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Torture: The American Way?

By Ashahed M. Muhammad
Assistant Editor | Last updated: May 15, 2009 - 10:10:54 AM

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Alleged coercion of Cortez Bown and other abuse by police officers presented at emotional forum

CHICAGO ( - Torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and misconduct at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba have been widely reported. While President Barack H. Obama and his Attorney General Eric Holder have made a clean break with the Bush-Cheney regime by coming out clearly against torture of foreign suspects, there is another side to torture, one that takes place at the hands of police officers inside the United States, say alleged victims and advocates.

The cry against domestic torture has been growing in Chicago as details emerge in the case of Cortez Brown, a 38-year-old Black man, who says he was tortured and coerced into making a murder confession as a 19-year-old. The former death row inmate's plight and the sordid saga of police torture in the city, in particular charges against former Chicago police Commander Jon Burge, was highlighted May 2 in a panel discussion and rally here at Muhammad University of Islam. The event organized by Abdullah Muhammad head of the National Prison Reform Ministry of the Nation of Islam, provided an opportunity to hear the tragic details from victims of torture.

Panelists included Black men who say police officers under the direction of former Cmdr. Burge tortured them and lawyers say Mr. Brown was one of hundreds of Black men tortured and coerced into making confessions over a 20-year reign of terror.

According to sworn testimonies, police officers beat, suffocated, applied electric shock to the genitals and staged mock executions of suspects, threatening and terrorizing men, women and even young children into submission, they said.

“This is systemic police torture that has rivaled anything we have heard not only across this nation, but across the world,” said Atty. G. Flint Taylor, a longtime legal advocate and defender of civil rights. “We're talking about racism that goes back to slavery. Make no mistake about it, the torture that Jon Burge and his men did has its vestiges, has its origins, has its violence and racism in slavery,” he said. Atty. Taylor was one of the panelists at Muhammad University of Islam.

The Final Call has closely followed and reported on the case Cortez Brown, who was given the death penalty after confessing to the murders of two men in 1990. His sentence was commuted to life in prison by former Illinois Governor George Ryan. Mr. Brown is seeking a new trial saying his confession only came after he was severely beaten by Mr. Burge's henchmen.

On April 29, nearly 150 supporters of Mr. Brown packed a Cook County court room as Judge Clayton Crane allowed his lawyers to put in motion a subpoena of Mr. Burge, who currently resides in Florida, and Anthony Maslanka, who currently resides in Arizona, to appear in person at an upcoming May 18 hearing in Chicago.

With lawyers for Mr. Burge present, Mr. Brown, handcuffed and shackled yet dignified, emerged from the rear chambers of the courtroom, flashed a smile, waved to supporters and saluted them. His supporters stood for the entire 45-minutes of the legal proceedings in a show of solidarity.

The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, Rev. Michael Pfleger of the Faith Community of St. Sabina, Ald. Ed Smith of Chicago's 28th Ward, Rev. Larry Turpin of the United Church of Hyde Park, the N.O.I. National Prison Reform Minister Abdullah Muhammad, the N.O.I. Supreme Captain Mustapha Farrakhan and N.O.I. official Leonard F. Muhammad have vowed to continue to monitor and organize around Mr. Brown's case to ensure justice is done.

Atty. Taylor, of the People's Law Office based in Chicago, has proposed federal legislation that proscribes and criminalizes acts of torture by law enforcement officials and increases the statute of limitations. Currently, there are statutes with regard to torture that has happened outside of the United States, but no federal statutes to prosecute those in the U.S. found guilty of the crime. Each municipality has its own process and procedures for dealing with officers accused of misconduct.

At the May 2 forum, Jonathan Jackson, son of Rainbow/PUSH founder Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, said though slow in coming, he sees justice for the victims of torture.

“We are now seeing the walls of justice move,” said Mr. Jackson. “We've seen dog torture headlines come before human torture,” said Mr. Jackson, who has become involved in cases of alleged police torture through work with the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

Ald. Ed Smith believes Cmdr. Burge and all who tortured suspects should be in jail, and the dollars of the Chicago taxpayers should not be used to pay his legal bills.

“I think it is a disgrace,” Ald. Smith told The Final Call. “I really think the city of Chicago should cut itself off from this case. They made a commitment some time ago that they would support Burge in his legal matters, and they did that in front of a judge, so they are continuing to adhere to that. But his is an egregious case in which a man has done a gross injustice to society,” he added.

At the May 2 forum, Darrell Cannon shared his emotional story. He had a shotgun forced in his mouth, which split his lip. He said the officers simulated his execution, tried to hang him and then later used an electric cattle prod to shock his genitals.

Mr. Cannon still harbors “hatred and animosity” for the officers who brutalized him, and the years of his life taken away by his false imprisonment. During the 24 years of imprisonment for a crime he said he did not commit, including nine years in Tamms Supermax prison with no external contact, Mr. Cannon's mother, grandmother and several other family members died. He was unable to touch or talk to them “just one more time.”

“That is the pain that keeps me emotional,” said Mr. Cannon speaking through tears. “That's the pain that won't go away.”

Anthony Holmes painfully recalled how in 1973, his door was kicked in by Chicago Police officers, he was tortured, suffocated, handcuffed and electric shocked. He said it felt like “a thousand needles going through his body” and a few times, he thought he was dead.

Johnnie Lee Savory told the story of how he was charged with murder at the age of 14. Police came and removed him from school after one of Mr. Savory's childhood friends and his sister were murdered. Mr. Savory was intensely questioned by the detectives, then he said he was humiliatingly stripped naked and one by one, hairs were plucked from his body.

“It was like a nightmare. It wasn't real,” said Mr. Savory who said he finally gave up and confessed to the crime, just so the pain would stop. Mr. Savory spent 30 years in prison, and was granted parole. He now organizes on behalf of those wrongfully convicted.

Gregory Banks said he was tortured for three days by Chicago police officers at the age of 20 as they tried to get him to confess to a 1983 murder. After being beaten and suffocated with a plastic bag placed over his head, he finally confessed to the crime just so the torture would end.

Mr. Banks recalled hearing one of the officers say, “we have something special for n_____s.”

“I'm here today because I don't want that to happen to anyone else,” said Mr. Banks who spent 7 years in prison before being granted a new trial and being exonerated. “Whatever I have to do, and wherever I have to go to tell my story, I'm going to tell my story because my story is real.”

Carolyn Johnson, the mother of Marcus Wiggins, says her then 13-year-old son, got picked up as a suspect in a neighborhood shooting. Marcus told his lawyer that detectives electric shocked him, beat him with a flashlight, then wrote up a statement of confession and had him sign it, said his mother. She also accused the police of filing false police reports.

Marcus Wiggins has served 11-years of a 46-year prison sentence.

Ms. Johnson told The Final Call she fears retaliation from detectives and rarely tells anyone her real address because the offending officers are still walking the streets.

“They are still working and everybody knows they are out here and they are still doing things to people. Everybody is saying that nobody is above the law, but they are still out here,” she said.

Mr. Cannon and Mr. Holmes told The Final Call they have communicated with other victims of police torture across the nation and the idea of creating a nationwide network of police torture survivors has been discussed.

Min. Louis Farrakhan told the crowd at Muhammad University of Islam that a common purpose should unite all to obtain justice for these men and bring to justice “rogue officers who use their authority to inflict pain.”There is also a bigger power pushing for justice, he said.

“No one can avenge the criminal behavior of criminals who are in positions of authority or power better than the God of Justice,” added Min. Farrakhan, who spoke briefly at the end of the program.

“Right now if an officer commits an act of torture or cruel and degrading treatment, they may get charged with battery or assault or other civil rights violations, but that has a five-year statute of limitations (which) has posed huge problems for us in getting accountability for officers,” Atty. Joey L. Mogul told The Final Call. “We think this is warranted because the crime of torture is so grave and so severe, and these officers that we imbue with this power and the authority of law believe they can act above the law. We need to have a new tool in order to ensure that they too are held accountable for their crimes that they commit.”

Atty. Mogul has been actively involved in litigation and organizing around the issue of police torture at the hands of the Chicago Police Department, even presenting some cases to the United Nations Committee Against Torture and Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland in 2006.

The UN officially defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

America's legacy of police torture

In Philadelphia, allegations of police torture and excessive force surrounded the tenure of Frank Rizzo, who served as police commissioner from 1967 to 1971, then later served two terms as mayor of the city from 1972 to 1980. Reporters for the Philadelphia Inquirer looking into allegations of abuse found that of the cases examined, many involved confessions that came after illegal interrogations.

After the televised 1991 Rodney King beating by members of the Los Angeles Police Department, a review board was set up to review the conduct and operation of the LAPD. The Independent Commission on the LAPD, also called the Christopher Commission, named after chairman, Warren Christopher, found widespread use of excessive force, and lack of disciplinary procedures within the department especially related to officers who were repeat offenders.

Later, in the 1990s the notorious “Rampart Scandal” found widespread corruption in the anti-gang unit of the LAPD called CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) It is estimated that approximately 140 settlements in civil suits cost the city over $125 million.

In the 1997 case of Abner Louima, NYPD officers, led by Justin Volpe, admitted to handcuffing and severely beating Mr. Louima with a nightstick and his fist on the way to the police station after an arrest. According to court records, later, in a police station bathroom, Mr. Volpe repeatedly kicked him in the testicles and sodomized him with a wooden plunger handle causing Mr. Louima to suffer internal bleeding, a perforated colon, a ruptured bladder, and several broken teeth after the plunger handle used to violate him was rammed into his mouth. Mr. Volpe, who is said to have bragged about the attack the day after it happened, was sentenced in 1999 to serve a 30-year jail sentence without the possibility of parole. Three other NYPD officers were found guilty on lesser charges related to the case. Mr. Louima won an $8.5 million settlement from the city of New York.

In November of 2007 a team led by Professor Craig Futterman of the University of Chicago Law School focused on the Chicago Police Department by analyzing statistical data dealing with systemic controls and disciplinary oversight of officers accused of misconduct. He found most complaints were found within special operations units assigned to neighborhoods with public housing developments in predominately Black and Latino communities where there is little economic or political power.

Specifically named in the report was a well-known group of rogue officers called “The Skullcap Crew” accused of terrorizing Chicago residents for years. Residents described seeing members of the Skullcap Crew “lining up a group of young Black men and kicking them in the testicles; ordering African-American men to strike Black women at the threat of arrest; strip searching African-American women and ridiculing their bodies; planting illegal drugs on innocent people; stealing money from and protecting drug dealers.”

“This is a systematic problem that grows out of their racist attitudes that are codified in the laws and then the racists enforce the laws that come from their poisoned perceptions,” said Abdullah Muhammad adding that the movement to tell the stories of the victims of police torture will continue to grow. “Minister Farrakhan wants this to be a national platform to uncover this evil, foul type of torture and torment that is going on in every state in America.”

Mr. Muhammad said the stories heard at the forum represent only the tip of the iceberg because there are many who were killed by police and others who were framed or confessed to crimes they did not commit and then died while in prison. Their stories will never be heard.

“We represent some of the torture victims who are so ashamed, they won't even come forth to testify. We speak for the voiceless, and those brothers who weren't blessed to escape the brutal police officers who desired their death,” he said.