Man found not guilty of murder in 30-year-old case tied to ex-CPD detective accused of torture

Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/TNS

A man accused of murder in a nearly 30-year-old case tied to an ex-Chicago police detective who has been accused of torture was found not guilty Thursday evening after a jury trial, freeing him after he’d spent years fighting his original convictions and 60-year sentence in appellate courts.

The case is among a number of post-conviction matters involving allegations of misconduct on behalf of former Detective Kriston Kato that are being handled by special prosecutors because of Kato’s marriage to a Cook County judge. It was the first of those to go to trial, a test of whether evidence in decades-old cases tied to the disgraced detective can withstand scrutiny by a jury in 2023.

Bernard Williams, 44, was 17 when he was accused of shooting and killing a man and injuring other bystanders near a West Garfield Park tavern in 1996 following an investigation by Kato and other detectives.

In the years since, Illinois appellate courts have returned Williams’ case back to the trial courts multiple times, and Kato has been accused of torturing and intimidating confessions out of defendants over his long career with the department.

Special prosecutors Fabio Valentini and Maria McCarthy, who are handling a number of Cook County post-conviction cases related to Kato, brought the case to trial after an appeals court overturned the conviction in 2019, finding then that new evidence aired in evidentiary hearings “undermines the court’s confidence in the factual correctness of the original guilty finding.”

Attorneys delivered closing arguments in the case on Thursday at the Leighton Criminal Court Building after jurors earlier this week began hearing testimony, which included Kato’s.

Williams was accused of murder in the shooting and killing of Gary Thomas and of injuring other bystanders in August 1996. He has maintained his innocence, though, since his arrest that year, and alleged that Kato fabricated a confession.

The special prosecutors’ case hinged on that confession, as well as an identification from an eyewitness who later recanted his story. Williams’ alleged confession was not recorded, and the eyewitness who changed his story in 2015 has since died.

“When you go back to that jury room,” McCarthy said, “you might want to just throw up your arms and say, ‘What am I doing here? This case is 27 years old. Witnesses are dead. One witness changes his story later. This case is so complicated I give up.’ That would be an easy way out.”

McCarthy argued to the jury that the witness likely later recanted because he grew “bitter” about the system and was angry at police for some recent charges.

Williams’ attorney, Ron Safer, said it is indisputable that the witness has lied.

“We all agree he is a liar,” Safer said. “They think he lied in one regard, we think he lied in another. We all agree he has committed perjury. ... How could you possibly base a finding of guilty beyond reasonable doubt?”

Safer also accused Kato of lying about Williams’ confessing, which he said was not documented.

“If he weren’t making it up, he would have taken notes,” Safer said.

Cook County prosecutors and judges stepped aside because the former detective is married to Judge Mary Margaret Brosnahan, who currently works in the criminal division. The case was heard by an outside judge.

But the special prosecutors who stepped in to handle a number of cases connected to Kato have drawn scrutiny of their own for challenging a statute that has allowed recourse for defendants who say they have been tortured by Chicago police officers.

In those cases, a commission created to evaluate allegations of torture by ex-CPD Cmdr. Jon Burge and other police officers, found that Kato had tortured defendants. The commission sent the cases back to the trial courts for evidentiary hearings.

McCarthy and Valentini argued that the commission’s role in reopening the cases violated the Illinois Constitution, a move condemned by advocates working to address harm caused by police torture in the Chicago Police Department.

Williams was 17 when he was arrested and accused of killing Thomas, who authorities said was not the intended target of the shooting. He was later convicted in a bench trial. His case has been pitched back and forth between the trial and appellate courts throughout the years.

In 2019, the appeals court ordered a new trial, finding that the trial court judge should have granted his motion for post-conviction relief and ordered a new trial.

The court found that attorneys had presented new and compelling evidence, including that the original eyewitness recanted his initial statement and said Williams was not a shooter. The intended target of the shooting, Eric Smith, also testified at an evidentiary hearing that he saw the shooters and that Williams was not one of them.