CHICAGO -- Aaron Patterson is a death row inmate who claims police punched him and suffocated him with a plastic typewriter cover 15 years ago to extract a false confession in the killings of an elderly couple.
A few years ago, Patterson's claims might have been dismissed.
But beginning Monday, his claims will get a new hearing under orders from the Illinois Supreme Court. With the hearing comes pressing questions into allegations of systematic torture at a Chicago police unit in 1980s, mounting calls for an outside investigator and growing doubts about the convictions of as many as 10 Illinois death row inmates.
"It's our point of view that there's been a concerted effort to keep this secret within the police department for many years," said Locke Bowman, an attorney at the University of Chicago law school.
Bowman is one of two lawyers asking for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate what happened at the Area 2 detective headquarters during the 1980s and decide whether charges should are warranted.
At the heart of the scandal is a violent crimes unit in the far southern end of Chicago in the 1980s commanded by former police Lt. Jon Burge.
Burge was fired in 1993 after a death row inmate, Andrew Wilson, won a $1.1 million civil suit against the department, claiming he was tortured with electric shocks and handcuffed to a hot radiator at Burge's precinct.
A police board found that Wilson was indeed abused while in Burge's custody. A subsequent investigation by the police department found that abuse occurred and was systematic.
A federal judge in 1999 also painted a damning picture of Burge and his precinct.
"It is now common knowledge that in the early to mid-1980s Jon Burge and many officers working under him regularly engaged in the physical abuse and torture of prisoners to extract confessions," U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur said in the case of another suspect who claimed he was tortured.
Burge, who now lives in Florida, continues to deny that he tortured anyone. His former attorney, William Kunkle, called the department's report "garbage."
In calling for an outside investigator to look into allegations of police torture, Bowman and others point to the fact that prosecutors have tried to cut deals with inmates, like Patterson, to get them to drop their claims against police.
Conflicts of interest
Bowman and others also say Devine and Cook County prosecutors have too many conflicts of interest.
Devine was an assistant state's attorney when Richard M. Daley, now Chicago's mayor, was the county's top prosecutor. At the same time, a number of the criminal cases that involved Burge's unit went to trial.
The city also paid Devine's former law firm more than $850,000 to represent Burge and three others in the Andrew Wilson civil lawsuit.
That's irrelevant, said Assistant State's Attorney Gerald E. Nora, who is representing Devine in the case to decide whether a special prosecutor is needed.
Nora said the statute of limitations on any crimes that officers may have committed ran out. Even if a conspiracy had existed, he said, it would have been over long ago. There is nothing to prosecute, he said.