Police Torture and the Death Penalty in Illinois: Ten Years Later

Police Torture and the Death Penalty in Illinois: Ten Years Later

Police Torture and the Death Penalty in Illinois: Ten Years Later

A decade after Illinois Governor George Ryan emptied death row and pardoned four innocent men who were tortured by police under Commander Jon Burge, the city of Chicago has not admitted to its collective crimes.


On January 11, 2003, the world watched as Illinois Governor George Ryan, days before leaving office, granted clemencies to all 163 men and women on death row in his state, reducing their sentences to life without parole. The previous day he had pardoned four death row prisoners—Madison Hobley, Aaron Patterson, Leroy Orange and Stanley Howard—all of whom had been tortured into giving false confessions by police officers working under notorious Chicago police commander Jon Burge.

“The category of horrors was hard to believe,” Ryan said at a press conference at DePaul University that day. “If I hadn’t reviewed the cases myself, I wouldn’t believe it.” He called the convictions “perfect examples of what is so terribly broken about our system.”

Ryan’s momentous actions were partly inspired by the case of Anthony Porter, who came within days of execution only to later be exonerated, thanks in large part to the work of journalism students at Northwestern University. Much credit has been awarded to their work in opening Ryan’s eyes—and rightly so. But Ryan’s actions were also the culmination of a long human rights struggle against the death penalty and police torture in Chicago. In the mid-1990’s, death row prisoners, community groups, political activists and public interest lawyers joined forces to unite these previously separate movements. After realizing that they were not alone in their horrific experiences at the hands of police, Burge torture victims facing execution formed the Death Row 10 and, with the help of activist groups such as the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, linked these two powerful issues. Along with the prisoners’ own descriptions of what happened, a series of devastating investigative reports by journalist John Conroy at the Chicago Reader shone light on the emerging mountain of evidence that Burge and his police confederates tortured more than 100 African-American suspects with a racist vengeance, using electric shock, suffocation with plastic bags, mock executions and brutal beatings. This evidence became a focal point for the merging of these important legal and political struggles.

In the year 2000, Governor Ryan, in response to this growing movement, declared an indefinite moratorium on executions. The same year, the Illinois Supreme Court recognized the significance of the newly uncovered torture evidence and ordered new hearings for several of the Death Row 10. Two years later, this evidence compelled the Cook County judiciary to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether Burge and his men had committed prosecutable crimes.

The release of the four pardoned torture survivors in 2003 marked the opening of yet another chapter in this human rights struggle. The men brought lawsuits against their torturers and the city of Chicago, opening a new avenue for proving that the torture they endured had been systemic. As a result, several former African-American detectives broke the Chicago Police Department’s code of silence and revealed that Burge’s torture ring, known internally as “Burge’s Asskickers,” was an open secret in police circles.

In July of 2006, the special prosecutor, who was connected to numerous Chicago police officials and the Daley political machine, completed his investigation. He refused to issue indictments, citing the statute of limitations, and instead issued what was widely condemned as a whitewash report. Outraged community organizations and activists issued a Shadow Report, and the Chicago City Council and the Cook County Board held hearings on the special prosecutor’s failure to indict. Meanwhile, activists had taken the case to the United Nations Committee on Torture, which issued a report linking Chicago police torture to Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo and calling on the US government to prosecute.

As a result, in October of 2008, thirty-five years after Burge tortured his first victim, United States Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald indicted him for falsely denying under oath that he participated in police torture. Subsequently, seven torture survivors were exonerated and released from prison, and several of them, including another Death Row 10 survivor Ronald Kitchen, were awarded certificates of innocence by Cook County Judges. In June of 2010, a federal jury convicted Burge of three counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, and he subsequently received a four-and-a-half-year sentence, which he is now serving, along with Bernie Madoff, at Butner Federal Correctional Center in North Carolina.

After their release, the seven exonerated men sued Burge and the city. In so doing, several of them named then-Mayor and former Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley as a co-conspirator on the basis of his decades long knowledge of the torture scandal, his willful failure to prosecute Burge and his participation in the cover-up of the scandal. In a landmark decision issued in 2011, Federal Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer upheld the allegations against Daley in Michael Tillman’s case, and on the eve of Daley’s scheduled deposition, the City and County settled Tillman’s case for $6 million.

Meanwhile, the related battle to end the death penalty in Illinois continued apace. Led by exonerated death row prisoner Randy Steidl, the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty and state legislators Kwame Raoul and Karen Yarborough, the movement fought a long and dauntingly uphill battle that ultimately won the repeal of the Illinois death penalty in March of 2011.

These hard-fought victories serve as an example and inspiration to all those who are fighting against racism, police torture and the death penalty. However, in Chicago, much remains to be done. Scores of torture survivors still remain in prison on the basis of confessions tortured from them by Burge and his confederates. A class action lawsuit was recently filed on their behalf, seeking new hearings at which they can challenge those confessions. Other torture survivors have been granted new hearings by the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, a new body that was created as a result of community pressure, and which legislators have tried to defund. Scores of men, including several who courageously testified against Burge, have received no compensation, and a movement for reparations is underway. Meanwhile, a bill to make police torture a federal crime without a statute of limitations languishes in Congress, the City of Chicago continues to pour millions of taxpayer dollars into the defense of Burge in several ongoing civil rights cases, Burge continues to collect his pension while serving his sentence, Mayor Emanuel steadfastly refuses to apologize to the torture survivors and their families, and an ongoing federal investigation into Burge’s cronies has yielded no additional charges.

Clearly, Chicago’s power structure remains on the wrong side of history. Until it fully admits to its enormous collective crimes, compensates all of the torture survivors, affords all of those still imprisoned full and fair hearings, and brings all of the torturers to justice, Chicago will remain the torture capital of the United States with its conscience painfully stained by systemic police torture and its brazen and unremitting cover-up.

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