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FBI eyeing inmates' suit in beatings, lawyer says

Thursday, April 19, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Jeff Coen

Tribune staff reporter Matt O'Connor contributed to this report

The FBI has taken an interest in the alleged retaliatory beatings of 13 inmates by guards inside the Cook County Jail late last summer, a lawyer for the inmates said Wednesday.

Richard Dvorak said FBI agents have interviewed four of his clients during the last several months. Dvorak represents 12 of the 13 inmates who filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court in September, accusing guards of punching and kicking them as payback for another inmate's fight with a corrections officer.
The FBI declined to comment Wednesday.

The investigation would be the first known federal probe of a mass beating of inmates by guards at the jail since 2004. That year the U.S. attorney's office opened an investigation after receiving the report of a special Cook County grand jury that examined the 1999 beatings of nearly 50 inmates.

Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said Wednesday that the office's investigation of that matter has concluded.

Samborn declined to comment on when the probe had ended but said it was closed and no charges were filed. The grand jury had encouraged authorities to consider obstruction of justice charges against employees of then-Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan, concluding there was evidence that the 1999 beatings had been covered up.

The grand jury had said it also found evidence to support charges of official misconduct, conspiracy and perjury. Officials under Sheahan denied wrongdoing, but some had invoked their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination when called to testify.

Sheriff's officials on Wednesday said they were not aware of any FBI inquiries into the summer beating and had no comment on the end of the federal probe into the 1999 beatings.

This week the Tribune reported that the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department also has begun an investigation of the jail. Use of force by officers and medical care afforded to inmates are part of that investigation, officials have said.

The Aug. 15 beating of 13 inmates that the FBI is now investigating began when another inmate had a physical altercation with a guard, Dvorak said.

A team of guards then returned to the tier on Division 5 to exact revenge, he said. Inmates, some of whom contend they were handcuffed, have said they were punched, kicked and stomped, Dvorak said.

"The guards showed up and just started beating everyone in sight," Dvorak said.

"This was not some sort of justifiable incident that happened in the subduing of some sort of prisoner misconduct," he said. "This was the jail guards creating the mob atmosphere."

Dvorak said the inmates suffered cuts, chipped teeth and bruises. When they tried to seek medical attention, some were placed in isolation as punishment, Dvorak said.

The county is fighting the lawsuit, and the Cook County sheriff's office has defended the actions of its officers.

The sheriff's office contends the inmates were injured when guards searched for the inmate involved in the fight, and the inmates who were injured refused to cooperate.

Sheriff's spokesman Bill Cunningham has said none of the inmates had injuries like those of a victim of a mass beating. The county and Sheahan are named as defendants in the suit, which seeks unspecified monetary damages.

Dvorak said he sent letters in September to Cook County State's Atty. Richard Devine and also to the FBI. Devine's office indicated the matter would be looked into, but the FBI that began interviewing his clients, Dvorak said.

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