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Chicago wrestles with legacy of police torture

Since horrific stories of police torture came out more than a decade ago, the city has tried to heal its wounds

CHICAGO – “We have ways of making n—ers talk.”

Ronald Kitchen was stunned to hear these words. It wasn't men in white hoods or neo-Nazis holding him against his will in the summer of 1988. It was the Chicago Police Department.

“The officer told me, ‘What I’m going to do, I’m going to introduce you to the telephone book and night stick,'” he said. “They get the telephone book, the big ol’ night stick, put it on top of your head, and he just beats the s—t out of it.”

He added: "I’m sitting there and he’s telling me, ‘You did this. We know you did this.'”

Police accused Kitchen of a gruesome homicide on Chicago’s Southwest Side in July 1988. According to police, two women and three young children were murdered and the house was set on fire. 

Kitchen says officers took him into a room at the police station, cuffed his hands behind his back to a hoop on the wall, and beat him into submission.

“I said, ‘I want to call my lawyer,’” Kitchen said. “He grabbed the telephone off the hook and hit me upside the head with it, and asked me, ‘Do you hear it ringing now?’”

Ronald Kitchen
America Tonight

For more than 16 hours, Kitchen says a revolving door of officers took turns threatening and abusing him until he signed a confession to a crime he did not commit. 

“I [told] him, ‘OK, I’ll do whatever you want me to do,’” he said. 

Police found no physical evidence at the scene to connect Kitchen to the crime. A jury found him guilty of all five murders, based solely on his coerced confession and the word of a jailhouse police informant, who was later discredited. Kitchen was to die by lethal injection.

Unknown to Kitchen, investigative reporter John Conroy was following a tip around the time of Kitchen’s case that lead him to stories hauntingly similar to Kitchen’s. Many said the police had tortured them into false confessions, most notably by electrocution.

According to Conroy, police used three different electrical devices on prisoners, including a cattle prod and an extinct medical device called the Violent Ray Machine. He said one prisoner was burned against a hot radiator and that others were “hung by their handcuffs with their hands cuffed behind their back.”

Later, Conroy obtained anonymous letters from someone within Chicago PD, which corroborated the allegations. In January 1990, after almost a year of reporting and writing, he broke the story wide open in the Chicago Reader investigation “House of Screams."

“People were going to die and nobody was doing anything,” Conroy said. “There were a dozen men on death row who were there on the basis of suspect confessions.”

'He was Jon Burge'

Central to Conroy’s reporting was one man – a man who Kitchen vividly remembered from the night of his arrest.

“This huge white man got on top of the desk and literally kicked my ass out of the chair. Mind you, I still have my hands behind my back, handcuffed to a hoop in the wall,” Kitchen said. “At the time I didn’t know who he was. [I found] out, he was Jon Burge.”

When it comes to police torture, Jon Burge has been called the face of a dark chapter in Chicago’s history.
America Tonight

Jon Burge, a former commander with the Chicago Police Department, is the face of this dark chapter in Chicago’s history, according to Conroy’s reporting. 

A decorated veteran, Burge was cited in hundreds of allegations, which said he used torture tactics that he learned in Vietnam and created a culture of abuse to force confessions. By 1993, in a swirl of media headlines, an internal police review board determined Burge had used torture and fired him.

In 2000, in the wake of mounting torture allegations and questions about the role of Burge and his influence, then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan made an unprecedented decision to suspend executions. In 2003, he cleared the state’s death row, moving 167 inmates to terms of life in prison.  

In 2009, after 21 years behind bars, 13 of which were spent on death row, Kitchen was released and given a Certificate of Innocence from the Cook County courts, granting him complete exoneration.

“This states that I’m a free man, period,” he said. “Innocent.”

But in a cruel twist, the woman who believed in that innocence all along would never get to celebrate Kitchen’s freedom. His mother, who he says fought for him when “nobody else listened or believed,” is now suffering from dementia.

“I got to her house [and] she couldn’t even recognize me,” he said. “So when my sister told her ‘Ronnie home”,’ she said, ‘Where’s he at?’ She’s staring at me…She says, ‘I’m just waiting for Ronnie to come home.’”

First in the nation

At least 110 men were tortured into false confessions by Chicago police, according to advocacy groups such as the People’s Law Office of Chicago, a group of Chicago-based lawyers who represent victims of police brutality, wrongful convictions and false arrest. 

Jon Burge was eventually convicted in 2010, but not for torture – the statute of limitations had run out. Instead, he was convicted for lying about it. Burge spent four and a half years behind bars for perjury and obstruction of justice. Today, he’s a free man, retired and receiving his police pension. Legal experts estimate the city of Chicago has paid out at least $64 million in judgments and civil settlements for abuses that happened under Burge’s reign.

Though victims claim that Burge’s legacy of police torture continues in his absence, some believe that progress has been made, as evidenced by the city’s historic reparations ordinance. 

People were going to die and nobody was doing anything. There were a dozen men on death row who were there on the basis of suspect confessions.

John Conroy

Investigative journalist

On May 6, Chicago became the first city in the nation to approve a reparations bill for victims of police abuse and torture. The package includes $5.5 million to be divided among surviving victims, as well as free counseling, job training and a public memorial honoring the victims. While some say it doesn’t go far enough, Alderman Howard Brookins, a co-author of the ordinance, says it’s at least a start.

“While nobody believes that this will end police misconduct in the city of Chicago, we do believe that it will end this particular chapter, where for so many years we had denied that this type of thing was going on,” Brookins said. “We refused to apologize for it, despite the fact that we had been paying out tens of millions of dollars to settle lawsuits over this very torture.”

Kitchen isn't eligible for reparations because he won a multimillion-dollar civil suit against the city. He says the reparations packages represent a paltry attempt to fix the unfixable.

“If you say, ‘OK, $100 million,’ is that going to bring my mother’s mind back? Is it going to bring my brother and nephew back from the dead?” he said. “I can’t push a button and say, 'Let’s go back in time.' There’s no such thing. So there’s no amount of money that they can give them or give us.”

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