- Brooke Hummer
Update: At the City Council meeting on July 22, finance committee chairman Scott Waguespack announced he wouldn’t advance Green’s settlement to a final vote. He also said that he sent a proposed ordinance for the city’s own release of all police misconduct records to aldermen. The settlement in Green’s case won’t be up for a vote again until the fall.
Charles Green was just 16 years old when he was convicted of a gruesome 1985 quadruple murder. There was scant evidence for the charges, and the confession he claimed was coerced from him by Chicago Police Department detective John Summerville after 27 hours of questioning contradicted the statements of one of the victims (who'd survived long enough to give a statement). However, her testimony was suppressed by Cook County prosecutors at Green's trial, and the teen was sentenced to life in prison for allegedly taking $25 to ring the victims' doorbell for the convicted killer, Derrick House. In 2009, after 24 years in prison, Green was released because House's conviction had been overturned. But that didn't clear Green's name. He set out to dig up records about the cops who'd built the case against him, including Summerville, who was convicted in the mid-90s for sexually abusing women during traffic stops.
In order to bolster his innocence claims, in 2015 Green filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all Chicago police misconduct records. The request was simple, but captured the entire universe of misconduct records the department would have going back to 1967. "Mr. Green is making this request in order to help him discover evidence of his innocence and to preserve and disseminate evidence of innocence to others wrongfully convicted," his lawyer, Jared Kosoglad, wrote in the FOIA request.
It would have been a no-brainer for the city to reject this request for being "unduly burdensome." But, as often happens when ordinary citizens file FOIA requests, the city didn't respond at all. And because they didn't they lost their right to claim the request was too burdensome. So Green went to court to force the city to comply.
For the next five years Kosoglad and the city haggled over the terms of the records release. Finally, Cook County judge Alison Conlon had enough of the city's stalling, finding that it "willfully and intentionally failed to comply." She ordered the city to pay a $4,000 fine for violating the state FOIA law and produce 3,000 misconduct records per month beginning with the four most recent years from the time of Green's original FOIA request.
Standing in the way of the immediate release of older records was the fact that Chicago's biggest police union was arguing in a different lawsuit—one filed against the city by journalist and police transparency advocate Jamie Kalven—that cops' misconduct records should be destroyed after five years and therefore cannot be released even if they still exist. Last month the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in Kalven's favor, invalidating the record destruction clause of the police union contract. The records in Green's case would have to be released, and Kalven's Invisible Institute was planning to incorporate all of them into their easily searchable public database, the Citizens Police Data Project.
After Conlon's order, the city first tried to settle the case and pay Green (thereby escaping compliance) last February, but he refused. Two weeks ago, after the Illinois Supreme Court decision in Kalven's lawsuit, the city came back to Green with a heftier settlement offer—$500,000. This is money that Green simply isn't in a position to turn down, explains his attorney. Though this payout isn't tied to an exoneration and doesn't actually clear his name or compensate him for the abuse he suffered at the hands of police, as a convicted felon with severely impaired eyesight, and nearly an entire adult life shaped by incarceration, Green is now in dire financial straits.
"Charles has been interested in one thing and one thing only, it's his innocence," says Kosoglad, "but he's poor, he's a felon, he doesn't have a lot of income opportunities and this is a huge windfall for him."
The settlement can't go through until the City Council approves it, however. On Monday, it came before the council's finance committee, with first assistant corporation counsel Renai Rodney telling aldermen that it was Green who wanted the money and characterizing Kosoglad as unwilling to negotiate on the scope and manner of the record release. In response to this Kosoglad issued a stark rebuke to the city on Monday, disputing Rodney's claims.
"One of the big mischaracterizations was that we're unwilling to discuss how to narrow the request," Kosoglad said. "We asked, 'Can we see how much information they're dealing with, how many files were involved in this request.' They kept saying 'We have no clue.' They spent 18 months of this case telling the judge that they were preparing records to produce to us. And then they changed their minds . . . now the city is paying a convicted quadruple murderer half a million dollars so that he can't have evidence of his innocence."
There is a world in which Green could both be compensated and the records could be released, and that's if the settlement is delayed for a few months while the city crafts a legally binding plan for releasing the records independently. This is how consent decrees work—under threat of a court order to comply with, say, reforming a police department, a city commits to making certain changes and faces court sanctions if they don't. Green is willing to enter into such an arrangement, releasing his right to the records and taking the money if the city needs more time to come up with its own plan for their release. But Rodney said delaying the settlement was risky because though the city is appealing the judge's order, the appeal could come back in Green's favor and he could change his mind about the settlement. She also said the release of the records would take ten years and $8 million—an estimate which was perhaps meant to dissuade aldermen from voting against the settlement but sounded quite reasonable to some.
"[This] seems a small price to pay toward the accountability and transparency that we need," said 49th Ward alderwoman Maria Hadden. "From the outside if we pay the settlement it looks like hush money."
While some aldermen argued that Green needed to be compensated for the injustices he suffered as soon as possible, others said they were voting against because they saw a delay as beneficial for forcing the police department to release the records. Ultimately, eight aldermen voted against the settlement (Dowell, King, Sawyer, Mitchell, Garza, Reboyras, Silverstein, Hairston), and 21 voted for it (Hopkins, Harris, Beale, Thompson, Quinn, Moore, Curtis, O'Shea, Brookins, Tabares, Scott, Burnett, Ervin, Taliaferro, Mitts, Sposato, Reilly, Smith, Tunney, Osterman, Waguespack). The final approval will come to a vote before the full council on Wednesday and will need 26 votes to pass.
Finance Committee chair Scott Waguespack promised to introduce legislation on Wednesday to make all police misconduct records (which remain FOIA-able on a case-by-case basis) open to the public. But without pressure from the court that would come from Green's settlement still being open, the public will have to trust the city to do this on its own, in its own time.
"It's really hard to accept what we're being offered here, which is essentially a 'trust me,'" says Kalven. "The idea that in 24 hours the alderman can produce legislation that will have any meaning at all and be enforceable is really hard to comprehend." Kalven and his legal team spent months crafting the process by which police misconduct records would be released in his own lawsuit. "With all due respect to the alderman, it was just a transparent move to grease the skids for the city to buy its way out from under Judge Conlon's order."
Kalven added that he believes Mayor Lori Lightfoot's administration may be sincere about their willingness to release the records but that commitment "has to be operationalized, it has to be made a matter of concrete and thoughtful policy . . . It seems to me that all parties have indicated a willingness to engage in that kind of negotiation, but the space in which that might occur is about to collapse if the city buys its way out of the lawsuit. If the City Council steps up it can break with its long history of facilitating the police department's evasions of accountability and transparency." v