The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dozens claim a Chicago detective beat them into confessions. A pattern of abuse or a pattern of lies?

Patrick Prince, who was incarcerated for 26 years for a murder it was later determined he did not commit, stands outside his Chicago home in March. Prince alleges that a detective coerced his confession during brutal interrogations. (Alyssa Schukar for The Washington Post)

CHICAGO — Kevin Murray wasn’t sure how long he was in that small, windowless room. He didn’t have a watch, and there was no clock, just a table and two chairs. The sharp pain in his stomach from those first punches lingered.

He says the detective slammed his fists into his ribs. He describes repeated kicks to his chest, slaps to his face, karate chops to his neck. He says the brutal interrogation and hours alone in that room with no food or water for nearly two days pushed him to confess to slayings he did not commit.

Murray’s claims about his questioning inside a West Side Chicago precinct 30 years ago are at the center of his request for a new trial and a demand that a judge rule that he had been tortured while in police custody. Armed with new evidence he says proves his innocence, the 53-year-old longtime inmate is the latest among dozens of suspects to accuse a single Chicago detective of the same style of abuse, according to civil complaints, post-conviction relief petitions and complaints filed with the police department’s Office of Professional Standards. The suspects and their attorneys say the abusive interrogations led to false confessions, tainted trials and wrongful convictions, part of a systemic, age-old problem in Chicago’s police force.

“Some of them are really good and some of them are really bad and most of them are somewhere in between,” said Jim Mullenix, a former public defender who said he has represented defendants who accused retired detective Kriston Kato of abuse. “They get a case, they want to try to solve it. They think that defendants are going to lie, so they’ll say: ‘I know he did it. We just have to bend the rules ourselves to ensure that this guy gets convicted.’ ”

Police and prosecutors vehemently deny the accusations against Kato, arguing that convicts have concocted such allegations in an attempt to smear a talented investigator and win over authorities in bids to get out of prison. They say Kato is a victim of his success, a target because he was so effective.

Kato has many defenders, including former prosecutors who described him as an honest man wrongly accused and victimized by the criminals he had put away. Some have testified under oath that they met with Kato’s accusers and found no signs of abuse. They say he was a master interrogator who deserved every stellar job-performance review he had received during a 30-year career with the Chicago Police Department.

“There’s been examples of police misconduct that have been exposed over the years,” said Thomas Needham, a former prosecutor who worked with Kato. “About this particular detective, I never saw a whiff of that misbehavior. … His personality and his demeanor are completely inconsistent with someone that would frame someone for murder.”

Kato declined to be interviewed when reached at his home in a Chicago suburb, and his attorneys declined to comment. Chicago’s legal department also declined to comment, citing a pending lawsuit filed by another man accusing Kato of abuse.

In a deposition on June 11, 2015, as part of a civil case against Chicago, Kato said he did have two “physical confrontations in interview rooms” that he could recall, but he said he was not the interviewer and it was just “necessary force to control the situation,” such as when someone tried to escape an interview room and he engaged in “a wrestling confrontation.”

Kato denied striking or kicking anyone in an interview room while he was a detective, and when asked whether he knew of any detective who has abused a civilian inside an interview room, he responded, “I do not.”

Dozens of accusers

Chicago’s West Side long has been a hotbed of violent gang crimes, and many say it was worse in the 1980s and 1990s. Chicago defense lawyers said Kato was known for his ability to get suspects to confess — even in stubborn cases where others had failed — and allege that he was a part of Chicago’s troubling history of police brutality, which has included detectives taking shortcuts to close cases.

Such allegations are not rare in Chicago, where the police department remains haunted by the legacy of Jon Burge, a disgraced former commander whose crew was accused of torturing more than 100 black men beginning in the 1970s and who served 4½ years in federal prison for lying under oath about the incidents. Burge denied the allegations.

At least 50 men have accused Kato of physically abusing them to confess, according to public records spanning two decades, including civil lawsuits and complaints filed against Kato with the department’s Office of Professional Standards (OPS). Many of Kato’s accusers, like Murray, alleged that the detective held them for hours in interrogation rooms with no food or water and beat them until they confessed.

But all of the complaints lodged against Kato lacked medical evidence of injuries and were deemed unfounded or unprovable by the OPS, a defunct group of civilian employees within the police department who investigated allegations of wrongdoing. The current Civilian Office of Police Accountability did not respond to requests for comment.

Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who studies police accountability, said the accusations point to a broader problem — a police department that essentially investigated itself.

“The Chicago system for investigating and addressing misconduct and brutality have been designed and have worked to protect officers from discipline,” Futterman said. “The so-called investigative systems have been a critical component of the code of silence in Chicago, the machinery of denial.”

At the center of the debate about Kato is Murray, another black man accusing Chicago police of brutality while taking one final shot at freedom. A hearing on Murray’s petition to reverse his conviction is scheduled for June 19.

A pattern of abuse?

Abandoned storefronts, overgrown lots littered with plastic and beer bottles, and boarded-up buildings separated by narrow passageways line many of the streets on Chicago’s West Side. On a cold November morning 30 years ago, down one of these passageways next to what is known as the “dope house,” two men were found lying in a pool of blood, their bodies riddled with bullets.

Police said they were victims of a turf war between rival gangs. Tyrone Washington said he and another member of the Black Souls gang shot the men with an Uzi.

“We put them against the wall, made them strip, and we shot them all,” he said during a recent telephone interview from prison.

After Washington was taken into custody in connection with the slayings, he confessed to Kato and another detective, according to Murray’s petition. He told them that he had escaped in a car driven by a third accomplice: Murray. That confession led police to Murray, who in turn confessed. Murray was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder at trial.

Washington would say years later that Murray was never involved. He said in an interview that he implicated Murray because he believed Murray was trying to steal his girlfriend; he said he did not expect Murray to confess.

“I wrote Lamont’s family asking for forgiveness,” he said, using Murray’s nickname.

Tara Thompson, a lawyer with the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project who represents Murray, said the new evidence from Washington — corroborated by other witnesses — alone should be enough to exonerate her client. But she said the long list of allegations against Kato, and Murray’s claims that he was beaten into confessing, should bolster his argument for release. She said that jurors dismissed evidence that Murray was kicked in the chest during his interrogation — he presented the white sweater he had been wearing, and it had a shoe print on the front — but argued that had jurors heard evidence of a pattern of abuse, that might have affected the case’s outcome.

“I believe it’s about racism and about a belief that the lives of people of color and the safety of people of color are less important,” Thompson said. “And so, can I, as a police officer, act with impunity against a person of color and not fear repercussions?”

Even while Kato never faced repercussions, many of those accusing the detective of wrongdoing never ended up serving time, despite their confessions. Ten of Kato’s accusers who confessed were acquitted at trial or were released after an appeals court tossed out their convictions, according to a Washington Post review of court documents. Some were exonerated after years in prison.

Among them are Patrick Prince, a 46-year-old man who spent more than half his life in prison for a murder conviction, and Carl Chatman, a 63-year-old man who served more than 10 years after being convicted of rape. Both men, like Murray, are black and were convicted based in part on confessions they say were coerced.

“I feel like, where is my integrity? I don’t stand for anything? That was taken from me,” said Prince, who was released last year after a witness recanted a statement that had incriminated him. In April, Prince sued the city of Chicago and several police officials, including Kato, alleging that he was handcuffed to a ring in the wall and was beaten to elicit a confession. Prince argues in his lawsuit that if not for the confession, he would not have been prosecuted, let alone convicted.

Chatman, who also has a pending lawsuit against the city of Chicago and several current and former law enforcement officials, including Kato, was released in 2013 after prosecutors came to doubt that the rape happened at all. His attorney alleges that police took advantage of Chatman, a homeless man with a mental disability and an IQ of 68, court records say.

Like Prince, Chatman claims that he was handcuffed to a ring in the wall while Kato screamed at him and struck him across the face so hard that he nearly fainted. In response to the lawsuit, Kato denied that he interrogated Chatman or used force against him. Chicago officials have denied that Chatman was wrongfully convicted.

Kato has denied abusing anyone and said in a deposition that he does not recall interrogating Murray in 1988. David Lavin, a former prosecutor who met with Murray to document his confession, testified that he saw no signs of abuse and that Murray told him he was not threatened.

Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi declined to comment on the allegations against Kato. He said that coerced confessions “do not represent the Chicago Police Department of today” and that the agency has made “significant progress in rebuilding and safeguarding public trust.”

A master interrogator or a serial abuser?

Kato stood about 6 feet tall. He was lean and muscular at 200 pounds. His former commander, James Maurer, said that Kato could look sinister and that his stare alone could “intimidate the hell out of you.” But Maurer said Kato was never abusive.

Interviews with defense lawyers and former prosecutors paint starkly different portraits of the police veteran who played varsity football in high school and at Wright Junior College, where he studied physical education. Kato did not graduate from college, because of a dislocated shoulder that kept him from playing football, he said in a court deposition. The son of a World War II veteran was drafted into the military in 1971, but he said his injury kept him from serving.

Kato joined the Chicago Police Department in 1976 after working for a few years as a construction laborer. In 1986, he became a violent-crimes detective, a position he held until he left the force in 2006. Years after retiring, Kato worked as the police union’s field representative.

Maurer and former prosecutors who worked with Kato said he was soft-spoken and dedicated. Maurer said prosecutors found the abuse allegations against him so absurd that they called them the “Kato cases” and “laughed at them for a while.”

“There was not even a remote inkling that he was somehow abusive to anybody, ever. And I was there,” said Virginia Bigane, a former prosecutor. “I have nothing to gain by telling you these things, except to know that I’m doing the right thing.”

Many say that defendants who had confessed have no other choice but to accuse police of coercing them — and Kato was an easy target.

“Kato was the only Asian detective working Area 4,” said James McKay, a former prosecutor, referring to the West Side of Chicago. “And he had this short, easy-to-remember, catchy name. So all the gangs on the West Side … knew him or knew his name. They were telling all their gang members, ‘If you’re ever busted, just blame it on Kato.’ ”

McKay said he prosecuted a man who claimed to have been abused by Kato, even though Kato was out of town at that time. That man then accused another detective, an older white man with glasses who looked nothing like Kato. McKay said another accuser described Kato as a white man with an Afro hairstyle. Kato, a Japanese American, had straight, black hair.

“He’s a victim of racism,” said Brian Sexton, another former prosecutor. “The complaints say, ‘He karate chopped me.’ Kato doesn’t even know karate, but he happens to be Asian.”

The allegations create a very different narrative. Prince accused Kato of using expletives as he forced him to rehearse a sequence of events, according to OPS documents. Other complaints officially filed with the OPS show that one man said Kato put a gun in his mouth and threatened to “make him a statistic” if he didn’t confess; another said Kato withheld insulin to force him to sign a confession he could not read. The OPS investigated the claims and found them unsubstantiated or unfounded.

Karen Shields, who defended Murray 30 years ago, said it never made sense to her that every single man who has accused Kato, including those who turned out to be innocent, simply made up allegations.

Russ Ainsworth, Chatman’s attorney, said: “How would the unrelated people who all came into contact with Kato have this conspiracy that would range two decades? Over the course of his career, to accuse him of physically abusing them? It’s absurd.”

Others point to the sheer number of accusers.

“One is too many,” said Mullenix, the former public defender. “When I got a report that has Kato’s name on it, I almost came to expect an allegation of abuse.”

‘Scandal, crisis, reform’

Cook County State Attorney Kim Foxx, who was elected in 2016 on a reform platform, declined to comment about Kato, but she said there is a renewed effort by her office to investigate cases of possible wrongful conviction tied to alleged police misconduct. In November, the agency cleared 15 men believed to have been framed by another former Chicago officer.

Some say the city has a long way to go.

“There are people who still remain in prison today who are there potentially as a result of police torture or abuse,” said Futterman, the law professor. “It’s scandal, crisis reform … a few years later, scandal, crisis, reform. Each time, we’re asking the same questions.”

Others say the city’s law enforcement is under attack by people who are driven not by the pursuit of justice but by political interests and an anti-police movement.

“If you believe that false confessions were rampant, you better throw in the judges and the juries and the appellate courts of Illinois as being part of that conspiracy,” McKay said. “Because they reviewed all the evidence and they didn’t find any of that stuff is true.”

Murray said the situation has ruined his life, most of which has been spent in captivity. “I am disappointed about the time I have missed,” he said, “people I have lost, days I didn’t get to see my grandbabies growing up, my son growing up.”