Meet The Death Row Ten: Stanley Howard

"Without all of you, we only have half a chance"

By: Joan Parkin

The Death Row Ten 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 and now spends his time fishing on his boat in Florida. But Burge and his cronies were never criminally charged.

In the summer of 1998, the Death Row Ten decided to form themselves into 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 Ten, who have been featured in stories by the Chicago Tribune and the television news program "60 Minutes II." Four have now won evidentiary hearings.

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

At the age of 23, Stanley Howard was sentenced to death on the basis of a confession extracted under torture by Chicago's Area 2 detectives. Living in a cell no bigger than a bathroom for the past 15 years, Stanley has maintained his innocence and worked with the help of his mother, Jeanette Johnson, to clear his name.

Last year, he finally won an evidentiary hearing, due largely to protests organized by family members and activists and the work of Chicago Tribune reporter Steve Mills, who uncovered two old police reviews substantiating Stanley's claims of torture and suggesting a conspiracy to cover it up.

Stanley's nightmare began on November 2, 1984, when he was picked up for a lineup and interrogation in a murder he knew nothing about.

"While they were beating me, they [Officers James Lotito, Ronald Boffo and Sgt. Jon Byrne] were spoon-feeding me information about the case and asking me was I ready to confess," Stanley says. "When I kept explaining to them that I didn't commit the crime, Boffo left the room and came back with a plastic bag. After placing the bag over my head, Lotito began to choke me with it -- trying to suffocate me with it -- as the other two began to punch and kick me again."

Aside from the confession, there was never any evidence linking Stanley to the victim or the crime. The only witness said she couldn't identify his face but allegedly identified a gunshot wound on Stanley's left leg. Yet medical records available to Stanley's attorney proved that the scar on his left leg had been inflicted after the crime. But the lawyer never brought any witnesses to court to testify to this. As Stanley said, "I had solid medical evidence that I didn't commit this crime but was convicted through the help of a very dumb attorney and a very smart overzealous prosecutor."

To make matters worse, the judge was a former Area 2 police officer who, of course, believed the police instead of a young Black man with a record. He threw out both the medical records and the defense's motion to suppress the confession.

In Stanley's post-conviction legal battle, a mountain of new evidence has been discovered -- thanks in large part to tremendous help from his mother and his lawyer, Paul Dengel.

Stanley spends 23 hours a day in a room where he can touch both walls with his arms outstretched. Yet miraculously, he has not just survived but prevailed. He reads and writes voraciously and is constantly helping out other prisoners with their cases.

Stanley helped organize the Death Row Ten. He, along with the other prisoners, put together a flyer -- cut and pasted together in prison -- to announce their first rally, where some 60 people turned out in Chicago. Now, he is waiting to go to Cook County jail, where he will be held for his evidentiary hearing.

"We cannot do this ourselves," Stanley said in a statement read at that first rally. "Without all of you, we only have half a chance. It's really up to the people out here. You've taken the time to rally on our behalf -- the courts have turned their backs -- to force them to listen to us.

"Me, I'll work for justice in here. You, you work for justice out there. If not, these people are actually gonna kill us. It's gonna be a party, or it's gonna be a funeral. It's just that simple."