Why can’t they admit they were wrong?

As you read John Conroy’s cover story in this issue of the Reader you might find yourself wondering why the state’s attorney’s office has remained blind for 20 years to evidence everyone else could see that Chicago cops tortured prisoners.

Is the question naive? A criminal investigation into allegations of torture might be politically unthinkable in this city, whose cops, prosecutors, and even judges are often the same people at different stages of their careers. And psychologically impossible too. A friend who knows the state’s attorney’s office well describes a mind-set in which prosecutors “identify themselves as being on the front line with the cops. It’s a brutal world out there. It becomes very much of a war zone.” He means streets that drug dealers terrorize while decent people cringe in their homes. “It’s not hard to see cops taking very firm action on this stuff and the prosecutors applauding them.”

Maybe the question’s just plain silly. Let’s not assume anyone’s blind. “Torture in the police stations is something that all the lawyers and all the newspapermen knew went on,” says Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s law school. “And of course the prosecutors knew.” To show me what old news this is, Warden digs out a copy of the Wickersham Report, a 1931 study commissioned by President Hoover on the use of the third degree in America, and reads from it: “The methods in Chicago include the application of rubber hose to the back or the pit of the stomach, kicks in the shin, beating the shins with a club, blows struck with a telephone book on the side of the victim’s head. The Chicago telephone book is a heavy one, and a swinging blow with it may stun a man without leaving a mark.”

Conroy has written a meticulous chronicle of the evidence of police torture–a trickle at first but eventually a mountain–to which the state’s attorney’s office has never responded. But he’s not first to point this out. Back in 1989 Warden was editing Chicago Lawyer, then a muckraking monthly newspaper. That March, “Torture in Chicago,” a front-page story by Mary Ann Williams, asserted, “Authorities empowered to investigate such [torture] charges–the state’s attorney of Cook County, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, and the Chicago Police Department’s internal investigative unit–have known about the evidence for years but have done nothing.”

The previous month Warden had written a column on the same subject for Crain’s Chicago Business. Richard M. Daley was the state’s attorney then, and Warden let him have it. “A professional state’s attorney would have realized not only that it was his sworn duty to prosecute police torturers but also that tacitly condoning torture by failing to prosecute was likely to be counterproductive….Daley’s failure [to step in] brings into question his ability to responsibly manage any public office.”

Today Daley’s the mayor, and his law department has conceded that torture occurred at Area Two headquarters. Yet no state’s attorney has ever stepped in. In 1989 that failure was Daley’s. Today he can share it with his successors, Cecil Partee, Jack O’Malley, and Richard Devine.

An interesting thing happened while O’Malley was running the office: Warden went to work for him. From 1994 through ’96 he was O’Malley’s executive assistant for issues, and wrongful prosecution was the issue closest to his heart. “Jack seemed to be a really good, honest person,” says Warden. “And I remember that I said, ‘Jack, a couple of these people with which you’ve aligned yourself–specifically Jim Ryan–are dogs. This guy’s unbelievable. He ought to be disbarred and indicted.’ And I remember Jack just looking at me: ‘Oh, no. I can’t believe that.'”

Before Ryan was attorney general of Illinois he was state’s attorney in Du Page County, where he twice prosecuted two innocent men, Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez, for the murder of ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. Like Ryan, O’Malley was a Republican, and Warden says he was readier than the Democrats who preceded and followed him–not to mention a lot of the attorneys in his own office–to reopen old cases and look at fresh evidence. The exoneration of the Ford Heights Four in 1996 for a double murder in 1978 was, in Warden’s view, the high-profile case that demonstrated this.

But O’Malley would never take Warden’s point about Jim Ryan. “Jack shook his head and said, ‘I know Jim Ryan. I can’t believe that.’ The same thing’s true of all of us in the newspaper business. We know people who have done things, and we know they’re not bad people. We socialize with them. It’s very hard to overcome where you come from and what you did. Jack was a former police officer. His experiences with other police officers were largely positive. He knew them to be by and large scrupulous people who wanted to do the right thing.”

What prosecutors find all but impossible to get beyond, says Warden, is their understanding of themselves as good guys, the cops as good guys, and the people cops arrest as bad guys. “You get in the system,” he says, “and you become very cynical. People are lying to you all over the place. Then you develop a theory of the crime, and it leads to what we call tunnel vision. Years later overwhelming evidence comes out that the guy was innocent. And you’re sitting there thinking, ‘Wait a minute. Either this overwhelming evidence is wrong or I was wrong–and I couldn’t have been wrong because I’m a good guy.’ That’s a psychological phenomenon I have seen over and over.

“We all take our psychology classes, and we hear about rationalizing, but we don’t really understand how powerful that emotion is. It came home to me about ten years ago when Dave Protess and I were having dinner with a prosecutor who’d been involved in the Gary Dotson case.”

Protess runs the investigative program at the Medill School of Journalism that played a big role in exonerating the Ford Heights Four. Dotson was convicted of rape in 1979 and spent six years in prison; his sentence was commuted after his supposed victim, Cathy Webb, recanted. A DNA test eventually exonerated him.

“Here’s a guy who’d blown a whistle on another case of prosecutorial misconduct,” Warden continues. “And at the end of dinner I said, ‘Look at the situation with Gary Dotson.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I still think Gary’s guilty. I still think he was there. It was just one of the other guys who actually raped her.’ I remember looking across the table and being incredulous. How could this be? And I realized this was a good man who was trying to do what was right in the other case but who had brainwashed himself so thoroughly he didn’t get it.

“People like Rich Daley, Jack O’Malley, Cecil Partee are fundamentally good people who want to do the right thing, and they are simply blind to the facts and able to deceive themselves. And Dick Devine–I’d throw him in. I know Dick personally. There’s no question he’s a good man. When he questions [police torture] he’s not being disingenuous. He literally does not believe it in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

Maybe some of us who think of prosecutors as hardened cynics don’t recognize how credulous they can be. Debbie Nathan is a former Reader reporter who after leaving Chicago specialized in coverage of the day care hysteria of the 1980s and ’90s. She cowrote the book Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, and you might have seen her as the reporter in the recent Capturing the Friedmans, the documentary’s only character whose credibility isn’t thrown into doubt by the maker. The 80s brought a wave of prosecutions of adult caregivers accused of abusing little children who showed no signs of abuse–like the “victims” of Arnold and Jesse Friedman. These cases were absurd and tragic. Juries concluded that unspeakable evils had been done to children who couldn’t remember them. I’ve wondered how the prosecutors could live with themselves.

But the cases weren’t absurd, Nathan says: “There was a time–and it lasted eight or nine years–when there was an entire body of expert opinion that these things could happen.” It was a time, she says, when pseudoscience had raced ahead of science, when best-selling books that had yet to be contradicted asserted that the inability to remember a trauma was the strongest proof of it, when doctors trying to be helpful established as a baseline a model virginal hymen so perfectly smooth and shaped that it allowed any actual hymen to be construed as traumatized.

“Our culture is still really atavistic,” says Nathan, “but there’s an overlay of science on it. Mix the totally primeval stuff with science and you’ve got this mix that can’t be beat.” Prosecutors, she says, “are just as naive as anyone else, but they also know how to sway people. They have all the techniques down pat. ‘Suffer the little children.’ ‘Innocence defiled.’ ‘Worse than murder.'”

But why, as science and truth become clearer, is it so hard for so many prosecutors to recant? Knowing that police torture is at the root of my questions shapes Nathan’s answer: “Maybe it’s because the whole process of constructing one of these innocent people as a really demonically evil sexual pervert who sadistically violates lots of kids–the whole process of constructing this character on a real person is torture,” she says. “You have to be very invasive. It’s a very sadistic enterprise. You become like a torturer.”

She feels this strongly because, as a reporter trying to champion the accused, she’s felt just as invasive. “I have to know everything about this defendant,” she says, “and I become evil myself knowing everything that I’d never want anyone to know about me. It’s awful. I can remember the times I’ve wept, I’ve felt so ashamed of myself. I feel like a priest in a confessional, but this person didn’t come to me willingly to tell me these things.” The person was desperate and had no choice. “I’ve always felt this was a very sick relationship,” she says. “They write letters about how they love you. How could they have lived if you hadn’t come into their life? And as soon as they get out they turn on you. Because the whole thing was so sick. That’s very healthy, really.”

So Nathan thinks she understands something about what prosecutors do. “You have to do it unwillingly if you’re trying to help,” she says, “but the prosecutor does it willingly. They tear the whole person down and skin them alive.”

And once you’ve done that, how can you say you were wrong?

“Nobody has ever done a psychological study of the prosecutorial mentality,” Warden says. “But we see cases in which DNA absolutely exonerates people and the prosecutor says, ‘I still believe the witness. There must have been an unindicted coejaculator.’ Any rational person would look at this and say, ‘This guy is totally lying. He’s grasping at straws to justify what he did”–convicting an innocent person–“but it’s really not true. My theory is that nobody, not even psychiatrists, understands this ability to rationalize.”

Warden thinks prosecutors such as Devine don’t deny abuse but do keep it nameless and faceless. An individual prisoner who alleges abuse becomes a guilty man “simply trying to take advantage of a situation,” says Warden. “So we have this really perplexing thing in which it seems almost everyone in the system acknowledges that physical coercion has occurred in Chicago police stations, but they will deny it to the end in any specific case. It’s really an amazing thing to see.”

My friend who’s familiar with the state’s attorney’s office points to the “fly in the ointment” of Warden’s argument. “A lot of these people are guilty,” he says, meaning the prisoners alleging abuse. And that matters. “If they’re innocent, torture is terrible. If they’re guilty and tortured, it’s still bad. But they’re guilty.”

But that, Warden would reply, is much less an assertion of demonstrable fact than it is an article of faith. “At the time of the Ford Heights Four, when that exoneration took place,” he says, “O’Malley almost literally held his head in his hands. ‘How could this be? How could this happen?’ He didn’t get it. He didn’t understand. He really didn’t. And Jack O’Malley was a good man.”

News Bites

Less boilerplate, please. And do try to pay attention to what you’re writing. An AP story carried in RedEye July 23 incanted the familiar playboy’s trinity: “While millions of Iraqis suffered dire poverty, Udai lived a life of fast cars, expensive liquor and easy women.”

A few paragraphs earlier the same story said this: “Iraqi exiles say Udai murdered at will and tortured with zeal, and routinely ordered his guards to snatch young women off the street so he could rape them.”

Sun-Times, July 23: “As [Judge] Simmons handed down the sentence, the silence was broken with shouts of delight from some two-dozen officers.”

Tribune, July 23: “Some of the two dozen police officers in the courtroom whispered ‘yes’ as Simmons handed down the sentence.”

Guess you had to be there.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/William L. Brown.