Professor Craig Futterman couldn’t hear Noel Padilla’s story without thinking of his own children, and what it would have felt like to be wrenched away from them when they were babies. Nine years ago, Padilla was a 26-year-old man with a 6-month-old son when he was kidnapped by a gang of corrupt Chicago police officers who later charged him with false crimes. He spent 278 days in jail.
“A few days before (the attack) he’s holding his infant son. And then he might never hold his son again,” Futterman said.
Or, as Padilla, now 35, put it: “They snatched me up off the street and swooped me out of my life, and my kid’s. They knew there were no consequences for doing that.”
Ultimately, there were – but justice took a very long time. On May 23, Futterman and his Civil Rights and Police Accountability Clinic won a lawsuit on Padilla’s behalf against five Chicago police officers and the city in U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois. The clinic proved that this group of Special Operations Section officers made a habit of targeting young Latino men, whom they would falsely accuse of crimes and rob. The clinic charged that the Chicago Police Department willfully ignored this behavior, what Futterman called “the machinery of denial.”
“These officers engaged in years of abuses, like they were above the law. The city had a completely broken system for addressing police misconduct and enforced a code of silence that protected abusive police officers at the expense of innocent people and good officers,” Futterman said.
Padilla had the misfortune to cross paths with these officers one Saturday morning in 2005 when he was a new father trying to improve his life and move on from a past criminal record, Futterman said. He had $2,000 in savings, which he planned to use on a deposit and first month’s rent for an apartment for his new family.
Padilla was walking in the Hermosa neighborhood on the Northwest Side when the five officers approached in two cars, got out and handcuffed him, and stuffed him inside one of the cars. They ran his identification information and found he had been in jail before. They threatened him, demanding he reveal where they could find drugs, guns, or money. Padilla said he couldn’t help them. The interrogation in the back of the car went on for four hours.
Then, the officers went to Padilla’s apartment looking for things to steal but came up empty handed. After that, they raided the apartment of his mother and sister, and also found nothing worth stealing. They then stole Mr. Padilla’s rent money, and wrote a false report that they picked him up for selling cocaine. Suddenly, he was in jail, facing a sentence of up to 40 years in prison, without probation.
Futterman wasn’t Padilla’s lawyer back then, but later, when he heard the stories of his imprisonment, he was horrified, as both an attorney and a fellow parent. Padilla told Futterman about waking up in his cell from nightmares that he would never hold his son, Julian, again. When Julian was brought for visits, Padilla would press his face against the glass barrier to try to get closer, because he could not touch him. He kept his son’s photograph tucked away because hanging it in his cell was too painful a reminder of what he was missing.
Finally, after Padilla spent about nine months behind bars, prosecutors dropped the charges and he was released. Christopher Smith, of Smith, Johnson & Antholt, approached Futterman in 2008 about partnering with the clinic in representing the Padilla family; he knew of the clinic’s knowledge of the Special Operations officers’ pattern of abuse and expertise in the city’s problematic practices.
Futterman and his students spent the next seven years working with the firm to get a trial. They fought for access to police misconduct records, wrote briefs, took depositions, analyzed documents and data, and interviewed numerous other people who were victims of the officers. All told, about 25 students worked on the case, in which, Futterman said, “nothing came easy.”
The team revealed that the five officers had been engaging in abusive behavior for years; the department received 60 similar complaints about them in the six years before they encountered Padilla. The complaints alleged that the officers falsely arrested, illegally searched, and robbed people. A statistician’s report helped confirm that the Special Operations officers received the most complaints but were the least likely to be disciplined of all Chicago officers. Dr. Steven Whitman, one of the nation’s leading epidemiologists, testified that the odds were less than one in a thousand that officers in the Special Operations Sections would face any discipline when charged with falsely arresting, illegally searching, or robbing people.
Eventually, Judge Milton I. Shadur granted a trial by jury. “These officers counted on the police department and criminal justice system not caring. We had to make the jury care,” Futterman said.
For his part, “I was moved to tears. I had to hold it together during the trial. All those dreams you have as a parent, and all those firsts Noel missed,” Futterman added. “I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to not be there to help my daughter with her first steps.”
The jury found that Padilla and his family should receive about $900,000—nearly $800,000 to make up for the pain they endured and another $100,000 out of the five offending officers’ pockets in punitive damages. (One of the officers is still on the force.) The city has since agreed to pay an additional $1.1 million in attorneys’ fees and expenses.
A team of five current students was instrumental to the outcome, Futterman said: Pedro Gerson, ’14, and Matthew Streit, ’14, presented witness testimony in court. Catherine Sullivan, ’14, did extensive research, led the jury selection process, and prepared the expert witness. Ian Todd, ’15, wrote jury instructions and evidentiary memos which led to the verdict. And Joshua Burday, ’15, served as the trial team’s “right-hand man and go-to person" throughout the entire trial, Futterman said. “The students exemplified what it means to take their ethical responsibility to real clients with the utmost seriousness."
Padilla said he is slowly recovering from the ordeal. He is grateful for Futterman and the students’ hard work and the stability they provided when he was struggling with intense anger and anxiety.
“They were fighting so much for me. I felt it in them,” Padilla said. “I felt they wanted the best for me.”
The verdict capped a big year for the Police Accountability Clinic; in February, they won a ruling in Illinois Appeals Court that said police misconduct records should be open to the public.