Finally free after 21 years
reports on the exoneration of two prisoners whose wrongful convictions were the result of torture in Chicago police stations.
IN A long overdue victory, Ronald Kitchen and Marvin Reeves were freed from an Illinois prison on July 7 after nearly two decades behind bars.
Ronnie and Marvin were convicted of the 1988 murder of two women and three children. Prosecutors alleged that the murders were sparked by a debt one of the women allegedly owed Ronnie.
But the case against the men rested mainly on a "confession" obtained from Kitchen under the watch of former Chicago police Commander Jon Burge. As commander, Burge oversaw the beatings and torture of dozens of suspects, all of them Black men, at Area 2 and 3 police headquarters during the 1970s and '80s.
Burge and his subordinates used electroshock, suffocation and severe beatings in order to extract confessions. Ronnie testified that he was beaten with a blackjack and a telephone book, and was told by one of the officers during his interrogation, "We have ways of making niggers talk."
In addition, prosecutors used testimony from a jailhouse snitch, Willie Williams, who claimed Ronnie had confessed to him. Williams later admitted this was a lie.
Most of Burge's victims were railroaded into prison, and some, like Ronnie, found themselves on death row as a result of the confessions extracted through torture. In all, Ronnie spent 13 years on death row--until his death sentence was commuted to life without parole by former Illinois Gov. George Ryan in 2003.
Kitchen's coerced confession implicated Marvin Reeves, who was convicted on the basis of this "evidence" and sentenced to five life terms in prison without parole.
While on death row, Ronnie joined with other prisoners like Stanley Howard to become political activists. From behind prison bars, Ronnie and Stanley organized the Death Row 10--a group of prisoners who had ended up with the death penalty because of confessions tortured out of them.
When Ryan cleared death row by commuting every death sentence, he issued pardons for four members of the Death Row 10--Stanley, Madison Hobley, Leroy Orange and Aaron Patterson. As Ronnie noted in an interview with Socialist Worker after Ryan's action:
We've been asking for somebody to listen to us, and George Ryan has given us that. To me, it's another chance to keep fighting.
We can celebrate...But at the same time, we have to remember that those four guys aren't the only guys who are innocent, or who were tortured by Jon Burge. There's quite a few other guys back here with the same issues that we have to continue to fight for. We might be left behind, but we aren't forgotten.
I've always said that it wasn't about me or even the Death Row 10, but all the individuals. I can't simply say that I'm innocent, but leave another innocent man behind. To me, the fight was always bigger than Ronald Kitchen.
So it's going to continue to be a fight for justice for the Death Row 10, and a fight for those who don't have that issue, but were under the same duress as we were. The fight is bigger--and it's going to continue to get bigger.
ON JULY 7, with the "confessions" discredited and defense attorneys alleging that the state had withheld evidence, Cook County Circuit Judge Stanley Sacks ruled that Ronnie and Marvin should be granted a new trial. The attorney general's office announced later that morning that it couldn't meet its burden of proof in presenting a case against them--clearing the way, after so many years, for Ronnie and Marvin's release.
As Ronnie told reporters as he was released, "Does the system work? For me, maybe you could say yes, but I waited 20 years. And what about those who are still in prison? Does it work for them? This proves the system doesn't work."
Ronnie's and Marvin's families, activists from the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP), members of the legal team and supporters packed the courtroom to celebrate their freedom. Despite pleas from the bailiffs, shouts, tears, cheers and hugs burst out when Ronnie and Marvin entered the seating area after the judge released them.
Ronnie met one of his sons, who was born after Ronnie was imprisoned, and his granddaughter for the first time. Many generations of Marvin's family were there to greet him. Members of both families have been involved in the CEDP for years, and in the pursuit of justice for their loved ones.
As the two were released, Ronnie took many opportunities with reporters to point out the flaws in the justice system, and call for justice in cases of police torture. Ronnie held up a flyer of Jon Burge that read, "Jail Jon Burge," and said, "This should say, 'Wanted!'"
Incredibly, the attorney general's office--which has continued to ignore pleas for new trials in almost all police torture cases--gave itself a pat on the back for finally allowing Ronnie and Marvin their freedom. "In this case, it became extraordinarily clear that justice required the release of these two men,'' Cara Smith, deputy chief of staff for Attorney General Lisa Madigan, told the Chicago Tribune.
Justice, however, should have come a long time ago--not only for Ronnie and Marvin, but all the other men who were tortured by Burge's officers, but continue to languish behind bars. In fact, Lisa Madigan is personally responsible for considering the cases of more torture victims still behind bars.
As CEDP National Director Marlene Martin said in a statement:
Ronnie and Marvin's case shows why the death penalty in Illinois should be abolished. We now have 20 people, a number of whom were brutally tortured, who languished for years on death row waiting to die before they were found innocent...Lisa Madigan looked at the evidence in these cases and realized that she had nothing. But why haven't all of the other police torture victims gotten new trials? The attorney general's office needs to do the right thing.
As he was released, Ronnie Kitchen called for justice for the other victims of Burge's torture--and for Burge to be brought to justice. "As long as Jon Burge and his cronies remain free," he said, "the struggle continues."