Lurching toward justice | Bleader

Friday, February 20, 2009

Lurching toward justice

Posted By on 02.20.09 at 07:54 PM

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Almost two decades after John Conroy and the Reader began exposing evidence of police torture under former commander Jon Burge, the legal system is still lurching toward some manner of imperfect justice for the dozens of men who were victimized. The latest episode came Friday in a Cook County courtroom, where an array of attorneys argued about who should be responsible for the cases of more than 20 alleged torture victims now sitting in prison.

The matter before presiding criminal court Judge Paul Biebel was a request by Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan to hand off five Burge-related cases to Cook County state’s attorney Anita Alvarez. Attorneys and advocates for the defendants in the cases fiercely oppose the move. Alvarez’s office says it’s deferring to Biebel. It's expected that Biebel's decision will also establish who's responsible for Burge-related cases that may emerge in the future. There could be dozens.

Like everything related to Burge, there are so many legal twists and turns here that simple truths can get buried, such as the fact that at least 25 of his victims are still sitting in prison, at least in part because of “evidence” collected through beatings, burnings, shockings, and other acts of coercion. But it goes something like this:

In 2003 Biebel transferred responsibility for these five cases, and more than a dozen others, to Madigan’s office because then-state’s attorney Richard Devine had served as Burge’s attorney while in private practice. In the time since, attorneys and advocates for the torture victims still in prison have ripped Madigan for not moving aggressively to examine their cases. Madigan and her attorneys on the cases have said they’re a “top priority,” noting that their work has already resulted in three men being exonerated.

As they stood before the judge, both sides dropped the political attacks and focused on legal issues. Alan Rosen, chief deputy in Madigan's office, said the conflict of interest Biebel had cited in 2003 was no longer an issue because Alvarez had replaced Devine as state's attorney.

“There is no question as to who has the statutory authority and indeed the responsibility to handle these cases,” Rosen said. “There is no longer a conflict here because Mr. Devine is no longer state’s attorney.”

But Devine’s involvement wasn’t the central issue, countered Harold Winston, a public defender assigned to one of the cases. In fact, Biebel sent the cases to Madigan even after Devine had recused himself from them.

The problem, Winston asserted, was that too many people in the state’s attorney’s office had been involved with the Burge mess, from investigators who had formerly been police detectives under Burge to prosecutors—including Alvarez—who had failed to bring the torturers to justice.

“The whole process was tainted,” Winston said, “and the problems haven’t been removed just because Anita Alvarez is now state's attorney.”

Rosen offered another reason for giving the cases to the state's attorney: the AG’s office has been struggling to handle all its duties since Rod Blagojevich cut its budget.

Winston sympathized with the AG's funding woes--to a point. “We’re facing some severe budget cuts in our office too—”

“We may even find out about them today,” Biebel interjected from the bench.

“And we may lose some attorneys,” said Winston. “But we’re not going to abandon our clients.”

Alvarez’s lawyers showed little interest in joining the game of hot potato. Assistant state’s attorney Celeste Stack said they would abide by whatever decision Biebel made--then added that shifting the cases back and forth might not be such a great idea: “There is concern about cohesion and consistency.”

After an hour everyone had made their arguments at least once, and Biebel said he needed a few weeks to review the matter. With court adjourned, the attorneys stepped into the hallway and made their points again for TV cameras and reporters.

“We have given these cases the highest priority,” said Cara Smith, Madigan’s deputy chief of staff.

“We’re not saying she’s doing a good job,” said longtime police misconduct attorney Flint Taylor. “But we want Judge Biebel to keep these cases with Lisa Madigan so she can exert the leadership we’ve been asking her to."

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