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August 2, 2002
Legal Eagles
Volunteer lawyers lead the fight against police torture.

In 1998, a young mentally disabled man went to Chicago police after he witnessed a drive-by shooting in which a child was killed. Police held and interrogated him for two days. His family contacted First Defense Legal Aid, a free “early representation” service that uses volunteer attorneys. Attorney Kate Walz went to the station and found the young man dazed and confused. “They keep telling me I did it,” he told her; police presented her with a written confession signed by her client. When Walz pointed out that the young man could neither read nor write, he was released, and his information later led to the arrest of another suspect.

For poor people, public defenders aren’t assigned until after arraignment, and often that is too late. Worse, investigations and the experience of hundreds of people show that Chicago police may routinely ignore fundamental aspects of the U.S. justice system. Everyone has a theoretical right to an attorney while being questioned: Case law mandates that questioning should stop when an attorney arrives or when an individual asks to consult an attorney. “In Chicago, it’s as if this law doesn’t exist,” says Jean Maclean Snyder from the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago Law School.

First Defense Legal Aid is trying to change all this. Founded in 1994 and partly modeled on the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, the agency’s 50 volunteer attorneys provide free phone consultations or station visits for anyone held at a police station. Thanks to an extensive public education program, First Defense receives about 2,000 calls a month.

Police have responded by finding a number of ways to block attorneys’ access to clients, says Darrin Bowden, the group’s executive director. Attorneys get the runaround when they begin calling stations to locate clients. Desk officers deny the presence of individuals who are actually in interrogation. Attorneys are kept waiting for hours while police continue questioning their clients alone. They are told their clients are there voluntarily as witnesses, not suspects—and are therefore not entitled to consult a lawyer—while those clients are held in locked interrogation rooms, handcuffed and denied outside contact. Such “witnesses” often end up being charged.

With the goal of establishing more regular procedures that ensure detainees’ legal rights, First Defense has filed suit. The suit charges the city, State’s Attorney Richard Devine, Chicago Police Superintendent Terry Hillard and other department personnel of blocking attorney’s access to clients, and in some cases using physical force to do so.

First Defense says its attorneys have been threatened with arrest for criminal trespass while trying to see clients, and have even been physically removed from police stations. When a police officer was shot and killed in June of last year, reportedly while conducting nighttime surveillance in a gang warfare zone, the agency received calls from the relatives of a dozen young people who were being held, including one 15-year-old and four 14-year-olds. First Defense Legal Director Sladjana Vuckovic was the first to arrive at the station—and was ordered to leave. When she refused, a detective grabbed her by the arm and forcibly escorted her down the stairs.

The station door was then locked, and First Defense attorneys waited there from 3 a.m. until 11 p.m. that night, when their clients were released. The lawsuit charges assault and battery and unlawful use of force in this and three other instances in which lawyers were removed from police stations.

A steady stream of stories of false and coerced confessions in Chicago has highlighted the need for legal representation during questioning. In an investigation last year, the Chicago Tribune found 247 cases since 1991 in which police had obtained confessions that failed to stand up in court. In one case, a 15-year-old under intense questioning confessed to stabbing a woman to death. He was locked up for over a year and prosecuted—unsuccessfully, since the autopsy had found no stab wounds.

In April, a Cook County criminal judge appointed a special prosecutor to investigate charges of torture and subsequent cover-ups against Chicago police, in response to a petition by 13 civil rights groups, including Citizen’s Alert of Chicago, Amnesty International and the Cook County Bar Association. It is the first criminal investigation into charges of torture by Chicago police in decades.

In 1999, police began to videotape murder confessions, but Bowden says that’s not enough—interrogations need to be taped too. The first murder suspect to give a videotaped confession in Chicago recently went on trial. He testified that he was kicked, choked, kneed in the groin and threatened with death during his four-and-a-half-day interrogation. He also testified that when he gave a detective his lawyer’s business card, the detective tore it up. Says Bowden, “The tapes don’t show that the alleged confession may have come in the seventieth hour, and all that went on in that time.”


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