I was 16 years old when I became one of their victims and consequently spent 28 years of my life behind bars for a crime I did not commit. My case is one of many.
I lived on Chicago’s South Side where I worked as a paperboy. On June 17, 1981, four people died in an arson fire at 6602 S. Wentworth Ave., which was in the neighborhood of my route. A young woman who had a dispute with my sister told police a week later that she heard rumors I was responsible for the fire.
I was arrested and taken to Area 3 violent crimes unit headquarters, under Burge’s command, where I was held incommunicado. My parents were not informed and I was denied a phone call.
I was placed inside a small interrogation room with a detective I earlier saw drinking alcohol. I was beaten, tortured in my genitals and called “n----- boy” and “little n----- motherf-----.”
After being tortured twice in this fashion by Detective John McCann, he and Detective Daniel McWeeny fed me details about the crime and instructed me to repeat it to Cook County State’s Attorney Kevin Moore, after which I would be allowed to make a telephone call and go home. I felt that if I cooperated with the detectives I would have the opportunity to establish my innocence later.
Because I was poor, I couldn’t afford a good attorney. I was legally represented by two assistant Cook County public defenders with little experience who never investigated the case. Not one witness testified against me and no physical evidence was presented. Nevertheless, I was tried and convicted on hearsay evidence and a “confession” beaten out of me.
The confession stated that I and three others went to collect drug money from a man in the building on behalf of a drug dealer who ordered us to set the building on fire. It also said we beat and stabbed the man. But a medical examiner testified that he found no evidence of a stabbing or a beating.
Found guilty of arson and four counts of murder, I was sentenced to four natural life sentences without parole and told I would die in prison. The trial made front page news in the local papers and I was made to look like a monster by prosecutors and the judge.
During sentencing I told Judge William Cousins Jr. that I was innocent and the trial was a cover-up by him and others to protect the cops. I can still recall speaking: “Judge I tell you this … I did not kill those people! I have watched the police steal my youth and now the court has stole my life.”
I believe if I was permitted a parole hearing, the evidence would have been so compelling I would have been released.
After 26 years in prison, Bernardine Dohrn, an associate law professor at Northwestern University, visited me at the Pontiac Correctional Center, where she was conducting interviews relevant to youth sentenced to life without parole. She convinced the Northwestern School of Law to take a look at my case and seek counsel to represent me. I was assigned four attorneys from a very large Chicago law firm, who quickly began taking apart my frame-up.
The “confession,” coerced through torture, was inconsistent with physical evidence.
Bottles recovered at the burned apartment—which I was instructed to say in my “confession” had been in my possession—were determined to have only fingerprints belonging to police officers who worked the scene.
A box cutter I used to cut straps off of newspapers was the alleged stabbing weapon. DNA testing revealed it had no blood whatsoever on it.
On August 18, 2009, I was freed by a Cook County Circuit Court judge after serving 28 years and 55 days behind prison walls. My daughter Tameka Lee was 28 years old at the time.
Since 2009 I have worked as the administrator for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, a national organization and one of many that have been rallying around demands that victims of police torture get a hearing.
Because it is an issue my mother Virginia Clements rallied around before she died in May 2011, I became obligated to fight to ensure that 1) Jon Burge would go to prison; 2) the death penalty would be abolished in Illinois; 3) that all police torture victims would receive a hearing on their claims; 4) that all juveniles sentenced to natural life across the country would be allowed parole hearings.
In 1990, an investigative agency within the Chicago Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards determined that Burge did beat and torture criminal suspects. Burge was fired as a result of that report.
In 2002, a Cook County judge appointed a special prosecutor to investigate tortures under Burge. In 2006 it determined that tortures were epidemic and systematic at the Area 2 and Area 3 violent crimes units in Chicago. By that time, Burge could not be indicted for the tortures, because the statute of limitations had expired.
In 2008, Burge was finally indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about the tortures. He was found guilty and sentenced to four and a half years in federal prison.
Burge still collects his pension. Detectives who were part of the torture, including McWeeny, James O’Brien, Michael Kill, McCann, Kenneth Boudreau and many others were never indicted. O’Brien is on active duty today.
How many torture claims are needed before a serious look is given to the officers’ conduct? It hurts my heart each time to see the mothers of these men at protests, fighting for an opportunity to have their sons back home.
One of these prisoners, Grayland Johnson, recently died at the Stateville Correctional Center awaiting a hearing on his claim of torture.
Mark A. Clements is administrator over the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
Chicago protesters demand torture cops ‘off the streets’
Fight to free more than 100 victims still in prison
Tribute to Malik Williams in NJ: killer cops ‘need to be in jail’
Greetings to workers behind bars
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