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The ITT List

Thursday, Jan 14, 2010, 2:52 pm

A Chicago Torture Victim is Set Free, Thanks in Part to ITT Contributor’s Reporting

By Jeremy Gantz
News of journalism's demise has been greatly exaggerated. Well, not really, which makes it all the more important to recognize the value of old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting when a news article helps get a wrongfully convicted man out of prison—23 years after he was sent there.

In 2008, In These Times contributing editor Jessica Pupovac wrote a story for Alternet called "Justice Denied: Scores of Black Men Tortured by Chicago Police Still Await New Trials." It focused on a Chicago man named Michael Tillman, who in 1986 was found guilty of murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, and aggravated kidnapping. Twenty years old at the time, he was sentenced to life in prison. He's always maintained his innocence, saying he confessed to murder only because he was tortured (another man was also convicted for the murder).

Jessica's story, which inspired the Peoples' Law Office in Chicago to re-examine Tillman's case, included this shocking paragraph:

According to Tillman's 1986 trial testimony, when [Tillman] arrived at the Area 2 police station in the predawn hours of July 22, 1986, Detectives Ronald Boffo and Peter Dignan took him to a second-floor interrogation room and pressed him for information about the murder of 42-year-old Betty Howard, whose body was found the day prior in the apartment building Tillman oversaw. When he told the detectives that he knew nothing about the murder, he says that Boffo and Dignan, along with three other officers, became abusive. Without ever reading him his Miranda rights, he says they handcuffed him to the wall, hit him in the face and punched him in the stomach until he vomited blood. During the course of what appeared to be three days, rotating pairs of officers brought him to the railroad tracks behind the station and held a gun to his head, suffocated him repeatedly with thick plastic bags, poured soda up his nose and forced him into Dumpsters outside of the apartment building, ordering him to search through the rubbish for a murder weapon until, according to Detective John Yucaitis, Tillman confessed to the crime.

This morning, Tillman walked out of Chicago's Cook County Criminal Courthouse a free man. (Broadcast TV coverage can be found here and here.)

"Michael Tillman was not only innocent of the crime for which he was accused, but he is also a victim of systemic crimes committed by police officers entrusted with upholding the law and the Constitution,” said Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office, who represented Tillman. “Those detectives who tortured Michael...must be brought to justice.”

In These Times Senior Editor Salim Muwakkil has for years written about Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge's reign of torture between 1972 and 1992, most recently in this ITT column, which detailed the October 2008 arrest of Burge by U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald. Burge, who was removed from the police department in 1993 after a police board found him guilty of torturing an accused murderer, will be in court this May for perjury and obstructing justice.

The incredible ending to Tillman's nearly quarter-century travesty of justice is due in no small part to Pupovac's reporting. Congratulations Jessica!

But, of course, there are other wrongfully convicted torture victims still behind bars. As Jessica mentioned in her story:

Tillman is one of at least 24 African-American men that the People's Law Office in Chicago claims are still serving sentences for crimes they say they confessed to only after enduring hours of torture at the hands of Chicago police officers... Although 10 of Burge's victims have been pardoned or given new trials after their illegally obtained confessions were exposed, the vast majority of the 100-plus cases have yet to be reviewed by the state of Illinois...

Justice delayed is justice denied. Let's hope there are other independent reporters out there digging through dozens of other case files...

Jeremy Gantz was the Web/Associate Editor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012. His January 2011 cover story for the magazine, "Terrorist by Association," was selected as a finalist for the Molly National Journalism Award 2012. He is now a contributing editor to the magazine, focusing on labor issues.

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