AN INVESTIGATION REPORTED AND WRITTEN BY CHICAGO INNOCENCE CENTER INTERNS KAYLA BENSING, TANIA KARAS, LAUREN KELLEHER, KIRA LERNER, QUINN THACKER AND JAIMIE VAILLANCOURT
Karen Byron began her day on September 8, 1982 drinking beer and wine in her South Side Chicago apartment. Around midnight, she decided to make a run to the local liquor store while her boyfriend slept. The mother of two planned to visit friends in the neighborhood later that night.
Hours later, the 32-year-old white woman stumbled into a Shell gas station a few blocks from her apartment, severely burned and beaten from a sexual assault. The attendant called the police, who took Byron to Jackson Park Hospital where doctors treated burns covering more than 80 percent of her body. They also administered a rape kit to identify semen from her attackers.
Police arrested and charged four African American men with the crime: Michael Fowler, Rodney Benson, Lee Holmes and Stanley Wrice. Three of the men plea bargained and received as little as one year probation up to a four-year prison sentence. The fourth, Stanley Wrice, rolled the dice on a jury trial. He was found guilty of rape and deviant sexual assault, and a Cook Co. judge sentenced him to 100 years in prison.
On April 19, Wrice celebrated his 57th birthday at the Pontiac Correctional Center in central Illinois. He has spent nearly 28 of those years -- almost half of his life -- behind bars. But recently, new evidence has surfaced that supports Wrice’s claim since the time of his arrest -- that he is innocent.
As Karen Byron walked along S. Jeffery toward the liquor store that night in 1982, a red Ford Pinto with three men inside pulled into the parking lot, according to trial transcripts. One of the men went inside the store, and the driver, Benson, offered Byron a ride. The other two men, Wrice and Bobby Joe Williams, decided to walk to Wrice's residence on nearby S. Chappel Ave.
The two-story bungalow where Wrice lived with his siblings was often a hangout for friends. According to trial transcripts, shortly after Wrice arrived home, Benson and Byron entered through the back door. When Byron asked for liquor and cigarettes, Benson led her upstairs to the attic room where Fowler and Holmes were drinking. Between the time Byron followed Benson upstairs and when the gas station attendant found her around 3 a.m., Byron was gang-raped and burned with torched paper, a wooden clothes hanger, a two-pronged fork and a stove-heated iron.
Wrice says he spent much of the night downstairs and at a phone booth talking to his then-fiancee. Although he admits going upstairs that night, it was only briefly -- once to tell the visitors to quiet down, and a second time to order them to leave. Wrice says he then fell asleep on the downstairs couch and awoke when police unexpectedly entered his home in the early morning hours.
On September 9, 1982, as Byron lay in the intensive care burn unit at the Loyola Medical Center, Wrice sat in an interrogation room on the second floor of the Area 2 Chicago Police Department headquarters. Det. Peter Dignan and Sgt. John Byrne, two high-ranking officers under the command of Lt. Jon Burge, questioned him for more than seven hours. During that time, the officers beat Wrice with a rubber hose on his groin, legs and back, according to the report by the Special Prosecutor assigned years later to the case.
Allegations have since been proven against Burge, the Area 2 commander who oversaw police engaging in acts of torture for years, beating hundreds of suspects in the basement of the S. Cottage Grove violent crimes headquarters. Their harsh methods ranged from bagging men's heads with typewriter covers, to electrocuting their genitals and beating victims on the head with hammers, over a telephone book, so as not to cause suspicious contusions.
“There's no piece of evidence in this case that's not tainted by the legacy of Jon Burge." --Heidi Lambros
After beating Wrice, the officers led him to another room where an assistant state’s attorney says he gave a verbal confession, which was not recorded or signed by Wrice. Wrice denies ever confessing.
At Wrice's trial, the State called three key witnesses to the stand: Bobby Joe Williams, who lived in the house; Kenneth Lewis; and Karen Byron.
While Lewis said he saw Wrice physically assault Byron, his testimony was not corroborated by the other witnesses -- none of them claimed to have seen Lewis in the house that night. Additionally, Byron never identified Wrice as her assailant, and prosecutors claimed without explanation that no semen was found on the swabs from the rape kit.
Lewis and Byron have both passed away since the trial.
Twenty-eight years after the trial, Williams was still troubled by his testimony against Wrice. He, too, had been beaten by police in the early morning hours of September 9, 1982. Months later, Williams arrived at the county’s criminal courthouse at 26th and California, where he says a female attorney brought him into a room and showed him graphic photographs of Byron’s mutilated body. Williams says the lawyer assured him he would be charged with the crime if he refused to testify to Wrice’s guilt. She then led him to the witness stand.
"I realized my testimony was false, but I was afraid to tell the truth." -- Bobby Joe Williams
In March 2011, Williams signed an affidavit recanting his trial testimony that he saw Wrice rape Byron and later take a hot iron from the kitchen stove up to the attic room where she was assaulted.
"The lawyer warned that if I didn't testify against Mr. Wrice, I would be charged with the rape and beating of Ms. Byron," the affidavit reads. "I realized my testimony was false, but I was afraid to tell the truth."
Williams’ affidavit exposed how pervasive torture was in the case. However, questions still remained about who was actually upstairs that night.
Part of the answer was provided recently by Wrice’s co-defendant, Michael Fowler. On April 21, 2011, Fowler, who pled guilty to aggravated battery and served four years in prison for Byron’s assault, signed an affidavit stating he never saw Wrice during the time he and Byron were in the upstairs room.
"I feel unburdened," Fowler said after signing the affidavit. "That dude [Wrice] shouldn't be locked up."
Fowler also swore he was brutally beaten by police. His statement attests to the impact Burge and his men have had on Wrice’s case, says Assistant Appellate Defender Heidi Lambros, who has represented Wrice for nine years.
"We need to show that this is not just a Burge case. Stanley is not just a torture victim -- he's also an innocent torture victim,” Lambros says. “There's no piece of evidence in this case that's not tainted by the legacy of Jon Burge."
In December 2010, the Illinois Appellate Court granted Wrice an evidentiary hearing on the grounds of the pattern and practice of torture in Chicago's Area 2. Special prosecutors assigned to all Burge torture cases immediately appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. In March 2011, the justices agreed to hear the case.
Wrice still waits in prison, 100 miles from his old life in Chicago, for the legal system to decide his fate. He has never used a cell phone or sent an email. He lost contact with his fiancee, though he still remembers her phone number -- it was the last one he dialed before his arrest. He speaks with family only on holidays. He has maintained his innocence for nearly 30 years.