Freedom after 21 years!

Marvin Reeves and Ronnie Kitchen (L-R)
By: Marlene Martin

Stunned and overjoyed activists, family members and lawyers waited  outside Cook County jailhouse on July 7 to greet Ronnie Kitchen and  Marvin Reeves as they took their first steps as free men in more than 21 years.

Ronnie, who spent 13 of those 21 years on Illinois' death row, suffered  abuse at the hands of Jon Burge, the notorious police commander who  presided over two decades of systematic torture of Black men by his  officers. He was convicted largely on the basis of a confession coerced from him.

It took this long for prosecutors to admit the truth -- that the two were  innocent men.

"I just want him to suffer the way he made so many of us suffer," Ronnie  said of Burge.  “I want him to sit there in a prison cell and think about all the lives he destroyed." In fact, as a result of a federal investigation, Burge has been brought up on charges of conspiracy to commit torture and faces a trial in January 2010. “I'm gonna be in the courtroom, and I'm going to be looking at him like he looked at me," Ronnie said.  “With a look of disdain."

Despite the ongoing campaign to win justice for police torture victims and  members of the Death Row Ten (a group of men, co-founded by Ronnie,
who were tortured and sentenced to death row), activists were shocked at the sudden and sweeping victory for Marvin and Ronnie.

Attorneys for the two men had put forward a motion for new trials, which Judge Stanley Sacks granted. On the same day, the State's Attorney's office said it couldn't meet its burden of proof in presenting a case. So after 21 years, the two men were released.  Family, friends, activists and
lawyers were on hand to greet them. Julien Ball, a long-time member of the Chicago chapter of the Campaign, said, “I think of all of those demonstrations we organized to pressure Lisa Madigan for new hearings -- the family members trudging out in all kinds of weather to hold signs and speak our message through the bullhorn. We would send a delegation
and demand to speak with her. She wouldn't speak with us. Her office would tell us that she was looking into each case ‘individually' but would never give us any details."

“We knew, even though she was giving us the brush-off, that we were getting through. To greet Ronnie and Marvin walking out of prison was just a confirmation that with determination and justice on your side, you can win."

The flimsy case prosecutors built against Ronnie and Marvin is rooted in inequality and racism.  Ronnie was picked up on August 25, 1988, under the pretext of auto theft and taken to the police station at Area 3. While there, he was told he was being questioned about the murder of five people.

For 16 hours, he was interrogated and beaten. His arms were chained to a ring in the wall and he was beaten with fists and a telephone book. He was continually referred to as “nigger" and beaten so badly in his groin that he had to be treated by the doctor for several months due to “swelling and abrasions." That is how the state obtained its “confession."

Outside of this “confession," the only “evidence" against Ronnie was from a jailhouse snitch, Willie Williams.

Williams was in prison when he read about the killings. He noticed there was a reward for anyone who could provide information on the case. He placed a call to police and told them that Ronnie and Marvin confessed to him in phone conversations.

Yet the information he gave police was no more than what was in the newspaper articles.

At the trial, Williams told the jury that Ronnie confessed to him in conversations on July 31 and August 1 -- but this isn't substantiated by the call records.  As a way to gather evidence, police sought and received permission to “overhear" phone conversations by Williams to Ronnie and Marvin. Over a 10-day period, police “listened in" on over 36 phone calls, but Williams wasn't able to elicit a single incriminating statement.  The jury was never told about these calls.

The jury was also not told about the deal police made with Williams. Neither was Ronnie's lawyer. Records withheld from the defense until 2003 reveal that Williams was set up in a work-release program, meaning he didn't have to spend any more time in prison for the rest of his three-year sentence, and police arranged to pay his girlfriend's first month's rent on a new apartment.

But Williams told the jury he received no benefits for his testimony, and the
prosecution did not correct him.  In clear violation of the law, Ronnie's lawyers were kept in the dark about these arrangements. In fact, the jury was purposely misled by police that no deal had been made with Williams.

“Don't let this defendant stand up here, and try and trick or deceive you that Willie Williams got some kind of deal," prosecutor John Eannace said in his closing statement. “When Williams came forward with this, he wasn't in the County Jail facing an armed robbery charge. He didn't call the police and say, ‘Hey, I got something for you, if you can do something for me. He didn't do that...

“You can bet that if there had been one iota of consideration given to Willie Williams on this particular case, he would have brought it to you. And you would have heard about it in this courtroom."  But that is exactly what happened. The same prosecutor emphasized the same lie in Marvin  Reeves' case.

“What about the motive?" Eannace said in this closing argument. “By that,  I mean a reason as to why Willie Williams would come in here and lie to  you...  He got zero. He got nothing for this. He stayed in jail, in protective custody, served out his three-year sentence for burglary.  Didn't get any benefit or any break or any consideration from the police or my office to come forward in this case."

The State attempted to block the release of the entire file to the defense, but finally, after 11 years, they were forced to hand over the documents  and the truth about the arrangements with Mr. Williams were revealed.

Ronnie's 181-page post-conviction relief petition reads like a movie script -- seemingly unbelievable things occur that one would find hard to believe happened in real life -- unless one is familiar with the workings of our criminal justice system.  Here are a few examples:

  • At the trial, the jury was told there were no suspects in the case other than Ronnie and Marvin. But the police questioned three suspects, all intimately involved with the victims.
  • The Chicago Sun Times reported that these three suspects passed lie  detector tests. But the police report shows that all three suspects failed their tests.
  • One of the victims, Deborah Sepulveda, was having an affair. Her husband was one of the suspects in the crime.  When questioned, he failed a lie detector test. He also claimed he was watching TV the night of the killings, but couldn't remember any of the shows he watched, even though he was questioned the following day. He had a fresh scratch mark on his cheek, which he said he got from a prostitute he was with a few nights before.
  • When Ronnie was beaten at the police station, a lawyer who would be Ronnie's attorney for his trial had seen Ronnie at the station, crying and bent over in pain.  But since he put himself forward to be Ronnie's lawyer, he was unable to testify as a witness to what he saw.

Ronnie and Marvin's story might read like a Hollywood movie in some ways, with a happy ending that both are now free.

But we shouldn't be fooled into believing their release means that justice has been served. Both of these men had 21 years of their lives stolen, and the lives they are left with are forever scarred by their run-in with the criminal justice system.  So there is a bitterness to this victory.

All of us who fought for years for a semblance of justice around these torture cases know what a wonderful thing it is to be busy planning “welcome home" events. And it's great to have Ronnie and Marvin speaking out at local meetings, calling attention to the fact that the struggle is far from over.

But it remains appalling that this injustice ever occurred, let alone that it  took 21 years to “resolve." And with other torture victims still imprisoned, like Stanley Howard, we know our work is far from over.

As Marvin Reeves said, “There is so much more to be done, so much  more.  I'm so grateful for what you all have done.  But we got to keep up the struggle."