People’s Law Office Files First Amendment Lawsuit against IDOC for Shutting Down Debate Program

PRESS RELEASE – FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, May 15, 2019

CONTACT: Brad Thomson, People’s Law Office, (773) 235-0070 ext. 123

Illinois Prisoners File First Amendment Lawsuit Demanding Return of Debate Program

IDOC officials opposed prisoners addressing Illinois legislators regarding parole and they retaliated by cancelling a debate program

Five prisoners at Stateville Correctional Center have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against officials from Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) for violating the prisoners’ First Amendment right to free speech.

The lawsuit was filed in the Northern District Court of Illinois on May 15, 2019 by the plaintiffs’ attorneys Brad Thomson and Michael Deutsch of People’s Law Office, along with Joshua Herman of the Law Offices of Joshua G. Herman.

The plaintiffs: Lester Dobbey, Joseph Dole, Raul Dorado, Benard McKinley, and Eugene Ross, were all students in a debate class taught at Stateville, a maximum security prison operated by IDOC.

The debate class, which ran from approximately October 2017 to May 2018, had 14 students, all with very lengthy prison sentences. The class was taught by a volunteer instructor who is well respected in the competitive debate community.

The plaintiffs and other members of the debate class decided to debate how Illinois might implement a parole system to provide opportunities for parole to Illinois prisoners with long and/or life sentences.

IDOC officials approved their request to have a public debate, which occurred in March 2018 and was attended by approximately 18 members of the Illinois General Assembly. A number of journalists, IDOC officials, members of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, and other members of the public also attended.

Members of the public responded positively to the debate and the event was followed by a question and answer session in which state legislators posed thoughtful questions to the debaters.

After this highly successful public event, defendant Gladyse Taylor, assistant director of IDOC, expressed her opposition to the plaintiffs communicating with Illinois legislators regarding parole. Defendant Taylor made it clear that she would take steps to prevent the plaintiffs from expressing such messages. Defendant Taylor, along with other IDOC officials, then cancelled the debate class and another scheduled debate event.

The lawsuit seeks for the debate program be reinstated and other relief related to the alleged violations of the Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights to free speech.

“These men were exercising their right to freedom of speech,” says Brad Thomson, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys with People’s Law Office. “The fact that they were using their Constitutional right to effectively advocate for parole to legislators angered certain IDOC officials. When state actors use their power to retaliate and shut down speech because it differs from their personal political agenda, it is an abuse of their authority and a violation of the Constitution.”

One of the plaintiffs, Benard McKinley went to prison at the age of 16. In describing the debate program, he says, “For decades, IDOC officials have felt the need to paint this negative picture to the citizens of Illinois that all those who are incarcerated behind these walls are to be considered dangerous and unredeemable. Being part of the debate team, and being able to deliver this positive message, but needed message, to the citizens of this state in our first ever live debate, I was able to see that what we was showing and saying at this debate was contrary to IDOC’s negative narrative.” 

Like Mr. McKinley, all the plaintiffs in the lawsuit went to prison at very young ages and are serving an extensive prison sentences and currently have not opportunity for parole. They have all actively sought out educational and programmatic opportunities to foster their rehabilitation, which is why they were selected for the debate program.

Joseph Dole, one of the plaintiffs, says, “Prison debate teams have been around for decades. They have universally been seen as important rehabilitative tools across the country.”

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People’s Law Office is a civil rights law firm headquartered in Chicago that has been defending our clients’ Constitutional rights and fighting against police misconduct, wrongful convictions, and governmental abuses of power since 1969. 

Two Million Dollar Settlement Reached in Derek Williams’ Squad Car Death

Gina Barton, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Published 10:12 a.m. CT May 7, 2019

The family of Derek Williams, who died after begging for help and gasping for breath in the back of a Milwaukee police squad car, will receive a $2 million settlement in a long-running civil rights suit against the city, attorneys said Tuesday. 

The settlement comes eight years after Williams’ death in July 2011. It took three years for the two sides to agree on a resolution to the case, which was filed in 2016.

The money will be paid over time to Williams’ three children, now 8, 9 and 10. The children and their mother still celebrate his birthday and regularly visit his grave, said Milwaukee attorney Jon Safran, whose firm represented Williams’ family along with the People’s Law Office of Chicago.

Read the rest of this article here.

People’s Law Office Obtains Certificate of Innocence for Torture Survivor Alonzo Smith

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Alonzo Smith with People’s Law Office attorneys Brad Thomson (left), Joey Mogul (second from left) and Flint Taylor (right)

Today, Circuit Court of Cook County Judge Erica L. Reddick granted Alonzo Smith’s petition for a Certificate of Innocence. Mr. Smith was represented by a team of attorneys from People’s Law Office, led by Joey Mogul, along with Ben Elson, Flint Taylor, and Brad Thomson.

Mr. Smith has consistently and persistently contended he was tortured by Detective Peter Dignan and Sergeant John Byrne, members of former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge’s notorious Midnight Crew. Burge threatened Alonzo, telling him they has ways of making people talk. After they brought Alonzo to the basement, Dignan and Byrne handcuffed him behind him back and repeatedly suffocated him with a plastic bag and beat him about his body with a baton and flashlight while they made racist comments and laughed at his pain. Bloodied, bruised, and fearing for his life, Alonzo relented and falsely confessed to a murder and robbery he did not commit, the details of which were fed to him by Dignan and Byrne.

The tortured confession was then used to secure his wrongful conviction and close to 20 years of incarceration, separating him from his wife and four young children.

In 2013, attorneys from the People’s Law Office filed an amended post-conviction petition on behalf of Mr. Smith, setting forth a wealth of newly discovered evidence to corroborate his torture allegations. This evidence consisted of reports, testimony and court decisions which unequivocally established that Burge and the men under his command systematically tortured and abused suspects and witnesses at Area 2 and 3 Police Headquarters from 1972 through 1991. The new evidence also demonstrated that Dignan and Byrne have been accused of torturing scores of Black people, just as they did Mr. Smith at Area 2.

In 2015, attorneys from our office represented Mr. Smith in an evidentiary hearing before Judge Reddick to determine whether police physically coerced Mr. Smith into making a confession. Judge Reddick ruled that the police violated Mr. Smith’s constitutional rights, finding that the evidence showing he was tortured was “staggering.” With her ruling, Judge Reddick granted Mr. Smith’s post-conviction petition, vacated his conviction and ordered a new trial. The State subsequently dismissed all charges against Mr. Smith.

Our office then filed the petition for a Certificate of Innocence, which we have aggressively litigated for over a year and a half. Today, announcing her decision from the bench, Judge Reddick ruled that the evidence showed, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Mr. Smith was innocent of the crime he was convicted of committing.

Our office also represented Mr. Smith in a federal civil rights lawsuit against Burge, Dignan, Byrne, former Mayor, Richard M. Daley, the City of Chicago and Cook County for their roles in his torture and wrongful conviction. We recently obtained favorable settlements in the case, totaling $5.55 million from the City of Chicago and Cook County.

Mr. Smith was thrilled with the Court’s ruling and relieved he now has proof his innocence. Our legal work to vindicate Mr. Smith is part of People’s Law Office’s decades-long commitment to fighting against racially motivated state violence, including Chicago police torture and representing those who have been wrongfully convicted.

CAUGHT ON VIDEO: CIVIL RIGHTS LAWSUIT FILED ON BEHALF OF HANDCUFFED MAN KICKED IN THE FACE BY FORMER MPD OFFICER MICHAEL GASSER

Attorneys for Plaintiff Rafael Rosales, who was brutally attacked by former Milwaukee Police Officer Michael Gasser, have today filed a multi-count federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages against the City of Milwaukee, Gasser, and numerous other MPD officers. As alleged in the complaint, after surrendering to police following a car chase, Rosales was attacked by Gasser, who kicked Rosales in the face while he was subdued face down on the ground, handcuffed behind his back, completely vulnerable and unable to protect or defend himself, causing Mr. Rosales serious physical injuries, including a broken nose, and triggering multiple epileptic seizures, which left him hospitalized and on a breathing tube for three days. The complaint alleges that eight additional Milwaukee Police Officers were standing nearby, yet did nothing to stop the attack, and instead congratulated and joked with Gasser afterward, and then covered up for Gasser by writing false reports of the incident and lying to investigators.

After officers from the Greenfield Police Department, who also witnessed Gasser’s attack, came forward and reported Gasser to the MPD Internal Affairs Division, a criminal investigation was initiated, and in September 2018, Gasser was criminally charged with misconduct in office and substantial battery, both felonies. Gasser pleaded guilty to lesser charges of misdemeanor battery and disorderly conduct, resigned from the Milwaukee Police Department, and was sentenced to 14 days in jail and 18 months of probation. However, none of the MPD officers who lied and covered up for Gasser were investigated or disciplined in any way by the MPD.

As alleged in the complaint, Gasser had a disturbing history of misconduct, which included his involvement with Michael Vagnini and Jason Mucha in the District 5 body cavity search scandal, and a resultant $506,000 jury verdict, obtained by Attorney Robin Shellow, that was entered against Gasser in 2014, yet the Department took no disciplinary action against him, essentially giving him free reign to further abuse citizens of Milwaukee as happened in this case. Accordingly, the complaint alleges that the City of Milwaukee is equally responsible for Rafael Rosales’ injuries because its police department had in place widespread practices and customs of failing to properly monitor, control and discipline its officers and the attendant police code of silence.

Attorneys Flint Taylor, Ben Elson, and Christian Snow from the People’s Law Office and Robin Shellow from The Shellow Group are counsel for Rafael Rosales. The attorneys will show footage from the video at the press conference at which time it will be made available to the media.

Attorney Elson said:

The MPD knew for years that Gasser was a problem officer, who repeatedly engaged in serious misconduct. All of the red flags were there, yet the MPD failed to do anything about it until his wanton brutality was caught on video and officers from the Greenfield police department broke the code of silence. The actions of the additional defendant officers, who attempted to cover up for Gasser, and the MPD’s failure to punish these officers, like the officers who covered up the Vagnini body cavity search scandal, demonstrates that fifteen years after Frank Jude the code of silence is still alive and well in the MPD.

For Further Information, Please Contact: Flint Taylor and Ben Elson, People’s Law Office (773) 235-0070; Robin Shellow, The Shellow Group (414) 263-4488.