The case of a mentally ill California woman who was raped and permanently disabled after Chicago police released her in a high-crime area has languished in appeals court for a year and a half, so long that her family has taken the unusual step of prodding the court to hurry up.
The trial judge in the $100 million federal lawsuit against the city criticized Chicago's lawyers for filing a "meritless" appeal as a ploy to delay the case, which was set to go to trial in March 2010 -- four years after Christina Eilman's horror story began.
At oral arguments in October 2010, appellate judges blasted the Police Department's treatment of Eilman in their questioning of city attorneys, but they have been silent for 10 months now.
"We definitely, we obviously wish this lawsuit would get over. It adds a lot of stress," said Kathy Paine, Eilman's mother, who has watched her daughter lose ground to medical complications in recent months. "There are other resources for treatment out there that require funds that we don't have."
City lawyers believe the court is taking a long time because the judges are grappling with serious legal questions, contrary to the trial judge's belief that the appeal did not have merit, said Jennifer Hoyle, spokeswoman for the city's Law Department.
"A baseless appeal would not take this length of time to resolve," she said.
The details of Eilman's treatment by police in May 2006, and what happened to her after she was abruptly released in an unfamiliar and dangerous neighborhood, have haunted her parents and opened the Chicago Police Department to criticism about its handling of mentally ill people.
After arresting her for erratic behavior at Midway Airport, and ignoring a police commander's instructions to take her to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, according to sworn testimony in the case, officers transported the 21-year-old UCLA student to the Wentworth District lockup in one of the city's highest crime areas. She was held there overnight.
The next evening, after hours of psychotic behavior by Eilman, police released her with no assistance or direction. She wandered aimlessly toward a high-rise of the Robert Taylor Homes, where she was raped before plunging from a seventh-floor window. She suffered a severe brain injury, a shattered pelvis, collapsed lung and numerous other injuries.
Eilman lives with her family in California. Her recovery reached a plateau years ago and she will remain severely physically and mentally impaired for the rest of her life.
City lawyers are sympathetic to Eilman's plight, Hoyle said, but believe blame for her fate lies not with the Police Department but with the man who attacked her.
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When the city appealed U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall's refusal to dismiss the Paines' case against the officers, the judge lambasted the move but lamented she had no choice but to allow the appeal. The judge wrote she "doubts that the appeal is intended to achieve any other goal than to further prolong this litigation and to delay a long-awaited trial, at great cost to Paine's right to a fair and timely adjudication of her claims."
During oral arguments last fall, all three appellate justices hammered the city's lawyers with withering questions. One justice likened officers' treatment of Eilman, who is white, to dumping an African-American man in the middle of a Ku Klux Klan rally.
"Her race, her mental state, made her a predictable target. The transportation to that area, the release at night, affirmatively place her in a position of danger that she would not otherwise have faced," Justice Ilana Rovner declared during the arguments. "It is egregious."
But since the hearing, nothing more has happened for 10 months. Though it is not uncommon for appeals involving thorny legal issues to take many months for the appeals court to resolve, the details of the Eilman case seemed to suggest a faster result, said David Franklin, who teaches constitutional law at DePaul University law school.
"It seems pretty clear there's a try-able issue there," he said.
Since the appeal was filed, Eilman has been hospitalized for psychiatric episodes three times, her mother said, and each time she loses ground.
With a routine that includes at least one medical or therapy appointment every day, caring for Eilman is a full-time job for Paine. Currently her medical treatment and therapy are funded by public assistance, which limits her options for treatment, her mother said.
The Paines want the lawsuit to end so they will know whether Eilman will have money for her care, and for her security as her parents age.
"We're not going to be around forever," said Paine. "We don't know how much worse it's going to get as she gets older, as things settle in."