Illinois Man Tortured into Murder Confession Freed After Serving 25 Years

by: Jonathan Hunter Special to the Afro
/ (Courtesy of The Exoneration Project) /
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Shawn Whirl, right, hugs his mother, Erma Whirl, after walking out of Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Illinois shortly after noon on Wednesday. Whirl had spent nearly 25 years wrongfully imprisoned as the result of a false confession coerced by police torture. (Courtesy of The Exoneration Project)

A man who served 25 years in prison for a murder he said he was forced to confess to walked out of Hill Correctional Center in Illinois a free man on Oct. 14.

According to The Galesburg Register Mail, Shawn Whirl, now 45, was convicted of shooting and killing a cab driver named Billy G. Williams in Chicago in 1990. Whirl says he was tortured into giving a false confession by former Chicago Police Detective James Pienta.

The Huffington Post reported that, while in custody, Whirl was stepped on, slapped in the face and called a racial slur by Pienta. Pienta allegedly forced Whirl to change his story, and while Whirl maintained his innocence, Pienta continued the abuse by stabbing Whirl’s legs with a set of keys. Whirl’s girlfriend was being questioned at the same time and could hear him shouting, according to the Huffington Post.

Whirl was questioned by police because his fingerprints were found in the back of Williams cab. Whirl told police that, two days before being interrogated, he hopped in the taxi driver’s car to escape gang members who were trying to rob him for his hat and jacket.

Whirl later agreed to sign a confession to Williams’ murder. His lawyers advised him to plead guilty because the state would seek the death penalty; the guilty plea would place Whirl behind bars for 60 years.

With the false confession, prosecutors came up with the motive that Whirl was having money issues and was struggling to pay his rent, leading him to rob and shoot Williams.

An Appellate Court overturned Whirl’s conviction in August. Whirl was the first person given a new trial as a result of a referral from the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, according to the Huffington Post. The Post reported that the commission was founded in 2009 to correct the wrongful convictions of people tortured into confessions under former police commander Jon Burge. For nearly three decades, spanning from the 1970’s to the early 1990’s, Burge and his detectives tortured nearly 200 men into false convictions.

Tara Thompson, Whirl’s lawyer and a member of the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project, told the Register Mail that she was thrilled with the results of the trial.

“I think that Shawn’s case is proof that it’s not too late for those of us that are making sure people who were tortured into giving confessions can still have their day in court, can still find release,” she said. “And I hope Shawn’s case brings hope to other people that it’s not too late.”

The Exoneration Project is a non-profit organization at the University of Chicago, where law students work to help those that were falsely convicted of a crime, according to the Register Mail.

According to Flint Taylor, another attorney representing Whirl, the recently-released man has several options. He could seek a certificate of innocence, which expunges and seals his record, or file a civil suit over his wrongful conviction and torture; however, any award would likely be capped at approximately $200,000, Taylor told the Huffington Post.

Whirl served half of his life in prison, and said he knows that it will take time for him to adjust to his new surroundings, but has no bad feelings towards anyone.

“God is not through with me yet and he hasn’t brought me this far for no reason at all,” Whirl told the newspaper. “I don’t hold any bitterness, or anger, or animosity because I don’t have room for it, but I do have room for growth. As long as I have good people around me to help me achieve what I need to achieve in life I think I’ll be OK.”

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