Standing up against police torture

Credit: Catherine McMillan
By: Mark Clements

As the New Abolitionist goes to press, there is the stirring of a new movement in Chicago to take on the issue of police torture.  Different organizations have joined together to form a group called the Jail Jon Burge Coalition. The goal of this group is to force Cook County officials and the criminal courts to grant new hearings and trials for the more than 20 men who remain in prison stemming from confessions that were beaten and tortured from them while they were in police custody under the command of Jon Burge.

In 1993, Burge, a corrupt commander, was fired for his acts of torture towards suspects Andrew and Jackie Wilson. The Wilson brothers were accused of a double murder of two Chicago police officers on the South Side of Chicago in 1982.  When Andrew Wilson was taken into police custody, Burge and his cohorts beat the living daylights out of him.

Alligator clips were put to his ears and genitals, while an electrical shock was applied. He was beaten and suffocated with a plastic bag, and his body was burnt as it was pushed against a hot radiator. The police got into such a frenzy that they got carried away. And fortunately for us, they did get carried away -- because this is what helped to unravel the torture scandal.

If Andrew Wilson had not had all of those wounds over his body, the officers and Burge could continue to deny anything happened, and there would be no proof.

The People’s Law Office got involved in the torture cases, and community protests and outrage resulted in Burge being fired. Despite his firing, he has continued to receive a full pension, residing in one of the best communities in the state of Florida.  In 2002, a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate Burge and the detectives working under his command for the acts of torture that were inflicted on suspects at Area 2 and 3 violent crime units.

In 2006, the investigation by the special prosecutor was finally released, and it confirmed what the men had been alleging for years—that beatings  and torture were indeed systemic. However, no criminal charges could be brought against Burge and his detectives because the statue of limitations had run out. The report also failed to remedy relief for the 20 torture victims still incarcerated.

Our criminal justice system failed these men.  The history of racist torture In the dead of the night, the midnight crew would report to work—round up suspects when crimes occurred, subject them to torture, and those who  gave in were traditionally charged with the crime.

Nearly 200 African American and Latino men in the city of Chicago were arrested, taken into police custody and tortured, during interrogations  lasting hours and, in some case, days. The 64 white detectives—eight of whom are still on the job—used racist remarks during the tortuous interrogations. After the torture, they would force suspects to sign and repeat confessions that had been force-fed to them.

Most of these imprisoned men did not know each other, but all of them told similar stories of how they were beaten and tortured in unthinkable ways from 1972 until 1993.

Commonly, prosecutors and judges would deny that the men were  mistreated by police, leaving confessions admissible during their trial, which led to many being convicted and sentenced to long prison terms—some even to death row. 

Today, even with proof that the men were beaten and tortured, judges and prosecutors placed these cases on the backburner, prolonging the men’s incarceration.

Burge has openly denied that he or detectives working under his command beat and tortured suspects, and he has often plead the Fifth Amendment to avoid providing answers to certain questions which could further incriminate him and his team of detectives.

The U.S. District Attorney’s Office investigated Burge, and they were able to obtain a grand jury indictment against Burge for committing perjury and obstruction of justice, because he lied under oath, saying he didn’t know about the torture.

So on May 24, 2010, Burge is due to begin his federal trial, and hundreds are planning to attend. 

Demanding Justice

People in Chicago are excited about plans for a rally on May 24—the first day of Burge’s trial. The rally will be held in downtown Chicago, outside the building where the trial is taking place. Activists and former Burge torture victims will make the demands of our coalition known—jail cops who torture, stop paying their pensions, and grant new trials for torture victims.

We will no longer aid elected officials who do not act in our best interest. This is a twisted society that bows down to corrupt elected officials, never once thinking that it is the elected officials responsibility to attend to our needs.

Change can only come through the organized response of the people, not through elected officials who have sold us out for chicken change. Men who have been tortured by police should not be denied justice. They should not have to spend decades more behind prison walls. Chicago is a city that needs to mobilize opposition to the evils of this city’s government. 

Over the years, many people have been in on the cover-up of these  tortures, including Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who was the Cook County State’s Attorney from 1980 until 1989, when 85 percent of these tortures occurred. Despite overwhelming evidence, which revealed that Daley and his top aides were indeed notified by the superintendent of Chicago Police in 1983, Daley has repeatedly denied the fact that he knew anything about Chicago police tortures.

Some of the men brought into the courtrooms were beaten badly, but judge after judge denied the men motions to suppress their confessions. In nearly all of the cases, Judges claimed not to have sufficient evidence that the men were beaten.

But these “beatings” were really systematic acts of torture against two races of people—African American and Latino men.  Prosecutor after prosecutor claimed to have the right suspect, but years later, it was proven through DNA and other investigative tools that many of these men were innocent. Burge and his detectives are responsible for the City of Chicago and Cook County paying more than $140 million to settle torture and wrongful conviction claims—including $13.1 million to defend Burge in civil complaints.

I was the victim of torture

Over recent months, Ronnie Kitchen, Marvin Reeves, Michael Tillman and myself are torture victims who have been released.  Cortez Brown has had both of his murder convictions overturned, though as of this date, he remains incarcerated. Stanley Wrice has received the support of Northwestern School of Law to aid in his appellate court brief. Wrice has been incarcerated for 29 years, despite no evidence against him other than a confession.

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty and the National Alliance against Racist and Political Repression are at the front of the line when it comes to confronting police crimes on citizens. Kids should not have been beaten and tortured by police to force them to sign or repeat confessions, and every major leader in this corrupt city turned their head from their cries.

As a victim of torture, I spent 28 years in prison from the age of 16 for an arson fire that killed four people on the South Side of Chicago in 1981. This is a crime in which all the evidence pointed toward the owners of the building, but police focused their investigation on me. Aided by someone who was out to collect a reward, I was taken to Area 3 Violent Crimes Unit.

I was beaten and tortured in my chest, back, face and genitals until I agreed to repeat a confession that was told to me by a detective.  While I was being interrogated I witnessed police drinking alcohol in the station. 

This experience was like living a nightmare, something I will never forget.  I cried, I screamed, but nobody came to my aid.  At my trial, I was  represented by two Cook County public defenders. One had two years of experience, and the other had three years of experience. Neither lawyer investigated the crime, nor my claims of torture. During my interrogation, police made not one attempt to notify my parents, nor was a juvenile officer made available to me—which is in clear violation of the law since I was a juvenile.

I was totally at the mercy of the police. I was young and uneducated, with only a 7th grade education. I was railroaded straight to prison with a  sentence of natural life plus 30 years.

At my trial, not one witness testified against me. I was tried and convicted based on a confession stating that there is a 71st Street and Wells in Chicago (there is no such intersection), and that one of the victims was a boy who had been beaten and stabbed before the fire (a medical examiner, Dr. Lee Beamer, testified that he found no evidence of a beating or stabbing).

This should have raised red flags, but in the Chicago courtrooms, it did not.  Prosecutors were concerned with winning convictions and not justice for the men who were charged. 

Burge and his detectives bounced from courtroom to courtroom, denying claims that they beat and tortured suspects to obtain confessions. Today, it is clear that detectives lied in open court. Despite having clear evidence that these men were tortured, the prosecutors assigned to these cases continue to aggressively challenge the men’s petitions to be set free. We demand justice for all Chicago police torture victims.

Mark Clements was released from prison on August 18, 2009.