Says he confessed to 1990 murder after police torture.
By: Steve Schmadeke, Chicago Tribune: October 15th, 2015
After spending nearly a quarter-century behind bars for a murder he says he did not commit, Shawn Whirl on Wednesday walked out of state prison a free man, the latest Cook County conviction to dissolve under claims of a coerced confession.
Thanks to his attorney, Whirl left prison in a dress shirt and tie, not his dingy prison-issued sweat clothes, the first time since his 1991 trial. The only problem, he said in a telephone interview, was he no longer remembered how to knot a tie.
“The major of the prison helped me tie (it),” said Whirl, marveling a bit at how someone in authority had assisted him. He said it was a sign of the positive way he carried himself behind bars, never losing hope as the years slipped away.
“When you know in your heart that you’re innocent of something, how can you give up?” said Whirl, 46. “So I couldn’t give up. As long as I had breath in my body, I would just continue to fight, regardless that all of my cries had been stifled by the courts.”
Whirl walked out of the Hill Correctional Center in downstate Galesburg shortly after noon, smiling broadly as he held hands with his mother and fiancee. Whirl said he fell in love with Gloria Castaneda after her son, who was locked up at the same prison, asked him to meet her.
Whirl’s mother, Erma, will turn 79 in a few weeks.
“What greater gift can a mother have than to see her youngest child come home?” Whirl said.
One of his attorneys, Tara Thompson of the University of Chicago Exoneration Project, said his legal team would decide in the coming weeks whether to pursue a certificate of innocence or file a lawsuit.
Whirl was 20 when he was arrested in 1990 for the murder of taxi driver Billy G. Williams, a married father of three who was found shot in the head in his cab in Chicago’s Far South Side Pullman neighborhood.
Whirl alleged that while both his hands cuffed to a wall at the then-Area 2 police headquarters on the South Side, a detective who had once worked under disgraced Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge repeatedly slapped his face as he denied involvement.
The detective, identified in court papers as James Pienta, then dug a key into an existing wound on his leg over and over again and once put a potato chip bag over his head to stifle his screams, according to Whirl.
Whirl said that he finally agreed to confess but that Pienta continued to slap him and scrape his leg injury as he struggled to remember the details of the confession being fed to him by the detective.
In court, Whirl told a judge he was innocent but pleaded guilty to murder and armed robbery to avoid the death penalty.
He had served more than 24 years of his 60-year sentence at the time of his release.
The case took a circuitous path through the courts. After losing his initial appeals, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, created to investigate abuse allegations against Burge and detectives under his supervision, found Whirl’s claims credible in 2012. The commission held that Whirl had consistently alleged torture and that his allegations were “strikingly similar” to those of other Burge victims.
Pienta, who is no longer with the department, had also been accused of torture by others, the commission said.
The case was sent back to circuit court. Last year, Judge Jorge Alonso, since appointed to the federal bench, denied Whirl a new trial, ruling that he didn’t find him credible and noting that Burge had left Area 2 several years before the alleged torture.
But in August, an appellate court overruled the judge, finding that without Whirl’s questionable confession, the prosecution case was “nonexistent.”
The appellate panel also found that Pienta’s decision to assert his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination at Whirl’s evidentiary hearing could be used against him.
The only physical evidence tying Whirl to the murder was his fingerprint on the exterior of the taxi, but the appellate court noted that Whirl had never denied riding in Williams’ cab the day of his murder.
With the case crippled without the confession, a Cook County special prosecutor handling Burge-related cases decided Tuesday not to retry Whirl, leading to his release.
In his first meal on the outside, Whirl ate shrimp and lobster tails at a seafood chain restaurant with his mother and fiancee as well as his attorneys and University of Chicago law school students who helped with his appeal.
“I was glad to eat something that did not contain soy,” Whirl joked in the telephone interview. “It was nice to sit with real people and have a real conversation.”
Whirl sat next to his fiancee, who had come to visit him in prison nearly every week since they met three years ago, he said.
“I’m very blessed to have her in my life,” Whirl said.
Whirl said he never really fit in at prison. Refusing to affiliate with a gang, he chose instead to better himself, earning a law clerk certificate and working for years in the prison law library.
He hopes to be a role model now that he’s rejoining society.
“The lowest you can go is to be a prisoner, that’s the lowest you can be,” he said. “And if they can see that someone has made it, maybe it’s hope for them.”