More than two years after getting the case, a federal appeals court today ruled that a mentally ill California woman can sue the Chicago Police Department for releasing her into a violent neighborhood where she was raped and nearly killed.
“They might as well have released her into the lions’ den at the Brookfield Zoo,” Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote in the opinion from the three-judge panel of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the only way to sort out whether officers violated Christina Eilman’s rights is to have a trial.
The ruling comes one day after the man convicted of attacking Eilman was released from state prison on parole.
In the appellate ruling, Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote that police knew Eilman was suffering a bipolar breakdown and that responsibility for the sexual assault and injuries she suffered after police released her into a high-crime neighborhood the night of May 8, 2006 has to be decided in a trial.
The city’s appeal had asked the court to dismiss the case against 10 police officers accused of negligence, arguing the police had no responsibility to take care of Eilman, a 21-year-old former UCLA student who had been arrested after creating a disturbance at Midway Airport.
In reciting the narrative of what happened that night, Easterbrook suggested the police showed little regard for the danger they were putting Eilman in when they released her.
“She was lost, unable to appreciate her danger, and dressed in a manner to attract attention,” Easterbrook wrote. He added, “she is white and well off while the local population is predominantly black and not affluent, causing her to stand out as a person unfamiliar with the environment and thus a potential target for crime.”
Eilman, who was thrown or fell from the 7th floor of a public housing building after being assaulted, requires around-the-clock care at her parents’ home in California and is dependent on state welfare because she has no health insurance.
Eilman’s parents, Rick and Kathleen Paine, released a written statement on the ruling, lamenting the amount of time the appeal has taken. The physical injuries she endured have made Eilman’s bipolar disorder worse, and she has been hospitalized for emergency psychiatric care several times in recent years, they have said previously. Because she has no insurance, she is dependent on state aid for medical care.
As a result of the fall, Eilman suffered numerous broken bones and a shattered pelvis, and a severe brain injury from which she will never fully recover.
In the last four years, Eilman’s progress has reached a plateau, and she will remain in an impaired state, with a childlike grasp of reality, for the rest of her life, doctors say.
Police Department policy requires officers dealing with mentally ill people to take them to a hospital for an evaluation. But instead of arranging transportation to a hospital, police ultimately sent Eilman miles away to the Wentworth District lockup, where multiple witnesses said jail guards dealt with her erratic and bizarre behavior by repeatedly telling her to “shut up.”
City officials have stood by the decision not to send Eilman to a hospital, saying Eilman seemed lucid and apologetic during a roughly half-hour interview with a police sergeant.
Eilman’s parents made nine telephone calls to the Wentworth District and were repeatedly told to call back later until an officer said Eilman had already been released. Police escorted Eilman to the back door of the Wentworth District, which also houses an area detective headquarters.
She then wandered along 51st Street a few blocks east to a takeout restaurant, where men began to gather and talk to the petite blonde, who was dressed in a skimpy jogging suit. Witnesses said she appeared to be disoriented and behaving erratically, unable to make eye contact or track what people were saying to her.
Reputed gang member and convicted felon Marvin Powell was convicted of kidnapping Eilman and restraining her in the apartment. Though authorities said Eilman had been sexually assaulted, Powell was not convicted of that crime.