Human Rights

Muckraking AlterNet Coverage Exposes Wrongful Incarceration

After 23 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, Michael Tillman, a victim of police torture, is finally free.

On Thursday, January 14th, Michael Tillman walked out of the Cook County Courthouse and headed straight for Mac Arthur's Restaurant, a soul food institution on Chicago's West Side.

After 23 years of being wrongfully incarcerated and facing a life behind bars, the barbeque ribs tasted particularly sweet.

About an hour earlier, Cook County Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan had dismissed the original 1986 murder, rape and kidnapping charges that had kept Tillman locked away in Illinois prisons since he was 21. Those charges were based on a confession that Tillman says was tortured out of him by officers under the command of former Chicago Police Detective Jon Burge. Prosecutors declined to bring new charges against Tillman and, after attorneys faxed some paperwork to the Illinois Department of Corrections, he was free to go.

It was a long road to justice, a journey that gained critical momentum after a July 2008 investigative story in AlterNet, written by Chicago-based reporter Jessica Pupovac, tipped area lawyers off to the facts of Tillman's case.

"If it weren't for the publicity that was brought to the case in the early stages, being only a couple of years ago, by AlterNet… he might still be in prison now," Flint Taylor founding partner of the People's Law Office and co-counsel in Tillman's case, told AlterNet. "The first news organization that showed interest was AlterNet, and Jessica Pupovac (whose name I can never pronounce). She not only wrote a very exhaustive article that brought a lot of local and national attention to the case, but she herself stayed in touch with Mr. Tillman."

As AlterNet reported in July 2008, Tillman's personal horror in the predawn hours of July 22, 1986, when Detectives Ronald Boffo and Peter Dignan took him to an Area 2 interrogation room and pressed him for information about the murder of 42-year-old Betty Howard, whose body had been found the day before in the apartment building overseen by Tillman.

When Tillman insisted upon his innocence, Boffo and Dignan, along with three other officers, handcuffed him to the wall, hit him in the face and punched him in the stomach until he vomited blood. During the course of what appeared to be three days, rotating pairs of officers brought him to the railroad tracks behind the station and held a gun to his head, suffocated him repeatedly with thick plastic bags, poured soda up his nose and forced him into Dumpsters outside of the apartment building, ordering him to search through the rubbish for a murder weapon until, according to Detective John Yucaitis, Tillman confessed to the crime.

At the time, Michael Tillman was 20 years old, with a 3-year-old daughter and an infant son. He was charged with first degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and sexual assault and sentenced to life in prison. [For more details on Betty Howard's brutal murder and the subsequent trial of Michael Tillman and his co-defendant, Sean Bell, who was found not guilty, see AlterNet's initial coverage here.]

Three weeks after Tillman's arrest, police found two men driving Howard's stolen car, with the knife used to stab her still in the vehicle. Those men led the officers to 27-year-old Clarence Trotter, who had Howard's camera and stereo in his apartment. His fingerprints were found on a soda can at the murder scene, and evidence linked him to the gun used in her murder.

Police found no physical evidence tying Tillman to the scene, or to Trotter. Weeks later, after Tillman's case file was sealed, Trotter was also given a life sentence in a separate trial.

Tillman appealed the decision in 1999 and lost. The judge wrote in his decision that even though the corroborating evidence may only be circumstantial, it "need only tend to confirm and inspire belief in the confession."

Tillman's mother, Jean, says that they had a series of public defenders and lawyers they couldn't afford, and that her son no longer had legal representation at the time the AlterNet story was published. However, after the story circulated among social justice and legal circles, People's Law Office attorney Ben Elson contacted Pupovac to learn more about the case. He brought it to the attention of his colleagues and soon they were joining forces with a team of lawyers with the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law. By now, they argued, police torture in Area 2 in the era that Tillman was allegedly brutalized is now "common knowledge."

Indeed, according to U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur, "that in the early to mid-1980s, (Jon Burge) and many officers working under him regularly engaged in the physical abuse and torture of prisoners to extract confessions. Both internal police accounts and numerous lawsuits and appeals brought by suspects alleging such abuse substantiate that those beatings and other means of torture occurred as an established practice, not just on an isolated basis."

It has taken decades for many of Burge's victims to find relief. Three -- Mark Clements, Marvin Reeves, and Ronald Kitchen -- were freed last year. But many still languish behind bars, their cases never revisited. That's because so many of the co-conspirators who helped conceal the abuse are today among Chicago's political elite. They include prominent Cook County and Illinois Appellate Court judges (including one of the prosecutors in Tillman's case), Illinois State's Attorney Richard Devine and Mayor Richard M. Daley, who was the state's attorney when many of the cases were tried and would have been responsible for bringing official charges against the abusive officers, but chose instead to look the other way. Devine was Daley's first assistant when he served as a "tough-on-crime" state's attorney from 1980 to 1989, a period that saw 55 allegations of confessions elicited through torture. He later went into private practice (before assuming his current role of state's attorney), where he was paid more than $1 million by the City of Chicago for defending Burge and the other officers involved in Wilson's civil suit. He then represented Burge in proceedings before the Police Board. Later, as state's attorney of Cook County, Devine discouraged investigations of Area 2 torture and continued to uphold confessions obtained by that means.

Because of this conflict of interest, in 2002, at the request of a coalition of civil rights attorneys and activists, Circuit Judge Paul Biebel transferred jurisdiction over all torture-related cases to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. But in 2009, after a new State's Attorney was elected, Madigan's office filed a motion to transfer the cases back to the State's Attorney's office. Judge Biebel transferred them to the authority of State's Attorney Special Prosecutor Stuart A. Nudelman.

According to Taylor, that was key in securing Tillman's case receive a fair reading. "He actually looks at the evidence," said Taylor. They actually looked at this as an independent prosecutor actually would, not as prosecutors who were implicated and had covered up over the years, such as Devine and Daley. And, unfortunately, Madigan didn't have the courage, either. So, that changed things."

In regards to Tillman's case, says Taylor, "When they examined these transcripts in minute detail, they came to the conclusion that not only did he not have a fair trial, but that they needed to dismiss the case."

Taylor says the next step for Michael Tillman is to file for a certificate of innocence with the chief judge, which will qualify him for some compensation in the court of claims for the 23 years he spent behind bars. "The special prosecutor has said they will support petition," he said.

Jon Burge himself was arrested in October 2008, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice relating to a civil suit brought forth by another victim of police torture. His trial is slated to begin in May, but he has won multiple delays thus far because he is being treated for prostate cancer.

Activists, including Julian Ball and other dedicated members of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, regularly rally in front of Madigan's office, demanding justice for the rest of Burge's victims who remain in prison. The People's Law Office estimates that at least two dozen African-American men are still serving sentences for crimes they say they confessed to only after enduring hours of torture at the hands of Chicago police officers between 1972 and 1992. Attorneys are hoping that the case will continue to have impact beyond today.

According to Taylor, the Tillman outcome was important because it was, "the first time in the 35 years of this torture scandal that a prosecutor has conceded that a man has been coerced and abused as part of a pattern of torture at Area 2 and as a result that he was wrongfully convicted and spent 23 years in jail."

In their statement of facts, Cook County prosecutors suggested for the first time that a defendant's allegations of torture were bolstered by "evidence existing outside of this trial record," including "findings of a pattern and practice of abuse at Area 2 Headquarters during the time in which Petitioner was detained."

At a press conference following his release, Tillman expressed his gratitude to Pupovac and his attorneys. Thanks to them, he said, "here I am."

Asked how he survived all these years, he said: "I took it one day at a time."

For Pupovac, Tillman's release is not just a story about the reversal of a grave injustice; it is also a testament to the power of independent media. "I was thrilled that my editor at AlterNet encouraged me to follow my conviction and delve into the Tillman story," she said. "With media professionals being laid off left and right these days and newsrooms shrinking the size of their staff and the scope of their coverage, it is vital that outlets like AlterNet, which still value muckraking reporting, are given the support they need to thrive. I'm proud to be one of their contributors."

Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of Rights & Liberties and World Special Coverage. Follow her on Twitter.
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