Lawsuit says officers framed him for murder at age 17

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Man sues Chicago cops after conviction tossed out

By Erick Johnson

A Chicago man on February 12 filed a lawsuit against several Chicago police officers, two years after an Illinois Appeals Court vacated his murder conviction that kept him in prison for 23 years for a crime he did not commit.

The lawsuit renews concerns about retired Detective Kriston Kato, who served the Area 4 District on the West Side for decades before he retired in 2006.

Kato gained praise among peers and prosecutors for his high conviction rate and interrogation skills. He also racked up dozens of allegations of torturing and abusing innocent men to force them to falsely confess to crimes. Many who were sent to prison later had their convictions tossed out.

The other cop named in the lawsuit is Kato’s partner, Sgt. Samuel Cirone. A 29-year veteran on the force, Cirone was one of nearly two dozen officers named in a 2004 lawsuit alleging they conspired to cover up a fatal incident caused by the nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

The lawsuit also names Officers Patricia Sawczenko, John Farrell, Sgt. Chasen M. Cronin, J. Rawski, Sgt. J. Risley and several unknown officers as defendants.

Bernard Williams

The plaintiff, Bernard Williams, who filed a 30-page lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, seeks a jury trial.

In the lawsuit, Williams alleged that decades ago Kato and Cirone conspired and framed him for a murder after they manufactured evidence and coerced a false confession from a man with mental health problems.

Williams said it happened when he was a 17-year-old student at what is now Near North Career Metropolitan High School, and while he was working in his family’s store.

According to the lawsuit, on August 23, 1996, Gary Thomas was shot and killed as he stood on the sidewalk in front of Wash’s Lounge, a tavern in the West Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago. Thomas was standing outside with Eric Smith, Martinoe Powell, and Powell’s young son. Smith, Powell, and his son were not injured, but three bystanders were also hit during the shooting.

Police officers arrived at the scene and spoke with one of the victims who identified the shooters as two Black males, approximately 18-19 years old, average height.

At the hospital, Defendant Sawczenko and two other detectives spoke to Martinoe Powell. Powell stated that he did not recognize the shooters. According to the lawsuit, on the day of the shooting, none of the victims or witnesses ever identified Williams as the perpetrator.

The lawsuit also states that after interviewing Eric Smith, who stated that he recognized the two shooters but could not provide any names, Kato and Cirone fabricated a report stating that Smith had identified one of the shooters as Williams. Smith had done no such thing, and defendants knew he had not. Defendants then manipulated, coerced, and induced Powell into identifying Williams as one of the shooters in a photo array.

In the lawsuit, Williams said during the interrogations Kato and Cirone physically and psychologically abused Johnson and forced him to confess to the Thomas shooting. The lawsuit said at the time, Johnson was just 16 years old and had a low IQ. Johnson was also detained for over 24 hours and deprived of food and sleep.

According to the lawsuit, Johnson was never a suspect in the shooting. The only reason Johnson was detained and interrogated was because he was in the car with Williams.

Because there were no witnesses to the murder, Williams said the officers coerced and manipulated one of them into fingering Williams in a photo array. Police later found and arrested Williams while he was driving with two other youths, including co-defendant DeAngelo Johnson.

The lawsuit also said the officers also wrote up a report falsely claiming that Williams confessed to the crime and did not make video or audio recordings of the alleged confessions, nor make any handwritten notes.

“This horrible story of yet another young Black man locked up for decades after Chicago police fabricated evidence and framed him for a murder he did not commit is another example of why our city is known as America’s wrongful conviction capital,” said Steve Art of Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law, one of Williams’ attorneys.

“Police crimes like those committed against Mr. Williams and many others allow the guilty to go free to commit further crimes, poison our communities’ relationships with the police for generations, and cause incomprehensible harm to Black kids and their families. Our city during this and past administrations has refused to hold police officers responsible for this misconduct, and it has not rckoned at all with the harm that it has caused. We have lots of work to do, and our city should start to do that work now.”

In addition to Attorney Art, Williams is also represented by Jon Loevy and Makeba Rutahindurwa, also of Loevy & Loevy.

Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law is one of the nation’s largest civil rights law firms and claims to have won more multi-million-dollar jury verdicts than any other civil rights law firm in the country.

According to the lawsuit, Williams’ wrongful conviction was an example of “an established practice by Defendant Kato and his colleagues at Detective Area 4 of the Chicago Police Department of fabricating evidence and suppressing evidence to convict innocent people of crimes. Indeed, Defendant Kato throughout his tenure beat a number of suspects into providing false confessions.”

Imprisoned at 17, Williams spent half of his adult life in prison. He missed out on raising his son, Taquane, who is now 23 years old and a father himself. Williams was unable to attend the funeral of his uncles who died while he was behind bars.

Williams spent more than half of his life, his entire adulthood, wrongfully incarcerated before being released in February 2019 after an Illinois Appellate Court vacated his conviction.

Kato began his career on the police force in 1976 after working as a construction worker. He retired in June, 2006. During his career as a detective, he served the department’s Area 4 District on the city’s West Side, which was infested with gangs. He was known for his ability to get individuals to confess in some of the most difficult cases. These skills earned Kato stellar job performance reviews and praise among prosecutors and colleagues.

But at least 50 men have accused Kato of physically abusing them to confess, according to a Washington Post investigation that cited public records spanning two decades. Kato was never disciplined for the alleged misconduct, and at least 10 of his alleged victims either acquitted at trial or were released after an appeals court tossed out their convictions. Some were exonerated after years in prison, like Williams.

Williams’ lawsuit lists numerous victims of Kato.

One of them was Keith Washington, who was allegedly abused by Kato in 1989, when he was interrogated overnight and for more than 24 hours. According to Williams’ lawsuit, Kato punched him in the chest, choked him, and denied him access to the bathroom and food. As a result, Washington gave a confession.

Another alleged victim, Andre Wallace, was just 15 when, in 1994, Kato beat him by holding him overnight, squeezing his genitals, promising him leniency, and obtaining a false confession.

One alleged victim who is not mentioned in the lawsuit is Carl Chatman, a 63-year-old homeless man in Chicago with an IQ of 68, according to court documents. He served more than 10 years after being convicted of rape. He was released in 2013 after prosecutors grew concerned if the rape happened at all.

Many of the charges brought forth from alleged victims against Kato were eventually dropped.

In news reports, Kato has denied abusing individuals to force false confessions, and the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), the agency that eventually became the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, concluded that the accusations against Kato were unfounded or unprovable.

The OPS and the defunct Independent Panel Review Authority has often been accused of allowing police misconduct to go undisciplined. Kato’s colleagues have often said he has been the victim of racism because he is Asian.

The other officer, Cirone, is still on the force with an annual salary of $122,472, according to the Chicago City Portal database. He started his career with the department in 1992.

In 2004, Cirone came under heavy criticism after he and 21 officers were named in a lawsuit that accused them of covering up an incident that involved Richard Vanecko, a nephew of then-mayor Richard M. Daley.

Near Division and Wells streets, Vanecko punched David Koschman in the face during an argument. Within hours of the incident, Daley or a close associate learned about Vanecko’s involvement and reached out to high-ranking police department officials who immediately stopped the investigation. Koschman eventually died in the hospital about two weeks later. His death was ruled a homicide and the investigation was reopened.

Detectives changed and fabricated reports and concealed evidence from witness statements to minimize or hide Vanecko’s involvement and portray Koschman as the aggressor. The reports were used by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to avoid bringing criminal charges against Vanecko.

In 2011, a new investigation was ordered by then-Superintendent Jody Weis, but detectives once again fabricated information and conspired with Daley’s office and the State’s Attorney’s Office to ensure that Vanecko would not be charged.

In 2012, a Cook County judge appointed a special prosecutor in the case. After he was indicted, Vanecko pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter.

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