A Chicago man who spent 30 years behind bars after falsely confessing to a murder he says he didn’t commit is suing the city and nearly a dozen police officers — including one who was later investigated for torture at Guantanamo Bay — who allegedly used “overwhelming coercion” to get him to implicate himself in the crime.
Lee Harris, 67, says he was framed by police and prosecutors before spending 33 years in prison. On Thursday, lawyers filed a federal civil rights lawsuit — six months after Harris was exonerated and released from prison following his conviction in the 1989 murder of 24-year-old Dana Feitler.
“Because of Defendants’ misconduct, Mr. Harris was taken away from and missed out on the lives of his family and friends,” his attorneys wrote in the lawsuit complaint. “Mr. Harris was robbed of opportunities to pursue his interests and passions, build relationships, and continue the community work that provided his life with meaning. Instead, he was forced to spend over three decades in prison, where his life was in constant danger.”
A spokesperson for Chicago’s Law Department declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the department had not yet been served with the complaint Thursday morning and will “review the lawsuit upon service.”
According to the complaint, Feitler was found fatally shot at around 2 a.m. on June 18, 1989, in an alley in the Gold Coast neighborhood after a security guard heard a gunshot and saw men running from the area.
Harris, who was then 34, had no information about the shooting, the lawsuit claimed, but two officers whom he was friendly with told him that they believed they knew who was responsible. They allegedly told Harris that if he came with them to the Area Six police headquarters and repeated that information to other officers, he could receive a cash reward.
“Upon realizing that they could not corroborate the story they had forced Mr. Harris to tell, Defendants improperly pressured Mr. Harris to change his story to fit their own changing narrative of the case,” the lawsuit states.
Investigators allegedly coerced information out of Harris, telling him he would not be arrested and that he still stood to receive the cash reward. While police had information that pointed to another man as Feitler’s killer, they continued to try and coerce statements out of Harris implicating other people, the lawsuit states.
After months of investigation, Harris was brought in for yet another interrogation, this time after officers allegedly threatened him with eviction or being charged with a crime if he refused, the complaint states.
“Under police pressure and coercion, Mr. Harris gave yet another statement, further implicating himself in the Feitler crime to Defendant Officers,” the complaint states. “Thirteen days later, Defendant Officers came to arrest Mr. Harris.”
This false confession was used as the basis for a first-degree murder charge, which eventually led to his conviction and a 90-year prison sentence, the complaint states.
He eventually hired a private attorney in 2016 and was able to show how police fabricated their reports of Harris’ ever-changing statements before his arrest and suppressed evidence, the lawsuit states.
In March 2023, a judge vacated his conviction and he was freed from custody.
One of the detectives named in the lawsuit is Richard Zuley, whom the lawsuit claims has a “long history of engaging in precisely the kind of investigative misconduct that occurred in this case.”
Beyond several controversial interrogations identified in the complaint that occurred during his time with the CPD, Zuley later worked as a Guantanamo Bay interrogator. He was named as the “mastermind behind the interrogation plan and subsequent physical and psychological torture of Mohamedou Slahi,” according to the complaint, who was held there without charge from 2002 until his release in 2016.
“Defendant Zuley subjected Mr. Slahi to sexual assaults, sensory deprivation, physical abuse and torture, and made violent rape threats against his mother,” the complaint states. “The conviction obtained from Mr. Slahi was determined to be worthless as a result of Defendant Zuley’s masterminded brutal interrogation techniques.”