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Alleged torture victim gets new trial

By Ashahed M. Muhammad
Assistant Editor | Last updated: Jun 1, 2009 - 11:20:51 PM

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CHICAGO - In an important ruling that could open the door for further investigations into torture by the city police department, Judge Clayton Crane awarded Victor Safforld, formerly known as Cortez Brown, a new trial, overturning a death penalty conviction that has kept him in prison for the last 18 years. Photo: Adrian S. Burrows/Burrows Photography
CHICAGO ( - In an important ruling that could open the door for further investigations into torture by the city police department, Judge Clayton Crane awarded Victor Safforld, formerly known as Cortez Brown, a new trial, overturning a death penalty conviction that has kept him in prison for the last 18 years.

Referring to the 38-year-old Mr. Safforld as a “mature, street-wise individual,” Judge Crane told the packed courtroom that despite inconsistencies in Mr. Safforld's recollection of events, as a judge he had additional evidence of a history of abuse by officers accused of forcing a false confession out of Mr. Safforld.

“The advantage I have is that I have a more complete history of the behavior of these detectives,” said Judge Crane on May 22. “That evidence is staggering. That evidence is damning. The petitioner has met his burden and I hereby order a new trial.”

During the tense moments immediately following Judge Crane's ruling, there was a low roar in the courtroom as Mr. Safforld's supporters hugged each other and cheered quietly. Others, including members of the family of one of the slain victims, Curtis Sims, broke out in tears.

The four-day evidentiary hearing provided testimony not only from Mr. Safforld himself, but others who told stories of torture and abuse by the same rogue unit of officers from “the midnight crew,” including Marcus Wiggins, who testified that as a 13-year-old he was electric shocked to the point of losing consciousness.

Retired officers, John Byrne—who supervised the unit—Anthony Maslanka, John Paladino, and detective James O'Brien, who is still active on the police force, refused to answer any questions posed by Mr. Safforld's attorneys. They even refused to acknowledge whether they worked the evening of Mr. Safforld's arrest.

According to Atty. Flint Taylor, one of the lead members of Mr. Safforld's legal team, by exercising their rights under the 5th Amendment against self-incrimination, the judge drew a “negative inference” about their involvement in Mr. Safforld's interrogation and subsequently reported abuse.

“This decision brings redemption not only to Victor Safforld and his family, but to all of those who have steadfastly fought for so long to hold Jon Burge and his henchmen accountable for their reprehensible acts,” said Atty. Locke Bowman, Legal Director of the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center and Mr. Safforld's lead attorney. What was dealt with in this case “only scratches the surface,” said Atty. Bowman.

Mr. Safforld maintains that at the age of 19, he was picked up by police officers, threatened, slapped and punched and beaten with a flashlight for 30 minutes by officers from “the midnight crew” under the direction of Cmdr. Burge. The rogue officers deprived him of sleep, food and water and handcuffed him to a wall in what was referred to by officers as “the bullpen,” he said. Mr. Safforld, whose alias Cortez Brown had previously been used in the case, said officers ridiculed him and ignored requests to be questioned in the presence of an attorney.

During his emotional testimony, Mr. Safforld said his will was completely broken. He said he told the officers, “I will say whatever (you) wanted me to say and sign whatever (you) wanted me to sign.” What they had him sign were confessions to the murders of Curtis Sims and Delvin Boelter, according to Mr. Safforld. In 1990, he was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted by then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan.

According to Mr. Safforld's attorneys, it was an open secret among members of the Chicago Police Department that abuse happened under Cmdr. Burge. Atty. Joey Mogul cited an anonymous letter referring to “a-- kickers who work for Burge.” Defense lawyers sought to show the leadership of the “midnight crew” tolerated and even encouraged abuse from its officers, and under Cmdr. Burge, they were allowed to torture and abuse suspects without fear of punishment leading to a “pattern of systemic abuse” within the department.

Though Cmdr. Burge avoided facing his accusers in this case, he is currently under federal indictment, charged with perjury in a civil lawsuit. His attorneys say Mr. Burge is scheduled to appear in a Chicago federal court on July 27.

Abdullah Muhammad directs the Nation of Islam's Prison Reform Ministry and has known Mr. Safforld for almost the entire time of his incarceration. He said Judge Crane's ruling is the “first step” in obtaining Mr. Safforld's complete freedom.

“Where there is life, there is hope,” said Mr. Muhammad. He plans to be present in court with a delegation of supporters May 29 when Mr. Safforld's attorneys discuss the next stages of the case.

Victor Safforld's 18-year old daughter, Victoria, said it was hard to listen to prosecutors try to shred her father's credibility. The high school student, who has grown up with her father in prison, told The Final Call she is optimistic and they have plans for a one-on-one basketball game once he is free.

“He always stays with a positive attitude, so it kind of makes me like that,” said Ms. Safforld, holding back tears. “He never gave up and said, ‘I'm going to quit.' He always would say, ‘Don't worry and we are going to keep on praying,' and to keep on going for it. I'm just happy that he is finally giving people a chance to see because for a long time, nobody really knew about his case,” she added.

Immediately following the ruling, Atty. Bowman conveyed Mr. Safforld's direct words to The Final Call. “First and foremost he said God is great—Allah-u-Akbar—and he wanted to say his heart is filled with gratitude for all those who stood and supported him. He recognizes that the events of the last 19 years have worked in injury not only to his family, but the family of the victims and in that, he sees no cause for celebration, but he holds fast to his gratitude to God for today's development.”

Pamela Safforld, Victor's mother, told The Final Call she harbors no resentment towards the officers, she is just focused on him being set free.

“I just want my son to come home. For them (the officers) they will be judged another way, but for him, I just want him to come home.”