Cook County has agreed to pay $362,500 to settle a federal lawsuit brought by a County Jail inmate who charged that he and other inmates were the victims of a 1999 mass beating and subsequent cover-up by sheriff's officials.
But the county has authorized lawyers to go to trial in a second case, charges by another inmate who said he and four other prisoners were beaten by guards the following year. The County Board's litigation subcommittee said the charges have no merit.
The subcommittee approved the payment on Thursday to Cello Pettiford, whose allegations of a 1999 beating by an elite unit of guards touched off a grand jury investigation.
The grand jury concluded last September that a beating occurred. Its investigator said that the cover-up could have reached as high as James Ryan, the top aide to Sheriff Michael Sheahan who, in November, won election to the Cook County Circuit Court bench.
The full County Board now must approve the settlement.
"This was one incident that was particularly egregious, but not the only incident by any means," said Jean Maclean Snyder, Pettiford's attorney.
"I hope the County Board, by approving the settlement, does some thinking about what is going on at the jail--for failing to deal with the systemic problem."
An attorney for the county said that although evidence had been gathered to undermine Pettiford's claim, including from doctors who said Pettiford had no injuries and a cellmate who said Pettiford was not beaten, settling the lawsuit was fiscally responsible for the county.
"The cost and expense of continuing the discovery and trying the case would probably be two to three times what we could have settled the case for today," said the attorney, Steven Puiszis. "Why spend another $1 million to try the case?
"We believe we've set the record straight through what we have accomplished," Puiszis added. "It was just a made-up claim by Pettiford."
Peter Silvestri, chairman of the litigation subcommittee, said the settlement allowed the county to put the matter behind it.
"No one likes to pay out any amount," said Silvestri, "but in this case the settlement is much fairer than it would cost to defend the matter."
And the matter has been costly. The county has spent $349,473 so far on legal fees to defend the Pettiford lawsuit, plus another $200,657 to defend numerous sheriff's officials in the grand jury investigation.
The grand jury inquiry, which was led by retired Judge Thomas Hett, cost the county $431,341 to conduct, according to county records.
In the second controversial case, the subcommittee authorized lawyers to fight the claims of former inmate Nathson Fields, who charged that he and four others were beaten by officers in 2000.
The grand jury investigation, which also examined that allegation, concluded inmates planned and provoked the incident and guards used no excessive force.
Silvestri said that case could be easily defended and should be tried.
A tentative agreement in Pettiford's lawsuit was reached in mid-December, days before several top sheriff's officials, including Ryan, were scheduled to be questioned under oath.
The defendants in the lawsuit are Sheahan; James Edwards, the former superintendent of the jail division where the beatings took place; and Richard Remus, the former commander of the sheriff's Special Operations Response Team, the elite team that was implicated in the beatings. The county's settlement covers all the defendants.
The mass beating occurred on the evening of Feb. 24, 1999, just days after the jail's maximum-security Division IX had been placed on lockdown following a gang fight in which several inmates were stabbed.
According to officials, SORT was searching for contraband.
The beating became high profile in February 2003, when the Tribune published a report on the incident, including descriptions from Pettiford.
The Tribune investigation disclosed that as many as 40 members of SORT raided a tier in Division IX, forced 49 inmates out of cells, and then systematically beat and stomped them as Remus urged them on.
Remus, according to the lawsuit, led the guards onto a tier of the jail, where inmates were forced from their cells, ordered to strip naked, then were beaten and kicked. Remus, inmates said, stood atop a table, shouting, "SORT runs the jail."
According to inmates, Remus told them "You can get paid when I leave, 'cause I don't give a damn about lawsuits. We are going to kick your asses every time we have to come here." He repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
After SORT left the tier, a guard said she noticed that a urine-soaked Pettiford was trembling with "seizure-like" symptoms. Another prisoner was described as having black eyes and a neck burn that was visible a week after the beatings.
Puiszis would not address the question of whether the mass beating occurred but said doctors had testified in depositions that Pettiford was not injured. He said a cellmate of Pettiford's said under oath that Pettiford was not beaten.
"That's not true, and it's disheartening to see the continuation of an attitude of denial by the sheriff and the employees," said Snyder. While medical records did not show a "significant injury," she noted that "we know that the modus operandi of the officers" is to not show injury.
Snyder suggested that the deposition schedule was a factor in the county's willingness to settle the lawsuit. Puiszis said the cost of those depositions was the factor; the county's attorneys thought their position was growing stronger.
An internal sheriff's investigation of the alleged beating was stalled for two years before resuming, only to be delayed in the sheriff's inspector general's office until the Tribune made the incident public.
After the alleged beating and cover-up were disclosed, sheriff's officials moved to discipline some guards and to suspend Remus for 29 days and strip him of the SORT command. Instead, Remus resigned.
On Thursday, he criticized the settlement, saying it was wrong.
"I think it's a travesty of any kind of justice," he said. "This guy--nothing happened to him. This is [the county's] way out of everything: throw money at them.
"Pettiford was never hurt, never touched. He was never ordered by me to be beaten. I think that's one of the most dishonest things I've seen in my life."
Pettiford could not be reached on Thursday.
Following the disclosure of the incident, Chief Criminal Court Judge Paul Biebel convened a grand jury to investigate the beatings as well as a contention by the sheriff's internal investigator that supervisors scuttled his inquiry.
The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a criminal inquiry into allegations that guards brutalized inmates and last spring subpoenaed records from Sheahan's office.