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.