On Thursday, April 1, after more than thirty years trapped in Illinois prisons, Gerald Reed, a Chicago police torture survivor, may get a chance to win his freedom. He should never have seen a day behind bars. His case is being heard in front of the new Chief Judge of Cook County. Under review are the conflicts of interest of judges and prosecutors in Cook County who have connections with Burge cases. Winning justice for survivors who are still behind bars requires an ongoing struggle.
On October 4, 1990, Gerald Reed was arrested and taken to the now notorious Area 3 police station in Chicago. Under the supervision of disgraced former commander Jon Burge, detectives Michael Kill and Victor Breska beat Gerald so badly that they broke a metal rod in his leg, displaced the screws and the rod, and fractured his femur. On that day in the Area 3 police station Gerald signed a false statement. Gerald explained later in testimony, “Well, I thought I had no other choice. I actually—I was actually intimidated, scared and afraid. And I signed it really under duress.”
Meanwhile, Michael Goldston of the Chicago Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards submitted his report just days earlier on September 28, 1990, to the OPS chief administrator, Gayle Shines. The twenty-five-page report summarized an investigation into allegations of torture that occurred for years at Area 2 police station, under the command of Jon Burge: “The type of abuse described was not limited to the usual beating, but went into such esoteric areas as psychological techniques and planned torture.” Goldston’s report concluded, “In the matter of alleged physical abuse, the preponderance of the evidence is that abuse did occur and that it was systemic.” Less than a week after this report was submitted, Gerald Reed was arrested and tortured into signing a false confession.
It is now widely known that for decades, Burge and his henchmen tortured at least 120 men and women. When Burge moved from Area 2 to Area 3 in 1988, he took his techniques of torture and intimidation with him. As early as 1992, a judge struck down a confession obtained at Area 3 in an “atmosphere [that] must have been horrendously oppressive.” Overwhelmingly, their victims were African American. Electric shock, suffocation by bagging, Russian roulette, and severe beatings were among the ways the “midnight crew” extracted false confessions from suspects.
OPS chief administrator Shines would later send Goldston’s report to Chicago Police Superintendent Leroy Martin in November 1990. Martin and then-mayor Richard M. Daley suppressed the report until February 1992, when they were forced to publicly release it by order of a federal judge. Had this report been taken seriously the day it was filed, one might think the police officers involved, would, at the least, be suspended from duty in order to prevent future acts of torture and abuse. However, despite finding “systemic” abuse, the report was hidden from the public, and Burge and CPD officers continued to torture and intimidate suspects into false confessions.
The Goldston report, which was forced into the public eye, was the first public acknowledgement from the Chicago Police Department that torture occurred in its police stations from 1973 onward. This report and the resulting public outcry were followed by decades of additional reports, investigations, legal fights, and demands for relief to address the torture. Nonetheless, Gerald Reed remains imprisoned thirty-one years later based on a false confession.
Gerald’s case demonstrates how the system continues to fail survivors of police torture in Chicago. Gerald has taken advantage of every legal remedy available to him, even winning a new trial, only to have freedom snapped back from him.
The work of public defenders and legal teams, community organizations, and activists all brought the issue of Chicago police torture to light. While Burge was forced off the job in 1993, cops who tortured alongside him remained and survivors continued to serve out their wrongful convictions based on coerced confessions. In the decades that followed, the struggle for police torture survivors continued.
In May 2015, the movement secured a historic victory in a Reparations Ordinance—including an apology from the city and financial compensation to survivors and their families. This milestone was a long time coming: Burge’s firing had followed a campaign by police watchdog group Citizens Alert and others. After his removal from the CPD, activists turned to the individual cases of survivors that were mounting their first appeals with claims of torture. The Aaron Patterson Defense Committee formed around Patterson’s post-conviction proceedings in 1996. The Campaign to End the Death Penalty began corresponding with survivors of Burge’s torture who were on Illinois’ death row who called themselves “The Death Row 10.” Families, friends and activists held pickets, meetings, and packed courtrooms for members in their appeals. When a push to end the death penalty in Illinois led then-governor George Ryan to empty death row by commuting all sentences to life, he pardoned four members of the Death Row 10, freeing three of them in 2003. Burge himself finally faced trial in 2010 and spent four years in federal prison for perjury for lying about the torture that took place.
While reparations represent a long-fought struggle for official recognition of the staggering injustice of systemic torture, dozens of survivors remain in prison. As survivors continued to play out their cases in the Cook County courts, conflicts of interest among judges and attorneys became more and more clear as state’s attorneys who prosecuted survivors of torture later became judges overseeing torture claims.
Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine had represented Burge in court and later became the State’s Attorney of Cook County in 1996. Dozens of community groups and leaders signed onto petitions to the court demanding the assignment of a prosecutor without a conflict of interest. In 2003, Cook County Chief Judge Biebel severed ties between the CCSA office and the post-conviction proceedings of torture survivors.
But even current special prosecutors specifically assigned to eliminate conflicts of interest in the torture cases have histories of defending torturers and covering up claims. In Gerald’s case, Robert Milan, the special prosecutor, previously worked for Devine’s state’s attorney office and had connections to other Burge cases. Milan was in the CCSA office from 1986 to 2003, becoming Devine’s first assistant from 2003–2008. Devine endorsed Milan to replace him as CCSA. As Devine’s first assistant and chief of felony review, it is impossible that Milan didn’t have connections to Burge cases that were working appeals through the courts. Furthermore, the CCSA office never attempted to investigate the police involved in the torture and continued to prosecute cases with the use of false confessions. In 2017, attorneys from the People’s Law Office, lawyers at the forefront of the Burge legal battles, called for the removal of Milan from the special prosecutor’s office. They told the Tribune, “We feel that it is imperative, given the sordid history of the Cook County State’s Attorneys’ Office . . . in the Burge torture cases—failing to hold Burge accountable let alone acknowledge people were tortured—that the Special Prosecutor in these scandal-tainted cases be completely independent from that history.”
For Gerald, it was decades before he received the necessary surgery to correct the physical harm and pain in his leg. To this day, Gerald continues to heal and to fight his unjust conviction and life sentence. Despite the decades since the torture under Burge came to light and decades that Gerald Reed has spent in prison, he is still waiting for justice.
In 2012, the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission found sufficient evidence of torture in Gerald’s case that it was sent back to the Cook County Court for review. The case was assigned to Judge Thomas Gainer, who held a lengthy evidentiary hearing that included thousands of pages of documents and a week of witness testimony.
Before making his decision, Gainer stated to all assembled in the crowded courtroom: “I just want to start off by suggesting to the lawyers that the litigation is over. I’m making a ruling. There is no debate. If one side or the other is unhappy with my ruling, then that side will have further recourse.” Gainer threw out the false statement, and Reed was granted a new trial in December of 2018. Following his decision, Gainer retired, and the case was assigned to Judge Hennelly.
Incredibly, Hennelly vacated Gainer’s ruling, reinstated Gerald’s conviction and life sentence and returned him to prison—after fourteen months of judicial dancing. Hennelly illegally vacated his fellow court judge’s ruling. As an amicus brief filed by the Illinois Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, states, “No party may take a Circuit Court judge’s final order and take the issue to another Circuit Court judge in any manner not prescribed by our Illinois Constitution, which unfortunately is exactly what amici contends happened when this Honorable Court made its rulings back on February 14, 2020.”
All of the remedies to torture that had come up to that point—the special prosecutors, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, the reparations, the lawsuits—still could not resolve the injustice done to Gerald Reed. On April 1, Gerald’s case will be in front of Cook County Judge Erika Reddick to consider remedies to the obvious conflicts of interest Milan and Hennelly brought to Reed’s case. The spirit of the petition that established the special prosecutor’s office was to eliminate conflicts of interest between the Cook County State’s Attorney and remaining survivors of CPD torture and wrongful conviction. Will justice be found in Cook County?
Gerald and his supporters have called for a rally outside of the courthouse Thursday. Gerald said, “You can support me and others by showing up to court. [Prosecuting this case] has been taking too much taxpayers’ money, and it needs to be stopped. They can do better with that money by spending it on other problems we have in the city. This is isn’t just about me—I do this for all of the torture survivors.” One thing organizers fighting for justice for Burge survivors know is that what we do on the outside of the prison walls and courthouse is crucial to bringing light and justice to the survivors.
Sarah Wild and Gerald Reed contributed to this article.