“I can see some light shining through now”
By: Joan Parkin
The Death Row Ten are prisoners on Illinois’ death row who were beaten and tortured by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his detectives. In 1993, Burge was forced to take early retirement and now spends his time fishing on his boat in Florida. But Burge and his cronies were never criminally charged.
In the summer of 1998, the Death Row Ten decided to form themselves into a group and asked the Campaign to End the Death Penalty to help them organize.
Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine would like nothing better than to keep the issue of torture covered up. But organizing around the issue has produced growing local and national attention for the Death Row Ten. Four of the men have now won evidentiary hearings.
The New Abolitionist is profiling each of the Death Row Ten.
On the night of January 25, 1988, Ronald Kitchen had no idea that he was about to suffer the worst night of his life. He knew nothing about Police Commander Jon Burge or his ring of sadistic detectives at Chicago’s Area II and III police stations, who systematically used electroshock, suffocation via “bagging” and cattle prods to torture confessions out of poor Blacks.
Ronny was just walking home from the grocery store, where he had picked up some cookie dough for his kids, when detectives grabbed him and took him to an interrogation room — then proceeded to beat him until he confessed to a multiple murder.
“When I told [Officer Smith] that I didn’t know these people, he started hitting me in the groin like Officer Kill and [Commander] Burge did,” Ronny says. “Before he left the room, he told me, ‘We have ways of making niggers talk,’ and when he came back into the room, he had a blackjack and telephone book…Ten minutes later, Officer Kill came and started to hit me in the head and groin area again. He said, ‘You’re going to do what we told you to do.'”
Until recently, Ronny’s complaints of torture went unheard. The original trial judge, Vincent Bentivenga, rejected testimony from a physician who treated Ronny.
But this wasn’t out of the ordinary. Everyone — from attorneys to judges — took the word of Jon Burge over his 60 known victims.
With no physical evidence, witnesses or motive to connect Ronny to the crime, prosecutors resorted to the use of an informant to back up the “confession.” While behind bars, jailhouse snitch Willie Williams contacted police after seeing a newspaper clipping about the murders Ronny was accused of. He said he knew who did it and that Ronny had bragged about the murders in a phone conversation before being arrested. But Ronny’s attorney, Richard Cunningham, has found that there is no phone record of one of the calls Willie claims to have made to Ronny from prison. In addition, on two other calls recorded by police, Ronny never confesses.
Since the age of 24, Ronny has lived at the Pontiac Correctional Facility in a tiny cell for 23 hours a day. Hope came in 1993 when Burge was exposed and fired. Now there was proof that torture not only had occurred but that it went on at the same time and in the same precinct where Ronny made his original complaint.
A new hearing should be automatic for Ronny and for all of the Death Row Ten, since the torture practices of Chicago police are now a known fact. But Ronny has only been able to win a far more limited hearing on an appeal heard by the Illinois Supreme Court. Nevertheless, Cunningham believes that this is a small victory, since any investigation — even on the small technicality accepted by the state supreme court — could open the door for a fuller inquiry.
Today, Ronny has many allies. His staunchest supporter is his mother, Grace Louva Bell. She has campaigned tirelessly around her son’s case — all the while working 12-hour days as a home health care attendant.
“People are starting to get wise and wake up,” Louva says. “A lot of innocent people, like my son, are on death row right now. All of the marches, rallies and Live from Death Row meetings are starting to bring people around to our side.
“It’s all been very exciting — a learning experience. Ronny just won an appeal because of the pressure we brought. I am cautiously optimistic. It’s a step, one step, but still a step forward.”
As for Ronny, he says that he “can see some light shining through now. It’s a small win, but it’s a win.”
Send mail for Ronny to: Ronald Kitchen, #B09130, P.O. Box 99, Pontiac, IL 61764.
New pamphlet on the Death Row Ten
This pamphlet — which includes writings by members of the Death Row Ten — tells their stories and explains what we can do to help in their struggle for justice.