Criminal Justice

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot Says People Charged With Violent Crimes Are Guilty Because Prosecutors Say So

"When those charges are brought, these people are guilty," Lightfoot said.


Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has repeatedly blamed bail reforms and local judges for exacerbating gun violence by releasing defendants back onto the streets, but on Monday she took her rhetoric a step further, saying that people charged with violent crime should be kept in jail because only guilty people get charged with violent crimes.

The comments, first reported by the Chicago Tribune, were part of a longer harangue against the Cook County courts and bail reform efforts.

"We shouldn't be locking up nonviolent individuals just because they can't afford to pay bail. But, given the exacting standards that the state's attorney has for charging a case, which is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, when those charges are brought, these people are guilty," Lightfoot said. "Of course they're entitled to a presumption of innocence. Of course they're entitled to their day in court. But residents in our community are also entitled to safety from dangerous people, so we need to keep pressing the criminal courts to lock up violent dangerous people and not put them out on bail or electronic monitoring back into the very same communities where brave souls are mustering the courage to come forward and say, 'this is the person who is responsible.'"

The comments outraged civil liberties advocates and public defenders in Chicago, and rightly so. They should offend anyone familiar with the American criminal justice system and why it places such an emphasis on the presumption of innocence: to force the government to prove its case and shield defendants from prejudice and demagoguery. Lightfoot's statements are particularly absurd, given the enormous amount of taxpayer money Chicago has spent settling wrongful conviction lawsuits.

"It is sad to see a highly-trained lawyer and former prosecutor so badly mangle the meaning of our Constitution," Alexandra Block, a senior attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois, said in a statement to Chicago Tribune reporter Gregory Pratt. "A charge based solely on assertions of police often has proven unreliable in this city—as evidenced by the city's history of paying large settlements for CPD's role in wrongful convictions."

Last month, the Chicago City Council voted to approve a $14.25 million settlement to Daniel Taylor, who spent more than 20 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of a 1992 double murder. Taylor alleged that police beat a false confession out of him and hid evidence that he was actually in police custody at the time of the murders. His conviction was overturned in 2013 after the Illinois attorney general revealed that the county prosecutors had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence to Taylor's defense counsel, including custody records and interviews with several officers showing that Taylor was indeed behind bars before, during, and after the murders. Two other co-defendants in Taylor's case also received a combined $10.5 million settlement.

In 2017, BuzzFeed News published an investigation into accusations that retired Chicago detective Reynaldo Guevara had framed more than 50 people for murders they did not commit. Since then, at least 20 people have already been exonerated in cases that Guevara led.

The most infamous and expensive series of wrongful conviction cases in Chicago have been tied to disgraced Chicago police commander Jon Burge. Burge led a group of detectives who were accused of torturing confessions out of more than 100 men between 1972 and 1991, using methods like suffocation, electrocution, and burning. Burge was fired in 1993 after a police board found he tortured a man suspected of killing a police officer. Overall, Chicago taxpayers have footed the bill for $130 million in lawsuit settlements and judgments related to Burge and his crew, including $5.5 million in reparations to torture survivors.

"Chicago is the false confession capital of the nation," Cook County Public Defender Sharone R. Mitchel Jr. said in a statement. "For decades, the city has shamefully disregarded the presumption of innocence—which applies to everyone, regardless of the charge against them. As an attorney, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot knows that the criminal justice system is not designed to decide guilt early in a case. In fact, in the past year the Cook County Public Defender's Office represented people in more than 11,000 cases that ended in dismissal or a finding of not guilty."

As the ACLU and public defender's office both noted, Lightfoot's attacks on bail reforms have been based on shoddy or nonexistent data. WBEZ reported last year that hacked emails from Lightfoot's office showed that city officials and CPD were aware that the link between gun violence and people bonding out of jail was weak and not supported by studies, but they continued to press the talking point anyway.

Lightfoot's office tried to clean up the mess in a statement later on Monday.

"Let's be clear, as a lawyer, former federal prosecutor, and former criminal defense attorney, the Mayor, of course, knows that individuals are entitled to the presumption of innocence, which is precisely what she said today," Lightfoot's office said. "The Mayor has been explicit that violent offenders should be held accountable for their actions that harm our communities."

Precisely, but not entirely. She also said that the bar for prosecutors to win cases is so high that prosecutors won't bring weak cases, but Chicago's recent history shows the exact opposite.

Lightfoot has a habit, when criticized or facing political pressure, of embracing authoritarian solutions and rhetoric. She recently tried to change the city's curfew for teens through an executive order, despite the fact that such statutory changes have to go through the City Council.

Lightfoot has also repeatedly called on the City Council to pass a new ordinance allowing the city to sue gang members and seize their property, despite pushback from civil liberties groups. Or how about when Lightfoot threatened to jail people who violated Chicago's stay-at-home orders during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Lightfoot often says exactly what she thinks, and if it was a mistake, it was only for erring on the side of too much disclosure.