By Starla Muhammad and Tariqah Muhammad
CHICAGO—Denise Spencer broke into tears when she talked about her son Michael Carter. According to his family, the young, Black man was wrongfully convicted for a murder despite someone else admitting to the crime. He wrote in an extensive letter that he was tortured by Chicago police and that a false verbal statement obtained by cop coercion led to his incarceration.
Activists say over 400 victims of police torture suffer with millions paid out for abuses and cops who committed the crimes still free.
Stories like Michael’s are a part of a nefarious yet familiar pattern of abuse that continues destroying Black and Brown lives and the nightmare is not over, say activists.
It has been over 30 years since police torture in Chicago came to light. And Black and Brown men, beaten, abused and coerced into falsely confessing to crimes, have spent years languishing behind bars, activists and family members add.
The nightmare continues for families of these men who fight to exonerate their loved ones and seek justice and restitution.
Ms. Spencer is one of the family members who joined activists, prisoner advocates and others in front of the Cook County Department of Corrections on July 13, to demand that the state’s attorney prosecute police officers who tortured people into false confessions.
“A Report on the Pattern and Practice of Torture and Wrongful Conviction by CPD Detectives,” compiled by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repressions in conjunction with the Campaign to Free Incarcerated Survivors of Torture, lays out details of 407 cases of torture and wrongful convictions at the hands of members of the second largest U.S. police force.
The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repressions and Campaign to Free Incarcerated Survivors of Torture are among groups demanding action now.
According to the report there are 248 known detectives implicated in torture in Chicago, 407 known survivors of torture and wrongful conviction, 36 who are out of prison and still trying to prove their innocence and 110 survivors who remain incarcerated.
The most notorious of these law enforcement officers was the late Commander Jon Burge who led a rogue group of Chicago police officers called “The Midnight Crew.”
According to sworn testimonies and numerous reports, the Chicago cops used cattle prods to electric shock the genitals of suspects, handcuffed suspects to hot radiators, and beat suspects into false confessions and tainted information. Commander Burge and his crew’s reign of terror reportedly lasted from 1972 to 1991.
Mr. Burge was convicted in 2011 of perjury and obstruction of justice related to torture allegations. He was sentenced to four and a half years in prison but still collected his police pension.
Chicago taxpayers’ have footed the bill as millions of dollars were paid to torture victims.
To date, the city has paid $130 million in lawsuit settlements and judgments related to Mr. Burge’s conduct, including $5.5 million in reparations for torture survivors, approved in 2015 by the Chicago City Council, reported WTTW, a local PBS affiliate in 2022.
“In 2015, the City of Chicago passed an ordinance publicly apologizing for these crimes. Yet, the cops guilty of these actions are still on the force or retired without penalty, and there are still hundreds of folks in prison as a result of these police crimes,” notes the torture and wrongful convictions report.
Mr. Burge was released from prison in 2014 and died in 2018 but the number of prosecutors, police officers and other officials that knew about the torture remains to be seen and the full extent may never be known.
Mr. Burge is the only person convicted of anything related to the torture charges and sentenced to jail, which enrages advocates and victims.
Testimonies of pain, perseverance
During the July 13 press conference, family and supporters of victims of police torture demanded that the state’s attorney prosecute police officers guilty of heinous crimes. They were accompanied by anti-violence organizations, the MAMAS collective, the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, the Chicago Justice Torture Center and Transforming Re-entry Services.
Police pretended nothing happened when Ms. Carter confronted them at the police station where her son, Michael, was being held. That was over 30 years ago. He was convicted in 1991.
“[The officer] came around and told me, ‘Why are you here?’ and I said, ‘For my son!’ He said, ‘Your son’s 19, you ain’t got no business here. Your son is grown,’ ” Ms. Spencer recalled.
After going back and forth, she said the police officer told her to leave or she would be jailed for obstruction of justice.
“Imagine leaving the police station, you got a child who’s sitting in the building and you’re supposed to protect your child! You’re supposed to be there to stand up for your child!” she said.
Ms. Spencer’s pain and agony was shared by mothers whose sons are still serving time or were released after serving decades in prison.
Carolyn Johnson has been fighting for her son, Marcus Wiggins, since 1991.
“Look how long it’s taking, 22 years that he’s been in prison. My son shouldn’t have to keep living with this,” she said through tears.
Despite being released, Mr. Wiggins suffers severe bodily injuries and mental trauma from his sentencing for a murder his mother says he is innocent of. At the age of 13, she said a detective, James O’Brien, struck and handcuffed her son before he was later interrogated by two other detectives. Court records say Mr. Wiggins suffered more beatings, threats and was electrically shocked before he made a verbal statement of involvement in a crime he did not commit.
Bertha Escamilla represents the MAMAs collective which seeks protection for youth against violence. She has been fighting for her son for 20 years.
“Our loved ones told the truth about getting tortured and beat up by these police officers. They need to be indicted!” she said.
Ms. Escamilla said her son Nick was picked up by police without an arrest or search warrant in 1993. He was threatened and beaten into signing a false confession for the killing of 18-year-old Hector Olague, she said. Nick Escamilla served 15 years of a 29-year sentence before being released under a no-contest agreement, according to his mother.
Amanda Shackelford said there was zero evidence against her son, Gerald Reed, when he was convicted and sentenced to prison.
“They gave my son life with no evidence, none!” she cried.
Ms. Shackelford hopes media attention and protests will draw a response from Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. “At first, she was saying that they couldn’t do anything for my son because he had a special prosecutor on his case. The year before last, we had a meeting with them again and this young lady told me that that has changed, ‘we can do something for your son.’ Have they done anything for him? No!” she stated.
At age 16, Mark Clements was sentenced to life without parole for a crime he says he did not commit. His conviction was overturned in 2009 after he served 28 years.
He, too, called on the state’s attorney to do more.
“Kim Foxx needs to step up to the plate and to make it right for the little people. Stop playing political football with the lives of men that have suffered, with the lives of women that have suffered, being taken down to police stations and having their genitals and testicles connected to electrical shock boxes … and legally lynched in this building,” he said.
Demands in an ongoing fight
There is very little nationwide data on how extensive the suffering is for Black and Brown victims of police torture and forced confessions.
James Grant Gibson, who says he suffered from Chicago police, isn’t concerned about research numbers.
“Put the cuffs on their ass!” he said during the press conference.
“There’s no need for any more investigations, there’s no more need for any more interviews, there’s no more need to pass this on til’ the election is over with. Today, we ask for our due process of equal protection of the law!”
In addition to listing the names of some of the Chicago detectives implicated in torture cases and names of some of the victims, the torture and wrongful convictions report presents 12 demands to the state’s attorney.
“Jon Burge is not the beginning nor the end of police torture. CPD torture has been going on for decades before, and continues today,” said the report.
“This means that investigation into and accountability for police torture does not end with Burge’s death. Detectives under Burge learned and utilized the same methods of torture to extract false confessions, frame, and wrongfully convict hundreds of survivors.
All of these detectives must be investigated for torture, witness coercion and tampering, fabricating evidence, and perjury. All of the survivors these detectives have tortured and wrongfully convicted need their cases vacated and granted new trials with tortured confessions thrown out,” the report said.
Other demands include:
• A public declaration that police officers with established records of torturing suspects, false confessions, perjury, and subornation of perjury will no longer be called as witnesses by prosecutors.
• A commitment from the state’s attorney to no longer oppose certificates of innocence for those whose convictions have been vacated.
• A commitment from the state’s attorney to no longer oppose petitions for pardons in cases associated with torture and corrupt cops.
The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam has constantly recounted the history of oppression, injustice, slaughter and torture suffered by Black, Brown, and Indigenous people.
“Blacks were subject to the cruelest punishments for acting on their desire for freedom; or for the slightest infraction. Lynchings, corpse mutilations, beheadings, live burnings, and ritual displaying of amputated body parts [were] commonplace. There are many recorded cases of impaling of the severed heads of Africans as a warning to other Blacks,” the Minister stated in a message from a special rally for victims of police torture titled, “Unjust Judges Have Imbalanced Society.”
“Burge is not alone in what he is doing. You can call for him to be prosecuted, but what about the tens of thousands who do this to our people on a daily basis? Do it to our Brown brothers? And do it to poor White people? See, it’s a system; and Burge is only a representative of the most sadistic part of the system!” said Min. Farrakhan.
“This is an evil system, which means this is a big fight, so I’m challenging the mayor! I’m challenging the Fraternal Order of Police. I’m challenging the judges; and the members of the City Council! I’m challenging those who are in a position to begin to make substantive change within the system. Otherwise, we have no hope in you, unless you show us!” he said during the rally in 2009.
Abdullah Muhammad, Nation of Islam Student National Prison Reform Minister, echoed the words of Min. Farrakhan about injustices committed by police.
The Minister has given Black people the solutions to all of the injustices that impact our lives, said Abdullah Muhammad. “He instructed Black people to establish 10,000 Fearless to make our community a safer and better place to live and to eliminate White policing,” he noted.
“The ultimatum given to Black people by Minister Farrakhan and his followers is, ‘Separation or Death!’ ” Abdullah Muhammad said.
To read a copy of “A Report on the Pattern and Practice of Torture and Wrongful Conviction by CPD Detectives” and more information, visit www.caarpr.org.