Shawn Whirl who served 25 years in prison for a murder he said he was forced to confess to, walked out of prison October 14th. Whirl, now 45, was convicted of shooting and killing taxi driver Billy Williams in 1990. Whirl said former Chicago Police Detective James Pienta tortured him until he confessed. Whirl was stepped on, slapped, and Pienta yelled racial slurs at him. Pienta allegedly forced Whirl to confess when Whirl professed his innocence. Pienta also stabbed Whirl in the legs with his keys. Whirl’s girlfriend was also at the police station and reported hearing him screaming out. Police questioned Whirl because his fingerprints were found in the taxi. Whirl told police that two days before he had hopped in the taxi to escape gang members who were trying to rob him. Whirl’s lawyers advised him to plead guilty because he confessed and the state planned to pursue the death penalty. Whirl was sentenced to 60 years.
Using Whirl’s false confession, prosecutors formulated the motive for the crime. Whirl was having financial issues and struggling to pay his rent so he robbed Williams.
An appeals court overturned Whirl’s conviction in August. Whirl was the first defendant given a new trial as the result of the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission investigations. The commission was founded in 2009 to correct wrongful convictions of people who were tortured by the police especially under Police Commander Jon Burge. The cases span 3 decades, from the 1970s through the 1990s. Burge and his detectives are suspected of torturing 200 men.
Tara Thompson, Whirl’s lawyer and a member of the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project said, “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…I hope Shawn’s case brings hope to other people…”
The Exoneration Project is a non-profit organization at the University of Chicago, where law students work to help prisoners who profess their innocence. Whirl could pursue a certificate of innocence, which will expunge and seal his records, or he could file a wrongful conviction and torture lawsuit, but any damages would be capped at $200,000.
Whirl has served half of his life in prison and said he knows that it will be hard to adjust, “God is not through with me yet and he hasn’t brought me this far for no reason…I don’t hold any bitterness, or anger, or animosity because I don’t have room for it…I think I’ll be OK.”