Cook County approves $17 million settlement for Jackie Wilson, exonerated in 1982 cop killings

The Cook County Board voted Thursday to pay $17 million to a Chicago man exonerated in the 1982 killings of two on-duty police officers.

The payout will resolve a civil rights lawsuit filed by Jackie Wilson that accused several former Cook County assistant state’s attorneys of railroading him for murders committed by his older brother. It is thought to be among the largest wrongful conviction settlements for a single defendant in county history.

A lawsuit against several Chicago police officers involved in the case will continue in federal court.

Wilson’s case dates to the 1982 slayings of Chicago police Officers William Fahey and Richard O’Brien, who were fatally shot by Wilson’s brother Andrew during a traffic stop. Jackie Wilson, then 21, was driving the car and was complying with the officers’ commands when his brother began shooting.

Jackie Wilson has acknowledged fleeing the scene with his brother, but he has said he did not know Andrew intended to harm the officers. He was later convicted of O’Brien’s murder and acquitted in Fahey’s slaying.

Now 63, Wilson spent more than three decades in prison before charges were dropped at his third trial in 2020; he later received a certificate of innocence.

“As the Cook County courts recognized when granting a certificate of innocence, Jackie Wilson was wrongfully convicted of a senseless and horrific crime,” his attorneys Elliot Slosar and Flint Taylor said in a statement released Thursday. “During his 36 years of wrongful imprisonment, Jackie suffered unimaginable pain and trauma that few people could ever truly understand. With this settlement, Cook County acknowledges and limits the substantial risk that this litigation poses to taxpayers while also allowing Jackie to move forward with what remains of his life.”

A spokesperson for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

The settlement — which does not come with an admission of wrongdoing — is a rare move for the state’s attorney’s office. Prosecutors are often dismissed from wrongful conviction lawsuits because they have near-absolute immunity from such legal actions. Exceptions can be made when their acts are not related to advocating for the prosecution, such as acting as an investigator or serving as a witness.

The payout also has raised eyebrows among attorneys because the federal case is still in its infancy, with court records showing only two depositions taken so far. One of the former assistant state’s attorneys named in Wilson’s lawsuit, Nicholas Trutenko, has a motion to dismiss the case pending before the court.

Trutenko and another assistant state’s attorney, Andrew Horvat, are also facing criminal misconduct charges related to their nonprosecutorial roles during Wilson’s third trial in 2020. Both have pleaded not guilty to the charges in the case, which is currently on hold pending appeal.

Attorneys for Trutenko and Horvat told the Tribune they were not allowed to provide input in the settlement discussions and the payout will have no bearing on the men’s criminal case. Trutenko’s attorney, former Cook County prosecutor James McKay, argues Jackie Wilson is guilty under the legal theory that he was accountable for his brother’s actions because the shooting took place during the commission of another crime — an argument that a Cook County judge rejected when he declared Wilson innocent in 2020.

“The evidence suggests that Jackie Wilson does not deserve 17 cents, much less $17 million,” McKay told the Tribune in a statement. “We all recognize that anything can happen before a federal jury. Success at trial is never guaranteed. Sometimes it makes sense to settle. But why settle this case now? What’s the rush?”

O’Brien’s niece Kelly O’Brien told the Tribune she also objects to the payout. She was about 5 when her uncle — who was also her godfather — was killed, and she grew up keenly aware of the pain her family suffered. Her grandmother, she says, mourned her son’s death for the rest of his life.

“Are you kidding me?” she said when the Tribune told her Thursday about the settlement. “I have no sympathy or pity for this man at all. Oh my gosh … it makes me sick. $17 million? And here my family has suffered all these years.”

Wilson’s attorneys have called on the Chicago Police Department to follow the county’s example and settle Wilson’s lawsuit, which could save the city significant legal fees and eliminate the risk of a steep jury award.

The courts have previously found that both brothers were tortured into giving confessions by Chicago police officers under Cmdr. Jon Burge. Burge and his so-called midnight crew of rogue detectives led the torture of criminal suspects for two decades, coercing dozens of confessions.

Chicago taxpayers have paid more than $130 million in lawsuit settlements and judgments related to Burge’s conduct over the past two decades, according to public records. The amount includes $5.5 million in reparations for torture survivors, which was approved by the Chicago City Council in 2015.

“Now it is time for the City of Chicago to likewise appreciate the serious exposure it faces in this case and act consistently with the promises of Mayor Johnson and his predecessors who have long acknowledged the serious harm that Jon Burge and other Chicago police torturers have inflicted upon Jackie, other torture survivors, and Chicago’s communities of color,” the attorneys’ statement said.