Law School team settles suit

By Joann Chen

The City of Chicago recently agreed to pay $1 million to settle a wrongful arrest lawsuit filed by a Hyde Park man whom U of C Law School students and professors had represented. The settlement came four years after DNA evidence cleared the man, Corethian Bell, 30, of the rape and murder of his mother, Netta Bell.

The deal, which is still awaiting City Council approval, was announced October 10, the day before jury selection was scheduled to start for the trial. Bell’s lead attorneys, Locke E. Bowman and Craig Futterman, said in an interview that Bell was “very, very pleased” with the settlement and that it represented “real justice” for their client.

In 2000, Bell discovered his mother’s body in their apartment and immediately contacted the police, according to court documents. He was interrogated by Chicago police for 50 hours, two hours over the legal time limit for holding a suspect. Bell alleges that the police physically and psychologically abused him to obtain the videotaped confession he made to the crime.

Bowman, the legal director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University, said that a detective struck Bell in the head and threatened to leave him in a racist neighborhood to be abused. Bowman said that for Bell, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and whose “resources are already taxed to the extreme,” the threats made him “fear for his life.”

Upon Bell’s arrest in 2000, several U of C Law School students approached clinical professors Randolph Stone and Herschella Conyers of the school’s Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic to help with the case because they had previously befriended Bell and insisted on his innocence.

Bell, who sold Streetwise and incense on 57th Street and occasionally worked in the Reynolds Club, had stayed with some of the students during his brief periods of homelessness.

In 2002, Stone and Conyers obtained a court order to test the DNA found at the scene, which had never been examined. The DNA matched that of DeShawn Boyd, a serial rapist who had attacked three other women—one of whom lived in Netta Bell’s building. The charges against Corethian Bell were subsequently dropped, and in September 2004, Boyd pleaded guilty to the rape and murder. Boyd received a life sentence with no chance for parole.

Futterman, director of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project (PAP), partnered with Bowman and the MacArthur Justice Center after Bell’s release to pursue the lawsuit against the city. The lawyers were prepared for a trial, but Bowman said that ultimately the settlement was fair and “would place in a good position for the rest of his life.”

Futterman attributed the victory to collaboration in the University of Chicago community. The MacArthur Justice Center had been located at the University of Chicago before its move to Northwestern University last summer, and about 15 Law School students were involved in the case during the six-year period between Bell’s arrest and the recent settlement through PAP.

Emma Rodriguez-Ayala, a University of Chicago Law School graduate who worked on the case for two years, said that although the settlement would not “make whole again,” he was happy to move on from the case. She said that he was looking forward to going back to school and had aspirations of starting a business.

According to Futterman, the Bell case has helped to reform police practices around the nation. He cited the recent change in Cook County law that now requires that interrogations be videotaped as well as confessions, which came as a direct result of the Bell case.