Voices from the struggle
January 31, 2003 | Pages 7 to 10
Our cause right now is to remember the guys from the Death Row 10 who remain in prison. I don't want to forget about them. And the guys who aren't one of the 10, but are innocent, too.
Tomorrow will be a week since I've been free from death row, and although I'm happy, I'm not completely happy, because I left some friends behind, and I think they should be out here.
Sixteen years ago, I was falsely accused of setting a fire to my apartment building in the middle of the night. I lost my wife and child. Sixteen years ago, I had no idea about this. But I have a story to tell. I'm on a mission--a mission to end this death penalty. We have to keep working the fields and educating people, because there are a lot of people who are ignorant out there.
Oprah Winfrey said yesterday that she changed her mind, and she was very conservative. We had a little session on her show that actually was mocking Governor Ryan at first, and when they showed the families of the victims calling him all kinds of names, it hurt. But by the time it was over, the guys who were mocking Ryan were changing their minds.
It's ugly what they did to me. But the whole world knows now.
Excerpted from a speech at a January 16 forum in Chicago.
On January 10, 2003, after hearing two days of rumors that George Ryan was planning on giving out a handful of pardons and that my case was one of them, I sat anxiously in front of the TV awaiting Ryan's announcement.
He began by highlighting and denouncing a host of serious problems that led to four wrongful convictions--problems ranging from police torture in obtaining confessions, to unreliable witnesses and evidence, to prosecutor and judicial misconduct, to ineffective assistance of counsel. Then he proceeded to pardon Madison Hobley, Aaron Patterson, Leroy Orange and myself--four members of the Death Row 10.
No words could ever express how excited and happy I was at that very moment, but my happiness quickly turned to pure anger and sadness. Angry at the fact that it took 18 long years of suffering and facing death to be proven innocent. Angry that I wasn't going to be released that day with the other three exonerated Death Row 10 members because I had yet another case to fight--a case which Ryan openly expressed willingness to pardon based on evidence of actual innocence had I filed a clemency petition in that case also.
Saddened that only four were being pardoned when I personally know the number should have been much higher. And saddened that I was leaving guys who I view as family behind with an uncertain future, trapped in a broken system of death.
We cannot allow this momentum to die. We must continue to turn up the heat in every state. They say death row--but Governor Ryan said, "Hell no!"
Excerpted from Stanley's "Keeping It Real" column for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty's newsletter, The New Abolitionist.
The 13th of January will mark my 19th year being incarcerated. Thank god that I'll celebrate that at home.
I'm tired. It feels like 19 years of war. Every time you think the lawyers filed a motion or something against Burge and his crew, something else comes up.
I didn't even believe I was pardoned until I walked out the door. I wouldn't allow myself to dream or fantasize that I could be so blessed. But I was.
And now we have to do what we have to do to get the rest of the guys that were tortured out of prison. I'm not going to speak about the work we have to do. So you let me know what I have to do, and I'll be there.
From a speech at a January 14 forum in Chicago.
It feels very sweet. It feels good to be walking about and having freedom. But at the same time, we left a lot of brothers behind--brothers like Cortez Brown, Ronald Kitchen, Ronald Kliner. These are some of my friends that I felt should have gotten pardons also. These are innocent men, and I feel like a part of me is still there with them.
My whole program is that I'm going to throw that rope there to these brothers, like other brothers should have done who got off death row. We can't just idly sit back and allow this system to continue to house us when we know we're not supposed to be there. It's terrible being locked up in prison, let alone death row, when you know you're innocent.
I couldn't pinpoint one particular issue that made the governor do the right thing, but we had people working in the back channels. I agree that we have to make a concerted effort with the grassroots organizations. But at the same time, the grassroots organizations must make some changes and adjustments in how they attack this system--and not just do what they usually expect to do.
I'm not here for any pep rallies. If we have a big meeting where there's 100-some people, we have to ask for specifics on what we need to do--and then go out there and do it.
We've been asking for somebody to listen to us, and George Ryan has given us that. To me, it's another chance to keep fighting.
We can celebrate. The four pardons are something to celebrate--just like the moratorium was something to celebrate. The clemency is something to celebrate, because a lot of guys were on their last legs--and if the moratorium was going to be lifted, they were going to be executed.
But at the same time, we have to remember that those four guys aren't the only guys who are innocent, or who were tortured by Jon Burge. There's quite a few other guys back here with the same issues that we have to continue to fight for. We might be left behind, but we aren't forgotten.
I've always said that it wasn't about me or even the Death Row 10, but all the individuals. I can't simply say that I'm innocent, but leave another innocent man behind. To me, the fight was always bigger than Ronald Kitchen.
So it's going to continue to be a fight for justice for the Death Row 10, and a fight for those who don't have that issue, but were under the same duress as we were. The fight is bigger--and it's going to continue to get bigger.
Clearly, the fact that opened Ryan's eyes was the incredible number of innocent people who were on death row and the very miraculous circumstances through which they were freed. Those circumstances led him to understand that we hadn't necessarily even hit the tip of the iceberg--that there was every reason to believe there were a great many others who had not been exposed yet.
And the other very significant fact that he came to understand was that a system that was so profoundly bad at deciding who was guilty and innocent was hardly a system that could be trusted to determine, even among the guilty, who should live and who should die.
There's no question that the key factor was the exonerations--that's what got to him. Until that, he thought he understood the death penalty. He thought he supported it, and he wasn't interested in the fact that other people disagreed. And I think that's a real significant message that we have to open people's minds with the facts, and that can lead them to question things that they otherwise had taken as givens.
The prosecutors and other people in the community have refused to take seriously the lessons that we're learning about the flaws in the system. They may want to pretend that the system is working, and that business as usual is fine, but the fact is that we are in a crisis. And George Ryan sent that message loud and clear--that the crisis is extreme and intolerable.
Once just a dirty little secret known by a handful of officials, now it's out in the open that a group of African American men were tortured by Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and railroaded to death row by a broken system. Even Oprah Winfrey has allowed these men to talk on her show about how they were electro-shocked, suffocated and beaten into making false confessions.
A week ago, we couldn't get anyone to listen to these guys, but now that Governor Ryan has become "a friend to Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard, Aaron Patterson and Leroy Orange," the whole world wants them to talk about their night of horror in Burge's torture chamber.
And contrary to the way that the media has spun it, this isn't power reaching its hand down and liberating these guys, but death row inmates reaching out to activists who together grabbed the yokes of power and kicked the door off of death row.
This struggle is far from over. The newly released prisoners continue to remind us of who they left behind. Stanley Howard is still caught in prison on another bogus case. And we must take up the banner for Death Row 10 members Ronald Kitchen, Cortez Brown, Grayland Johnson and the others who weren't pardoned.
Justice will only be served when all of the Death Row 10 get new trials and Illinois' death penalty is abolished once and for all.
People who say that Governor Ryan did the wrong thing by commuting death sentences of the men and women on death row don't understand the issues.
My case is a clear example. There was no evidence, no motive, nothing written down or signed. Yet a jury deliberated less than three hours before finding me guilty. You can't trust even juries, because juries aren't always getting the full information. And that's the problem with the people on the streets today--they're not getting the full information.
Governor Ryan did study all of these cases. He did understand what the problems are. The problem that certain judges aren't issuing proper rulings guaranteeing the rights of defendants. The problem that police perjure themselves. The problem that they coach witnesses to say things that they didn't see, just to get convictions. These are the problems.
Ryan did the right thing. But it's just a start. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court saw the problems in the whole system nationwide and abolished the death penalty. Four years later, it said, "Okay, you've seen what the problems are, you think you've fixed it, try again."
But they tried again, and things have gotten worse. The mistakes are coming faster, harder and worse. Nothing's changing from within the system. We need to override the system to bring justice back to the people and spare people's lives.
The first thing we feel is happy and relieved--that we don't have this hanging over our head. It gives us hope that, now that we're not working against a ticking clock, we'll have more time to work on Raul's appeal.
The other thing that we're hopeful about is that this will draw more attention to the whole situation of how these guys end up on death row so easily--how easily they're convicted. Hopefully, the politicians won't be so afraid to really look into the system.
It's great that they're off death row, but still, when you think of the other sentence of life without parole, it's just terrible.
I'm hopeful that Raul can have a better chance of going through his appeals process--and hopefully somewhere down the line, we'll get a new trial and will get him out of there. But the other thing that seems so important is that somebody really looked into the system. There's no way now, after what Ryan did, that they can't not look at the system. They try to ignore it as much as they can, but how can you ignore it now?