Shawn Whirl claimed that he had been wrongly convicted of murder in 1991 after being tortured by the Chicago police into giving a false confession. In September 2011, Caitlin Brown gathered her fellow UChicago law students and attorney supervisors in a conference room and convinced them to take on Whirl’s case.
As a student at the Law School, Brown was a member of the Exoneration Project, a pro bono legal clinic that helps exonerate people convicted of crimes they did not commit. After reading the case documents that Whirl had mailed to the Project, Brown believed that he had been wrongly convicted.
“A number of statements that were in his confession, which was ultimately ruled to be a product of police torture, didn’t line up with statements made in the police record about the scene of the crime,” she said in an interview.
At the Exoneration Project, student members vote on which cases the Project will accept. In the end, they decided that pursuing Whirl’s case would fit the Project’s mission.
That decision paid off less than a month ago. After 24 years in prison, Whirl walked out of the Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, IL, as a free man. An appellate court had ordered him a new trial, but prosecutors dropped the case and another judge threw out all charges against him. It was a victory for both Whirl and the Exoneration Project; he became the Project’s 13th success since its founding in 2007.
Whirl’s life changed forever on April 18, 1990, when a 40-year-old taxi driver named Billy Williams was found dead in his cab. Whirl’s fingerprints were found in the back of the car, and the police brought him in for questioning, according to appellate court documents.
Detective James Pienta proceeded to torture Whirl during his interrogation. Pienta was a protégé of the notorious Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, who, as was later discovered, promoted violent interrogation techniques during the 1980s and early 1990s. After Whirl denied committing the murder, Detective Pienta slapped him multiple times, used racial slurs, and repeatedly scraped a car key against a wound on his leg. Eventually he agreed to repeat a confession of guilt that Pienta dictated to him.
Tara Thompson, an attorney with the Exoneration Project and a partner at the civil rights firm Loevy and Loevy, served as one of Mr. Whirl’s legal counsels during his post-conviction litigation process. She described Whirl’s consistent assertions of innocence, such as his attempt to have his coerced confession suppressed during his 1991 trial. However, his claims of torture were not seen as credible at a time when no one was aware of the police tactics occurring under Burge’s leadership.
“At the time there was really no evidence that anything he was saying ought to be believed. It sounded a little ridiculous when people came to court and claimed that they were tortured,” Thompson said.
But that changed as more information on the Burge torture era surfaced.
“The detective that he made his allegations against, it later came out, had a history and a pattern of torturing suspects into false confessions,” Brown said.
Whirl’s case also got a boost from a city agency, the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, responsible for investigating the Jon Burge torture era. The agency reviewed Whirl’s case and made a recommendation that he deserved a new trial.
Theodore Michael, a spokesman for the Commission, stressed the historic significance of Whirl’s case.
“The Shawn Whirl case was actually the first referral that left the Commission to go to court, and now it’s the first one that has actually had a guilty plea overturned because of evidence of a coerced confession,” he said.
Thompson described the legal team’s reaction to Whirl’s release.
“Everybody’s just elated. To know that somebody’s going to get out and going to get a second chance to rebuild their lives, there’s no way you can really explain that feeling.”
A little over four years after she proposed Whirl’s case to her peers, Brown was able to return to Chicago for his release. Now a practicing attorney in New York, she reflected on a conversation she had with her sister, who is currently doing her medical residency at the University of Chicago Hospital.
“Along with the rest of the team that worked on this case, this is probably the closest I’ll ever feel in my life that I’ve saved someone’s life.”