Farewell to a fighter and a teacher

November 12, 2014

Marlene Martin of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty remembers the life of Darby Tillis, an exonerated death row prisoner and determined opponent of injustice.

SADLY, OUR good friend and comrade in struggle Darby Tillis--the first exonerated Illinois death row prisoner in the modern era of the death penalty--passed away on November 10 at the age of 71. He was a steadfast fighter for abolition. After being released from prison in 1987, along with his co-defendant Perry Cobb, Darby spent the entire rest of his life fighting for justice.

We will miss Darby terribly. To many of us, he was a teacher, someone who knew and could explain the criminal justice system from the inside out, and who worked passionately to expose it. Working alongside Darby in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty was an honor.

His full name was Jesse "Darby" Tillis, but we all knew him as Darby. It was so easy to grow fond of Darby, even with all his quirks and bouts of stubbornness--qualities that must have helped him survive an unjust imprisonment on death row.

Darby stood out in every way--it wasn't just his name that was unique. There was, for example, his signature attire: He always dressed all in black, often wearing a black cape, even in the summer, along with a black cap and black alligator boots. Instead of using the word prison, he would talk about the "the penitentiary for the poor." Referring to the corruption in Chicago's Cook County, he would instead call it "Crook County."

Darby Tillis
Darby Tillis

Darby was certainly one of a kind. For a long time, he drove around in an old limousine, and across the side, he had scrawled, "Thou shall not kill." But Darby was no joke, and none of what he did was for laughs. He wanted to shock people into paying attention. This is why he once strode through downtown Chicago in an orange prison jumpsuit, complete with chains, carrying a bullhorn calling for abolition--he called this walk "The Death Row Shuffle." He would do anything to draw attention to this cause. He was all guts and spitfire.

I heard Darby speak countless times over the years. In his characteristic low, raspy voice, Darby could hold audiences spellbound, telling them about how he had been "kidnapped, used and abused by the Illinois criminal justice system, and how he had been tried five times, "more than any other person in the history of the U.S." (Actually, along with Darby and Perry, this unique distinction also belongs to the Scottsboro Boys, African American youth from Jim Crow Alabama who were falsely accused of rape.)

What you can do

Per Darby's wishes, the funeral will be at Noble Funeral Home at 8158 South Exchange Ave. in Chicago. Visitation will be on Monday, November 17th from 4-8 p.m.. The funeral will be on Tuesday, November 18, at 10:30 a.m., with a wake beginning a half hour before.

There will be a procession following the funeral to the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, where Darby will be buried.

I NEVER heard Darby say he spent "nine years" in prison, or "just over nine years." He always gave people the precise amount of time, each time he spoke: "Nine years, one month and 17 days." Why? I'm not sure, but I think that he wanted to make it clear he knew exactly what had been stolen from him.

He was bitter about the years taken from him--how could he not be?--and you could feel that in him. And he wanted people to know those precious moments of his life--each and every day that was stolen--were times that he wasn't with his mom when she passed or wasn't able to help his daughter when she needed him. He wanted people to feel that--to try to have some understanding of what having part of their lives stolen is like. And he also wanted to make it known that he was keeping score.

Darby had been sent to prison by Judge Thomas Maloney, who was later found guilty of taking bribes to fix cases and was sent to prison for 15 years. Darby liked to include this fact in all of his presentations, too, since it's so rare for a judge, prosecutors or police to face any consequences for sending the wrong people to prison or death row.

At the end of one interview, Darby asked a journalist how it could be that the system was still doing the same exact thing it did to him all those many years ago--sending the wrong people to prison. He believed a big part of the reason it continued was because those who rule over the system never face any consequences for the miscarriages of justice they help to arrange.

I first heard Darby speak at a forum held by the International Socialist Organization in the early 1990s. The title of the panel was "The War on Poverty"--Darby was asked to speak on the connection of the criminal justice system. I was blown away by what I heard.

He was a street preacher, and he had the cadence, confidence and passion of the profession. But he also had something very unique, which was a relentless determination to hold the criminal injustice system accountable for the wrongs it had done to him and to so many others, and that it was still doing. He taught me, along with many others in the abolitionist community, so much about the unfair workings of the criminal justice system and its deep-seated racism.

Darby was at ground zero in the fight to win the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois, which we achieved in 2011. He also traveled on our national speaking tours on many occasions, rousing the audience and imploring people to join him in the fight against this injustice.

HE TALKED tough, and he was, but he was also deeply compassionate, caring and gentle. I don't think there was a single time that I talked with Darby when he didn't first ask how my family was.

He befriended family members who had loved ones in jail. He spent time with Martina Correia and Virginia Davis, the sister and mother of Troy Davis, the innocent Georgia death row prisoner who was executed in 2011. Darby drove to Atlanta to be with them for one of Troy's last execution dates. He sat with them, prayed with them and gave them comfort in an impossible time.

When Mark Clements, a victim of Chicago police torture, was finally released from Illinois prison after 28 years, he said it was Darby who took him under his wing, mentored him and looked after him. They became very fond of one another and spent a lot of time together. As Mark says, "He supported me--he encouraged me to stand up against wrong." Losing Darby leaves a "hole in my heart which will never be able to be filled," Mark said.

Several times, when Darby spoke at the Campaign to End the Death Penalty's annual conventions, he paid tribute to the work of the campaign, speaking thoughtfully and poetically about our accomplishments and why it was so important to stay the course.

It was through the Campaign that Darby would meet Cathy McMillan, who was fighting on behalf of her brother. Darby spent the last several years close to Cathy, whom he adored.

In later years, even when it was difficult for him to walk, he would still come out for events.

At the final big rally for Troy Davis in Atlanta, Darby was with us among the 3,000-person rally. He spoke to the audience and performed a rousing song he wrote for Troy Davis, titled "Let's Fight Together." The song pleaded with the authorities to do the right thing and free an innocent man. The lyrics were beautiful and the music upbeat, holding out the promise that we could win.

Darby was incredibly talented as a songwriter and harmonica player, and he absolutely loved the blues. You couldn't go on a road trip with Darby without him popping in the CD he recorded during the trip.

One of the last times I saw him was when he spoke out at a rally in Chicago to call for justice for Trayvon Martin. Darby could always be counted on to help in the struggle.

AFTER THE decades-long fight to win abolition in Illinois, Darby was careful to point out that the victory shouldn't just be laid at the feet of Gov. George Ryan, who first put a moratorium on the death penalty and then cleared death row by granting clemency to every prisoner. Nor should the lawyers and journalists get the credit solely--he reminded us that it was also pivotal what activists did. This is how he put it when I asked him about how we won abolition for an article for Socialist Worker:

We worked hard to get the ear of Governor Ryan, we got exonerated and family members out there, and he heard their pleas. We kept on and got the ears of the politicians to see our point, and as a result, we have destroyed this dinosaur. It shows that when we stand together and don't give up, we can win.

It's so different now compared to when we first started. People used to look at us like we were the culprits. Now they see us, and they want to stand with us. They say, "Hey, can I hold that picket sign?" and "Keep up the good work." People can see that the death penalty is senseless--it won't cure the ills in society. They can see the corrupt and flawed nature of the system.

I asked Darby what we abolitionists should say in a situation where the guilt of the defendant is certain. Here's how he responded:

I used to say I would kill him myself if I saw him do it. But I have had a change of heart on that. You have to look beyond the person to understand why they did what they did. In some of these communities in Chicago, they're so barren, so desolate--they're like a desert. When I go there, I feel nothing but pain and hurt. It feels deadly--there's such a lack of resources.

When you grow up and live in a community like that, you become subhuman, because you live like you're in a combat zone. Police are cruising around, and young men are out on the street with nothing to do in miserable circumstances. Just like the soldiers coming back from Iraq who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, so do the people in these desolate, crime-ridden, cop-patrolled communities.

They're battlegrounds, and you don't hear any of the politicians saying anything about it. These problems need to seriously be addressed and not just by a program or two--it needs to be deeper than that.

The article ended with a quote from Darby giving instructions to activists about what's next: "We have to align ourselves with people who want to build a safe and sound society. We've shown people what we can do when we come together. We can get justice if we work hard."

One of the best ways we can remember Darby is to bring a bit of his spitfire spirit into our fight for justice today. One of the last struggles he was concerned about was that of Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed, who faces an execution date in Texas on January 14. He had befriended Sandra Reed, the mother of Rodney and spoke of her as "an angel who was wounded by a system that doesn't give a damn about poor, colored people." Darby wasn't able to attend the Campaign's convention this year in Texas, but he was there in spirit the whole time.

To learn more about the fight for Rodney, please go to the Campaign to End the Death Penalty website.

Darby would be proud to know that we will carry on with this fight, standing tall, and feeling him holding us up from behind.

Further Reading

From the archives