Tough Convictions

By Steve Hendershot
Tough Convictions

The Honorable Stuart Nudelman (LAW ’72) retired from the Cook County Circuit Court in 2006, ending a 21-year career on the bench. His retirement didn’t signal a farewell to public service, however. Nudelman, 65, currently is at work on two of the highest-profile matters of his career: the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal, and the re-examination of Chicago police torture and coercion cases.

The church cases came to Judge Nudelman in 2007; since then, he has served as both an arbitrator and mediator in disputes between abuse victims and the archdioceses and dioceses in Chicago and around the country. As special arbitrator, Nudelman handled a group of cases for the Archdiocese of Chicago that resulted in settlement payments to victims.

Nudelman acquired his second set of high-profile cases in April 2009, when he was named special prosecutor for a group of decades-old cases. These cases are being re-evaluated in light of a federal court’s finding that former Chicago police commander Jon Burge coerced confessions at two police stations on Chicago’s South Side. As special prosecutor, Nudelman evaluates requests for retrial or other relief, and must determine whether a case is likely to fall apart if the defendant’s confession is thrown out.

Nudelman shares his thoughts on both cases with IIT.

IIT: Do you think about the broader public good when you’re working on high-profile cases that affect large groups of people?

Stuart Nudelman: So far as the cases involving the church, as well as the Burge cases, absolutely. In those cases, the aspect of how the outcome will affect the public good, or how it will affect future allegations of torture and coerced confessions by police officers, or allegations of sexual abuse by priests or other people within religious hierarchies—considering that aspect is huge.

You do think about what effect your decision will have, if you’re a judge or arbitrator, or what your work as mediator is going to do to try to resolve some of those issues. In those instances, you look very often beyond the particular case before you.

I was a judge for 21 years, and that helps with my approach. As a judge, you weigh how a decision is going to affect the parties before you, and then sometimes when the case involves public issues, you also have to weigh how the outcome is going to affect the public in general or how it’s going to affect the future of that particular dispute if there are other disputes like it.

IIT: Does the breadth of your focus change depending on your role?

SN: As a special prosecutor, you can’t look beyond your particular case. Each case has to be looked at individually. So even while there are allegations of mass abuse of prisoners during interrogations, you still have to look at each individual case and not judge all the cases together. That’s paramount to working in any level of the criminal justice system.

IIT: The Burge cases are decades old. Without the confessions, how do you determine whether there’s enough remaining evidence to pursue a new trial?

SN: You look at each case to determine, first, what kind of evidence was used in the prosecution and ultimate conviction of the defendant. If it was primarily or solely based on the confession, and it appears there is evidence that that confession was coerced, and then you also find that there’s really no other substantive evidence to get a conviction, and then you add to that the fact that it’s a 25-year-old murder case, then sometimes a decision is made that there’s no purpose to go any further.

On the other end of the scale, you get cases where the confession may have been coerced, but there is such a plethora of other evidence—eyewitnesses, physical evidence. There’s still more than sufficient evidence for a finding of guilty, even without the confession. Those are the ones that you pursue as a special prosecutor, though of course a judge ultimately makes the decision about whether to grant a post-conviction hearing or a new trial.

In between those two extremes, there are cases where you talk to the other side to find out if maybe it’s time for a plea on certain charges. If the person has done 25 years in jail, then perhaps there’s a way that the incarceration ends as one of the terms of a plea agreement, and some cases can resolve that way.

IIT: You’ve worked closely with many victims of sexual abuse in cases involving the Catholic Church. Besides money, what do those victims most often find helpful in settling their cases?

SN: The cases do ask for money damages, certainly. All the parties I’ve worked with agree that certainly money is an aspect. Very often you need more than that, though: you need counseling, and you need to find out how to repair relationships between certain parishioners and the church.

The other aspect of it, and this is also from both parties’ point of view, is looking at ‘How do we make sure this doesn’t occur again.’ That broader goal has to be something you’re concerned about, something that’s part of your thinking.

IIT: What’s your sense of the effectiveness of the resolution in these cases from that broader, public-good perspective? Has good come from the handling of the Burge and archdiocese cases?

SN: In both cases, I believe there’s been a tremendous change in various dioceses and archdioceses around the country relating to the problem of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic Church, as well as within other religious institutions. They are much more aware of the problem, and they are dealing with it appropriately. They’ve always taken it seriously, but until now there’s always been some necessity or want on their part to keep it within the church; they realize now that this is an issue that the public and the authorities need to be involved in. I think there’s been a tremendous change in their attitude toward these cases and in their willingness to be open.

In the Burge cases, there’s no question there’s a difference with what took place 20 and 30 years ago compared with what takes place today in police stations or other places where questioning is done. We’re using more recording devices today, we’re using video cameras, so that process is more open. And people are not held in custody for 24 or 48 hours without some contact with an attorney. Through the exposing of these cases, there’s been a tremendous amount of public good achieved, and I think it’s continuing.