Deon Patrick, who spent more than 21 years in prison for a double murder he did not commit, won on Wednesday a federal lawsuit alleging that Chicago police officers and Cook County prosecutors manufactured a confession and then coerced Patrick to sign it. | Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times
Mitchell Armentrout and Jon Seidel
A federal jury on Wednesday awarded a man more than $13 million after he sued the city, seven Chicago police officers and two Cook County prosecutors over his conviction for the 1992 slayings of Jeffrey Lassiter and Sharon Haugabook.
Tears streamed down Deon Patrick’s face, and he clutched a photograph of his late mother that he wears around his neck, as Judge Ronald Guzman announced the award. Patrick wore a bright-green sweater vest to the courtroom and hugged his attorneys after the verdict was read.
“I feel like my day has finally come,” Patrick said minutes after the hearing. “They tricked me into believing it was over in 2014.
“To sit there for 25 years, and then to have to go through this all over again, and listen to the lies all over again,” he said after five weeks of testimony and more than two days of jury deliberation. “They made me relive it.”
Patrick spent two decades in prison before Cook County prosecutors dismissed the murder charges against him in 2014. He filed his lawsuit that same year.
The verdict comes four months after a federal jury awarded $22 million to Nathson Fields, an ex-El Rukn gang member who spent more than a decade on Death Row only to be cleared of a 1984 double murder.
Patrick’s case went to trial March 6 in front of Judge Guzman. Patrick’s lawyer, Stuart Chanen, told jurors during closing arguments Monday there was no physical evidence linking Patrick to the slayings.
“They fabricated evidence against [Patrick],” Chanen said of the police and prosecutors targeted by the lawsuit. “They coerced his confession. They manipulated evidence.”
Patrick claims authorities also railroaded six of his seven co-defendants in the criminal case. They ranged in age from 15 to 22 at the time. Patrick was 20. But a lawyer for the seven Chicago cops suggested at the start of the trial that Patrick is a “double-murderer who is seeking to profit off killing two people.”
That lawyer, Timothy Scahill, targeted Patrick’s credibility during closing arguments Monday.
“Mr. Patrick and his friends on the stand got caught lying so many times that I lost count,” Scahill said. He called Patrick’s version of events “one of the most fantastic, absurd theories that you could ever put together.”
Guzman warned before the case went to trial that “the truly undisputed facts” of the case “are relatively few.” And he was right. As the trial played out, lawyers for the police even seized on a claim that Lassiter and Haugabook were killed the night quarterback Joe Theismann’s leg was broken during a Monday Night Football game.
They weren’t. Theismann’s leg was broken in 1985. But Patrick claims he was watching Monday Night Football at the time of the murders. And a man who vouched for him said in an affidavit that it was the night of Theismann’s unforgettable injury.
Patrick admits he was “no angel” in his youth. He said he was a member of the Vice Lords gang and had been arrested about 20 times. But he has long argued he was innocent of the murders.
“I made a lot of mistakes as a kid,” Patrick said after the verdict. “But it doesn’t justify them coming in and picking me, saying, ‘You did this.’ They justify what they to do us with our rap sheets.”
Lassiter and Haugabook were shot and killed in Lassiter’s Uptown apartment on Nov. 16, 1992. Weeks later, police claim they picked up three people for drug possession, and two of them voluntarily implicated themselves, along with Patrick and others, in the double murder. Patrick was arrested the same day, and a witness fingered him and three others in a lineup as the people she saw leaving the area around Lassiter’s apartment the night of the murders, according to police.
That’s when authorities said Patrick first confessed.
But Patrick claims the witness did not actually identify him in the lineup. He also said he was handcuffed to a ring on the wall in the interrogation room before an officer kicked the chair underneath the ring away so Patrick couldn’t sit down.
“After standing for hours, Mr. Patrick was left with no choice but to sit in a position on the floor that caused great pain and discomfort as a result of the need to outstretch his arm, still handcuffed to the wall,” Patrick’s attorneys wrote in their complaint.
Patrick said he was handcuffed to that wall “for the vast majority of the 28 hours that he was interrogated.” Ultimately, his lawyers claim his will was broken, “and he agreed to sign the handwritten confession.”
Patrick’s attorneys also argue the murders were only solved after two detectives ordered officers to “clear this case by the time we come back from our days off,” records show. The authorities allegedly used sleep deprivation and starvation to coerce confessions, among other tactics.
One of Patrick’s alleged accomplices, Daniel Taylor, also confessed and implicated Patrick. But Taylor then told detectives he was in a police lockup the night of the murders. A Cook County judge dismissed charges against Taylor in 2013, six months before Patrick’s charges were dismissed. Taylor has also filed a federal lawsuit, which is still pending.
Scahill has said there is a “mountain of evidence” suggesting Taylor may have never been in the lockup the night of the killings. For example, Scahill said, Taylor’s brother was known to use Taylor’s name when he got into trouble with police.
But Chanen pointed Monday to Taylor’s signature on a bond slip that matched other known examples of his signature.
Punitive damages against six police officers were also awarded to Patrick for an additional $90,000. Two Cook County prosecutors won’t face damages, which Patrick said doesn’t bother him.
“I’m in a different stage in my life, I don’t waste that kind of energy,” he said. “They know what happened.”
“It’ll never be right in my eyes,” Patrick said. “It didn’t start and end. They’re going to continue to do it as much as they can get away with it.”
Patrick said he has cherished spending more time with his 25-year-old son since being exonerated, and that he’ll continue working as a community organizer on the West Side to advocate for change in a criminal justice system that he says unfairly targets African-Americans.
“I want to get out and tell the kids that we have to stop putting ourselves in position for them to kill us, to throw our lives away in jail. It’s not fair. It’s our reality.”