Illinois Public Media News
Federal prosecutors say they have discussed a possible plea deal for a Lebanese immigrant accused of placing a backpack he thought contained a bomb near Chicago's Wrigley Field last year.
Prosecutors didn't elaborate when they told Judge Robert Gettleman at a Thursday status hearing in Chicago that they've been talking to defense lawyers about resolving the case before it gets to trial.
Sami Samir Hassoun has pleaded not guilty, including to attempted use a weapon of mass destruction. If convicted, he could face life in prison.
Prosecutors accuse the 23-year-old man of taking a fake bomb given to him by undercover FBI agents, then dropping it in a trash bin near the home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team.
Gettleman set a tentative trial date of Feb. 6.
The director of the Illinois Department of Corrections disputes charges from two state senators that many state prisons fall short of proper staffing levels.
State Senators Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) and John Jones (R-Mount Vernon) say that numbers obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the ratio of inmates to security staff is reaching dangerous levels at some prisons. But state Corrections Director Tony Godinez said the numbers lack the context of the different conditions at each facility --- based on security level, building design, inmate population and the quality of training given the security staff.
"We will have enough staff, no matter what, because we have established what our minimal staffing patterns should be. We will not go below that," Godinez said. "In addition to that, my comfort level is more so with the fact that our staff is the best and they're the best trained."
Senators Cultra and Jones had also expressed concerns about whether enough new guards were being trained to replace those who would soon be eligible for retirement.
According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, roughly 800 recently trained guards have been hired in the past year, and new cadet training sessions will be scheduled later in fiscal year 2012.
Two downstate state Senators are calling on Gov. Pat Quinn to improve staffing levels at state prisons.
Senators Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) and John O. Jones (R-Mount Vernon) say staff-to-inmate levels are at disturbing levels. For instance, they say the first shift inmate-to-guard ratio at the medium security Decatur state prison is around 12 to 1.
Jones said that might be acceptable, but not the 18-to-1 First Shift ratios at the Big Muddy River state prison. The figures come from the state Department of Corrections through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Senator Cultra said matters will only get worse, as nearly a thousand guards become eligible for retirement next year --- with no plans announced for new cadet training. The Onarga Republican said that is why they are trying to put pressure on Governor Quinn.
"Maybe it will move the administration to take some action," Cultra said. "We would like to work with the administration to help alleviate this. And we think by making it aware publically, that maybe it might push (him) into some action."
Cultra said he is worried about a high number of prison guards nearing retirement age --- when there might not be enough new guards to take their place.
"There's no cadet classes scheduled," he said. "This fiscal year, they have a potential of having 1,000 guards retire. There's nobody to replace these people. So the numbers that you're looking at now are terrible --- it's going to be much worse when these retirements come about."
Cultra and Jones say the state could afford more prison guards if they make cuts in less essential state programs, and sell off non-essential state properties. They also suggest the state institute reforms in the Department of Corrections, like time-keeping hardware.
But the Department of Corrections said the numbers cited by the two senators are inaccurate. According to the department, around 800 newly trained guards have been hired over the past fiscal year --- and that plans are in the works to hold more guard training sessions in the current fiscal year.
(AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)
The city of Champaign will start looking for a new police chief to take over when current chief R.T. Finney retires.
Finney has announced his decision to step down Jan. 20, 2012. In a press release, Finney said he is leaving with joy and trepidation after more than 30 years in the law enforcement profession. He became chief of police in Carbondale in 1999 and took the top post in Champaign four years later.
"I entered into law enforcement over 30 years ago as a civilian employee and since that time I have enjoyed working in every facet and position that law enforcement has to offer," Finney said in a statement.
Champaign city manager Steve Carter said Finney managed to help the police department earn its first accreditation and boost police community relations.
"We probably are doing a lot more as a police department in terms of trying to reach out to the community now than we ever have," Carter said. "R.T. has been very supportive of expanding those outreach efforts in the community."
Finney was one of the first two officers to respond to the incident that led to the 2009 police-shooting death of teenager Kiwane Carrington. Carter said efforts to improve citizens' image of police continue.
Carter noted that a search for Finney's successor will begin immediately, though a new chief might not be in place by the time Finney retires.
(Photo by Jim Meadows/WILL)
Indiana's decision to essentially police itself as it investigates a fatal stage collapse at the state fair is raising questions about how objective the probe will be.
Workplace safety agencies, state police and fair officials are looking into Saturday's collapse that killed five people and injured dozens more. All are under the jurisdiction of the state, which also put on the fair. The lone outside agency brought in so far is an engineering firm hired by the Indiana State Fair Commission, raising questions about its independence.
Other states in similar positions have formed special commissions with outside experts to handle investigations, including of a bonfire collapse at Texas A&M University and the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels so far hasn't mentioned the idea, and instead has repeatedly referred to the wind gust that toppled the stage but spared other nearby structures as a freak occurrence that couldn't have been anticipated.
"The fair has an interest in protecting itself," attorney Jerry Miniard of Erlanger, Ky., who is representing an injured girl, said Thursday. "Why in the world would you let someone who may be responsible investigate themselves?"
Miniard said he is a friend of the father of 10-year-old Jade Walcott, whose skull was crushed by the falling stage. He questioned how thorough the probe will be given that it's nearly all being done in-house.
"The state of Indiana is basically investigating itself," he said.
Judy Nadler, a former mayor of Santa Clara, Calif., who is a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said that could be a mistake.
"There's this sort of automatic default to say, we have people here internally who can take a look at this ... but for something so closely affiliated with the state, it would be wise to call upon someone who doesn't have any even perceived conflict of interest," Nadler said. She suggested bringing in someone from outside the state, perhaps even an outside regulator.
"I think it really is such a significant event ... it requires a level of independence to fully discern the facts and to fully convey to the public that this was a fair and thorough and impartial and nonpolitical look at what happened," she said.
State fair officials did announce this week that they had hired New York engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti Inc. to review the stage's design and construction, but Miniard questioned how far-ranging that probe might be since the state will determine the scope of the investigation.
"The state of Indiana is in complete control over the investigation," Miniard said. "And the state's interests are possibly different than those people who were injured or killed."
Fair spokesman Andy Klotz said the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies conducting their own investigations will all report to the fair commission. "I am quite sure that everybody is going to be satisfied with the thoroughness of this investigation," he said. "And nobody wants the answers more than us."
Attention also has centered on how fair officials reacted to worsening weather conditions, telling the audience minutes before a 60 to 70 mph wind gust brought the stage down onto the crowd that the show would likely go on - without mentioning that the National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning. But it isn't clear which, if any, agency was investigating that aspect of the crisis.
"I don't know who that falls under, but absolutely, that's going to be part of it," said Klotz.
In other states and even in Indiana, officials sometimes have avoided any appearance of conflict of interest by bringing in outside investigators. After a 1999 bonfire collapse that killed 12 people at Texas A&M University, school officials appointed a five-person commission whose members had no direct ties to the university to investigate the tragedy. The University of Notre Dame conducted its own investigation into the death of a student killed last year when the hydraulic lift he was on fell over in high winds as he filmed football practice. But it hired Peter Likins, an engineer and the former president of the University of Arizona, to provide an independent review of its investigation.
Others have gone even further. After an explosion killed 29 men last year in the Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal, W.Va., the state's governor asked a former top federal mine regulator to investigate the accident. And Colorado's governor appointed an independent commission to investigate the 1999 Columbine High School shootings.
A spokeswoman for Daniels didn't immediately return phone calls about whether he had considered such an option.
Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said there was ultimately no way to avoid outside investigations of an accident like the state fair stage collapse because there were bound to be lawsuits by victims and their families.
"In a sense, the lawsuit is the outside investigation," Stern said.
Miniard said he was sending a letter to Daniels asking him to issue an executive order securing the stage so that the victims can conduct their own investigations into the accident, though he said it was too early to gauge the likelihood of a lawsuit without a better understanding of what happened.
In other cases, he said, families have had to seek restraining orders to compel officials to preserve evidence. Miniard said he had called and written to state police, the state fire marshal and fair officials with his request and received no response.
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
A former Chicago police commander imprisoned for lying about the torture of suspects decades ago is still costing the cash-strapped city money.
That's because Chicago is defending itself and former police Lt. Jon Burge against civil lawsuits from men who claim Burge and his men beat, suffocated and shocked confessions out of them.
Six lawsuits are pending that accuse Chicago officers of torturing suspects _ almost all of them black or Latino_ into giving confessions from the 1970s to the 1990s.
The city's stance has long been that it would defend itself vigorously against any such lawsuits. However, Mayor Rahm Emanuel told the Chicago Sun-Times for a story published Tuesday that he's working toward settling them.
Burge-related cases already have cost the city an estimated $43 million.
A convicted influence peddler remains on track to be sentenced weeks after his one-time benefactor, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Prosecutors said at a status hearing Tuesday that they want to stick with an Oct. 21 sentencing date for Tony Rezko.
The government has portrayed Rezko as the ultimate insider who pulled strings in Blagojevich's administration.
A jury convicted Rezko in 2008 of squeezing kickbacks from businessmen eager to land state contracts.
The 56-year-old appeared at Tuesday's hearing in jail clothes and chains binding his ankles. He smiled weakly and waived at relatives on courtroom benches.
Jurors convicted Blagojevich for corruption in June. His sentencing date is Oct. 6.
Rezko's sentencing was repeatedly delayed to leave the possibility he could testify at Blagojevich's trial. But the government never called him.
A new online database lets people to see who has outstanding warrants in Cook County.
Sheriff Tom Dart said there are about 44,000 people in Cook County who have outstanding warrants. The new online database, he hopes, will help the office get some tips on the whereabouts of those people.
"This has a way of really flushing out the system, as well, and really doing a lot of very positive things because there's nothing good with having this many warrants in the system," Dart told reporters Friday.
Dart said about a third of the warrants outstanding are for traffic offenses and about 13,000 are for drug or theft charges.
The majority are not wanted for violent crimes, Dart said.
"There is a hope that there will be quite a few people who'll go to this website just, frankly, to check, maybe, theirself (sic) out," he said.
The sheriff said he's putting together a 500 most wanted list for the website, as well.
Attorneys for torture victims of former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge are trying to put some political pressure on the Illinois Supreme Court.
Their attorneys are planning to file a brief Wednesday morning in the case of Stanley Wrice. Former Illinois U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson and former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson are joining congressmen, aldermen and prominent attorneys in signing the document that asks the Supreme Court to order a review of the Wrice case, and the cases of 14 other alleged torture victims who are still in prison.
Wrice says in 1982 he was beaten by police under former commander Jon Burge until he confessed to a brutal rape. He raised the issue in court in 1983 but the officers testified they didn't beat him and the courts ruled against Wrice.
But now there is a long string of evidence - including Burge's conviction - to show that torture did occur, giving Wrice's claims added weight they didn't have 30 years ago. Attorneys aren't asking for Wrice to be freed, but they do want all Burge torture victims to have new hearings in light of all the new evidence regarding police torture.
(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)
A nine-year legal fight by a man sexually abused by a priest in the 1970s is over, now that a southern Illinois diocese and its insurer have handed over $6.3 million to resolve a jury award in the man's favor.
Attorneys for the Diocese of Belleville turned over the checks during a hearing Wednesday in St. Clair County, three years after James Wisniewski of Champaign won the $5 million jury award. The additional $1.33 million includes interest since that verdict.
Wisniewski sued in 2002, alleging that a former priest sexually abused him dozens of times for five years at St. Theresa's Parish in Salem. The lawsuit also claimed the diocese hid the one-time priest's suspected behavior and quietly shuffled him among parishes.
The diocese's attorneys declined comment.
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