Finally free, and still fighting

September 28, 2010

Noreen McNulty, an activist with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, reports on the release of police-torture victim Victor Safforld after 20 years in prison.

ON SEPTEMBER 21, Victor Safforld was released after 20 years in prison.

In 1990, Safforld was convicted of two murders and sent to death row. Safforld had confessed to the murders after his arrest and torture by Chicago police officers under the command of former police Lt. Jon Burge.

Safforld was released after reaching a plea agreement with prosecutors. In May 2009, Victor won new trials in both murder cases due to the overwhelming evidence that he had been tortured by police into making a false confession. He had been serving life without the possibility of parole, after having his death sentence commuted in 2003 by then-Gov. George Ryan, who commuted the sentences of everyone on death row in the state in the face of overwhelming evidence of systematic police torture by Burge and his men.

In order to secure his freedom, Safforld pled guilty to the murder of Curtis Sims, for which he had served the required time of 20 years of a 40-year sentence. In exchange, the prosecution dropped charges in the second murder case of Delvin Boelter.

Victor Safforld leaves prison with his daughter Victoria (left) and mother Pam (right)
Victor Safforld leaves prison with his daughter Victoria (left) and mother Pam (right) (Glenn Allen | SW)

Safforld has maintained his innocence in both cases. He cites his daughter Victoria, now 19 years old, as his biggest reason for accepting the agreement that secured his freedom. Victoria was born one month after Victor went to jail.

"I couldn't [be] a deadbeat dad any longer," he told reporters as he left prison. "I had to make a decision to get to my daughter."

In 1990, while Safforld was at Cook County Jail for his court proceedings, he was severely beaten by jail guards, requiring medical treatment for his injuries. He was then charged with striking an officer. Due to this false allegation, rather than walking out of prison a completely free man last week, he was released on parole after having to post bond on this charge.

Upon his release, Victor thanked his supporters, many of whom had gathered and waited hours for him to be released from Chicago's Cook County Jail. He was quick to comment on the recent guilty verdict of Jon Burge on perjury and obstruction of justice charges related to the torture claims.

"I think they [the cops who tortured suspects] should be punished just like they punished their victims," he said. "It would be unjust for the cops to go to prison to sit down with the people they sent to prison. So, I think they should be jailed and all their victims should be set free."

VICTOR SAFFORLD'S release was a hard-fought victory not only for Victor himself, but for his family and community activists--and his freedom is an inspiration victims of the racist criminal justice system.

There are many torture victims who are still incarcerated and have yet to have a hearing on their claims of torture. Just as community activists played a leading role in fighting for Victor's release, activists must demand new trials for all victims of police torture.

Over the years, Victor--determined to be free--organized support from inside his prison cell, first on death row, and later from prison where he was serving a life-without-parole sentence.

In an interview with a few days after his release, Victor explained what kept him going during his years in prison: "My belief and faith in God and the support from the community inspired me to keep fighting until I was released. Those two things gave me a spirit of fortitude and inspired me to never give up. They say death row, we say hell no!"

Members of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) and the Nation of Islam (NOI), friends and family, the Rev. Larry Turpin of the United Church of Hyde Park, various grassroots organizations and lawyers who have worked for years around the Burge torture issue all have supported Victor's struggle over the years.

In turn, Victor recruited other prisoners and their families to become involved with the CEDP, and participated in "Live from Death Row" events, where he spoke to audiences via speakerphone about his experiences on death row and as a torture victim, and encouraged others to become involved in the fight for justice.

When asked what he thinks of the recent conviction of Jon Burge, Victor explained:

The public should always know that Burge was just a poster child in the torture saga. There are many unknown officers who have not faced justice, and many of them are just as guilty, or even more guilty, than Jon Burge himself. Many of their victims are still languishing in prison with no help other than that of the CEDP, the NOI, NAAPR and other various grassroots organizations.

Burge's prosecution gives hope to those of us who thought that the system was only one-sided. Now we have hope that justice will be served, not only for Jon Burge, but those who carried out his torture commands.

Victor has vowed to continue to build the grassroots fight against police brutality and the prison system--and to win justice for all of the Burge torture victims:

I want to continue to serve my community by stomping out the ugly head of police brutality and excessive force used against African American, Latino and poor white men every time they stick up their little heads...

I think it's the grassroots organizations that have helped expose the illegal activities of these police officers--not only to the public, but to the media and the courtrooms. Without their help and support, we would not have been able to get any type of support or any type of justice. The issue would have been swept under the rug, and we would have been fed to the sharks.

We need to continue to fight as a collective. We want to see justice for all the torture victims. Even if not all of the torture victims are innocent, there should be a reduction of sentence or time served. The torture was a violation of due process--and if you accept that happened, then what else have they done to secure convictions?

And if we know this is an ongoing conspiracy, who else is involved? The corrupt detectives could not be fruitful in their corruption if the State's Attorney's office did not approve the corrupt charges. The State's Attorney's office could not secure convictions based upon false charges if the judges did not turn a blind eye to their corruption. So we need all those who have had a hand in this torture conspiracy to be accountable for their part in destroying human lives in these prisons...

We have to continue to fight against all forms of injustice in these courtrooms. So many good lives are being wasted at the hands of a political scheme. They [police, prisons, courts] keep locking up more people. With the more they convict and the stiffer the sentences, the longer their careers [are].

They don't care about us. They want to keep their jobs, and we are just a commodity to them.

We have to show we are human beings who have lives and who are worthy of being saved.

Ken Richardson contributed to this article.

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