New hope for Chicago police torture victims

April 18, 2013

Mark Clements was just 16 years old when he was arrested for a murder he did not commit. An incriminating statement tortured out of him by Chicago police, led by then-Commander Jon Burge, was the main evidence used at the trial where he was convicted.

Burge was finally pushed out of the Chicago Police Department, and he is now serving a prison sentence in connection to the torture. This month, a Cook County judge ruled that a special prosecutor will have to handle the cases of Burge's victims who remain behind bars. Here, Clements, now a board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, reports on the latest developments in the struggle win justice for police torture victims.

THERE IS nothing like hope--especially when you have been accused and convicted of a crime you did not commit!

On April 11, Judge Paul Biebel gave more then 100 men hope that they may finally get their day in court to prove that they were tortured by Jon Burge or his subordinates to get them to confess.

Biebel agreed with a motion from lawyers for Burge torture victims who remain incarcerated that a special prosecutor should be appointed to look into their cases. The torture victims and their supporters have been arguing for more than a decade that the Cook County State's Attorney's office can't be impartial in these cases--because prosecutors knew of Burge's methods and benefited from the coerced confessions extracted from suspects.

I'm sure Biebel's decision brought some relief to the victims of Burge who continue to suffer behind bars in prisons around Illinois.

In March 1970, Burge join the Chicago Police Department--just two years later, allegations arose of unthinkable torture and racial epithets against suspects, all of them African Americans and Latinos, during interrogation in Area 2 and Area 3 police headquarters on the South Side.

Fighting for freedom for all the victims of torture under Jon Burge
Fighting for freedom for all the victims of torture under Jon Burge (Christine Geovanis)

Burge and his men coerced suspects to sign or repeat confessions to prosecutors from the Cook County State's Attorney's office. In some of the cases, the confessions were the only evidence prosecutors had against defendants, but they were still able win draw convictions.

I SPENT 28 years in prison for a crime that I never committed, after--at age 16--I was tortured by a Burge subordinate into confessing to setting an arson that killed four people. My genitals were grabbed and squeezed, and I was referred to by the detective as "little nigger boy." This was the norm for police in Chicago in 1981.

I told the judge at my 1982 trial--who was African American--what occurred to me, but he claimed he had reviewed the totality of the evidence and deemed that I was never tortured. I sat inside a prison for 28 years--if I hadn't been a juvenile at the time of my arrest, I might have been sentenced to death.

It is mind-blowing to me that the cover-up continues to this day and has prevented many efforts by defense attorneys to prove that their clients were tortured. Before finally having my natural life sentence overturned in 2009, I had no idea how difficult it would be to win a hearing for the torture victims. Many who remain incarcerated today have no idea what it has taken to get a special prosecutor appointed to represent the state, and not Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, who since her election in 2008, has dragged out the cases of torture victims for long periods.

My case also dragged on for years until it was assigned to a special prosecutor--and I was released within months. Impartiality is what the other victims of Burge who are still in prison need.

However, Burge victims may not get that impartiality unless a special prosecutor can be found that will work without pay from Cook County. According to Judge Biebel, the Illinois legislature recently modified the process for the appointing a special prosecutor so that if a judge appoints one to serve in place of the regular prosecutor, the judge then has to contact agencies around the state to see if someone will agree to serve as special prosecutor at no cost to Cook County. Biebel has set May 7 for a new hearing to announce how he will proceed.

Despite this, relatives of the torture victims hope this ruling will finally bring justice. As Jeanette Plummer--the mother of Johnny Plummer, who has been in jail for more than 20 years after being tortured into a confession--told the media after the April 11 hearing: "I just want my son home. He was 15 years old when incarcerated for a crime that he never committed. He's 37 years old, he's been there 22 years. It's time to end this mess and let my son come home!"

I am planning an event for the fourth anniversary of my homecoming celebration that will involve a mock prison cell to shed light on how the wrongful convicted are caged and treated inside a prison. The men and women who remain caged inside prisons depend on us on the outside to shed light to their cases and to fight for justice.

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