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Justice Denied: Scores of Black Men Tortured by Chicago Police Still Await New Trials

More than 20 years after being tortured into giving confessions by Chicago police officers, dozens of black men remain behind bars.
 
 
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Michael Tillman was 20, with a 3-year-old daughter and an infant son, when he was brought into the Area 2 police station on Chicago's South Side for questioning. His mother, Jean Tillman, says that although he had gotten into some trouble with the law as a youngster, he had been on the straight-and-narrow, working as a janitor and paying his bills, since he and his girlfriend had their first child. That was July 22, 1986.

He hasn't been home since.

Tillman is one of at least 24 African-American men that the People's Law Office in Chicago claims are still serving sentences for crimes they say they confessed to only after enduring hours of torture at the hands of Chicago police officers under Commander Jon Burge between 1972 and 1992. Although 10 of Burge's victims have been pardoned or given new trials after their illegally obtained confessions were exposed, the vast majority of the 100-plus cases have yet to be reviewed by the state of Illinois. Those men have either served out their sentences, died in custody or, like Tillman, continue to live their lives behind bars, hoping that one day they will have a fair trial.

According to Tillman's 1986 trial testimony, when he arrived at the Area 2 police station in the predawn hours of July 22, 1986, Detectives Ronald Boffo and Peter Dignan took him to a second-floor interrogation room and pressed him for information about the murder of 42-year-old Betty Howard, whose body was found the day prior in the apartment building Tillman oversaw. When he told the detectives that he knew nothing about the murder, he says that Boffo and Dignan, along with three other officers, became abusive. Without ever reading him his Miranda rights, he says they 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.

According to Tillman's mother, she, her husband and an attorney they called for counsel were all denied access to her son during his three days of interrogation.

A Brutal Crime and a Corrupt Investigation

According to the police investigation, Howard and her 2-year-old son were on their way to meet relatives for a birthday celebration when they were forced into a vacant apartment on the seventh floor of the South Side building. The boy was locked in the bathroom while his mother was bound to a radiator, raped, stabbed and killed with one bullet to the head. Her car and other valuables were stolen. Her son was found days later by detectives. He was still in the bathroom.

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. Years later, in 1999, Trotter wrote a letter to People's Law Office attorney Flint Taylor. While he did not admit guilt in that letter, he did write that Tillman was "beat … into confessing a crime (he) did not commit."

Tillman's mother says that, given the evidence found linking Trotter to the crime, and the lack of physical evidence implicating her son, she thought for sure the judge would let him go. "We thought he was going to get out," she said. "Even his lawyer said that would probably happen. … But it wasn't that way."

Michael Tillman's lawyer presented physical evidence of abuse in court, including the blue jeans that Tillman wore during his interrogation, which hadn't been washed since and were still stained with blood. He also showed scars on his wrists from where the handcuffs pulled while he was being beaten. Despite this, and despite the fact that there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime scene, the jury did not believe him. On Dec. 18, 1986, Michael Tillman was found guilty of murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, and aggravated kidnapping. He was sentenced to life in prison. The Chicago Tribune wrote the next day that "Tillman, 20, put his hand over his face and shook his head when he was found guilty."

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 "a nexus was never established between defendant and either Trotter or the two individuals apprehended in possession of the victim's car." He also wrote that, even though the corroborating evidence may only be circumstantial, it "need only tend to confirm and inspire belief in the confession." "The accused's identity need not be corroborated by evidence apart from his own extrajudicial statements," he wrote. "(His) self-described involvement to police is sufficient to establish his participation in the victim's attack."

His mother says that they had a series of public defenders and lawyers they couldn't afford, and that he no longer has legal representation.

A Conspiracy of Silence

Tillman's story is not unique, nor is it particularly shocking.

By 1999, it was "common knowledge," 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."

The massive scandal began to unravel in 1989, when convicted cop killer Andrew Wilson launched a very public federal civil rights suit against the Chicago Police Department. Seven years before, Wilson had been beaten, shocked in the testicles and burned on the face, chest and thigh by Area 2 detectives working under Burge. What caught the eye of Chief Medical Examiner of Cermak Medical Services John Raba, however, were the small markings on his ears that he couldn't explain away. Wilson told him the markings were from alligator clips used to electrocute him, and Raba believed him. He notified then-Superintendent of Police Richard Brzeczek, who wrote a letter to then-State's Attorney Richard M. Daley, "seeking direction" on how to proceed. Daley, who is now Chicago's mayor, never responded.

Wilson was later granted a new trial and sentenced to natural life, without his illegally obtained confession. His case, however, set off a chain of events that would eventually expose the widespread, systematic use of torture within certain South Side units of the Chicago Police Department.

In 1990, a CPD Office of Professional Standards investigation, prompted by Wilson's story and the physical evidence backing it up, found that abuse at Areas 2 and 3 "was not limited to the usual beatings, but went into such esoteric areas as psychological techniques and planned torture." "Particular command members were aware of the systematic abuse and perpetuated it, either by actively participating in some or failing to take any action to bring it to an end," the report concluded. Subsequent OPS investigations found Detectives John Byrne, Peter Dignan and John Yucaitis, all involved in Michael Tillman's interrogation, to be "players" repeatedly named as abusers in Area 2 and 3 torture allegations.

During Wilson's civil trial, his attorneys at the People's Law Office began receiving anonymous letters tipping them off to other victims of police torture. Eventually, PLO lawyers compiled testimony in 107 Burge-connected torture cases, Tillman's among them.

Nevertheless, almost 20 years later, not a single police officer has been made to face charges in the massive scandal. They were all let off the hook, first by a succession of judges and legal professionals who looked the other way, and later by a statute of limitations that expired before the Illinois state attorney considered filing charges. According to Taylor, there is no state or federal law criminalizing torture by law enforcement officers. While possible offenses for torture can include attempted murder, aggravated battery, battery, assault, assault with a dangerous weapon or hate crimes, the statute on these crimes is generally five years for federal prosecution and three years in the state of Illinois.

In fact, the only officer who has thus far suffered any consequence for his actions has been Burge himself -- and his could hardly be called punishment. In 1993, the Police Board removed him from his command and forced him into early retirement. He currently lives in Apollo Beach, Fla., on a $3,400-a-month pension, where he is known to enjoy rides on his boat, the Vigilante. Other officers involved have since advanced in the ranks, as have the assistant state's attorneys who prosecuted the cases, at times burying or ignoring clear evidence of how the confessions were obtained.

Many of the co-conspirators who helped conceal the abuse are today 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. They have sat idle on her desk ever since.

The 10 cases that have been resolved have been done in spite of, rather than with the help of, Madigan or Devine.

Gov. George Ryan: "The Category of Horrors Was Hard to Believe"

In 2003, after years of campaigning by Chicago-area police accountability activists, then-Gov. George Ryan pardoned four Burge victims -- Madison Hobley, Aaron Patterson, Stanley Howard and Leroy Orange -- who at the time were on death row. "The category of horrors was hard to believe," Ryan said. "If I hadn't reviewed the cases myself, I wouldn't believe it. We have evidence from four men, who did not know each other, all getting beaten and tortured and convicted on the basis of the confessions they allegedly provided. They are perfect examples of what is so terribly broken about our system."

Because of the mounting criticism of the Cook County justice system, because the four men were on death row, and because their attorneys had filed for clemency, Hobley, Patterson, Howard and Orange were pardoned. But dozens of others stayed behind, out of the limelight. "These weren't death penalty cases, so they're not nearly as sexy," explained attorney Scott Schutte, who recently represented another Burge torture victim, James Andrews, in a civil suit. "These are run-of-the-mill homicides."

Andrews is one of the few additional torture victims granted new trials or evidentiary hearings. Schutte filed a post-conviction petition in Andrews' case last year, claiming that new evidence had arisen in his case. In October, Cook County Circuit Judge Thomas Sumner vacated his 1984 conviction and in February of this year, the attorney general's office declined to file new charges. His case, then, became the first to be thrown out in Cook County on the basis of torture. Andrews was set free, after spending 24 years in jail for a murder he insisted he didn't commit. "All along, he knew he was going to ultimately prevail," said Schutte.

However, he added that while the attorney general's office did not prohibit Andrews from going free, it didn't help. The attorney general requested bail, which Sumner set at $300,000. "In the larger scheme of things, it's inconsequential," said Schutte. "But the family had to ... bail him out. They cashed out 401(k)s, savings, everything. They did everything they could collectively."

Only one other Burge-related case has moved on the basis of torture and still awaits conclusion: that of Cortez Brown, who has been in jail since 1990. Earlier this year, an appeals court ordered evidentiary hearing in his case after reconsidering his torture allegations. In all, of the 100-plus identified victims of police torture in Chicago, few have been acknowledged and dealt with accordingly. According to Julien Ball of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, that's because of a lack of "political will" in Chicago to try these cases. "We have people at the highest levels of public office who have built their careers on torture," said Ball. "The state of Illinois doesn't care about you if you're black and you're poor. That's what these cases show."

Joey Mogul, an attorney with the People's Law Office, says some of the lawyers are also to blame. "I think it's an accumulation of racism and classism, as well as a massive cover-up that has led many people to not get fair hearings," she said. "Their lawyers didn't believe them and didn't even request hearings."

Schutte took on Andrews' case pro bono, but Tillman hasn't been so lucky. He currently lacks representation, and despite two appeals, remains in jail for life. "It's just pretty outrageous because all of the physical evidence points to someone else," said Catherine Crawford, a Northwestern University professor and attorney who was on a team of lawyers representing Leroy Orange and has researched Tillman's case and attempted to find him legal counsel. "But they had gotten a confession out of him before they found the stolen car. I think it's just one of those situations where the police said, 'Well, we don't want to throw out this confession so we're just going to pursue this case based on our original theory.'"

Robyn Ziegler, spokesperson for the attorney general's office, told AlterNet that all Burge-related cases are "in various stages of the post-conviction process," and that, "Ethically, the attorney general is obligated to handle each case individually based on the facts and history of the case. No two cases are the same."

But advocates for victims of police torture contend that it shouldn't matter. "In each case, the same thing needs to happen," said Ball. "Madigan needs to order evidentiary hearings so torture victims can present evidence of torture on the way to winning new trials. Regardless of the differences in individual cases, every single torture victim deserves a new trial where 'confessions' that were electroshocked, beaten and suffocated out of them are not used against them." Zeigler claimed that the attorney general does not have the authority or power to initiate new hearings.

But on July 10, 2007, the Cook County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution urging Madigan to do just that.

On July 18 of this year, members of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, lawyers from the People's Law Office, religious and community leaders and relatives of the wrongfully imprisoned rallied in front of Madigan's office.

"Every day Lisa Madigan sits and does nothing is a day she is furthering a cover-up," said Marlene Martin, national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "We're here to ask her to have guts."

The group, which had been there twice already this year, delivered a letter with more than 400 signatures from organizations, religious institutions and concerned citizens, asking Madigan to take action on the cases of the Burge victims who remain behind bars. They are also seeking reparations, in the form of psychological treatment and financial compensation, particularly since the vast majority of the Burge victims and their families have little if any financial resources to assist them in their legal battles and recovery process.

Michael Tillman is currently being held at Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois, about a six-hour drive from Chicago. His mother, Jean, says she used to go down and visit him twice a month, but "with gas prices the way it is, I haven't been able to get down there." Since Tillman went to jail 24 years ago, his girlfriend, Princess, left Chicago with their two children and stopped keeping in touch with the family. "After all of this happened we stayed together for a while and then we all separated," she said. "I can't tell you why." She says the kids, who are grown now, haven't been to visit him for "about ten years."

"He's missed out on everything -- his kids, his family, just life," she said. "He was just snatched away from us. It's a dreadful experience to go through."

Jessica Pupovac is an adult educator and independent journalist living in Chicago.