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Commentary: What justice looks like in Chicago

By Gabriel Montero |
January 15, 2020

Chicago, IL - In a pair of upcoming cases, Associate Judge Thomas Hennelly will have the fate of three wrongfully convicted men in his hands. Given who put them behind bars, his rulings could send a signal that Chicago has firmly turned its back on the legacy of police torture and wrongful convictions that hangs over the city. But, given Hennelly’s direct involvement in prosecuting police torture victims and his attempt to hide racist constitutional violations, Chicagoans would be remiss to expect impartiality from the bench.

In one of the cases, that of Gerald Reed, Hennelly is deciding whether a man tortured by the infamous Jon Burge police crew – tortured to the point of having his leg broken – and tried solely on the basis of a false confession should be subjected to the injustice of a second baseless trial, after his original sentence was vacated. In the other, he is deciding whether evidence of wrongdoing warrants a special hearing for Juan and Rosendo Hernandez, two brothers who were framed by Detective Reynaldo Guevara, who has had 20 convictions tossed so far.

Burge and Guevara are the two most infamously abusive and corrupt cops in modern Chicago history, the twin terrors of police crimes in Chicago, accused of torturing, framing and wrongfully convicting hundreds of Black and brown men. Two cases involving the CPD’s most offensive stains and one judge who could change the course of so much, a judge whose very election to the bench is tainted by an attempted cover-up of a racist act.

Who is Judge Thomas Hennelly? Is he an impartial arbiter of the law, ruling from the rarified air of the bench, cozily removed from the slime and the muck of police and prosecutorial corruption? Hardly.

Elected to the circuit court in 2005, Hennelly is part of the small club that rules over criminal justice in Chicago. He was at the heart of the prosecutor’s office under Richard Devine that used torture confessions taken by Detective Burge and his crew. He started out in the Felony Review office and eventually became a supervisor in the Gang Crimes Unit. After leaving Gang Crimes, Hennelly became Chief Deputy of the Special Prosecutions office.

In that role, Hennelly’s boss at the time was a man named Robert Milan – a former prosecutor with his own disturbing approach to criminal justice, including defending a CPD detective with a voluminous history of abuse allegations and personally sitting with police to take confessions from the Dixmoor Five, a group of teens who were subjected to hours of intimidation before falsely confessing to rape and murder. Though wrongfully convicted, all five were exonerated years later on the basis of DNA evidence found at the scene, which came from a known serial rapist.

Milan has also called for the military occupation of entire Black neighborhoods in Chicago, with entrances sealed off, military check points erected, drones overhead filming residents’ every move, and 8000 National Guard troops sent in to patrol the streets of the South and West sides. “I’m here to help these poor people who are poverty-stricken and living in rough places,” Milan said of his plan. “When you start using words like ‘occupy’ or ‘militarize’ or ‘tanks rolling down the street’ – when you package it that way, you’re gonna get a lot of pushback. The way this thing should be packaged is: protection, protection, protection…”

Milan’s relationship with Hennelly epitomizes what is wrong with the justice system in Chicago. Because of conflicts of interest that tainted the entire prosecutor’s office under former State’s Attorney Richard Devine – who had personally represented Jon Burge – the court assigned the cases to a special prosecutor, but declined to take these cases away from Cook County judges, 198 of whom were former prosecutors.

But in Gerald Reed’s case, the special prosecutor assigned to the case is none other than Robert Milan, Hennelly’s former boss and the career Assistant State’s Attorney (ASA) who prosecuted men tortured by Burge and rose to become the chief deputy of the entire prosecutor’s office under Richard Devine. And now Milan comes to court day after day asking his former employee to keep Gerald Reed in prison. So far, Judge Hennelly is letting him. For over a year, Hennelly has allowed his former boss to delay and obfuscate, even granting Milan a continuance because he didn’t bother to read a motion Reed had submitted in advance.

Gerald Reed’s case is not the first time Milan and Hennelly have worked together to keep an innocent man behind bars. During their time as prosecutors, the two men fought to keep Aaron Patterson in prison even after ample evidence of his torture by Detective Jon Burge came to light. Patterson was sentenced to death, but eventually exonerated by Governor Pat Ryan because the evidence showed that Milan and Hennelly had built a case that rested entirely on a false confession.

Hennelly’s pattern of denying police torture is well-documented, including in the case of Kevin Murray, who – like Gerald Reed – was convicted on the basis of a forced confession and whose torture claim was upheld in 2017 by the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Review Commission (TIRC). Hennelly, then an ASA trying to prosecute Murray, sought to cast the victim as a liar. Commenting on Murray’s claims of being tortured into confessing by CPD Detective Kriston Kato, Hennelly told the Chicago Tribune, “You are getting a parade of murderers who come in and say Kato is a beater,” adding, “It's a lot of nonsense.”

In 2002, a CPD detective blew the whistle on Kato to Internal Affairs, documenting how he elicited a false confession from a suspect in a rape case, hitting the homeless man with such force that the whistleblower thought the man would likely die from the blow. Despite being accused for decades of torturing suspects, the CPD treated Kato as a miracle detective who could find suspects willing to confess within days of taking up old cases. To date, five murder convictions based on confessions he obtained have been overturned because of torture evidence.

Maybe the most disturbing part about Hennelly’s story is how he became a judge in the first place. As a prosecutor, Hennelly had committed a Batson violation, an egregious constitutional violation that involves striking minority jurors on the basis of their race in order to ensure an all-white jury. (Batson violations have been in the national spotlight of late, due to the case of Curtis Flowers.)

Thomas Hennelly and his partner in the prosecutor’s office, John Hynes, struck all but one of the Black jurors from their case for no reason other than their race. They tried to hide their racist action, but an Illinois Appellate Court was unconvinced of their defense and overturned the conviction of Johnny Walls and Charles Byrd as a result, citing a Batson violation. But Hennelly never disclosed this fact when applying to become a judge, something noted by the Chicago Council of Lawyers in their evaluation of him: “The Council is troubled, however, that [Hennelly] determined that it was not necessary to disclose on his judicial evaluation application that he was involved earlier in his career in a case where a Batson violation was found by a reviewing court.” Hennelly’s partner was the subject of an Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) investigation following a series of Chicago Tribune articles that revealed that he, too, failed to disclose this Batson violation when he applied for a judgeship, years before Hennelly. In Hennelly’s case, no investigation was ever launched, and he sailed into office.

Given Hennelly’s pattern of suppressing torture evidence and denying the accused their constitutional rights to justice, are we to simply assume he has now found an impartiality and fairness he failed to display as a prosecutor?

This year, Chicagoans will decide whether to re-elect State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who has explicitly decided to take the prosecutor’s office down a different path, away from its besmirched legacy, by undoing the work of men like Burge and Guevara and Hennelly and Milan. In total, Foxx has exonerated over 70 wrongfully convicted prisoners. But with the likes of Hennelly and Milan continuing to operate the system from both sides of the bench, we can’t just hope that legacy will be undone. Instead, we have to organize and demand that Hennelly and Milan and the others like them - who have aided, abetted, covered up, and profited from the torture and egregious violations of Black and brown men – are kept far from the operation of justice in this city, where they have no place.