When Chicago Police Department Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged today in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald—Mary Mitchell has an excellent piece about his short, difficult life—the Tribune reported that it was “the first time a Chicago police officer has been charged with first-degree murder for an on-duty fatality in nearly 35 years.”
That came after the beating death of Richard Ramey, a 51-year-old former mental patient who was arrested on July 6, 1980, by three plainclothes cops for smoking on an El train. He was able to walk, handcuffed and without assistance, into a squad car. He was taken to a station less than a mile away. Four hours later, he was dead from cardiac arrest after suffering two broken legs, a “small neck fracture,” nine broken ribs, and “massive hemorrhaging throughout his body.”
Six days later, the three officers—Louis Klisz, Fred Earullo, and Fred Christiano—were suspended by the police department; they were indicted for murder on July 23. But the case didn’t go to trial until December of 1981. Earlier that year the judge who had been presiding over pretrial matters excused himself from the trial, citing health problems; “other judges said privately that they would not want the job of presiding over the trial of the three policemen,” the Tribune reported.
When the case finally reached trial, Christiano’s case was quickly dismissed; no witnesses had seen him participate in the beating of Ramey. The remainder of the trial was swift and devastating for Klisz and Earullo.
The two testified that Ramey had tried to kick the officers, then walked into a wall, “put his own head ‘through a window,’” slipped, and fell. “The only injury the two officers said they saw on Ramey was a bloody nose,” the Tribune reported on December 24, the day after the trial concluded. (Earullo testified that he “feared for his life when Ramey took a yellow ink pen and ’stabbed’ him in the chest during the course of the struggle”; under cross-examination, he admitted that he had only been scratched by the pen.)
Their testimony was in stark contrast to the evidence. A photo from an interrogation room showed Ramey with “his hands behind him, sprawled on a chair, his face and shirt bloody with one eye open and one shut.” A watch commander on duty at the station testified that Ramey had been left on the floor of the interrogation room, handcuffed, bleeding from the nose and lips. The Cook County medical examiner showed slides of contusions covering Ramey’s body and open wounds on his knees.
The evidence was overwhelming, and Klisz and Earullo were both convicted—but not of murder. The judge who presided over the bench trial, Arthur Cieslik, said that there was a “reasonable doubt” as to their “criminal intent,” because the officers would have had to have had clear intent to kill Ramey, or that their actions would have a “strong probability” of death or great bodily harm.
Instead, Cieslik found them guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Klisz got eight years in prison, Earullo two and a half. Neither had comment, but Christiano—Earullo’s cousin—told reporters “a terrible thing was done. Those guys don’t deserve anything. They were just doing their jobs.”