The notoriously abusive Chicago police officer Jon Burge (top) was released on Friday. When Dana Feitler was found dead in 1989, Richard Zuley (top left) went looking for answers - with money to offer, and then a confession. 'I never signed anything,' Lee Harris (right) told the Guardian from prison. (illustration: Nate Kitch/Guardian UK)
How Chicago Police Condemned the Innocent: a Trail of Coerced Confessions
By Spencer Ackerman, Guardian UK
22 February 15
Before his interrogation tactics got supercharged on detainees in Guantánamo, Richard Zuley extracted confessions from minority Americans in Chicago – at least one leading to a wrongful conviction. Part two of a Guardian investigation finds a trail of dubious murder cases and a city considering the costs
Shackled by his wrist to the wall and by his ankle to the floor, Lathierial Boyd waited for the detective to return to the Chicago police station. In what he considered a sign he had nothing to hide, the 24-year-old Boyd had given the white detective permission to search his swank loft. It would be clear, he thought, that Boyd was no murderer.
Yes, Boyd had sold drugs when he was younger. But he had turned a corner with his life, and the contents of his briefcase, which Boyd had also handed over, could prove where his money came from. His business papers were in order: contracts for his real-estate business, tax documents, the forgettable dealings of a successful man – hardly what a killer might carry. As soon as Detective Richard Zuley came back, Boyd thought, he’d be free.
A quarter-century later, Boyd remembered Zuley’s words when the detective returned from his well-heeled home: “No nigger is supposed to live like this.”
Thanks to the police work of Dick Zuley, whom Boyd describes as “evil”, an innocent man was found guilty of murder. The evidence connecting Boyd to the shooting of two men was non-existent: a suspicious piece of paper, eyewitnesses ruling him out from the scene, evidence ignored.
The detective and the convicted businessman would see each other again: at a 2004 court hearing, Zuley described himself as “on a leave of absence” from the Chicago police department, “assigned to the Joint Task Force at Guantánamo”.
And then, in 2013, after Boyd lived half his life in prison, the state of Illinois exonerated him, admitting that he should never have been prosecuted in the first place.
A Guardian investigation into Zuley’s police record and thousands of court documents – forgotten paperwork from old cases in Chicago, a new civil-rights lawsuit in federal court and the detective’s interrogation work for the US military at Guantánamo Bay – has found that Boyd was far from alone in facing brutality and manipulated justice. If anything, he is alone in going free.
During his 30 years as a detective on Chicago’s north side and his time inside the wartime prison at Guantánamo, Zuley wanted confessions. Whether they were true or not is less definitive.
In conversations with the Guardian from jail, three other people Zuley sent to prison – people who insist upon their innocence – describe being shackled through eyebolts for hours on end to precinct walls, giving Zuley’s police work in Chicago echoes of his interrogation work at Guantánamo. Zuley pursued murder suspects, often poor and black, who were flimsily linked to crime. With Lathierial Boyd, he appears to have hidden disconfirming evidence. With another man, Lee Harris, he turned on his own informant.
Allegations stemming from interviews and court documents suggest a kind of beta test in the ugly history of Chicago police abuse – which has robbed black and poor Americans of their health and freedom and still costs taxpayers millions in civil-rights payouts – for both the worst excesses of torture in the war on terrorism and a trail of convictions based on dubious confessions born of brutality.
It is unclear how many cases Zuley investigated. Rob Warden, who founded Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, said he had never heard of Zuley. But based on patterns from other Chicago police investigators, he said, the number of people Zuley put in prison likely “runs well into the double digits, perhaps the triple digits”.
Chicago police have yet to fulfill a freedom-of-information request on Zuley’s personnel file, and detailed lists of questions from the Guardian to Zuley’s attorney and a Chicago police department spokesperson went unresponded. Zuley, through a spokeswoman at his current job at the Chicago department of aviation, declined to participate in this and stories published by the Guardian on Wednesday, despite repeated attempts.
Yet greater transparency may be on the horizon. The Cook County state’s attorney’s convictions-integrity unit is now examining another case involving Zuley, and is seeking his complaint file from a Chicago police-review board.
Zuley may be unique, Warden said, in being a police officer who “graduated from Chicago to Guantánamo”. As a top Guantánamo torture investigator, retired Army major general Mark Furlow, told the Guardian: “Zuley was one of those individuals in such a unique situation that our processes, system of checks and balances at that time were unable to provide clear guidance.”
But Chicago has a longstanding history of police abuse, much of it racialized.
“There have been a number of really bad apples in the Chicago police department who unquestionably have railroaded unknown numbers of innocent people into prison,” Warden said.
‘You help us and we’ll take care of you’: a windfall of abuse hits minorities in the Windy City – and Lee Harris.
Police tactics of the sort Zuley used stretch back decades. They have left generations of scars across Chicago’s black residents.
“Having fought against police torture and abuse in the courts here in Chicago for more than 45 years,” said local civil-rights lawyer Flint Taylor, “I have reached the inescapable conclusion that Chicago police violence is systemic, fundamentally racist, and disproportionately impacts the poor and communities of color.”
Most infamously, former Area 2 police commander Jon Burge ran literal torture chambers in the Chicago police precincts he commanded. Tactics of Burge’s included wiring detained people to a black box and electrocuting them – rumored to be a method he learned from his Vietnam service, called “the Bell telephone hour” – and beating them over the heads with telephone books. Burge was fired in 1993 for torturing a police murderer, but was only convicted in 2010 – not for his crimes, the statutes of limitations for which expired before prosecutors went after him, but for lying under oath about them.
Burge and Zuley both entered the Chicago police department in the early 1970s. Zuley became a detective in 1977, taking leaves of absences in the mid-80s to work for Naval intelligence and 2002 to interrogate at Guantanamo, before retiring in 2007. But they were assigned to different police areas: Burge at Area 2 on the south side, Zuley on the north side at what was alternatively known as Area 6 and Area 3.
Taylor, the civil rights attorney most associated with pursuing Burge, said he did not know of Burge and Zuley working together. But Chicago’s environment of police impunity has been widespread and persistent, according to criminologists.
From 1976 to 2011, payouts from 85 Illinois wrongful conviction cases, 55 of which were from Chicago, cost state taxpayers $214m. Statistics compiled by the People’s Law Office, Taylor’s civil rights firm focusing on police brutality, indicate that Chicago has paid over $64m in settlements and judgments in civil-rights cases related to Burge’s police abuses alone – though with associated lawyers’ fees, Burge’s estimated $705,000 pension and other city, county, state and even federal expenses, a true total might be closer to $102m.
Burge, who still denies torturing suspects or witnessing any abuse from his colleagues, was released from home monitoring on Friday, the denouement of his four-and-a-half-year prison sentence. A movement in Chicago seeks to establish a $20m reparations fund for victims of Burge’s torture.
But as Burge was removed from the force more than two decades ago, Lee Harris was just beginning a 90-year sentence for a major murder case Richard Zuley couldn’t seem to close without him.
“They played me like a fine-tuned fiddle,” Harris told the Guardian from prison in Pontiac, Illinois. “One guy who took me in and I thought was my friend introduced me to Zuley, and it was downhill all the way.”
Harris, 59, was convicted for what became known as the Gold Coast cash-station murder. In the pre-dawn hours of June 18, 1989, four men accosted and fatally shot Dana Feitler, a University of Chicago business school student, in her posh Gold Coast neighborhood. They murdered her for $400 they made her withdraw from an ATM.
Harris, who lived in the old Cabrini Green projects, was not initially a suspect. Instead, he was a police informant. Facing public pressure to close the case during the summer of 1989, Zuley and his partners turned to Harris to find the killers – or, as Harris put it, to listen to their descriptions of the killing and recycle it in his own words.
Zuley had the carrot and the stick ready for Harris. The carrot was a huge reward Feitler’s family was offering. Court papers allege that Zuley told Harris: “You’re only minutes away from being $20,000 richer.” The stick – as with Benita Johnson five years later in Chicago and Mohamedou Ould Slahi in Guantanamo come 2003 – was the would-be confessor’s family.
As he worked with police that summer and fall, Harris said, he became increasingly worried for the safety of his wife and children. Zuley agreed to put them all up in a series of hotels, sometimes paying with his personal American Express card, court documents show. Not far from Harris’ mind was the fear that if he didn’t cooperate sufficiently, the hotel stays would stop, and his family would be exposed to retaliation.
Police interview reports in September and October, acquired by the Guardian, show Harris changing his story, expanding his role and placing himself closer to the scene of the murder. Harris expresses a worry about his family as he shifted his account – as well as a fear that police would soon suspect him as the culprit.
“Zuley said, ‘Look, you help us and we’ll take care of you,’” Harris recalled from prison.
On October 26, Harris was picked up, taken to the police station, and told he would be charged with murder, armed robbery and kidnapping. Police, he said, pressed him to sign a confession, but he refused: “I never signed anything,” Harris said. His lawyer at the time, Chuck Hogren, flatly stated: “He did not sign any confession.”
The account of his last re-interview states that Harris was “reminded of his rights” but not that police read him his Miranda rights, which protect against self-incrimination. Harris insists they never did.
Zuley and his colleagues had neither a murder weapon, evidence nor eyewitnesses connecting Harris to the Feitler murder. (One eyewitness, who initially ID’d a different suspect, would later say she was “pretty sure” she saw Harris walking beside Feitler on the night of the murder.) But they had something else: a jailhouse snitch.
David Toles, who was 26 and locked up for burglary and auto theft at the time, said he overheard Harris in a Cook County jail dayroom confess to the murder shortly after he introduced himself to Harris, so they could play blackjack. “Toles related that Harris’s admissions upset him because what Harris did was wrong,” the police recorded the snitch explaining.
Despite Harris’s vociferous protestations that he would never say such a thing to a total stranger, and his public defender Andrea Lyon’s objections, Toles testified at Harris’s trial. Despite being in police custody at the time, he walked into court “through the front door” in view of Lyon, she told the court. He wasn’t the most credible witness: Toles promptly stated on the stand that he lied in order to get better housing placement in jail.
Asked if it was difficult to remember his lies, Toles stated to the court: “Well, not really, if it is for your own benefit.”
Conspicuously, after his testimony, Toles pleaded guilty on a burglary charge that and received a three-year sentence. He was paroled three weeks later.
In an undated and unsigned letter to Harris, delivered to his friend and former cellmate Robert Chattler, an enigmatic confession states: “I know you won’t be able to forgive me for what happen, but I want you to know I’m so very sorry for what you had to face all those years of your life.”
The letter continues: “This is not about me just signing some statement saying I made what Mr Harris is incarcerated for up it’s more serious then that.” [sic]
Chattler has lost the envelope. He swears the letter is from Toles. So did a former co-worker, John Innis, who remembered the letter and vouched for Toles’ authorship of it to the Guardian. Multiple attempts at contacting Toles, who now lives in Wisconsin, were unsuccessful.
Harris was sentenced in 1992. Zuley was quoted by the Chicago Tribune suggesting that the hunt for his alleged accomplices would continue. “The case is not closed,” he said. But 23 years later, Harris is the only one incarcerated for Feitler’s murder.
“Never in the history of the city of Chicago have three or four black men killed an affluent white woman and they charge one and forget about the rest,” Harris told the Guardian from his prison cell, where he still has 67 years remaining in his sentence.
‘Please look again’: a torrent of mysterious evidence makes its way to Lathierial Boyd
Almost 25 years ago, when Lathierial Boyd was 24, he heard from his family that police officers wanted to talk with him about a shooting. Rattled and confused, he heard his father tell him to watch out: police in Chicago beat black men savagely.
On February 24, 1990, a gunman had shot Michael Fleming and Ricky Warner near a Wrigley Field reggae club. Fleming died at the scene. Warner, who was shot in the back, was paralyzed and would die a few years later.
But Boyd wasn’t worried. He was on the other side of town, with his sister and her boyfriend, a Cook County corrections officer, when the murder happened. They had a quiet, early night, watching the Bulls game on TV and ordering pizza from Giordano’s. The detectives would see that, Boyd thought, and move on.
Without a lawyer – though he could afford one, he didn’t think he needed one – Boyd walked into the precinct on Belmont and Western and met Richard Zuley. Zuley “wasn’t acting like my friend,” Boyd recollected, but neither did he think Zuley was out to get him.
Zuley’s demeanor all changed, Boyd says, after he agreed to let the detective search his apartment: Zuley returned to the interrogation room, Boyd remembered, using racial epithets. Zuley was suspicious that a young black Chicagoan was living so well: it was, Boyd remembered Zuley saying, something “no nigger” did.
Boyd recalls being chained up, unable to leave for between five and six hours, while Zuley arranged for a lineup. He would stand in another as police tried to finger him for the shooting.
The eyewitness, Jennifer Bonanno, would describe police pressure to pick Boyd out of the lineup. Boyd was much taller and lighter skinned than the shooter she described. But an unnamed offer “was adamant,” Bonanno stated in a 2003 deposition. “Please look again, you know, I know you were standing right there. Please, look again. He just went on and on.”
Zuley’s suspicion of Boyd stemmed from an old cocaine debt that one of the victims, Ricky Warner, owed Boyd. It was just $500, and years old. Plus, Warner was shot in the back and initially said he didn’t know who shot him. Boyd said he had forgotten about the debt, and had even hung out with Warner later on. He was shocked into remembering when Zuley asked if he knew “Louie,” one of Warner’s aliases.
A prosecutor told Boyd he needed to confess. Boyd did not. He remembered Zuley using a black magic marker to write MURDER and ONE on Boyd’s hands. With that, Boyd got sent to the first of the jail cells that would be his home for the next 23 years. He does not remember ever being read his rights, or even formally being placed under arrest.
There was a host of contrary evidence that gave Boyd confidence. His sister and her boyfriend vouched for his alibi. Nor did he own the white Jaguar with the vanity license plate that Warner, who was shot in the back, suddenly recalled; Bonanno had described the shooter’s car as “copper or brown.”
But Boyd didn’t know about Bonanno. Zuley appears to have withheld knowledge of Bonanno, the witness who ruled Boyd out of the lineup. Boyd’s then-attorney, Robert Schroeder, later signed an affidavit stating he didn’t know about the lineup at all. Yet the police report for the lineup reads: “Persons present during lineup: Att Robert Schroeder representing Mr Lathierias [sic] Boyd.” A signature on it reads: “R Zuley.”
Still, Boyd’s prosecution had problems. It had no eyewitnesses and no murder weapon. But after the judge warned the prosecutor that the case wasn’t connecting Boyd to the killing, a piece of paper with a Federal Express logo materialized in Warner’ hospital room. On it was written “Rat,” Boyd’s nickname, a pager number reading 410-9158, and prices for different quantities of drugs.
The piece of paper was suspicious. A police report from the incident – a version of which bears Zuley’s signature – lists material found with the shooting victims. The only listing for a piece of paper reads: “1-white piece of paper with BREEZO & tel#329-4789 and unreadable printing on the obverse side.”
When contacted by the Guardian, Boyd’s cousin Joe Kelly recalled the slip of paper with the FedEx stamp. According to Kelly, Zuley was one of about five detectives who “raided” his apartment, with no search warrant, looking for a 9mm pistol to match shell casings at the scene.
“I can’t remember if the piece of paper was at my desk, or where it was at,” Kelly said. “It’s been a long time, I just can’t remember. But I know they did have that paper, they were asking me about it… I know they made a big deal out of that piece of paper.”
It was enough to get the case over the line. Found guilty on October 24, 1990, Boyd, still in disbelief that his life was ruined for a lie, was sentenced to 82 years. He expected to die in jail.
In prison, Boyd pored over his case to demonstrate his innocence. At an evidentiary hearing on April 29, 2004, he saw Zuley once more. But Zuley wasn’t dressed as a police officer: he wore his Navy dress uniform, and he was not referring to himself as a detective.
“Now I am Lieutenant Commander Richard Zuley, United States Navy,” he said, according to the transcript of the hearing. “I am assigned to the Joint Task Force at Guantánamo as an officer in charge of one of the teams down there for the intelligence collection.”
Boyd would remain in prison for nearly 10 more years.
“This guy is in another country torturing people, ordering people to be tortured,” Boyd told the Guardian in an on-camera interview. “So what do you think he would do to a nigger in a Chicago police station? I didn’t have a chance, man. Somebody that sick.”
‘We didn’t define the line’: a hurricane of brutality meets new justice
Zuley’s service at Guantánamo Bay ended in 2004 – around the same time that the first major interrogations scandals emerged in public view and prompted official inquiry. Years of scrutiny over the wartime prison – including official investigations by the Justice Department, Defense Department and the US Senate – made, at most, passing explicit reference to the detective and Navy reservist, his identity most often concealed.
One of those inquiries, however, featured a striking description of Zuley.
In July 2005, Air Force Lieutenant General Randall Schmidt and John Furlow, then an Army brigadier general, delivered an investigation of allegations of abuse at Guantánamo. It did not indict the chain of command. Schmidt would even praise Major General Geoffrey Miller, commander of Joint Task Force-Guantánamo during Zuley’s tenure, and said Miller “would not have approved” the 2003 torture of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, over which Zuley presided.
But that initial Guantanamo torture report treated Zuley as a villain (a “rogue guy”, Schmidt would say about Zuley, though not directly by name, in testimony first reported by the Wall Street Journal’s Jess Bravin) and recommended both disciplining him and opening a formal investigation into him under the Uniform Code of Military Justice – the military’s lawbook.
Furlow, speaking to the Guardian, said that he was unaware if the US military had ever disciplined Zuley.
Nor did Furlow ever actually interview Zuley, though Schmidt told the inspector general Furlow did. Furlow recollected that Zuley was off active duty as a reservist by the time of the investigation, and was “not available”. (According to a LinkedIn page associated with him, Zuley served as a senior instructor at the Chicago police department’s Terrorism Awareness and Response Academy, from August 2005 – one month after the Guantanamo report’s release – until his retirement in 2007.)
Furlow also defended some aspects of the Slahi investigation. “Information from Mr Slahi helped preserve the security of this country,” he told the Guardian.
But he continued: “I do not know if he crossed the line, because the line was blurred by survival needs of this nation.”
On September 5, 2013, two investigators working for the assistant state’s attorney for Cook County met Zuley at the Chicago department of aviation, where he now works. They asked him to contact the attorney, Shelly Keane, whose attempts at talking to him had been unsuccessful.
She wanted to discuss Lathierial Boyd.
At first, Zuley agreed to call Keane. But then, a summary written by the investigators noted, Zuley asked if there was some motion pending in a long-ago closed case – or was the state’s attorney looking into the Boyd case on her own?
When the investigators said there was no court action underway, their official report records a change in his demeanor: “Zuley then replied that he did not wish to comment on the case and that he would not be calling Keane.”
Five days later, Keane’s boss, Illinois state’s attorney Anita Alvarez, announced she was dropping all charges against Boyd, stating that he never should have been prosecuted. His lawyer arranged for him to be picked up from Western Illinois Correctional in Mount Sterling.
Twenty-three years after Boyd first met Detective Zuley, he was free. He spent half his life in prison, as well as most of the eyesight in his left eye thanks to botched prison medicine.
It was the result of what Fabio Valentini, the chief of the criminal convictions bureau in Alvarez’s office, described as a lengthy re-investigation. Valentini came to the case shortly after Alvarez created a convictions-integrity division in 2012. Boyd or an advocate wrote letters seeking aid, he recalled.
Everything underlying the conviction struck him as flimsy. The only person who had positively identified Boyd as the shooter was Ricky Warner, who initially said he didn’t know who shot him, as he was shot in the back. Others at the scene, like Bonanno from the police lineups, had ruled out Boyd as the shooter. All that “eventually caused us to come to the conclusion that in a case where there was little or no corroboration in the identification, it was a conviction that just couldn’t stand,” Valentini told the Guardian.
It may not be the only one. On Tuesday, court records showed that Alvarez’s wrongful-convictions unit is seeking a civilian complaints file compiled on Zuley by the independent police review board. It regards another case in the unit’s “examination” of Zuley’s detective work – which spans three decades.
Kathleen Zellner has filed a federal civil-rights claim on behalf of Lathierial Boyd. She also represents Andre Griggs, Benita Johnson and, most recently, Lee Harris. She said Boyd’s civil rights case will be necessary to deter future police abuses.
“The wrongful conviction civil rights cases are emerging as the most effective way to curb police abuse tactics,” Zellner said. “When it becomes cost-prohibitive to employ officers who frame innocent people, police departments will get rid of these officers or never hire them in the first place.”
Zellner is now attempting to rectify an investigative lapse by Zuley and others: using state-of-the art forensic and DNA testing to determine if Harris, Griggs and Johnson are guilty and innocent.
Much as Barack Obama likes to say that “America doesn’t torture”, the ugly history of his hometown demonstrates that it does – and that what happened in Chicago precinct rooms was sometimes a harbinger of what would happen in the Guantánamo cells Obama has pledged to close permanently.
Mark Fallon, deputy commander of the old Criminal Investigative Task Force at Guantánamo, said he has heard about Boyd’s case against Zuley. He said he was not “terribly surprised”.
“I don’t know whether he did it or not,” Fallon said, “but just the way that he approached interrogations at Guantánamo, if that’s any reflection of what he did in Chicago, it would not surprise me that he’s got a few issues going on right now.”
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