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