Massive spending to fight lawsuits over wrongful convictions could cost Chicago taxpayers $1 billion

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff and Christine Tressel WLS logo
Friday, May 19, 2023
Fight against wrongful conviction lawsuits could cost taxpayers $1B
Chicago spends years fighting wrongful conviction lawsuits from people with certificates of innocence, and it's costing taxpayers up to $1 billion.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Mayor Brandon Johnson is inheriting a long list of lawsuits against Chicago filed by wrongfully convicted people who have certificates of innocence, which are granted by a judge. One such case just settled for $14.5 million. Yet, the city's pattern of practice is to fight these cases for years, spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. The practice has been happening for decades.

Jacques Rivera spent 21 years in prison before being exonerated for the murder of a 16-year-old on Chicago's West Side. The sole witness eventually recanted.

"I was...overjoyed just to hear that he was willing to come forward to tell the truth," said Rivera.

A Cook County judge granted him a certificate of innocence in 2012, and then he sued the city. Six years later, a jury awarded Rivera $17 million. Rivera said that he asked the city's lead attorney, who worked for an outside firm, why they fight cases like his.

"He said the city's paying us anyways, to fight them. So, that's what we're going to do," said Rivera.

He told the I-Team he would have settled early on for much less.

"I was willing to walk away with $10 million," said Rivera.

Former federal prosecutor Ron Safer said the city is still following the same playbook today.

"How are we going to learn from mistakes if you deny that mistakes are ever made?" wondered Safer, who has been practicing as a defense attorney since he left the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Safer represented Eddie Bolden who was exonerated in 2016 and awarded a certificate of innocence.

"I went to the city initially and said, before we filed the lawsuit, I said, look, he's been in jail for 22 years. He would like his money now and he'll take a lot less now than what we'll get at trial," said Safer. "They offered nothing. He won a verdict of $25.2 million."

In April, he settled Arthur Brown's case against the city for $14.5 million. Before filing a lawsuit, Safer sent a letter to the corporation counsel.

"I wrote him a letter and I said, 'you've been quoted in the newspapers saying it is horrendous how much money the city is paying for these cases.' I said here's a perfect opportunity. Arthur is 67 years old. We will go to the jury and we will ask for tens of millions of dollars. But talk to us now, he will take a small fraction of that," said Safer. "They sent me back a letter that I have laminated by my desk that I've kept for years. It was that I had insulted them. I was unprofessional, you know, and they would offer nothing."

Since then, the city has paid outside law firms more than $3.2 million to fight Brown's case, according to information the I-Team received from a public records request.

"There are a group of firms that for years have been making tens of millions of taxpayer dollars defending indefensible cases," said Andrew M. Stroth, who represents James Gibson. "He was convicted of a double murder he didn't commit. He spent 29 years, four months seven days in maximum security prisons."

Gibson filed a federal lawsuit against the city in 2019 and is expected to go to trial next year.

"The big issue for Brandon Johnson is there's at least 17 cases behind the James Gibson case where the plaintiff has a certificate of innocence," said Stroth. "So, it's our estimate that hundreds of millions, or even more than a billion dollars of lawsuits are facing the city of Chicago."

"Let's get people paid who were thrown in jail for crimes they didn't commit because there were corrupt police officers," said Safer.

"It wasn't about the money with me. It was about justice. It was about purification and making a wrong, right," Rivera said.

Mayor Johnson did not respond to the I-Team's requests for an interview. The City's Law Department also declined. They handle these cases and the settlements. Mayor Johnson has yet to appoint someone to lead the office.

Arthur Brown's multi-million dollar settlement is expected to be presented to the finance committee next month.