Meet The Death Row 10

A victory for the Death Row 10: The Struggle Continues

By: Joan Parkin and Alice Kim

This page has been reserved in recent issues for profiles of the cases of The Death Row 10 -- a group of men who were beaten and tortured by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his detectives and sent to death row in Illinois.

The New Abolitionist's regular feature highlighting each member of the Death Row 10 will return in our next issue.

In the summer of 1998, the Death Row 10 came together inside prison and asked the Campaign to End the Death Penalty to be their voice on the outside. In January 2003, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan pardoned four members of the Death Row 10. The Campaign is continuing the struggle to win justice for those who remain behind bars.

We won! Four pardons for members of the Death Row 10 and a blanket commutation of all those on Illinois' death row. This represents the most sweeping victory since the death penalty was banned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972. And we can proudly say that activism made a critical difference in winning this important victory.

The fact that former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his detectives tortured more than 60 African American men and railroaded at least 13 men onto death row was once just a dirty secret. Now, the secret is out.

Burge was fired in 1993 as a result of pressure from activists who exposed Burge's torture ring. To this date, many of his victims remain behind bars fighting for their freedom. And Ryan's pardons have brought unprecedented attention to their struggle.

The national media circuit featured stories about the pardoned men -- how they were electro-shocked, suffocated and beaten into making false confessions.

Ryan's pardons -- based on innocence -- further legitimized the Death Row 10's struggle for justice. For years, nobody seemed to listen or care about their torture claims. That's why, in 1998, the Death Row 10 decided to organize themselves as a group to fight for justice behind prison walls. Soon after, they contacted the Campaign and asked us to organize on the outside. The Campaign also worked with a new organization, the Campaign to Prosecute Police Torture, that sought and won a special prosecutor to investigate the torture claims of Burge's victims.

The activism has involved extraordinary people like Louva Bell, mother of Death Row 10 member Ronald Kitchen, who never stopped campaigning for her son despite two strokes -- and Richard Cunningham, an attorney who was as comfortable in the courtroom as he was protesting injustice with a bullhorn at his mouth.

The purpose of the public campaign was to put pressure on public officials and to bring attention to the injustices in the cases of the Death Row 10. The Campaign held protests at the mayor's office, the state's attorney's office and the governor's office. We visited the Death Row 10 at Pontiac Correctional Facility with Rev. Jesse Jackson. We held "Live from Death Row" events featuring amplified telephone calls from members of the Death Row 10. We held press conferences, petition campaigns and teach-ins.

We have been working with family members, attorneys and many other organizations, and, through all of our efforts, we have made enormous strides in the Death Row 10's struggle for justice.

As Robin Hobley, the sister of one of the pardoned men, put it: "It was the publicity of the Death Row 10 that made Governor Ryan see that there were flaws in the system."

Soon after Ryan's decision, Rep. Bobby Rush held a press conference to call for further investigation into the torture claims of Burge's victims, including members of the Death Row 10 whose death sentences were commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Rush also held congressional hearings on the death penalty paying special attention to the issue of police torture.