Making a Confession: The Torture of Shawn Whirl

Shawn Whirl wasn’t feeling anything. He was unconscious, sleeping, but sleeping the deepest sleep one can without dying. He had fallen into a sleep brought on by total exhaustion. He did not fall into a comfortable sleep, or even a wanting sleep, rather his body just turned off the switch and shut down.

He didn’t hear Detective James Pienta or William Marley enter the room. He didn’t hear the opening of the door or the scuffing sounds of the sensibly casual dress shoes of the officers. However, he did feel the pressure and quick pain that raced up his leg, registered in his brain and turned the switch on again. Pienta had stepped down hard on Shawn’s foot to wake him.

“Wake up nigger”, Shawn heard the new and strange voice say.

Before he had a moment to open his eyes and awake, he felt the slap. Fire stung his face and disorientated him, and in that moment of fog the officer was able to grab his only free wrist, racking it with a steel handcuff, attaching it to the same wall he had been sleeping against.

The detective now bent down to Shawn Whirl, invading his space, speaking deliberately. He explained to Whirl that the statement he had given to the other detectives “won’t do”. Pienta told Whirl that if he cooperated with him, Pienta would get him something to eat and would let him see his girlfriend and go home. Pienta went on to explain however, if Shawn didn’t cooperate, that they would put his girlfriend in the interview room instead.

“Just repeat after me and there will be no problem.”

APRIL 18, 1990

In the early morning hours of April 18, 1990, the body of 40-year-old Billy Williams, a taxicab driver, was found inside a cab in the parking lot of Gately Stadium on the south side of Chicago. The victim had a gunshot wound to the back of the head, the apparent climax of a robbery. The cab Williams had been driving at the time was dusted for fingerprints, and prints taken from the passenger door were identified as belonging to Shawn Whirl.

Detectives assigned to the case went to Whirl’s mother’s house. Shawn’s mother informed the detectives that her son was not home at the time, and the detectives left a business card with their phone number, and asked her to tell her son to call them.

On the morning April 20, Shawn called the number on the card to find out why police were looking for him. The person on the other end of the line asked to him to hold, and when they returned to the line told Whirl to call back at 12:30 p.m. When he called back, the police traced the call and arrested him while he was still on the phone.

He was placed into a squad car and taken to “Area 2”. Shortly after he arrived at “Area 2” he was handcuffed by one arm to the wall of interview room. Detectives John Duffy and James Dwyer interviewed Shawn. He answered their questions about his whereabouts the previous two days, but denied any involvement in the murder of Billy Williams. After about two hours of questioning, the detectives stood and exited the interview room, leaving Shawn Whirl there handcuffed to the wall. Eventually he fell asleep.

Making a Confession

Pienta began telling Shawn things to say in his statement about how Billy Williams was murdered. Every time Whirl would explain that Pienta’s rendition was wrong, Pienta would slap him, hard. As he continued to deny any involvement, Pienta continued to slap him like an insolent child. The soft flesh of Shawn’s cheeks burned and swelled with each thwaaaap.

At one point Pienta noticed a wound on Shawn’s leg and asked him about it. Shawn explained it was from a fight he had been in a few days earlier, during which he fell off an elevated train platform and scraped his leg. As Shawn continued to get the story wrong, Pienta became angry. He took a set of keys, removed one, and scraped Shawn’s wound with the key. Shawn screamed in pain, and Pienta told him to shut up. Pienta continued to tell Shawn what to say and gouging the key into his wound.

Eventually, Shawn started to repeat Pienta’s words back to him, but when he would make mistakes Detective Pienta slapped him or gouged him with the key. Each time Pienta would gouge Shawn’s wound he would howl in pain, Pienta would tell him, “shut up!”

Shawn was able to give a compete statement, the one that Pienta fed to him, and the detectives left the room. Sometime after they left an assistant State’s Attorney came in and asked Shawn how he had been treated. Shawn told him he had been treated fine and the assistant left. Shortly after that, Pienta re-entered the room and had Shawn give his statement, (the one he had learned to recite) once again. Satisfied, Pienta escorted Shawn out of the room and into another room. There behind a one-way glass was Tanya Crawford, Shawn’s girlfriend of two years. He could see her, but she couldn’t see him.

Earlier that day, around four p.m., police officers had come to her home and took her to the station for questioning. She was taken to an interview room, and remained there alone. At one point she did hear a voice she recognized, she heard screams she recognized, those of her boyfriend, Shawn Whirl. As Shawn was looking at her through the mirror in front of her, it was about 11 p.m., it wouldn’t be until 1 a.m. until she finally left the station.

Meanwhile on the other side of the one-way mirror, another officer, the assistant State’s Attorney and a court reporter came into the room. Shawn gave the statement that Pienta had told him to give, the court reporter took it down. When he was finished the assistant State’s Attorney read the statement back to Shawn and asked him if it was correct. Shawn answered yes, and initialed the document.

72 hours ago Shawn Whirl was the son of Erma Whirl, the brother of United States Army Sargent Renayldo Howard, boyfriend of Tanya Crawford; but now he was Shawn Whirl the man who murdered Billy Williams.

The Statement

According to the statement, Shawn had been visiting with a friend in Harvey, Illinois. He left his friend’s house and walked to a bus terminal. At this point Whirl told the State’s Attorney that he planned to rob a cab. When asked why, Shawn responded, “For one thing, I didn’t have any rent money.” He said he had a .45 automatic that he had gotten “off the street” for $40 or $45.

Shawn said that he next took the bus to 95th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway and from there took the “el” to 87th and the Dan Ryan. He went to a store called Ames and bought some gifts for his fiancée.

When he returned to the “el” stop at 87th and the Dan Ryan, he saw three gang members. Shawn was wearing a starter hat and the gang members were talking about taking his hat. One of the gang members approached him and ask if the jacket went with the hat. Soon after another gang member approached and hit Shawn in the face, knocking him off the platform. As he fell, he scraped his leg on the platform, resulting in the fresh injury he had now.

Shawn grabbed one of the gang members by the foot and knocked him down, then he jumped up and ran to get on the train. The gang members followed him onto the train and Shawn ran to the front of the train, getting off at 95th and the Dan Ryan. He saw the gang members still behind him, and ran over to a gas station where he saw a cab and asked the driver to take him to 102nd and Forest.

The driver complied and Shawn sat in the seat directly behind him, but when they reached 102nd and Forest, Shawn asked the cabbie to take him to Gately Stadium because he had an interview there. During the cab ride, Shawn talked to the driver, he told him about some problems he was having and asked the driver about his day.

When the cab stopped at Gately Stadium, Shawn said, “I am sorry, sir, this is a stickup” and put the gun to the driver’s head. Shawn asked the cabbie to give him the change that was in a pouch on the dashboard. The driver adjusted the mirror and looked at Shawn. He told Shawn that he would not give him the change.

Shawn said, “I was thinking about running and leaving it alone because I couldn’t do it after telling him my problems and listening to him.” He continued, and said that he lowered the gun, but when the driver turned around and his elbow touched the gun, Shawn raised it and shot him in the head. After the gun went off, it fell to the floor, but the cab was moving so Shawn reached up and put it in park. The car kept going and hit a yellow divider in the parking lot before it stopped.

Shawn grabbed the Ames bag from the backseat, picked up the gun and ran into the park. While in the park, Shawn dropped to his knees, began to cry and threw the gun, and then ran from the area.

When he was asked how he was treated by the police, he responded, “Okay.” He confirmed that he was allowed to use the restroom, and that he was given potato chips and a drink.

Out of the Interrogation Room and Into the System

Shawn Whirl was charged with First Degree Murder, arraigned, and appointed an attorney. He told his counsel about the horrific time he spent in the interrogation room. His attorney filed a competent Motion to Suppress his statements, claiming that they came as the result of abuse and coercion. The trial court denied Whirl’s Motion, finding that the testimony, taken as whole, did not indicate the Pienta coerced Shawn or inflicted any injury on him. The court noted in its decision that Shawn told the State’s Attorney that he had been treated well, and did not tell anyone at the jail about his leg injury.

After the motion to suppress was denied, Shawn’s attorney requested a conference to enter a guilty plea. The State advised Shawn’s attorney previously that if the case went to trial they would seek the death penalty. The trial court informed the parties that if Whirl was found guilty, the court would most likely sentence him to a minimum of 60 years.

The State proceeded to give a summary of the evidence, and when they were finished, defense counsel asked the court to consider that the statement indicated that Shawn hesitated prior to the robbery, and it was only when the driver made a sudden movement that he fired the gun. The trial court stated that it was still his intention to sentence Shawn to 60 years. Shawn’s attorney asked for a recess to talk to his client.

Counsel came back to the court and asked if the judge would consider 50 years instead. The court responded, no, and Shawn’s attorney asked for another recess. When they returned Shawn entered a plea of guilty. The judge sentenced Shawn to 60 years and then asked if he wanted to say anything.

Shawn stated, “The thing I have to say is for the reason I’m taking this plea is for the simple fact that I didn’t do it. I have to say I didn’t do it.”

The judge responded, “You didn’t do it?”

Shawn repeated his denial, and when the court asked why, he explained that he was only entering a plea to avoid losing a trial and getting the death penalty. The judge interrupted Shawn and told him that he wouldn’t accept his plea and wouldn’t sentence him to 60 years. The judge went on to state that he had never encountered a situation where a defendant pled guilty, was sentenced and then immediately proclaimed his innocence. The judge then said he intended to have a jury selected that afternoon and proceed on with a jury trial that may result in a death penalty.

Shawn’s attorney quickly requested yet another recess to speak with his client. When they returned Shawn asked to the judge to accept his plea, and claimed that he was in fact guilty of shooting Billy Williams in the head. He explained to the judge that he was just scared of having to go to prison for 60 years, and that he had never been to prison. The judge accepted his explanation, took his plea, and sentenced him to 60 years.

Prison Life, Appeal Life

Shawn spent the next several years claiming his innocence and requesting appeals. Organizations that help the innocent, took on his case, they filed briefs and made requests for a new trial. Each time Whirl was denied by an appellate court. Court’s continued to believe that his statement was freely given and damning.

By 2011 the torture practices of the Chicago Police Department had been revealed to the public. Detective Jon Burge and his “Midnight Crew” was at the center of the allegations. In 2010 Jon Burge was convicted of perjury in a Federal court for denying torture practices. The detectives that interrogated Shawn Whirl were under Burge’s command, and were also connected to cases of torture.

In 2012, Shawn’s attorney’s filed a Petition with the court claiming his innocence. That Petition was based partly on a finding by the Illinois Torture and Relief Commission, that found Shawn Whirl had in fact been tortured prior to his confession. In November, 2013, the Petition was denied.

The Court agreed there was evidence of torture by other detectives involving other defendants, but that Whirl was not credible, and therefore had not established that he was abused or tortured. Shawn’s attorneys appealed and in August of 2015 the Illinois Appellate court reversed the lower court’s decision vacated his conviction and ordered a new hearing on the motion to suppress the confession. The court noted that since this confession, Detective Pienta had repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer questions surrounding the confession in that his answers may incriminate him.

The court found more specifically:

“The new evidence presented at the post-conviction hearing, when weighed against the (prosecution’s) original evidence, was conclusive enough that the outcome of the suppression hearing likely would have been different if Pienta had been subject to impeachment based on evidence of abusive tactics he employed in the interrogation of other suspects,” the appellate court said. “Indeed, it is impossible to conceive of how the (prosecution) could prevail at a new suppression hearing with the officer alleged to have coerced a suspect’s confession invoking his privilege against self-incrimination.”

On October 13, 2015, the State of Illinois dismissed the case against Shawn Whirl and he was released from custody.


With the recent interest in Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” I felt it was important to tell the story of Shawn Whirl. He is one of the forgotten, just another victim of the years of abuse and torture promulgated on the citizens of Chicago at the hands of Jon Burge and his minions.

It is also important to reflect on stories like this and understand that false confessions are not relegated to Chicago interrogation rooms, and Netflix Documentaries. This happens. It is real. The criminal justice system in America is supposed to be structured in a way to give deference to the innocent. We have the “beyond a reasonable doubt standard”, everyone is given an attorney, and then there is an appellate system. Well the truth is quite different. Public defenders are overworked and underpaid. When’s the last time the budget was cut for District Attorneys, but not for the Public Defender’s office? If you can show me one single instance of this in any state, anytime, then I will be flabbergasted. It doesn’t happen, it’s never happened.

Further, scrutiny of law enforcement is always met with resistance. How can anyone ever suggest that some low-life criminal could be telling the truth about an upstanding law enforcement officer treating them poorly and violating the law? Well, that happens, too. A badge, or an oath for that matter does not suddenly prohibit one from breaking the law themselves.

Finally, our appellate system is deeply flawed. The standard for a new trial or re-examination of evidence is high and rarely met.

The entirety of the system is structured and intended to protect the innocent, however this is only achievable with the support of the citizenry. Be skeptical, ask questions, and demand proof.

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