Lee Harris cooperated with CPD detectives after the brutal Gold Coast murder of Dana Feitler, a crime which at the time created a “media sensation.” His reward for cooperating – a police frame-up for murder.
Mr. Harris alleges that Chicago Police Detectives—including CPD Det. Richard Zuley, who later implemented sadistic interrogation tactics on detainees at Guantanamo Bay—interrogated, threatened, and ultimately framed him for murder.
CHICAGO – Lee Harris, who spent over three decades in prison for a crime he did not commit, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit today against notorious Chicago Police Department Detective Richard Zuley, fellow police officers, and a Cook County Assistant States Attorney who allegedly framed him for murder to “solve” a heater murder case. Harris was arrested at age 34, and walked free as an exoneree at age 67.
The case had all the ugly hallmarks of race and class that bitterly divided Chicago in the 1990s. A white woman, U of C grad student murdered in an alley of the city’s wealthiest neighborhood. The alleged killer, a Black man from nearby Cabrini Green, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods that was undergoing a controversial demolition, gentrification and forced removal of most of its Black residents.
CPD Detective Richard Zuley, named as a defendant in today’s lawsuit, later worked as an interrogator at Guantanamo Bay where he oversaw the horrific, brutal interrogation of detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Today’s lawsuit alleges that Det. Zuley used similar tactics behind closed doors on innocent Black and Brown Chicagoans during his tenure as a Chicago Police Detective. Zuley has since been the subject of investigations by international journalists and the 2008 investigation into military torture by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Lee Harris was part of the glue that held the desperately poor Cabrini Green neighborhood together. He coached girls’ softball games and sponsored the Black Olympics in the neighborhood, and frequently cooperated with police to help prevent crime in the violent neighborhood. His reward for that cooperation? Police manipulation of his statements to frame him for murder while the real killer, whom the police suspected, went free.
No physical evidence ever connected Mr. Harris to the crime and the only evidence introduced at his trial was later shown to be entirely fabricated by Chicago police officers who knew Mr. Harris was innocent. Over a period of months, Mr. Harris was pressured into giving over twenty different statements to Chicago Police Department officers. Detective Zuley and a cast of other Area Six officers broke down Mr. Harris until he falsely implicated himself in Ms. Feitler’s murder.
Police withheld evidence pointing to the real killer from Harris’ defense team and wrote perjurious police reports that landed him with a 90 year sentence in maximum security prison. After his trial, Harris and his family consistently maintained his innocence during the decades that followed.
During the 1990s and into the new century, more and more evidence piled up against Detective Zuley, who became “known for obtaining confessions from suspects by torture.” Besides torture and other gross misconduct as part of the CPD, as an officer in the US Naval Reserve in the post-9/11 “war on terror,” he allegedly also orchestrated the interrogation plan and torture of Mohamedou Slahi, a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, “one of the most brutal ever conducted at the US wartime prison.” Zuley’s plan against Slahi included sexual assaults, sensory deprivation, physical abuse and torture, and violent rape threats against his mother. Today’s lawsuit outlines seven other cases of brutal CPD misconduct by Zuley, including shackling witnesses to walls for days, using racial slurs and threats, preventing witnesses from accessing critical medication, and physically abusing the people he interrogated.
Mr. Harris’ long road to exoneration began with friends working to reinvestigate his case. Attorney Jennifer Blagg and independent journalist Tori Marlan upped the pressure by digging out evidence of Zuley’s rampant perjury in Harris’ case. Finally on March 23rd of this year, Cook County prosecutors agreed to post conviction relief of Harris, and Cook County Judge Diana Kenworthy nixed his conviction and ordered his release. After a 33 year ordeal, Mr. Harris walked out of Stateville Maximum Security Prison that evening. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maurice Possley reported, “‘I’ve been unjustly convicted of a crime I had no part in,’ Harris said upon his release. ‘I trusted the wrong people and that’s what got me a 90-year sentence.'”
During his decades of wrongful imprisonment, Lee’s friends and family members passed away, including Lee’s wife and older brother. Lee was also unable to participate in his son Jermaine’s life, missing Jermaine’s childhood and all the opportunities, activities, and mentorship that come with being a parent. Lee was arrested the day before Jermaine turned 7 years old; when Lee was released, Jermaine was already 40.
Jennifer Blagg and her team have been leaders in winning post-conviction relief for wrongfully convicted people, writing winning appeals for those wrongfully convicted, and zealously defending those facing trial. Loevy + Loevy is one of the nation’s largest civil rights law firms, and over the past decade has won more multi-million-dollar jury verdicts than any other civil rights law firm in the country.
A copy of today’s suit, Lee Harris v. Richard Zuley, James Ward, John McHugh, William Callaghan, Thomas Keane, James Cradick, Thomas Blomstrand, Terry O’Connor, Julius Nelson, Michael Wick, Wayne Johnson, Anthony Villardita, the City of Chicago, Cook County State’s Attorney Cheryl Cesario and Cook County, Case No. 23-cv-14220 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, can be found here.