Meet the Death Row 10: Grayland Johnson

"My focus is freedom"


By: Christine Haley

This page has been reserved in recent issues for profiles of the cases of The Death Row 10 -- a group of men who were beaten and tortured by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his detectives and sent to death row in Illinois. In the summer of 1998, the Death Row 10 came together inside prison and asked the Campaign to End the Death Penalty to be their voice on the outside. In January 2003, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan pardoned four members of the Death Row 10. The Campaign is continuing the struggle to win justice for those who remain behind bars. The New Abolitionist is profiling each of the Death Row 10 so that our readers will get to know their individual stories.

On the morning of April 17th, 1988, Grayland Johnson was taken from his home in Ford Heights, Ill. by four police officers. He was told that they needed him to answer some questions concerning the death of his friend. The police officers insisted that Grayland get into an unmarked vehicle and they proceeded to drive him to the Ford Heights police station. Little did he know that this was the beginning of a terrifying journey that would lead him to death row.

Upon reaching the police station in Ford Heights, Grayland was told that he was being arrested for murder. He was then put into another police car and driven to Area 3 Headquarters in Chicago. There, Grayland encountered what has been called the "house of screams," and he was forced to endure torture that was unthinkable.

The officers warned him that they would leave no scars and nobody would believe what he was going to experience. Chicago police detectives beat Grayland over the head with a phone book. They repeatedly suffocated him with a plastic bag, and struck him over the head with unknown objects while the bag was cutting off his oxygen supply. And they forced his head into a toilet that an officer had just urinated in.

In one horrific moment, one detective held Grayland by his handcuffed hands and waist and another detective held him by his ankles and they dangled him from the window. The detectives told Grayland that it would be a shame for him to fall while attempting to escape. Grayland's pleas for a lawyer were ignored. Instead, the detectives taunted him. At one point, an officer hit Grayland, asking him if he was ready to sign anything and to say what they wanted him to say. The torture continued until Grayland couldn't take it anymore and signed a false confession for the murder of his friend. What Grayland didn't know at the time was that he shared the same fate as over 60 other African American men who were similarly tortured by Chicago police at Area 2 and Area 3 Headquarters.

Injustice and cover-up have continued to be inflicted on Grayland to date. At his original trial, prosecutors used someone else's medical records -- those of a man named Grayson Johnson -- to conceal the police torture. The prosecutors deliberate and blatant efforts at misleading jurors in order to convict an innocent man to death is inexcusable. At Grayland's resentencing hearing several years ago, the court refused to consider this use of false medical evidence, and Grayland lost the hearing.

Last January, Grayland's death sentence was commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole by former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who commuted all Illinois death sentences and pardoned four members of the Death Row 10. Grayland felt encouraged by Ryan's decisions, but he is still fighting for justice and for freedom from spending the rest of his natural life behind bars for a crime that he did not commit.

At present, Grayland's case is at the post conviction stage. Grayland needs a new trial as do all of the remaining members of the Death Row 10. At the very least, Grayland should be granted an evidentiary hearing to address issues of prosecutorial misconduct, perjury and newly discovered evidence.

Grayland has spent the past 15 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. He describes his weekly routine like this: "I go to the gym and yard once weekly for the purpose of exercising; also to the dining area twice weekly. Other than that activity, and my one 15-minute shower every Monday night, I stay within this cage."

Grayland is an avid reader and enjoys writing poetry. He is working on writing a book about his life experiences. He constantly strategizes how to bring attention to his case and fight his unjust sentence. As Grayland puts it, "My focus is freedom." He asks all those who believe in justice "to continue helping the cause of the Death Row 10 and to abolish the death penalty."

Write to Grayland Johnson, # A08109, P.O. Box 112, Joliet, IL 60434.