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The Chicago Police Ruined John Collins' Life—and Now They Owe Him $1 Million

7 years of his life gone over a maliciously fabricated assault charge.
 
 
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Seven years ago John Collins was charged with aggravated battery of a police officer, a felony in Illinois. He was sent to a Cook County jail and bond was set at $75,000, which he could not pay. The jail was overcrowded, so Collins slept on the floor. He remained there for 385 days, during which time he missed the birth of his first child, a baby boy. His fiancé brought his infant son to visit but he was not allowed to hold him, separated by a pane of glass. Sometimes, those visits were canceled “ when the jail was put on lock-down for stabbings and murders.” Eventually, his fiancé left him, saying his time in the jail had changed him — he wasn’t the same person anymore.

Today Collins is a free man, acquitted of all charges, and the Chicago Police owe him $1 million. His seven-year odyssey may have finally ended this week, when a jury unanimously found the two officers involved guilty of malicious prosecution for fabricating the case against him.

Court documents and interviews reveal a remarkable story of a barber who blew the whistle on two veteran police officers and was vindicated. But the details of Collins’ case also underscore just how difficult it is for an ordinary citizen to prove misconduct by the police. Innocence, of course, is helpful. But luck is essential.

It all started on January 3, 2006, when two Chicago police officers claim they saw Collins drinking from what they suspected was a bottle of alcohol in the street. The officers, Michael Garza and Jeffrey Mayer, pulled over to investigate. At the 2007 criminal trial, Garza and Mayer describe Collins that day as angry, uncooperative, violent, drunk, and nearly constantly shouting expletives. They soon arrested him at gunpoint for drinking from an open container, handcuffed him, and put him in the back seat of their police cruiser.

At that point, according to Garza and Mayer’s testimony, Collins continued cursing and began spitting at them from the backseat. Eventually, according to the officers, Collins started banging his head against the metal and glass barrier separating the front and back of the police car. Mayer claims they pulled over because they were worried he was “going to hurt himself” and Garza opened the back door to get him out.

That’s when Garza and Mayer claim that Collins, who was handcuffed, committed felony assault.

Garza said that when he leaned into the vehicle, Collins started headbutting and spitting on him. He then got Mayer’s help to remove Collins from the police car, lifting him, they said, by his biceps. Once Collins was out of the car he charged at them and continued to try to kick them. At that point, Mayer conducted an “emergency takedown,” which involved several “open handed strikes” to subdue him. Even on the ground, according to the officers’ testimony, Collins continued to try to kick them.

Reading through the direct testimony of the officers it is hard to imagine how Collins avoided being convicted, much less awarded a large sum for malicious prosecution. But Collins caught an enormous break — there were three independent witnesses to the altercation. And what they saw diverged greatly from the police officers’ account.

Patricia Watkins lives in a townhouse directly across from where the police car pulled over. She testified that, from her front window, she saw Garza get out of the driver’s seat, open the back door and immediately start punching the person in back, “bending down, punching, like it was a punching bag.” She testified Garza continued to punch the person in the back seat for at least two minutes. Watkins testified that, while Garza was administering the beating, Mayer was urging him to “get back in” the vehicle. Watkins said that eventually Collins was able to get out of the car and Garza started to kick him. She then disputed every key element of the police officers’ story.

 
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