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Prisoner Who Claims Chicago Officer Tortured Him Is Freed After More Than Two Decades

A court overturned Shawn Whirl's 1991 murder conviction two months ago, citing his questionable confession. Prosecutors soon dropped the case as the evidence against him fell apart.

by VICE News
Oct 15 2015, 6:35pm

Photo via Exoneration Project

After spending 25 years behind bars, Shawn Whirl — who says he was tortured by a Chicago police detective into confessing to a murder that he did not commit — was released from a correctional center in Galesburg, Illinois, on Thursday. 

An Illinois appellate court overturned the 45-year-old's 1991 murder conviction in the shooting of Chicago cab driver Billy G. Williams two months ago, citing his questionable confession. He was granted a new trial, but prosecutors dropped the case as the evidence against Whirl fell apart. On Tuesday, a Cook County judge dismissed the charges against him.

"It hasn't quite hit me yet," Whirl told the Associated Press as he left the prison. "I didn't cry when I got out because I think I cried so much trying to fight this wrong, [and] I think I am kind of out of tears right now."

Whirl was originally arrested in 1990, after police found his fingerprints on the door of a cab after its driver was murdered. He told police that he had ridden in the cab two days earlier, and insisted that he had no connection with the killing.

Whirl has long asserted that he was tortured into confessing to the murder by Detective James Pineta, who he said worked with Jon Burge, a disgraced former Chicago police commander. In 2009, Illinois formed the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission to investigate Burge's tenure. The investigation found that he operated a squad of detectives, known as "the midnight crew," that tortured an estimated 192 suspects — mostly African Americans — throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and into the early 1990s in order to extract confessions. Burge was later convicted in 2011 of lying about allegations of police torture, and was sentenced to four and a half years in prison.

Related: Protesters Denounce Detainment and Abuse at Alleged Chicago Police 'Black Site'

According to court records, Whirl was taken in for interrogation and handcuffed to a wall. Pineta then stomped on Whirl's foot, said, "Wake up, nigger," and slapped him in the face. The detective told Whirl that his previous statement denying involvement in the killing "won't do."

The detective began to gash his leg with a key and covered his head with a potato chip bag, threatening to asphyxiate him. Whirl's girlfriend was in an adjacent room and testified to hearing him "hollering" in pain. In the end, Whirl was forced to sign a confession, which provided police with their main piece of evidence. 

"Without Whirl's confession, the State's case was nonexistent," the Illinois appellate court ruled in August.

The state's Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission found that Whirl's allegations and his descriptions of abuse corresponded closely with those of many of Burge's victims, though a court determined that Pineta was not under Burge's command at the time that Whirl says he was tortured.

Whirl is the first alleged victim of police torture to have won a new trial in the wake of the commission's report. Mike Theodore, a spokesperson for the commission, noted that the commission has so far flagged 16 cases for re-examination, and has 85 more on its docket.

After getting out of prison, Whirl told the AP that he had no immediate plans other than to eat something that isn't fried. 

He and his attorneys have not yet decided if they will file suit against the city. Tara Thompson, a lawyer representing Whirl with the University of Chicago Exoneration Project, told the AP that Whirl's legal team would be meeting to discuss further legal action.