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Editorial: Since when is torture just harmless error?

Updated: October 19, 2011 3:30AM

Most people wouldn’t call it “harmless error” if police goons suffocated them or applied electric shocks to their genitals to get them to confess to crimes.

So it’s good to see a virtual Who’s Who of former U.S. attorneys from Chicago asking the Illinois Supreme Court last week to agree that police torture can be very harmful indeed. The list of more than 60 names on a so-called friend-of-the court brief includes former federal prosecutors James R. Thompson (also a former Republican governor), Samuel K. Skinner, Dan K. Webb and Thomas P. Sullivan — all men with strong law-enforcement credentials. Other signatories include former Democratic Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson III, former judges, ex-prosecutors and law professors.

We trust the high court will share their opinion and rule that torture must never be dismissed as harmless error.

At issue is the case of Stanley Wrice, who claims he was tortured into confessing to a rape for which he is serving a 100-year sentence. Wrice is one of 15 prisoners who long have said they were coerced into incriminating themselves by former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge or the notorious “Midnight Crew” of police officers Burge commanded.

At the time the men went to trial, Burge’s systematic torture was only an allegation. Now, though, we know that during the 1970s and ’80s Burge and his henchmen were in fact beating, burning and torturing suspects. Last year, a federal jury found Burge guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying when he denied he had tortured suspects at Area 2 Police headquarters or had seen others do so.

Last year, an appellate court granted Wrice an evidentiary hearing into the torture allegations, but a special prosecutor has appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that such torture, if it occurred, was simply “harmless error” and that Wrice would have been convicted anyway based on other evidence.

That argument is offensive. No criminal case should ever rest wholly or in part on statements extracted through police torture.

Revisiting these cases won’t be easy. Witnesses and evidence may be long gone. Some — or all — of the convicts may in fact have been guilty. The crimes for which they were convicted were violent. Sorting out the truth will be difficult.

But the difficulty of the task doesn’t mean the courts should shrug it off. If even one of those prisoners is languishing in a cell because of police torture, we need to know it.

“With all that we now know about Burge’s systematic torture and abuse, it is intolerable to apply the ‘harmless error’ doctrine and allow Mr. Wrice and the 14 other men to remain incarcerated without a hearing,” wrote those signing the friend-of-the-court brief.

It took many years and untold effort before Burge himself was brought to justice, but in the end the legal system did what was needed to achieve justice.

Now, we have an opportunity to do the same for those who may have suffered at the hands of Burge or his detectives, just as — as we wrote last week — we have a chance to settle the lawsuits filed against Burge, his accomplices and the city.

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Monday, “How old is this now — 30 years old? ... It is time we end it.”

It’s time we put the disgraceful and long-running Burge saga behind us. Anything less would be the very definition of harmful error.


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