Did Political Clout Subvert Justice in Wrongful Conviction Case?

After spending most of his 59 years behind bars for a crime he almost certainly did not commit, Stanley Wrice could finally taste freedom. Everything was going his way -- or so it seemed.

Last year, Wrice won a ringing victory before the Illinois Supreme Court, which unanimously ordered a hearing on evidence that he had been tortured into falsely confessing to an interracial gang rape in 1982. The justices, noting that the alleged torturers were two Chicago cops working for disgraced Comdr. Jon Burge, sent the case to a Cook County judge to decide if Wrice should win a new trial..

More good news followed for Wrice. The judge presiding over the hearing would be Evelyn Clay, a widely respected veteran jurist who, like Wrice, was African-American. Judge Clay let it be known from the start that she would not tolerate stalling tactics by the special prosecutors, a group of private lawyers appointed by Presiding Judge Paul Biebel -- Clay's boss -- to defend Burge torture cases at public expense.

Clay repeatedly ruled against the special prosecutors, and in Wrice's favor, on every important motion. On Jan. 25, the judge stunned courtroom observers by expanding the hearing beyond the torture claim to include new evidence that Wrice was truly innocent -- and that the Cook County State's Attorney's Office had concealed old evidence from his lawyers. "[Wrice] has successfully established a substantial showing of actual innocence," Clay ruled in a written opinion that she stood up to read. She ordered the hearing for Sept. 23rd.

Meanwhile, Wrice's cause was further buoyed when Judge Clay approved his lawyers' witness list for the hearing. The witnesses included ex-Mayor Richard M. Daley, who was state's attorney when Burge and his "Midnight Crew" tortured scores of African-American suspects. Also on the list was Illinois Appellate Judge Bertina Lampkin, who prosecuted Wrice when Daley ran the office. In a bold move, Wrice lawyer Jennifer Bonjean, a Brooklyn-based civil rights attorney, slapped Daley and Lampkin with subpoenas at work.

Since Daley had repeatedly sidestepped the stand, where he would be forced to explain what he knew about the torture scandal, the specter of him testifying before Judge Clay was chilling. Wrice wanted to see the powerful politician who unjustly sent him to prison for 100 years wilt under questioning by Bonjean. But perhaps this very prospect would prompt the special prosecutors to drop the case.

"It would really be a heartfelt blessing to be released prior to the hearing, and I believe it will happen," Wrice wrote in a recent letter. "I don't see what the State stands to gain by prolonging the obvious."

It turned out to be wishful thinking,

Last Tuesday, Judge Clay was summoned to the principal's office. After meeting with Presiding Judge Biebel in his chambers, Biebel's staff attorney hastily arranged a teleconference with lawyers from both sides. At 2 p.m., on the phone, Clay dropped a bombshell. She was off the case.

"I have determined I should recuse myself," Clay began, citing an unspecified "appearance of impropriety." She said the case would be "transferred to Judge Biebel for reassignment [to a different judge]," according to a transcript of the proceeding.

Bonjean wasn't buying it. "Judge, can you state on the record the basis for your recusal?" she asked.

"Well, I prefer not," Clay replied. After a pause, she added, "I know some of the parties that's involved, and--"

"I believe every judge in that courthouse would probably know many of the parties involved," Bonjean interrupted, "so I think it is not only fair, but necessary that this Court identify the basis for this recusal...[Otherwise], the appearance of impropriety is actually far greater than saying I want to keep it a secret why I'm recusing myself."

Bonjean noted that Clay's about-face curiously happened "after subpoenas were issued for the former Mayor Daley and [Judge] Lampkin." The point was not lost on Clay. "I've already indicated that I know some of the parties involved," she replied.

"The Court, though, has known of those parties for 18 months. The witness list was filed months ago," Bonjean pressed.

"This is true," Clay admitted, "and I do apologize."

The teleconference came to a close when Biebel indicated that he would announce a new judge on Sept. 4th.

After 31 years of confinement in maximum security prisons, Stanley Wrice will have to wait even longer for justice. Despite his recent legal triumphs, the torture victim will do more time while Clay's replacement gets up to speed on the case and makes rulings that could slow his momentum, or halt it altogether.

"Another scheme, another way to deny me justice," Wrice said by phone on Friday from the Pontiac Correctional Center. "Why should this be more delayed? What power do they have to get judges to recuse themselves? What else do they have to hide?"

Bonjean thinks she knows. "My belief is that there are political forces connected to Daley and Lampkin who gave Biebel marching orders to...reassign this to a judge who would be inclined to keep them off the stand," she wrote in an email. "I don't think this was Clay acting on her own accord. This was all Biebel, who is a puppet for greater political powers at play."

Too cynical? Unfair? Biebel and his many admirers would say so.

But, in fact, Daley's brother William is running for governor of Illinois. His powerful aides, some from his stints in the Obama administration, would be mortified by the prospect of the former mayor being challenged under oath about a notorious police scandal on his watch.

And, in fact, Richard Daley has dodged the stand in several torture cases. Twice judges have barred his testimony in civil rights cases despite compelling evidence that he knew about the torture scandal -- while it was happening. In two other cases, the City spent millions to settle lawsuits by torture victims after Daley had been subpoenaed -- but before he could testify.

As for Judge Biebel, he famously appointed two high-ranking former prosecutors with close connections to the late Mayor Richard J. Daley's political machine to investigate the allegations of torture. Not surprisingly, their report absolved the late mayor's son of responsibility and failed to seek indictments against Burge or his fellow officers. (Burge was later convicted in federal court of perjury and obstruction of justice for his role in covering-up the torture.)

Judge Biebel also assigned a judge to preside over the upcoming manslaughter trial of Richard and William Daley's nephew -- until the judge turned out to have worked as a prosecutor under Daley. That judge was replaced by a judge from a suburban county -- who turned out to have ties to the Daley political machine.

But never before has a judge suddenly dropped out at the final stage of a wrongful conviction case after allowing a defense attorney to call clout-heavy lawyers -- a former mayor and state's attorney, and a sitting appellate judge -- as witnesses.

If Bonjean's allegations are true, high-ranking officials have obstructed justice to promote a political agenda. Nothing less than a full-blown federal investigation is needed. Everyone who has subverted Stanley Wrice's decades-long fight for freedom must be held accountable.

For the breaking news story about this controversy, read reporter Frank Main's account in Sunday's Chicago Sun-Times, Lawyer questioning judge's recusal after ex-Mayor Daley subpoenaed to testify.