Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Death Row

While Wilson was seeking to vindicate his rights in federal court, scores of Burge torture survivors were literally fighting for their lives behind bars. At the time of Burge's termination from the CPD, there were ten known Burge torture survivors on Illinois' death row. These men were seeking relief from criminal convictions and death sentences in appeals and post-conviction petitions, arguing that there was a pattern and practice of torture within the CPD, citing Burge's termination and the findings made in the Goldston Report as strong corroboration of their allegations that their confessions were physically coerced. Yet, they were routinely denied relief by the Circuit Courts and Illinois Supreme Court, despite this new, game-changing evidence.

The men on the row were fed up with waiting for justice in the courts, and seeking to control their own lives and destinies, they courageously began to organize themselves by calling themselves "The Death Row 10." The Death Row 10 urged their family members to attend court hearings and speak out on their behalf. They also wrote to organizers and activists beseeching them to stage teach-ins and protests about their cases and plight for justice. Aaron Patterson, one of the most prominent survivors on death row, boldly called and wrote to members of the press from his prison cell demanding the press report on his case and court proceedings and question Burge and the other officers responsible for the torture.

Family members responded to their calls, becoming their ambassadors, fearlessly and tirelessly speaking out in support of their loved ones, attending rallies, going to churches and speaking to scores of students about the Death Row 10. The Death Row 10 joined forces with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) to organize events, featuring members of the Death Row 10 calling in to speak to audiences "live from death row" in a style first popularized by political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. In so doing, the survivors made it clear that they would speak for themselves, ignoring the admonition of counsel that anything they say could be used against them in their court proceedings. According to Alice Kim, an organizer with the CEDP who later helped to co-found the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, by providing a platform for the voices of the Death Row10 to be heard directly by audiences all around the country, survivors and organizers were able to interrupt the prevailing narrative of death row prisoners as the "worst of the worst."

As the campaigns for the Death Row 10 and Aaron Patterson were gaining traction, the press was questioning the fairness and efficacy of the death penalty. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, thirteen people sentenced to die were exonerated on the basis of innocence, leading then-Illinois Governor George Ryan to issue a moratorium on all executions on January 31, 2000, becoming the first state in the nation.

As it was becoming increasingly clear that Governor Ryan would not seek re-election in 2002, several lawyers representing capital defendants hatched a plan to seek clemency on behalf of all those on Illinois' death row. The effort for clemency eventually became a highly visible public campaign, leading to over 200 public clemency hearings before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board where both family members of people on death row, including the Death Row 10, and family members of murder victims spoke on behalf of their loved ones. The hearings were emotionally charged and heartbreaking, as attention was focused on the flawed nature of the criminal legal system, including the role played by the Burge torture cases, while also exposing the wells of pain and loss among families of those no longer in the world. Ultimately, the campaign was successful.

On January 2, 2003, Governor Ryan pardoned four of the Burge torture survivors - Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard, Leroy Orange, and Aaron Patterson - on the basis of innocence. The following day, Governor Ryan declared the death penalty was fatally flawed and commuted the death sentences of all prisoners then on death row.

It was another phenomenal victory for justice that did not come through the courts, but rather, was the product of extrajudicial actions by survivors, attorneys, and activists in concert that later contributed to the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois in 2011.

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