Meet The Death Row 10: Reginald Mahaffey

"Where's The Justice For Reginald?"

By: Joan Parkin

The Death Row 10 are prisoners on Illinois death row who were beaten and tortured by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his detectives. In 1993, Burge was forced into taking early retirement, but he and his cronies were never charged. Burge now spends his time fishing on his boat in Florida!

In the summer of 1998, the Death Row 10 decided to become a group and asked the Campaign to End the Death Penalty to help them organize.

Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine would like nothing better than to keep the issue of torture covered up. But organizing around the issue has produced growing local and national attention for the Death Row 10, who have been featured in stories in the Chicago Tribune and on the television news program "60 Minutes II." Four have now won evidentiary hearings.

The New Abolitionist is profiling each of the Death Row 10 in upcoming issues so that our readers will get to know their individual stories.


On September 2, 1983, Reginald Mahaffey’s nightmare began. On that day, he was arrested and placed in an interview room by Chicago detectives. These detectives proceeded to put a plastic bag over his head until he couldn’t breathe, slam his head against a wall, strike his body with a heavy flashlight, and threaten him with death. The price that Reginald had to pay in order to end this torture was a signed "confession."

While Reginald was awaiting trial at Cook County Jail, Chicago police claim that he threw himself out of a second-story window in an attempt to kill himself. What’s more likely is that cops hung him out a window to intimidate him--a practice Chicago cops have been known to use in other cases--and dropped him. As a consequence, Reginald suffered serious head injuries, broken ribs, and a ruptured spleen. He was in a coma for six weeks. He now has permanent brain damage and must take anti-psychotic medication.

Although it seems absurd, the judge in Reginald’s original trial denied his motion to suppress the confession.

Reginald sought to reopen his case after Burge was fired by the City of Chicago for systematically torturing suspects. On top of that, a federal district judge ordered the release of internal police department records that alleged systematic abuse of suspects in custody at Area 2 Police Headquarters. Several of the police officers listed in these records were the same officers who had interrogated Reginald when he was tortured. Nonetheless, a trial judge denied Reginald’s request.

Incredibly, in 2000 the Illinois Supreme Court and a federal court ruled that even if the confession had been suppressed, there was enough evidence for a jury to convict him. In other words, it was "harmless error."

The case against Reginald and his brother, Jerry, who was also convicted and sentenced to death for the same crime, is full of holes. The primary eyewitness, the little boy whose family had been murdered, could not identify either Reginald or Jerry in a police line-up. In his statement to the police, the little boy said that he did not know who attacked his family. Moreover, fingerprints that were found at the scene of the crime did not match either brother.

Far from being judged by a jury of their peers, the jury that convicted them was all white. It’s clear that Reginald did not receive a fair trial. Yet, he has languished on death row for over 15 years.

Reginald’s life is a tragedy of our so-called justice system. "Reginald sits in his cell, rocking on his bed or pacing back and forth in his cell," said Marlene Martin, national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty who regularly visits the Condemned Unit of Pontiac Correctional Facility with a group from the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

"He’s filthy, and his hair is matted. Every time I ask if he would like to talk, he waves me past without a word. He does the same to others....Reginald sits there hour after hour--no TV, no light, no radio, no voices. That’s the pathetic state of our justice system. My question is: ‘Where’s the justice for Reginald Mahaffey?’"

Fortunately, Cook County Judge Paul Biebel just appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the torture claims against Burge and his detectives. Attorney Frank Ralph, who helped to initiate the Campaign to Prosecute Police Torture, told the New Abolitionist that "any principled prosecutor looking at the facts...someone with no ties to these cases and to the State’s Attorneys office...with no conflict of interest who’s doing their job...will see the need for new trials for all of the Death Row 10."

Address letters to Reginald Mahaffey, #A92127, 700 W. Lincoln St., P.O. Box 99, Pontiac, IL 61764.