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Jurors begin deliberations in lawsuit over beating by off-duty Chicago officer

This news story was published on November 8, 2012.
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By Annie Sweeney, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Jurors at a trial involving a notorious 2007 beating of a female bartender by an off-duty Chicago officer began deliberations Wednesday that will include considering a rarely tested question — does the Chicago Police Department have a code of silence?

In the final argument to jurors before deliberations began, an attorney for the bartender, Karolina Obrycka, decried what he described as decades of unofficial protection for officers.

“The evidence you heard didn’t come from a television script or a movie script,” attorney Terry Ekl said. “There is an active, live code of silence. It is part of the culture of the Chicago Police Department.”

In the high-stakes trial at the U.S. Dirksen Courthouse, lawyers for Obrycka contended that the city as well as Officer Anthony Abbate are accountable for the beating and the cover-up that allegedly followed because of the longstanding code of silence.

Over 2 ½ weeks, the jury heard expert evidence about the department’s allegedly weak discipline of bad cops as well as testimony from numerous witnesses about an allegedly extensive effort to protect Abbate after the disturbing, videotaped beating at Jesse’s Short Stop Inn was released and became an Internet sensation.

On Wednesday Ekl listed how a drunken Abbate engaged in a series of criminal acts on Feb. 19, 2007, that average citizens would be held accountable for — assaulting and harassing bar patrons, beating and kicking Obrycka and then driving home intoxicated.

“He doesn’t have any concern at all,” Ekl said. “It’s in his DNA. It’s part of his life. He’s a Chicago police officer. You think someone from the … district is going to come over and arrest him? No.”

The jury deliberated for about five hours Wednesday before recessing until next week because of scheduling conflicts for the judge.

Ekl’s closing argument was interrupted by several objections from city attorneys, particularly when he criticized their defense for using diversions and ignoring or distorting evidence.

“When you hear the arguments, is it any wonder the code of silence has existed for decades?” Ekl said.

Abbate, who was ultimately convicted of a felony and fired from the police force, potentially faces liability over allegations that he conspired with friends, including police pals, to threaten Obrycka not to pursue charges against him. If the jury agrees that a code of silence exists, the city could be held liable for the vicious beating.

From the start, city attorneys said they were fighting Obrycka’s lawsuit on principle. Abbate was off-duty and his actions had nothing to do with his work as a Chicago police officer, they said.

They have blamed his actions that night on his extensive drinking, calling it “absurd” that Abbate was counting on police to protect him. They also argued that he fled after the attack, showing that he feared getting in trouble, and was later investigated by the department.

“It is clear from the video that Anthony Abbate acted out of rage,” attorney Barrett Rubens, representing the city, said Tuesday in her closing argument. “… Anthony Abbate did what he did because he was hammered.”

In his closing, Ekl also addressed a messy and complicated aspect of the case — the numerous conflicting stories from Chicago police officials and Cook County prosecutors about how aggressively they wanted to punish Abbate.

City attorneys have maintained that Chicago police wanted to pursue felonies — even though two department investigators had Obrycka sign a misdemeanor complaint within three days of the beating.

Debra Kirby, then head of the department’s Internal Affairs Division, testified that she conveyed her desire for felony charges to Thomas Bilyk, a Cook County prosecutor who was supervising the Abbate investigation, in a phone call days after the beating.

But Bilyk denied the conversation happened. In her closing argument, Rubens suggested Bilyk didn’t tell the truth and reminded jurors of a police report in which a Chicago detective said that Bilyk had called for lesser misdemeanor charges at a Feb. 23 meeting.

But Ekl, with his voice rising, told the jury Wednesday that the report was dated 23 days after the meeting — and just two days after Abbate surrendered to police and pressure was mounting on the state’s attorney’s office to upgrade the misdemeanor charges.

“It’s what’s called ‘cover your butt,’ ” Ekl said of the report.

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