Torture victim fights for freedom

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CHICAGO – Every day Mark Clements prays to God in his prison cell that one day he will be a free man. He has been incarcerated since 1981–27 years–for a crime he says he did not commit. A crime that Clements was brutally forced to admit to after Chicago police detectives beat and tortured a confession out of him. He was 16 at the time.

On June 17, 1981, at 2:00 a.m. a fire broke out in a south side building. Four people died as a result. Fire investigators determined it was arson. On June 25 police arrested Clements who was taken to a Violent Crimes Unit in what was then an Area Three Police Station where Clements says he was periodically chained to a wall and interrogated over 10 hours by four Chicago detectives who never contacted his parents.

Legally any minor under age 18 being interviewed by police must have a youth officer present. During his interrogation Clements says none were present until after he signed a confession. The law also requires that the parent or legal guardian of a juvenile be notified buy police when a youth is held. According to Clements the police never called his parents.

Clements affirms he was verbally abused with racial insults and suffered numerous beatings including to the genitals after which he made a false “confession” stating he set the fire.

During his trial Clements pleaded with the judge and said he was beaten and coerced into confessing and proclaimed his innocence. He told the judge that he signed the confession in order to stop the torture. At age 16, Clements was functionally illiterate.

At his trial Clements was assigned two public defendants who argued that Clements IQ was very low and that he did not understand his rights by signing a confession statement. Clements himself testified that he was tortured and although his lawyers tried to use his statements Clements and his supporters feel his lawyers at the time lacked the resources to press for a fair trial. His attorneys felt they could not corroborate his testimony on torture and the police would deny it.

There were no witnesses and no material evidence presented linking Clements to the fire throughout his trial. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to four life sentences plus 30 years.

The Burge connection

According to supporters of Clements and others like him the Chicago police under Commander Jon Burge from 1973-1991 brutalized most of at least 135 torture victims.

All the victims are African American males and their stories tell a consistent pattern of racial discrimination by the city’s police force. Electric shock to the ears and/or genitals, burning, suffocation, and mock executions were some of the most brutal forms of torture on these men who were beaten to sign confessions for crimes they say they did not commit.

Current Mayor of Chicago Richard M. Daley served as Cook County States Attorney from 1980-1989 during the years Burge is being accused of leading such abuses as well as when Clements was tortured.

The Office of Professional Standards and the Police Federation issued reports recommending a thorough investigation on Burge and those under him in the early 1990’s. Burge was eventually fired in 1993 and till this day neither he nor any of the officers working under him accused of torture have faced criminal charges. Burge continues to receive a pension from the Chicago Police Department.

Edward Egan, a special prosecutor was appointed in 2002 to investigate the Burge accusations but after four years and seven million public dollars later he finally released a 292-page report confirming torture was evident. Two of the detectives who interrogated Clements have been named as people involved in torture under Burge in Egan’s report. Yet Egan refused to bring charges against Burge and others. Some feel Egan was biased because it was later revealed his nephew was a police officer under Burge.

Last year, the Cook County Board of Commissioners called for hearings of all the Burge victims including a federal prosecution of Burge and the determination that torture is a federal crime without a statue of limitations. The Illinois House of Representatives recently passed legislation to set up an innocence commission to review torture claims. The measure is currently in the Senate.

Meanwhile federal prosecutors led by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald are calling ten retired police officers before a grand jury to testify as to whether Burge and those under him obstructed justice by stating under oath that the Chicago Police did not use torture. If it is confirmed that such practices occurred, they and Burge could still be prosecuted on the federal level.

Before leaving office in 2003, former Governor George Ryan pardoned four of the Death Row 10, who said they were tortured under Burge, on the basis of innocence. Ryan commuted the sentences of the others to Life without Parole. All originally received death sentences and said confessions were beaten out of them, crimes they say they did not do.

In 2002 Attorney General Lisa Madigan was appointed as the lead prosecutor in the Burge torture cases. According to the Campaign To End The Death Penalty in Chicago at least 30 victims of torture remain behind bars based on false confessions. Madigan, they say, has the power to grant evidentiary hearings so that victims can present evidence of torture but she has not budged.

Clements side of the story

With the help of the prison library staff that noticed Clements was eager to be taught he learned how to read and write in prison. Very few prisoners have such opportunities today according to Clements supporters who say staff and collections at prison libraries have been slashed.

Today Clements continues to work tirelessly in seeking religious, community and legal support for a new trial in order to prove his innocence. Although Clements case has no direct relation to the Burge beatings, his case is currently on appeal in the Cook County Criminal Court and a legal team led by Timothy A. Nelsen is in his corner.

“I did not commit this crime,” said Clements in a written letter to this reporter. “I was not allowed to see a youth officer nor call my parents. I was beaten and tortured in my genitals twice inside a closet sized interrogation room. During the beatings I was called racist names,” said Clements.

“During the second beating and torture,” one detective said ‘since you like telling, tell this,’ as he beat me in my chest and stomach with his fist. He beat me in the thighs and shoulders and smacked me. He grabbed my private area and I cried and he squeezed really hard until I agreed to say what he wanted me to say to the states attorney.”

Clements said he told the states attorney what the detective told him to say because he was “scared he would return and beat and torture me.” Clements told the states attorney that he was abused but the states attorney “came in the room, took the confession and acted like I never told him what occurred to me.”

In his letter Clements adds, “It is very important to share this story and my fight for freedom. Why? I am one of the first Chicago police torture victims, but I had poor legal representation on the trial level and my lawyers did not interview one witness connected with this crime nor did they investigate the confession.”

“I was also found guilty because I was poor and did not understand the seriousness of the charges against me whatsoever. I believe had this been a teenager whose family had money he would not be in prison. I did no crime and I shake my head each day at how easy I was railroaded by a judge who is supposed to be honorable and fair. Where is the justice for the poor?” he asked.

“I do believe the criminal justice system discriminates when it comes to applying equal justice to the poor, African American and Latino men and women all over this country. I feel racism plays a role in over 60 percent of all cases in wrongful convictions and torture involving criminal suspects.”

Ted Pearson with the Chicago National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression is a friend and supporter of Clements and has been following his case closely.

Pearson said Clements legal appeal is moving forward and that his lawyers are making gains including doing a new and improved finger print analysis on the crime evidence. Recent court orders were also granted to Clements legal team in getting access to all documents of the case including information on the whereabouts of alleged witnesses who spoke with detectives at the time.

Clements story “indicates that these torture methods and beatings shows it was an on-going practice in the police department at the time and some argue it still happens today,” said Pearson.

“If police can beat a confession out of you then you don’t have any rights at all and nobody is safe when they can do this,” added Pearson. “It’s really a violation of our rights and they continue to get away with it.”

Meanwhile victims of police torture are behind bars, most of them innocent and African American, while police officers receive pensions collecting retirement, said Pearson.

In low-income communities where financial resources are poor and recreational programs for youth are limited including the lack of jobs, many residents throughout the city see the police as another form of oppression at times. Stories of torture and police brutality cases make many communities fear their presence and unfortunately taints the entire police department as community-wide suspicion grows. In the end as more and more police abuse cases emerge it makes it even harder for the police to work with and gain the trust of communities in order to confront crime.

“Our position is if a person was convicted based on a confession obtained through violence, torture or the threat of violence, they should have a new trial,” said Pearson. “Such confessions should never be allowed into evidence. In many of these cases there is no other evidence, and the victims of such abuse will be exonerated. The state would not try them again,” added Pearson.

Pearson hopes Congress will continue to issue federal restrictions on local police torture and hold such actions in legal contempt. Police accountability is extremely important and we need to restore confidence in the police who work in our communities, said Pearson.

The toll on all

Dozens of activists, community leaders and family members of prisoners who say they were tortured into making false confessions rallied in front of Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s downtown office, July 18, urging her to issue new trials for the wrongfully convicted including Mark Clements.

Exonerated Illinois death row inmate and leader with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty Darby Tillis addressed the crowd. “I know what it is to linger in a cell,” he said. “I spent 19 years on death roll and it’s a living hell.” Tillis added, “I’ve been beaten by police, kicked, knocked down and hit with a 357 magnum. These victims are human beings and like anyone else it’s time we get some justice.”

It is hard to say how many families in all throughout Chicago suffer the realities of police abuse especially with new cases everyday. But it is certain that dozens of families are fighting for their loved ones freedom including Clements’ mother. She is known as his biggest supporter and a long time activist who continues to fight for his innocence. Even despite her personal and bitter struggle against cancer she hopes to see the day where her son will be released. And in the end over time the physical and mental fight for freedom takes a heavy toll on the entire family of torture victims. Mary L. Johnson was also at the rally representing her son Michael Johnson who has been in prison for 10 years “I’m doing time right along with my son, and I don’t want to see another mother go through what I have been going through,” said Johnson to the crowd. “As long as there is injustice we will be struggling and we will continue to fight,” she said.

In the meantime behind bars is Mark Clements who enjoys reading and says he stays busy working on civil rights and community issues and attends wrongful conviction meetings. He also leads a 30-minute segment on a Christian AM radio program hosted by his church.

“Change is coming,” says Clements. “I have suffered and I have paid my dues.”

Clements says he wants troubled kids in low-income urban neighborhoods to know about his story and his struggle.

“I want them to know the system will lock them up innocent or guilty, they don’t care,” said Clements.

Clements, who has spent his whole adult life in prison, hopes one day he will be a free man and get his life back.

Pearson and his group are encouraging supporters of Clements to write or call the office of Richard A. Devine who is the Cook County States Attorney at 2650 S. California, Chicago IL, 60608 (11th floor) or (773) 869-6209 and demand that he stop opposing the possibility for a new trial for Clements and other torture victims.