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Chicagoans Tire of Paying Lawyers to Defend Wrongful Convictions

June 23, 2022, 9:30 AM

Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. Today, we look at how much Chicago pays private attorneys to defend civil lawsuits brought by the wrongfully convicted. Sign up to receive this column in your inbox on Thursday mornings.

Chicago is dubbed the “wrongful conviction capital of the country” for a reason.

Notorious police commander Jon Burge tortured and abused at least 100 Black men while coercing confessions from 1972 to 1991, the city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has said.

His methods included administering electric shocks to victims’ genitals, suffocating them with typewriter covers, threatening them with loaded guns and burning them on radiators, a 2017 report by a group chaired by Lightfoot found. The state created a commission to review Burge torture claims.

Now a group of nearly 50 Chicago leaders is urging a judge to stop the city from paying millions to lawyers to deny this history when fighting lawsuits by people who did prison time for crimes they didn’t commit.

The denials are a costly form of double-talk, the group claims. It cites a Chicago Tribune report that the city has spent more than $200 million on lawyers’ fees defending cases involving police misconduct since 2004.

“The city is spending millions of dollars year after year to pay private attorneys from a small subset of law firms, when the outcome of these cases is essentially foretold,” the group, which includes business leaders and clergy, wrote.

City Liability

The group’s filing comes in a lawsuit brought by James Gibson, who alleges that Chicago police officers in 1989 tortured him to get him to confess to a double murder he didn’t commit.

Gibson, who is Black, was freed in 2019 after serving 29 years in prison. He has received a certificate of innocence for the two murders, which are now known to have been committed by another man.

The group is seeking what’s known as a Monell ruling from the judge in the case, Sara Ellis. Such a ruling is granted when there is a pattern or practice of wrongdoing.

Gibson’s lawyers argue the city’s and state’s acknowledgments of Burge’s torture should be enough to establish a pattern.

The legal maneuver, if successful, would hold the city liable for the actions of its police interrogators against Gibson.

It also could stop the city from litigating the issue in the future, speeding up other cases. So far, at least 25 lawsuits have been filed related to Burge. Plaintiffs would have to prove other elements, but not whether the pattern of abuse existed.

Chicago’s Defenses

Chicago is represented in the Gibson case by Reiter Burns, a local litigation boutique that has handled more Burge cases than any other law firm, according to a document filed by the group of Chicagoans.

The firm has advised the city on at least 17 cases since 2003, according to the group. The city has paid a total of $143 million in settlements or jury verdicts in those cases.

In their response to the Chicagoans’ concerns over the city’s litigation strategy, the Reiter Burns lawyers asked the judge to deny their request to be heard through an amicus brief.

The lawyers said the brief added no new evidence or information and was irrelevant to the Monell ruling.

The Reiter Burns lawyers did not respond to criticisms that the litigation strategy wasn’t financially sound.

Reiter Burns did not respond to an email request for comment.

A voicemail for Chicago’s law department went unreturned. City officials have in the past defended their litigation strategy, saying plaintiff’s lawyers ask for too much if there’s no pushback, and that the cost of outside lawyers is worth the expertise for fighting complex cases.

Other firms that have handled cases for Chicago include Jones Day, Greenberg Traurig, Dykema Gossett, and Hinshaw & Culbertson.

In one long-running fight over a case brought by a man later cleared of an arson that resulted in six deaths, the Tribune reported Jones Day and another local firm billed the city for more than 20,000 hours over five years and collected more than $6 million in fees. The case settled for more than $9 million.

Torture Allegations

Burge was fired in 1993 but never tried for any crimes due to a statute of limitations. He was convicted in 2010 of lying under oath during a civil suit that he hadn’t tortured prisoners. He served about three years in prison and died in 2018.

Gibson said in his account of Burge’s alleged actions that officers burned off a tattoo on his arm with an iron, kicked and punched him in the ribs, and deprived him of sleep, food and water in interrogations.

In a 2013 claim filed with the Burge torture commission, Gibson said he confessed to the double murder to “make the beatings stop.”

The commission ruled in 2016 that Gibson was entitled to a hearing on claims of torture and false confession.

Which brings us back to the Chicago leaders. They hope their Monell strategy will bring justice to Gibson and others who filed claims—and prevent future wrongdoing.

“If the City is allowed to continue denying Burge’s pattern of torture in court while ignoring its public admissions about that same pattern, police abuse will continue,” they wrote. “And Chicago will remain the wrongful conviction capital of the country.”

It will be interesting to see if Judge Ellis agrees.

Worth Your Time

On Big Law Pay: Williams & Connolly partner Ana Reyes, who’s been nominated to serve as a federal judge, reported income of nearly $2.8 million in 2021 and $2.1 million in 2020, Madison Alder reports.

On Big Law Moves: Eric Snyder, a Jones Day partner who advised former Attorney General William Barr during his deposition before the House Jan. 6 committee, has left to join McGuireWoods, Justin Wise reports.

On Hockey Lawyers: It’s a line shift for the legal departments of the National Hockey League teams competing for the Stanley Cup, Brian Baxter reports. A lawyer for the holding company connected to the Colorado Avalanche has departed while the Tampa Bay Lightning hired a lawyer.

That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com