University of Chicago Magazine on The Exoneration Project
On the night of April 18, 1990, taxi driver Billy G. Williams, 44, was found dead in his cab, shot in the head on Chicago’s South Side. Two days later, 20-year-old Shawn Whirl was arrested and confessed to the murder. He pleaded guilty and has been in prison ever since.
Rising third-year law student Caitlin Brown wants him out. “I really believe that Shawn is innocent,” Brown says. “There were a lot of errors in [Whirl’s] confession that didn’t completely line up with what was found at the scene.”
Since September 2011, she’s been studying his case—the interrogation, the police statements, the evidence—as part of the Exoneration Project, a University of Chicago Law School clinic that seeks to free wrongfully convicted prisoners.
In Whirl’s case, that means investigating his confession, made after allegedly being tortured by a detective in the Chicago Police Department’s Area 2, a division then notorious for systemic abuse. Whirl’s claim of being coerced into a confession were found credible this summer by the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, which was shut down soon after issuing its ruling due to state budget cuts. Beatings and other violent tactics to force confessions were common from 1972 to 1991 under former Lieutenant Jon Burge, who was convicted in 2010 for lying about years of torture.