A free man at last

Marlene Martin of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty spends a day with Marvin Reeves--a victim of Chicago police torturers who was finally exonerated and freed.

Marvin Reeves stands outside the apartment building where Chicago police snatched him in the middle of the night 21 years ago (Marlene Martin | SW)Marvin Reeves stands outside the apartment building where Chicago police snatched him in the middle of the night 21 years ago (Marlene Martin | SW)

"THAT'S ALL I want," says Marvin Reeves. He points to a man outside the Hilton in downtown Chicago, cleaning the building's lights. "That's all I need is a job like that. Keep the lights clean, do my job and keep to myself. That would be real nice."

It's a simple request from a man who deserves to demand a whole lot more from life.

Marvin Reeves was released from prison on July 7, 2009, after spending more than 21 years locked up for a crime he didn't commit. He and his co-defendent Ronnie Kitchen were victims of the notorious gang of police torturers led by former Lt. Jon Burge. It took more than two decades for the "justice" system to accept that they were innocent all along, and let them go free.

Now, he's sitting back in the car as we ride through his old neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago--where he was snatched up at the age of 29. He's now 50.

Marvin points out the changes in the neighborhood with surprise and disappointment. He insists that I pull over at 47th and Michigan so we can get out and look at a padlocked building with broken and boarded-up windows. "This was the Rosenwald apartment complex," Marvin says. "This used to be real nice. In the middle of the building, there was a courtyard, with flowers where you could just sit and hang out."

As we drive on, he points out spots where a bowling alley once stood, a restaurant, a mechanic shop--today, the lots are vacant.

"I grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes," he says. "All of them are torn down now." Seeing the site of the old projects jolts a favorite memory of his, though:

I'll never forget Reverend Dumont taking us on a weekend camping trip one summer. I had never done anything like that, and it was like--wow, this is so cool. He went out of his way to raise money from the church to take these poor Black kids that didn't get to go anywhere all summer long--he made sure we went on this weekend camping trip to show us another side of life. I'll never forget that--it made such an impression on me.

As we drive down the side streets of his old neighborhood, he points out something that is new--speed bumps in the street. "I bet you all don't have these in your neighborhood," he says. "Know why there are all these speed bumps? So when the police are chasing the drug dealers down the street, they can catch them," and he breaks into a belly laugh.

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MARVIN TELLS me to pull into an alley, and we get out of the car. He points to a boarded-up window of another large brick apartment complex. "This was where the bedroom was," he says. "It was my sister Sonya's apartment, and I stayed there sometimes. I worked just around the block at a mechanic's shop, and I would come here and park my car right here, outside the bedroom window, so I could see the car."

He goes back in time to the day--August 26, 1988:

It was 4 o'clock in the morning when the cops knocked on the door, and my sister Sonya went to answer it. She unlocked the door, but before she could open it, they busted the door in and broke her toe.

She started screaming--that's what woke me up. The next thing I knew, there were two cops at my bedroom door, guns drawn and pointing at me, yelling, "Nigger, if you move, I'll blow your fucking brains out." I had no idea what was going on.

Cops had been following me around--I noticed that, but I didn't think too much of it because I wasn't doing anything wrong. But now I was thinking the worst. We knew of guys who showed up dead behind some bushes in the neighborhood, and all we knew was that the police had showed up at their house a few days before and taken them outside. So I wasn't sure what was going to happen to me.

They were yelling at my girlfriend to shut up. She was asking if I could at least put on some clothes. They said no. Then they handcuffed my hands behind my back and shackled my feet together and they just lifted me up like that and carried me out of the house just like that--without any clothes on at all. They put me in the back of the paddy wagon. And I wasn't free until 21 years later.

I take Marvin's picture outside this window and ask why he's holding his hands stretched all the way out. He yells exuberantly, "Because I'm a free man, I'm a free man!"

A couple guys in the neighborhood see Marvin and I walking around the abandoned complex and holler out to see what we're doing. Marvin answers, "It's cool. I was just showing this white lady (Marvin likes to refer to me as "this white lady") who's doing a documentary where I was picked up 21 years ago."

He gives them a thumbnail sketch of his ordeal and explains the overwhelming police presence. "There were cops all on top of the building--on the roof, and up over here on the El tracks. I guess they wanted to make sure that if I tried to run free, they could be sure to shoot me dead."

One of the men gets a broad smile across his face and walks toward Marvin. "Oh wow, hey man, I recognize you," he says. "You were just on Channel 2 News, weren't you? Yeah, man, I saw you on TV." He gives Marvin a hug and handshake, and he says, "Congratulations man. That's fantastic you got out."

The men invite us in to see the work they're doing on a rehab. We walk inside for a little tour. Marvin is easy with them, joking and laughing. I can see why his sisters constantly say that Marvin is the type of guy everybody liked.

As we walk away, Marvin says, "It feels good when someone recognizes the wrong that happened to you and they feel good for you, that feels good."

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WHEN I talked to Deena, one of Marvin's five sisters, I asked her if she had any doubt that Marvin committed the crime he was convicted for--the murder of five people, two women and three of their children.

"No, I never did," Deena says immediately. "Do you know why? Because in all the years we were growing up and all the time I was with him, I never saw him raise a hand to his kids or to anybody in his family. So I knew he couldn't have done this crime."

After he was dragged from the apartment, Marvin was beaten by Chicago police under the command of Jon Burge. So was his co-defendant Ronnie Kitchen. Burge and the white officers and detectives he commanded are known to have used torture techniques against as many as 200 African American and Latino suspects--suffocation with a typewriter cover; electrical shocks to sensitive areas, including their genitals; Russian roulette; and savage beatings.

Unlike Marvin, Ronnie signed a false confession to the crime. "I never held it against him," Marvin says. "I was a bigger guy, I could take it--I weighed over 200 pounds. Ronnie, he was a little thing, like 150 pounds. They just beat on him. I could hear him screaming down the hall."

Deena adds, "It wasn't his fault that he signed a confession. What was he supposed to do? It was the cops that were wrong."

Paula, the sister closest in age to Marvin, remembers how awful it was to have her brother falsely accused in court:

It wasn't until the first day of the trial that I realized how bad it was--when I heard the prosecutors speaking at his trial, and I realized they were really going for my brother, and he might go to prison. You have to understand--we were a religious family, so we were praying, and we thought God would do the right thing. I went to the trial every day, but I didn't go the day they read the verdict, and I'm glad I didn't. I got the call from my sisters, and they were all crying. It was so horrible.

Marvin remembers that the prosecutors tried to find people to smear his character at the trial. He says:

When I was in jail, waiting to go to trial, people in the neighborhood told me about a couple of white lawyers who were asking around about me--asking about what type of guy I was. Those were the prosecutors. It made me feel so good that when they went around to ask people, no one would say a bad word about me--not one person.

Even though there was no evidence except the false confession tortured from his co-defendant and the testimony of a jailhouse snitch, it was enough to send Marvin Reeves to a jail cell with a life without the possibility of parole sentence.

"I don't fault the jury," Marvin says. "They heard all the lies presented as truth--what else do you expect them to do? The system is rigged. The prosecution has all the money to present their case, and what do I have? Nothing. So it's my word against that of the police officers. Guess who they're going to believe?"

I ask Paula about her thoughts about the criminal justice system, before and after Marvin was picked up. She says:

Oh, they're totally different. Back then, I just totally believed in the justice system. I thought America was great, a great democracy. I would see some of these things on TV that happened to people, but I would think there's a one-in-a-million chance that something like that would happen. Then it happened to us, and all of what I thought completely changed. When you go through it and live it, it completely changes what you think of the justice system.

Marvin's family is big--five sisters, three brothers, and all very close. "We didn't really need to make other friends because our family was so big," Deena explains, "We just all hung out with each other. When Marvin went to prison we stood by him and made sure he had a visit every week. I could see how that helped him. Other guys who didn't have that might give up--we didn't want him to give up."

I ask Marvin what it was like the day he found out he was being released. Marvin says:

I was told I had a phone call, and I was brought from my cell to the sergeant's office to take it. It was my lawyer, and he said I got some good news and some bad news for you, what do you want first? I told him to go ahead and give me the bad news first, because I'd had so much bad news with my appeals being denied that I just knew I would need some good news if I was going to hear bad news like that.

So he told me Michael Jackson died. Then I asked him what the good news was, and he said, "You're going home tomorrow." I just dropped the phone and got tears in my eyes. I couldn't even speak. I could hear him on the other end of the phone, saying, "Marvin, are you there? Are you there?"

I was just in shock. To hear those words after so long--you just don't know how it feels. I waited for that day for so long.

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JON BURGE was fired in 1993 for his role in the torture of one of the 200 suspects, a man named Andrew Wilson. Burge was forced into early retirement, but the city of Chicago has been paying his pension ever since. For more than 10 years, he has enjoyed his senior years living in Florida, periodically fishing on his boat, which he named "The Vigilante."

On May 6, Burge will go on trial in Chicago on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury--for lying under oath that he had no knowledge of torture. No other officers or detectives have ever faced criminal charges for the torture they committed.

Asked how he feels about Burge going on trail, Marvin says this, "I'd like to see him go to jail. This man committed some horrible crimes, and America needs to stand up and do the right thing. For too long, it's done the wrong thing. The judges, the police officers, the state's attorneys--they all just sat back and did nothing and let this happen."

Marvin refers to former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who declared a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000--and then, just before leaving office in 2003, freed four of Burge's victims from death row and commuted the sentence of every other death row prisoner.

"You know what Governor George Ryan said--the system is not only broken, but irreparable. What they need to do is to send this man to jail to let the other cops know this stuff isn't going to be tolerated--that there are going to be consequences."

Marvin also talks about the climate of racism that could produce someone like Burge--who was raised in the all-white neighborhood of Bridgeport, where current Chicago Mayor Richard Daley also came from. As Marvin says:

Do you know where he came from? He grew up in Bridgeport. That's Klan country. He grew up fearing and hating Black people. He looked down on us like he was better. That's how it is in Bridgeport. That's the whole mentality there--that the white race is better and that Black people are less than human.

Paula nods in agreement. "It was scary to go near there," she said. "Even in broad daylight, you knew not to go there. That's where Burge lived. And then he went to Vietnam, too, and that's where he learned all the ways of torturing people."

Exonerated prisoners, family members of those in prison, and criminal justice activists are organizing a demonstration at Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago on May 6--to call out the torturers and demand justice for the remaining two dozen victims of police torture who are still incarcerated in various Illinois prisons. Marvin will be a speaker at the protest.

Paula points out the importance of the protests over many years that helped free Marvin and Ronnie. "What you all did--getting out there and making the noise and speaking out--that made all the difference," she says. "They couldn't keep hiding. I think if you all didn't get out there and do that, some of those guys would be dead--don't you think? My brother might still be locked up."

Marvin chimes in. "Yeah," he says, "if it wasn't for what you all did--the activists and the folks at Northwestern Law School and the People's Law Office and my lawyers at Mayer Brown Rowe and Maw--if it wasn't for you all, we would still be in prison. I've got no doubt about that at all."