Corethian Bell, the former Hyde Park StreetWise vendor who was wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his mother, has filed a lawsuit against six Chicago Police Department detectives and the City of Chicago for more than $50,000. The lawsuit alleges that Bell was coerced into confessing to the murder after a 50-hour interrogation session that involved unlawful levels of both mental and physical intimidation.
"What the complaint says is that Chicago detectives in the suit arrested an innocent person with no evidence to suspect him at all," said Locke Bowman, one of the attorneys handling the lawsuit. "They preyed on someone who was obviously innocent and had unique vulnerabilities."
The suit, filed in Cook County Court Monday, states that the officers took advantage of Bell's slight mental retardation and paranoid schizophrenia in order to gain a confession. Officers allegedly misled Bell to believe that he had failed a lie detector test and that he would be released upon admitting his guilt. According to the suit, some of the detectives implied his mother's abusive cocaine habits as a possible motive for the murder.
Bell, 26, also claims that at one point he was struck in the head so hard he was knocked from his chair.
"It was a process of psychological coercion and then ultimately the employment of physical tactics against a guy who obviously was extremely vulnerable," Bowman said. Bowman filed the suit with attorney Herschella Conyers; both are affiliated with the University of Chicago Law School.
According to the suit, Bell has trouble carrying on conversations and is highly open to suggestion. Bell later told his lawyers that he confessed to stop the immediate interrogation, hoping he could tell a judge the truth in the future and be exonerated.
Bell was arrested on July 14, 2000, after telephoning police and alerting them to his mother Netta Bell's murder. The dispatcher told Bell to remain at his mother's South King Drive apartment where Chicago Police eventually took him into custody. Bell reportedly told the dispatcher that his mother had been stabbed, but later autopsies indicated that she had actually been shot.
Before being released on January 5 of this year, Bell spent a total of 17 months in Cook County Jail until DNA evidence cleared him of the crime. Blood and semen found at the crime scene could not be linked to Bell but matched another man already registered in a databank of sex offenders. This man was already in prison for a similar crime committed five months later, only blocks from Bell's former apartment.
No charges for the murder of Netta Bell have been brought against this suspect, but police are conducting an ongoing investigation. "[The suspect is] not charged until the investigation is concluded," John Gorman, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office, told the Chicago Tribune.
The case gained wide attention from the Hyde Park community because of Bell's friendly presence in the neighborhood. Noted for chatting with students while in front of the Reynolds Club and Medici on 57th Restaurant, Bell created a bond with many students and residents. "He used to be cool with many Chicago kids," said Cosmos Boekell, a long time friend of Bell's. "He knew more students than most students do. Some students even let him stay at their [place]."
Bell was perhaps best known however, for selling oils, incense, and StreetWise along 57th street.
Students and community members rallied around Bell during his imprisonment, raising more than $3000 for his support. The Mandel Legal defense fund, an arm of the Chicago Law School, also helped to fund Bell's retainer.
The videotaped confession, the piece of evidence almost entirely responsible for Bell's conviction, has also generated nationwide interest in this relatively new and controversial policy. Bell's case was the first reversal of a video taped confession since Cook County implemented the practice two and a half years ago.
Some officials and academics have complained about the legitimacy of videotaped confessions when the interrogation itself remains completely untaped.
Bell's lawyers also voiced concern about the taping policy. "You can't not tape the 50 hours of denials, and not tape the time the police strike someone in the head, and not tape the way the person is coached into saying whatever he says, and then only flip on the camera for the actual confession," Conyers said.
A month before Bell was released, another prisoner named Calvin Ollins, who confessed to the rape and murder of a Chicago woman, was also released because of new DNA evidence. Ollins was 14 years old when he confessed.
The defendants in the lawsuit will be served with legal process in the next thirty days, and then they have time to file a response. "It's going to take a while," Bowman said. "It will be a period of years before it goes to trial."