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Crime Thu Jul 01 2010
[This article was submitted by freelance journalist Michael Volpe.]
"Nigger boy, you gonna cooperate?" a 220lb. Chicago police officer screamed as he pounded on the chest of 16-year-old, 120lb. Mark Clements. As the beating continued, pain shot out from Clements' chest and exploded into the rest of his body. He gasped for air, struggling to breathe, in excruciating pain. Clements say the officer, whom he identifies as John McCann, had a way of getting his knuckles to the tenderest part of the bone.
Clements could barely read. He hadn't even finished seventh grade but he was smart enough to know what the cops wanted. They wanted Clements to confess to an arson that occurred at 6600 S. Wentworth six days earlier. The beating went on like this for nearly 30 minutes, but still Clements remained stubborn. He'd gotten into enough fights in the neighborhood to be able to withstand a beating.
Clements remained quiet and refused to give in even as welts grew in his chest from the officer's fists cracking his bones. Then, they stopped hitting Clements. Instead, Clements says, McCann grabbed his balls and squeezed. This was a pain he'd never experienced before. There was only one thing that would stop it.
"Yeah, yeah, I'll cooperate," Clements said, in unbearable pain. That's how Mark Clements remembers and recounted that night nearly 30 years after it occurred (neither the Chicago Police Department nor the Cook County State's Attorney's office would respond to requests for comment for this article). A few hours later, at about 2am on the morning of June 26th 1981, Mark Clements would sign a confession to an arson at 6600 S. Wentworth six days earlier that killed four people. A year and a half later he'd get four life sentences and become the youngest person in the history of the state of Illinois to receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Fighting Against Torture
These days, Mark Clements is going to graduate school for Sociology at Northwestern University. He's engaged to be married and he's an activist, both in his personal and professional lives. He works for the National Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression and the No Death Penalty Organization. He also works on a number of campaigns for prison reforms, and specifically he's championed the causes of Stanley Wrice and Stanley Howard. Both, Clements says, are imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit.
Clements' saga connects him to one of the most horrifying scandals in Chicago's modern history, the alleged torture ring of former police captain Jon Burge. Burge was recently convicted of perjury charges related to a campaign of torture in Chicago starting in 1972 and ending in 1992. Clements is one of Burge's victims, though Burge himself didn't torture Clements. From that torture grew a life of activism for reform in prisons, the police, and our political system at large. That 16-year-old near illiterate who was tortured and convicted of crimes he didn't commit has turned into a 44-year-old man who on May 24th addressed a crowd of nearly 5,000 at the Daley Center and demanded that Chicago's Mayor Richard M. Daley resign for his role in the Burge tortures. (It was Daley's Cook County State's Attorney office that prosecuted many of these individuals from 1981 to 1989) While Clements hasn't merely survived but ultimately thrived since his ordeal, he's adamant that Chicagoans continue to demand answers because justice has still not been served.
Set Up at 16
It was the summer of 1981 and Mark Clements was 16 and in desperate need of direction. He was living a life that was going to leave him another statistic of the difficult streets of Chicago's Southeast Side. He hadn't gone to school regularly for the last two years. He had a seventh grade education and could barely read. He spent most of his time loitering in his neighborhood.
One day that summer he went to his aunt's home to play with his cousins. His aunt was also taking care of a foster child, Ramona Patton. Unbeknownst to Clements, Patton had spent time in juvenile detention for killing a playmate a few years earlier. Clements cousins were playing double dutch with Patton when he arrived at his aunt's home. As Clements watched, he noticed that some money dropped out of Patton's pocket. Clements, in an inconspicuous manner, stepped on the cash and put about $20 in his pocket. When Patton noticed the money missing, she accused everyone there including Clements. Patton screamed expletives and accusations mercilessly at the rest of the group but she was unable to get Clements to confess to his crimes. What Clements didn't know was that Patton would soon exact revenge.
A week later, Clements was back visiting his aunt when Patton approached him and asked him to buy her some cigarettes. Clements made his way to the nearest convenience store and was approaching the counter to make his purchase when he could hear Patton screaming, "Officers, that's him." Then, Clement saw a man running at him from the back of the convenience store, and he took off. Two officers, Virgil Jones and Aaron Gibson, finally apprehended him in front of his aunt's house minutes later, supposedly for trespassing. What Clements didn't yet know was that Patton had in fact fingered him for an arson that occurred in the neighborhood almost a week prior.
At the police station, Clements was transferred from Gibson and Jones into the custody of officers John McWeeny and John McCann. That's when Clements first learned that he was also suspected of an arson that led to four deaths six days prior. According to Clements, shortly after midnight, McCann began torturing him. After twenty minutes of escalating brutality, Clements confessed. Minutes later, a prosecutor from the Cook County State's Attorney's office named Kevin Moore entered the interrogation room to take Clements' statement. At that point, Clements retracted his statement, accused McCann of torture, and said that his mother hadn't been called. Startled, Moore left the room and Clements says he could see Moore conferring with McCann. Minutes later, McCann reappeared.
"Are you trying to get me in trouble with my boss?!" Clements remembers McCann proclaiming. Clements then says McCann repeated the process and tortured yet another confession out of Clements. From there, Clements remembers a series of police officers entering and exiting the interrogation room and he remembers them all working together with him to make sure that his confession was airtight and would stand all scrutiny in a courtroom. In the middle of the night, Clements says he signed that fateful confession and this confession would be the single biggest piece of evidence in his conviction more than a year later.
In fact, the police, in a scene right from Casablanca, rounded up three youths from the neighborhood: Clements, James Robinson and Kenneth Miner. They accused each of the three of setting fire weeks earlier with another individual, referred to as "Jamaican Boy." (It's been determined since that Jamaican Boy doesn't exist) Both Robinson and Miner would eventually pass lie detector tests and not be charged with anything, even though Clements' confession implicated all four (including the nonexistent individual) in the arson and resulting deaths.
Clements testified to the torture at his trial but his testimony did little to sway the jury. Both McCann and McWeeny were highly decorated officers, and they denied any wrongdoing at the same trial. The jury, as is often the case, believed the officers. Upon his conviction, Mark Clements became the youngest person in the history of the state to receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. What he didn't know at the time, however, was that his torture was part of a much larger criminal conspiracy all led by Jon Burge.
A History of Torture
Allegations of torture against Burge first surfaced in the early 1970s when Anthony Holmes first alleged that Burge tortured him during an interrogation. They first gained widespread media attention when accused cop killers Andrew and Jackie Wilson made similar allegations. For Clements, and most in the prison system in Illinois, the Burge torture conspiracy was discovered through an entirely different media platform. Clements says he discovered the criminal conspiracy simply by chatting up other inmates also waiting for court hearings in the "bullpen." After hearing dozens of stories like his own a pattern emerged. All the tortures just happened to take place in Area 2 and 3, run by Burge. The prison media system also was privy to information the public hadn't yet been made aware of. All the torture victims were minorities and all the torturers themselves were white. Clements says that racism was integral to the torture ring. "Burge used words like nigger and negro and it was quite common. Everyone knew it."
Clements says his innocence fed his sense of hope. "In prison, everyone has hope." Still, with a confession-based conviction to content with, Clements faced an uphill battle. Once he was convicted, overturning that conviction required proving his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. That required investigative and legal resources he didn't have. So while appeals to get him released were made throughout his incarceration, those appeals, led by the public defender's office, would prove fruitless until the end. So, he began adjusting to prison life. He called the first few years "easy." Clements says that in the first decade plus of his prison sentence, prison rules were lax. He describes the environment as something akin to a frat house, with inmates hanging out together at all times at night. In 1982, he first began working toward his GED because a GED would qualify him for a coveted job in the prison library. That year, he also sat down for his first in prison interview with ABC Channel 7's Dianne Lawson. Clements says he told Lawson the whole story though he doesn't remember the final piece, which he watched in prison, running any portion of his torture recollection. Instead, it's a quote from someone else also interviewed for that piece that's still seared in his memory — then Cook County State's Attorney Richard M. Daley.
Referring to Clements, Daley said, "That juvenile will never get out of jail."
Rather than depressing and deflating Clements, he says Daley's words motivated him. By 1985, he'd completed his GED. With that, he also began working in the prison library. There, he was first introduced to the National Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression, which maintained a desk in the library. It was the NAARPR that introduced Clements to the world of activism. In 1986, Mark Clements began his life as an activist. His first campaign was on behalf of Paula Cooper, a 15-year-old in Indiana that was given the death penalty for killing a priest. Clements wrote letters and signed petitions all on behalf of Cooper. It worked, as later that year the Governor of Indiana commuted Cooper's sentence to life without parole.
For the remainder of his years in prison Clements participated in a series of campaigns on such things as improving dining facility, better health care in prison, and abolishing the death penalty. Clements would write letters, sign petitions, participate in food strikes, and even phone in from prison to rallies being held outside. He also lobbied on his own behalf. Clements says he wrote repeatedly to the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Julian Bond, Louis Farrakhan and dozens of local and national politicians asking all for assistance with his case. Clements says that most of his letters went unanswered, and short of Ben Jealous of the NAACP, no celebrity he wrote to came to his aid.
Burge Gains Attention
By the end of the 1980s, Clements had finished his associate's degree and had even gotten married in prison. More importantly, the media in Chicago had evolved. New ownership at the Chicago Tribune gave reporters more freedom. Three Tribune crime reporters, Steve Mills, Ken Armstrong and Maurice Posley, used that newfound freedom to blow the lid of the Jon Burge scandal. They began to notice a pattern of inconsistencies all coming from detectives working in Area 2 and 3, and this became the centerpiece of a series of exposes on the Jon Burge scandal. Mills sat down for a feature with Clements that eventually ran on the front page of the Tribune's Metro section in 1989. It was the first time that Clements' accusation of police torture was on the record in the media.
Despite all this, Clements says that as the decade drew to a close he knew that he was a long way from freedom. Clements used his time in prison to educate himself, and he'd also become savvier with the law. He knew that the first thing he needed for freedom was a really good lawyer. The sort of lawyer that would cost hundreds of dollars an hour. It was the sort of lawyer a kid from the poor Southeast Side of Chicago could never afford. Clements was a public defenders' office type of guy, constrained in his rights by its limited resources. All the activism in the world wasn't going to get him the legal resources he needed. Mark Clements ended the 1980s knowing he was nowhere near freedom.
The beginning of the 1990s also advanced the saga of Jon Burge. Following a scathing internal investigation called the Goldstein Report in 1992, the city was left with no choice and Burge was relieved of his duties. He was, however, never charged for any of the torture he's alleged to have committed and oversaw. He stands trial today not for the torture itself but for lying about it.
Meanwhile, Mark Clements began the 1990s by adding to his academic achievements. He finished a bachelor's degree in sociology from Lewis University in 1991. Prison life was relatively good for Clements. He was still married. He'd become a veteran of the prison system. So, while conjugal visits weren't allowed in prison, Clements says that he was still able to arrange intimate time with his wife. That was all about to change.
In 1993, serial killer Richard Speck was caught on tape doing drugs, having sex with men, and otherwise enjoying prison existence. That tape went viral before viral was such a term. The outrage of the public watching this serial killer abusing the system lead directly to critical mass demanding for major prison reform. As a result, all prison systems constricted movement significantly. In fact, the prison higher education program ended in 1993, just after Clements' own education was completed. Whereas he saw his wife every day until 1996, that was limited to twice a week after. As a result, the marriage ended in divorce in 1998. The constricted movements made the last 10-plus years of Clements' sentence much more difficult. No longer did prison have a frat house atmosphere, and Clements says he spent significantly more time alone in his cell the last half of his term.
By the end of the decade, the Burge scandal was taking on more mainstream acceptance. In 1999, US District Court Judge Milton Shadur wrote of the scandal, "In the early to mid-1980s, [Jon Burge] and many officers working under him regularly engaged in the physical abuse and torture of prisoners to extract confessions. Both internal police accounts and numerous lawsuits and appeals brought by suspects alleging such abuse substantiate that those beatings and other means of torture occurred as an established practice, not just on an isolated basis."
One thing that never ended was Clements' activism. In 1996, he befriended Bishop Monroe Mullins of the New Abundant Life Church. Bishop Mullins was a former police chief in the Atlanta area and was familiar with police corruption. Sympathetic to Clements' plight, Bishop Mullins financed and arranged for Clements to do a weekly radio show from prison. For two and a half hours, Clements would call in from prison and discuss issues of prison reform, racism, police brutality and politics to listeners in the outside world. He continued the show until his release.
A Turning Point
The last decade once again saw the Burge case in the spotlight. In 2000, after overturning the conviction of death row inmate Anthony Porter, then-Governor George Ryan put a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois. He had no choice. That case led to the discovery of several death row inmates whose confessions were all procured through the use of torture. Estimates then put as many as 200 other prison inmates serving sentences through tortured confessions, Clements included. Meanwhile, both of the interrogating officers, John McCann and John McWeeny, were implicated in Burge's torture ring in an investigation headed by Cook County Circuit Court Judge Paul Biebel completed in 2002. Despite the outrage and significant media attention, Mark Clements was still no closer to freedom. All that outrage was still not leading to judicial justice. That's because despite the outrage, the State's Attorney's Office remained stubborn and refused to open any of the cases in the Burge torture ring. Meanwhile, Clements continued to be represented by the public defender's office, and they didn't have the financial resources to conduct their own investigation and gather enough evidence to overturn his conviction. So, Clements continued to wait for the day when he'd get the kind of representation necessary to overturn his conviction.
That day finally came in 2007. That's when Professor Bernadine Dohrn of Northwestern University came to visit Clements. Dohrn was doing a paper on youths that received sentences of natural life (life without the possibility of parole). She interviewed more than a hundred such youths all around the nation. Following the interview and convinced of his innocence, she went back to her friends at Northwestern Law and pleaded with them to help Clements. They looked at his case and then reached out to the mega law firm Skadden Arps, who they knew had the resources to mount a proper defense. Skadden Arps is a high powered law firm headquartered in New York whose bread and butter is commercial law, but who had nearly $5 million stashed away for pro bono work.
Dohrn downplays her role in the matter. "[Clements] is singularly responsible for getting himself released. I blundered in and met him at a moment where the rest was relatively straightforward." Clements disagrees with this characterization. He says that law firms require a referral such as Dohrn's in such cases. He estimates that Skadden Arps spent about 250 man hours in freeing him. Law firms won't commit to such efforts unless another attorney they respect has looked at the case and believes it's worth their while. Dohrn lobbied her colleagues at Northwestern. The folks at Northwestern did enough legwork to satisfy Skadden Arps. Without that legwork, it's unlikely Skadden Arps, or any firm, would invest their own time.
Skadden Arps hired a private investigator. They sent evidence to be tested for DNA. By the end of 2007, their investigation concluded that the arson was committed by a Detroit-area biker gang named the Munsters. One of the occupants of the home at 6600 S. Wentworth was an individual named Rufus Scott, a well known drug dealer. He lived there with his father William, a known drug kingpin. The private investigator found witnesses in the neighborhood nearly three decades later who said the younger Scott had a dispute with the Munsters over a drug deal and that the arson was retaliation. Furthermore, Skadden Arps was able to perform DNA tests on several pieces of evidence that not only exonerated Clements but implicated the real perpetrators. All of this could have been done many years earlier except, first, the public defender's office didn't have the resources to do it and, second, the Cook County State's attorney's office refused to reopen and investigate the case themselves. Finally, in August of 2009, Clements was released after 28 years in prison.
For Clements, the long prison sentence is behind him and he's not bitter, because, as he says, "Bitterness is like a cancer." Clements says that 22 people remain in prison with confessions extracted through the torture ring of Jon Burge. That's something that Clements has demanded repeatedly and most recently in a letter to Mayor Daley on the 8th of June, 2010. According to the Cook County State's Attorney's office, a special prosecutor, former Judge Stuart Nudelman, is reviewing all cases of alleged torture, including these 22.
He sees Burge's trial as an opportunity for "awareness in all communities... To serve as a purpose in society that all cops are not righteous people. "
He's quick to remind me that while he firmly believes that Burge and his cohorts were all racists, they were protected by African Americans like the late Mayor Harold Washington, his trial judge William Cousins, and both his initial arresting officers who all "looked the other way and allowed racism and torture to continue [in order] to protect their own jobs." Clements refers to the Burge torture ring as "Chicago's biggest criminal conspiracy." This conspiracy, Clements points out, was propped up by all levels of Chicago government. He says that Burge became Mayor Jane Byrne's go-to man on high profile crimes and it was Washington who promoted Burge to police commander. He also points out that Richard M. Daley rode an impressive record of convictions while head of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office to his initial mayoral victory. It was an arrest record ballooned in part by Burge's convictions. Clements blames politicians, judges and prosecutors for allowing it to go on. He says that political insiders knew all along what was happening and refused to act because acting meant taking on not only Burge but the Chicago political machine itself.
That was an act of courage that, sadly, no one in power was willing to make.
As a city, we wrap up all the corruption and cynicism into something called the Chicago Way. Burge didn't act alone. He was helped by an entire system that allowed this torture to go on with impunity. Mark Clements is here to remind everyone that this story can never go away until justice is served, reforms are made, and all responsible for letting this go on are held responsible. Let him be the lesson that the Chicago Way is no longer acceptable.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information.