and refused to directly ask the U.S. courts for their freedom, their family members and independence leaders assumed the role of plaintiffs in the lawsuit and petitioned for their freedom.

Guild lawyers joining with lawyers from Puerto Rico filed the case in Washington D.C. in 1976, as part of a revitalized international political campaign to “Free the Five.“ The case was assigned to the famous Watergate Judge, John Sirica, who severed the cases and transferred them to four separate federal district courts, near the respective prisons where the Nationalists were held. By this time Andres was suffering from colon cancer and was incarcerated in the Federal Medical Prison in Springfield, Missouri.

The Nationalists prisoners decided that the lawyers should pursue the case on behalf of Andres, and within a year, fueled by a strong political campaign, Andres was given a medical clemency and released. At the same time, Guild lawyers from Chicago prepared a petition to the United Nations Human Rights Commission calling for the freedom of the Nationalists, and also appeared on their behalf before the United Nations Decolonization Committee, whose 1978 resolution called for their freedom.

In September of 1979, an international campaign, with the support of broad sectors of the people of Puerto Rico including the former governor, Hernandez Colon and the Catholic Bishop Antulio Parilla, successfully pressured President Carter to grant the unconditional freedom of the remaining four. Guild lawyers, with lawyers from Puerto Rico and family members, went to the prisons where they were held, and escorted them first to Chicago and New York where they were greeted by large crowds, and then home to Puerto Rico where thousands received them at the airport.

Grand Jury Work

Even before the release of the Nationalists, Guild lawyers were involved in representing independentistas subpoenaed to federal grand juries in New York and Chicago investigating the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (FALN), a U.S. based clandestine Puerto Rican group which emerged in 1974 and which carried out bombings and other militant actions calling for the freedom of the Nationalists and the end to U.S. colonialism.

Lureida Torres from Puerto Rico, and later Maria Cueto, the executive director of the U.S. Episcopal Church Hispanic Affairs Commission, and her assistant Raisa Nemekin, and three brothers Julio, Luis and Andres Rosado, were subpoenaed in New York. In Chicago, several leaders of the Puerto Rican community, Jose Lopez, Myrna Salgado, Steven Guerra and Roberto Caldero were subpoenaed, as well as two Mexicano activists, Ricardo Romero and Pedro Archuleta from the Southwest. Guild lawyers represented all of them. Through creative lawyering, including challenging the use of secret illegal electronic surveillance, the lawyers were able to delay their inevitable political detention, thus reducing the time they were imprisoned for civil contempt for their refusal to testify before the grand jury. The grand jury resisters took a position of non-collaboration with the repressive use of the grand jury, and hundreds of people mobilized to support them. Later two independence activists, Carlos Noya and Federico Cintron, were subpoenaed to a New York grand jury. Defended by lawyers from Puerto Rico and the Guild, they also refused to collaborate and were imprisoned for civil contempt.

Several years later, in an unprecedented act of political repression, five of the grand jury resisters, Julio Rosado, Riccardo Romero, Andres Rosado, Maria Cueto and Steven Guerra, after their release from civil contempt, were indicted in Brooklyn for criminal contempt based on their prior refusal to testify, and put on trial. Facing a possible sentence of up to life in prison, they were represented by Guild lawyers. They were convicted after a hard-fought political trial, during which the government argued that they were aiding terrorism by not testifying. The government asked for a 15 year sentence, showing the judge pictures of victims from FALN bombings. Each one of the five was sentenced to 3 years in prison.

In 1983, Guild lawyers were also involved in the case of Alberto de Jesus, a young man who had left Puerto Rico to avoid a grand jury investigating the Puerto Rican clandestine movement. He was arrested in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for using a false social security card. Living in Wisconsin, Alberto had earned the respect and admiration of many human rights activists and people from the religious community, who traveled to Milwaukee to support him at his sentencing.

Part of Guild work around the grand jury and the Puerto Rican independence movement included public education since many people in the United States were not aware of the colonial case of Puerto Rico and the grand jury’s use against the independence movement.

THE FALN AND SEDITIOUS CONSPIRACY

In 1979, William Guillermo Morales was arrested after an explosion in an apartment in Queens, accused of membership in the FALN, and charged with possession of explosives. He was first put on trial in federal court in Brooklyn. Represented by Guild lawyers, he proclaimed he was a Prisoner of War fighting against the crime of colonialism, and demanded to be transferred to an international forum. This was the first time that a Puerto Rican asserted international law as a defense in the U.S. courts. The court denied Morales’ claim, but his Guild lawyers argued that he was indeed a prisoner of war and that the real crime was the U.S. colonial control over Puerto Rico. Morales was sentenced to 10 years. Immediately following his conviction, he was put on trial in New York State court for similar charges and given an additional 55 years.

Guild lawyers would again be involved in defending Morales after his convictions. After a daring escape from a New York prison hospital, he was later arrested in Mexico, where he was tortured and imprisoned. Guild lawyers worked with progressive Mexican counsel and helped to oppose U.S. efforts to extradite him to the United States. A successful political campaign to fight the extradition allowed Morales to go to Cuba, where he was granted political asylum.

In April of 1980, 11 Puerto Ricans were arrested in Evanston, Illinois and accused of being part of the FALN. They were first tried in state court and sentenced to terms of 8 to 30 years. The U.S. then indicted them for seditious conspiracy, the same charge lodged against Albizu Campos and other Nationalist Party members in the 1930’s and in the 1950’s. Like Morales, the accused FALN prisoners, Carlos Alberto Torres, Carmen Valentin, Dylcia Pagan, Alicia Rodriguez, Lucy Rodriguez, Elizam Escobar, Ricardo Jimenez, Luis Rosa, Adolfo Matos, and Alfredo Mendez also asserted their right to be treated as POWs. Assisted by Guild lawyers who acted as legal advisors, since the accused refused to participate in what they considered an illegal trial, the accused filed an extensive document supporting their claim under international law. The lawyers also filed a petition with the U.N. Human Rights Commission and raised their case in international fora in Malta, Barcelona and Cuba. The federal prosecution resulted in grossly disproportionate sentences ranging from 55 to 90 years, with the judge lamenting that he could not give them the death penalty.

During the Illinois state court proceedings, Alicia Rodriguez was gagged and beaten for speaking out about the illegal nature of their criminal prosecution. A Guild lawyer who condemned this brutal, demeaning treatment was held in contempt, and immediately taken into custody until bail was obtained from the Appellate Court. The judge also threatened to throw another lawyer out the window of his chambers.

One of those arrested in Evanston, Maria Haydee Torres, was taken to New York and tried for a bombing at the Mobil Oil Building in Manhattan. She was physically brutalized in the course of being forced to participate in a line-up, witnessed by a Guild lawyer, refused to participate in her trial, and sat in a holding center with her legal consultant, a Guild lawyer, listening to her trial over special speakers. She was given a life sentence.

The following year, Oscar Lopez Rivera was arrested and charged with the same seditious conspiracy. While he assumed the same POW position, Oscar, advised by Guild lawyers, confronted one of those arrested in Evanston, Alfredo Mendez, who the FBI, through isolation and promises of leniency, had made into a government witness.

In July of 1983, there were four more arrests of accused FALN members in Chicago – Alejandrina Torres, Edwin Cortes, Alberto Rodriguez and Jose Rodriguez, also charged with seditious conspiracy. The government, based on information provided by Mendez, located safe houses in private apartments rented under false names, and placed secret cameras and filmed bomb-making activities. Guild lawyers convinced the judge to suppress this evidence as illegally obtained without any legal statutory authorization. The government took an interlocutory appeal, and the appeals court found that, regardless of the absence of any authorizing law, the government had the inherent authority in fighting terrorism to enter a private dwelling and place cameras there. At trial, one of the defendants, represented by Guild lawyers, presented a legal defense, while the three others, with Guild lawyers acting as legal consultants, took the POW position. All were convicted. Jose Rodriguez who presented a legal defense was given probation, and the three others were sentenced to 35 years.

The Guild lawyers who represented the POWS were criticized by many members of the bar, including other Guild lawyers. Many asked, “Why didn’t the lawyers convince the accused to make a legal defense?” And “by not presenting a traditional legal defense weren’t these lawyers abdicating their responsibility as lawyers?” Despite this criticism, the lawyers for the POWs believed that they were acting in the highest tradition of radical lawyers, following the political direction of their clients and using the courtroom to put forth the legal/political position of their clients. Nonetheless, these Guild lawyers not only had to endure the negative opinions of their colleagues, but also suffered attacks on their competency and reputation. Creative lawyering, however, had established the international law framework to help build a campaign for their release.

The negative fall-out against the lawyers was nothing compared to the treatment that the political prisoners suffered in U.S. prisons. They were placed in special sensory deprivation isolation units, including the Alderson Cardinal Unit, Lexington Woman’s High Security Unit, U.S. Prison at Marion and ADX Florence, Colorado. They were subjected to discriminatory and humiliating treatment, sensory deprivation isolation, and arbitrarily denied visits, literature and mail; in other words, denied contact with their political movement, family and supporters. Guild lawyers were involved in campaigns to end the torturous treatment. In the case of the Lexington unity Guild lawyers, along with other attorneys, brought a lawsuit challenging the treatment of similarly situated political prisoners and with the support of a public campaign eventually closed down the Lexington unit.

LOS MACHETEROS CASE IN CONNECTICUT

On August 30, 1985, hundreds of FBI agents raided numerous homes and workplaces in Puerto Rico, arresting and transporting out of the country to Connecticut accused members ofLos Macheteros, (Sugarcane Cutters), a highly successful Puerto Rico based clandestine group, charging them with involvement with the expropriation of 7 million dollars from a Wells Fargo depot in Hartford. Working with lawyers from Puerto Rico, Guild lawyers from New York, Connecticut, Boston and Chicago organized a joint legal defense team. Discovery revealed that in the course of months of secret investigation of the independence movement, the FBI had illegally recorded hundreds of personal conversations and had seized thousands of political books, pamphlets and personal diaries. Evoking claims of terrorism, the government used a new “preventive detention” law to deny bail to many of those arrested. While some were detained as long as three years, Guild lawyers were successful in challenging the indefinite pre-trial detention of those arrested, ultimately obtaining the release of all the accused on bail. The lawyers were also able to have much of the electronic surveillance suppressed. Guild lawyers formed part of the defense team that represented those accused at trial, and also help to negotiate substantially reduced sentences for those who did not go to trial. Guild lawyers also represented on appeal those who had been convicted at trial.

During the court proceedings in the Machetero case in Connecticut, another case againstindependentistas was taking place in Chicago. In 1986, several community organizers were charged with conspiracy to free Oscar Lopez from Leavenworth federal prison, resulting from an FBI sting operation designed to ensnare community people active in the campaign for the release of the FALN prisoners. Guild lawyers represented the accused at trial and on appeal. Oscar Lopez was sentenced to an additional 15 years and transferred to super max prisons for the next 12 years, and his codefendants Jamie Delgado and Dora Garcia were sentenced to 4 and 3 years respectively.

The case was emblematic of the FBI’s continuing attack on Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. The FBI raided the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and Pedro Albizu Campos Alternative High School, with agents searching the community institutions for hours. The raid was part of continuing efforts by the U.S. government to frighten community members by labeling the Center and school as “terrorist” institutions. Guild lawyers stood in solidarity with the Puerto Rican community condemning these repressive actions.

In yet another case in Chicago, professor Jose Solis Jordan was tried in 1999 for planting two pipe bombs outside a military recruiting center. Represented by Guild lawyers, the defense centered on the FBI’s use of an informant/provocateur to infiltrate the Puerto Rican community and ensnare people active in the campaign for the release of the political prisoners. Solis was convicted and sentenced to 4 years in prison.

THE CAMPAIGN TO FREE THE FALN PRISONERS

In 1993, Guild lawyers working closely with the Puerto Rican community in the U.S. and the Puerto Rico based human rights campaign filed a petition for executive clemency on behalf of the FALN and some of the Machetero prisoners and began to garner support for their release in Puerto Rico, the U.S. and internationally. In 1999, President Clinton offered to commute their sentences, declaring that “the prisoners were serving extremely lengthy sentences–in some cases 90 years–which were out of proportion to their crimes.” The president said he was moved by the support from “various Members of Congress, a number of religious organizations, labor organizations, human rights groups, and Hispanic civic and community groups” along with “widespread support across the political spectrum within Puerto Rico,” and thousands of letters requesting their release. He also indicated he was moved by “worldwide support on humanitarian grounds from numerous quarters,” pointing specifically to former President Jimmy Carter, Nobel Prize Laureate South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Coretta Scott King.

As the prisoners consulted about whether to accept the offered commutations, which did not include all of them, and which provided for parole-type conditions upon release, the right wing set about to try to sabotage the release of the prisoners. Several committees in both houses of the legislature convened hearings, and both houses overwhelmingly approved a joint resolution condemning Clinton’s offer, accusing him of “making deplorable concessions to terrorists and placing in danger the national security in conceding clemency to Puerto Rican ‘terrorists.’”

A month later, after more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans marched to show support, the prisoners’ agreed that those eligible for immediate release would accept the offer, while Oscar López Rivera, who would not have been eligible for release for another 10 years, would remain in prison in solidarity with those not included in the offer.

On September 10, 1999, eleven women and men became former political prisoners, emerging from prison to be received with a hero’s welcome, in Chicago, where two returned to their families and communities, in San Juan, were nine went to live. With the love and support of the Puerto Rican people, they all integrated into civil society, and have since lived productive, law-abiding lives, just as the previous generation of Puerto Rican political prisoners.

In 2010, Carlos Alberto Torres, represented by a Guild lawyer, was released on parole after having served 30 years in prison. Haydée Torres was also released after serving 30 years. Today Oscar López Rivera, represented by a Guild lawyer, is the only remaining prisoner from the Chicago FALN cases. After 32 years behind bars, the call for his release enjoys even more support than that garnered in 1999, including numerous NLG resolutions.

Today, Guild lawyers are instrumental in organizing and advising the international campaign to free Oscar Lopez Rivera. They have been at the forefront in helping to obtain the support of many sectors of society throughout the world. They continue to testify annually before the U.N. Decolonization Committee, representing the NLG International Committee, and have lent their advice and expertise to assist lawyers representing new grand jury resisters and two fugitive Macheteros, Norberto and Avelino Gonzalez Claudio, arrested and imprisoned over the last several years. Also Guild lawyers were involved in helping to expose the 2005 FBI assassination of Machetero leader Filberto Ojeda Rios.

In all of this work, the National Lawyers Guild and Guild lawyers have stood in solidarity with the Puerto Rican people in their fight against political repression and their struggle for independence and self-determination.

Thanks to Sylvia Solá, Guillermo Rebollo Gil, María Cristina y Lowell Fiet for the translation.

NOTES:

1 This article does not cover the work of the Puerto Rico Legal Project, whose legal support for the independence movement will be discussed in a separate article.

2 The author apologizes for any Guild work on behalf of the independence movement which was unintentionally left out.

3 The Guild Lawyers involved included Michael Deutsch, Mara Siegel and Dennis Cunningham. The lawyers from Puerto Rico included Emilio Soler Mari, Luis “Willie” Abreu and John Passalacqua.

4 Instrumental in the coordination of this campaign was Nelson Canals.

5 Among the Guild lawyers involved in the representation of grand jury witnesses were Elizabeth M. Fink, Margaret Ratner-Kunstler, Susan B. Tipograph, Martin Stolar and Doris Peterson from New York; Jose Antonio “Abi” Lugo from Puerto Rico; Michael Deutsch, Dennis Cunningham, Mara Siegel, and Kingsley Clarke from Chicago.

6 Non-collaboration with U.S. federal grand juries has been a continuing principal of the independence movement. The FBI conceded that the refusal of independentistas to testify before grand juries had stymied their investigation into the FALN.

7 See e.g. Deutsch, The Improper Use of the Federal Grand Jury: An Instrument for the Internment of Political Activists, 75 Journal of Criminal Law and criminology, 1159 (Winter 1984): Berkan, The Federal Grand Jury: An Introduction to the Institution, Its Historical Role, Its Current Use and the Problems Faced by the Target Witness, 17 Revista Juridica Del La Universidad Interamericana 103 (1984)

8 William was represented by Michael Deutsch and Elizabeth M. Fink.

9 In state court William was represented by Susan B. Tipograph. After Morales’ escape, Attorney Tipograph was the subject of intensive FBI surveillance and harassment.

10 Among the Guild lawyers who acted as legal advisers were Michael Deutsch, Mara Siegel, Edward Voci, Kinglsey Clarke and Dennis Cunningham.

11 The lawyer, Mara Siegel, had her contempt sentence reversed by the Appellate Court, but was later reinstated by the Illinois Supreme Court.

12 Involved with the suppression challenge were Guild lawyers, David Thomas and Michael Deutsch. In addition, Melinda Power and Dennis Cunningham acted as legal advisors.

13 Jan Susler, Elizabeth Fink, Michael Deutsch, Mary O’Melveny, and Adjoa Aiyertoro from the ACLU, National Prison Project comprised the legal team

14 Among the Guild lawyers involved were William Kunstler, Leonard Weinglass, Ronald Kuby, and Richard Harvey from New York; Linda Backiel then from Philadelphia; Michael Avery from Boston; John Schoenhorn, Richard Reeve, Diane Polan, John Williams and Margaret Levy from Connecticut; Michael Deutsch from Chicago; and Juan Ramon Acevedo and Rafael Anglada from Puerto Rico.

15 The Guild lawyers included Carol Brook, Jeffrey Haas, and Jan Susler.

16 Solis was represented by Linda Backiel and Jed Stone.

17 In 1995, Guild lawyers also assisted independence leader Juan Mari Bras, in his effort to renounce his U.S. citizenship and affirm his right to his Puerto Rican nationality, and to reject the U.S. citizenship that was imposed on Puerto Ricans against their will by an act of the U.S. Congress. After months of delay, pressure by the independence movement assisted by Guild lawyers forced the U.S. government to accept Mari Bras’ renunciation.