Torture Survivor to be Released after 25 Years in Prison

Special Prosecutor Drops Charges In  Wrongful Conviction Case of Burge-Era Torture Victim After Almost 25 Years in Prison

Chicago, IL; October 14, 2015 –At the request of the Office of the Special State’s Attorney for Cook County, today Cook County Judge Thomas Byrne dismissed all charges against Shawn Whirl, a torture victim from Jon Burge’s notorious reign of terror at the Chicago Police Department.  Mr. Whirl’s 1991 murder conviction was overturned by a unanimous Illinois appellate court in August of this year. Mr. Whirl will be released sometime midday today from Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Illinois.

46 year-old Mr. Whirl was the first person granted a new trial after a referral by the Illinois Torture Inquiry & Relief Commission, which was established in 2009 to provide an avenue of relief for torture victims of the Chicago Police Department.  Mr. Whirl’s case was among the first cases to be referred by the Commission to the courts. 

When Whirl’s attorneys notified him of his release he said: “How do I feel? Relieved, but also nervous because this feels surreal. I just want to be able to start from somewhere to continue to correct this wrong. I’ve been in a think tank here in prison – I’ve utilized my incarceration to better myself. In order to be upset, you have to have room for anger. And I just don’t have room for that.”

Attorney Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office, who represented Mr Whirl together with his law partner Ben Elson and Tara Thompson of the University of Chicago Exoneration Project, and has been representing police torture victims for nearly 30 years, said:  “This is another important victory, not only for Shawn, but also for the entire movement that has steadfastly fought for justice in the torture cases for many years. That it follows on the heels of the passage of the historic reparations ordinance makes it particularly significant.” 
Ben Elson added, “This case also underscores the importance of a strong and independent Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission in the continuing campaign to seek justice for all police torture victims who remain imprisoned on the basis of confessions that were tortured from them.”Tara Thompson, who spoke with Mr. Whirl yesterday, said, “This case shows that it is never too late for the criminal justice system to right a wrong and to recognize the mistakes of the past.  We want Shawn’s release to give courage and hope to those still locked up for crimes they did not commit.”
Mr. Whirl was convicted of allegedly robbing and murdering a cab driver on the City’s far South Side in 1990.  Soon after the murder, police sought Mr. Whirl, who was then just 20 years old, for questioning.  During his interrogation, as Whirl testified at his evidentiary hearing, he was slapped, stepped on, and subjected to racial slurs by Detective James Pienta–a protégé of Jon Burge who worked with him for 13 years and who has been accused of torture by a series of other African-American men over multiple decades. Mr. Whirl described how, when he did not cooperate with Pienta’s insistence that he confess to this crime, Detective Pienta used a set of keys to repeatedly scrape a wound on Whirl’s leg until it was bloody and raw.  Pienta took the stand at Whirl’s evidentiary hearing for a new trial but declined to testify, exercising his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when asked a wide ranging set of questions about his role in the pattern and practice of torture. Burge did likewise in a video that was introduced into evidence at the hearing.   
Because of this torture, Mr. Whirl ultimately signed a false confession in this case.  He pled guilty and was sentenced to 60 years in prison. In 2012, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission referred Whirl’s case back to the Circuit Court of Cook County for an evidentiary hearing on his torture claim.  The courts initially denied him relief, but on August 12 of this year, an Illinois Appellate Court panel vacated Whirl’s conviction. In a unanimous ruling, the panel condemned the torture of Mr. Whirl, recognized that it was part of a pattern and practice of torture under Burge, and determined that Mr. Whirl should receive a new suppression hearing and, if necessary, a new trial.  That opinion explained that ​”it is impossible to conceive of how the State could prevail at a new suppression hearing with the officer alleged to have coerced a suspect’s confession invoking his privilege against self-incrimination.”  The case then returned to the circuit court, where today the Office of the Special State’s Attorney, exercising its mandate to do justice in cases involving torture, moved to dismiss all charges, citing Detective Pienta’s continuing intention to exercise his Fifth Amendment rights, and conceding that they had no case without the tortured confession.

Mr. Whirl was represented by Flint Taylor, Ben Elson, and Sarah Gelsomino of the People’s Law Office and Tara Thompson of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School.  University of Chicago Law School students also participated in Mr. Whirl’s representation.
Mr. Whirl and his legal team will hold a press conference on Thursday, October 15, 2015, at 1:00 pm, at the People’s Law Office, 1180 N Milwaukee Ave in Chicago.