Alleged victim of cop torture set to be freed after 24 years
By: Steve Schmadeke, Chicago Tribune: October 14th, 2015
A man who alleged he confessed to murder because of torture by a Chicago police detective is likely to walk out of prison a free man Wednesday after more than 24 years behind bars, his attorneys said.
A Cook County special prosecutor decided against retrying Shawn Whirl, 46, two months after an Illinois appeals court threw out his murder conviction.
“How do I feel?” Whirl’s attorney, Tara Thompson, said he told her by phone from prison after learning the news. “Relieved, but also nervous because this feels surreal.”
Whirl is scheduled to be released Wednesday from Hill Correctional Center in downstate Galesburg, his attorneys said.
The Illinois Appellate Court overruled a former Cook County judge in August and threw out Whirl’s 1991 murder conviction.
The court said it was “impossible to conceive” how prosecutors would be able to use Whirl’s confession at a new trial.
Whirl had alleged he was tortured into confessing by former Detective James Pienta, who had worked under disgraced former police Cmdr. Jon Burge.
The appellate court found that Pienta, who invoked his Fifth Amendment right at Whirl’s evidentiary hearing, had long been involved “in a pattern of torture” of suspects.
Whirl alleged that his hands were cuffed to a wall at the then-Area 2 police headquarters as Pienta repeatedly slapped his face when he denied being involved in the 1990 murder of cabdriver Billy G. Williams, a married father of three who was found shot in his taxi in the Pullman neighborhood.
The detective then repeatedly dug a key into an existing wound on Whirl’s leg and put a potato chip bag over his head once to stifle his screams, according to Whirl.
Even after Whirl agreed to confess, Pienta slapped him and scraped his leg injury when he struggled to recall the confession details being fed to him by the detective, Whirl alleged.
The appeals court found that the prosecution case was “nonexistent” without the confession. The only physical evidence was Whirl’s fingerprint on the exterior of the taxi, but Whirl had never denied riding in Williams’ cab that day, the court found.
The case had been sent back to Circuit Court in 2012 after the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission found Whirl’s claims credible.