In Chicago, old habits die hard.
Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin bring us inside one of the worst police abuse scandals in U.S. history. For decades on the southside of Chicago, a group of white cops turned the interrogation room into a torture chamber for Black men. Those cops called themselves the Midnight Crew.
Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good™ Podcasts in association with Signal Co No1
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Laura Nirider Welcome to Wrongful Conviction: F alse Confessions. I'm Laura Nirider.
Steve Drizin And I'm Steve Drizin.
Laura Nirider Today, we're going to tell you about one of the worst police abuse scandals in U.S. history. For decades on the South Side of Chicago, a group of white cops turned the interrogation room into a torture chamber for Black men. Those cops called themselves the Midnight Crew. We'll start by introducing you to one innocent man who encountered the Midnight Crew and ended up confessing to murder. Eventually, it became all too clear that what happened to him had happened to hundreds of others, too. Let's talk about how the Midnight Crew got exposed to daylight and what's being done to make sure this kind of police torture doesn't ever happen again. You know, we've talked a lot during our podcast about psychological interrogation techniques, but this is a really different case. This is physical torture. It's the kind of thing most people think doesn't happen in the United States. But it did.
Steve Drizin And it did, in my lifetime, in the 1990s, in Chicago. This was real. I said, how can this be going on, you know, at the end of the 20th century? I mean, this is medieval. This is the stuff of the Spanish Inquisition. Because by and large, by the 1950s, these kinds of third degree tactics were no longer part of law enforcement.
Laura Nirider You know, Steve, I never knew what the term "third degree" meant before I went to law school. So for our audience, it means physical abuse during interrogations.
Steve Drizin Right. You know, Chicago's history with police interrogations is a fascinating one. The third degree thrived in Chicago in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Then a group of police reformers brought in psychological interrogation techniques that they believed would be less likely to lead to false confessions. But in Chicago, old habits die hard.
Laura Nirider It's easy for anyone to understand why someone would falsely confess if they're being physically abused or tortured. That's no way to get the truth, let alone justice. Today's story starts on July 27, 1988. It's summer in Chicago. One of the hottest on record, with temperatures topping 100 degrees. On the city's predominantly Black South Side, a lot of homes are older, rundown, don't have air conditioning. Economic opportunities are thin and people sweat just to pay the bills. So when the temperature climbs, tempers run high, too. That's true for the residents and for the police. On July 27, though, things get way too hot in a South Side neighborhood called Gage Park. In the middle of the night, a brick bungalow goes up in flames. Af ter firefighters bring the blaze under control, police go inside. They find five bodies: two women who had worked as teacher's aides at a local school and three young children. All of the kids had been smothered with pillows. One of the women had been beaten and strangled. The other woman had been smothered, too. She was the daughter of a Chicago cop. It's a horrible crime and the case quickly becomes high profile; what Chicago police call a "heater." But there's no eyewitnesses, no forensic evidence, no nothing. So police offer a $2,000 reward for information. Sure enough, just a few days later, a prison inmate calls police and claims that his friend Ronald Kitchen confessed to him over the phone. Now, prison phone calls are recorded and monitored. A quick check of the inmate's phone recordings reveals he was lying. No one he spoke with had ever confessed to anything. But with no other leads, the police decide to go after Ronald Kitchen, and they go after him hard. In 1988, Ronald was 22 years old; and as he admits today, he was no angel back then. With one young child and a second on the way, he made a living by selling cocaine. But he was no killer and never had been. On the evening of August 25, Ronald leaves his house and heads for the corner store down the block. He's out to buy a gallon of milk and some cookie dough for his two-year-old son. Before he knows it, Ronald's surrounded by police cars. One of the officers says something about a stolen vehicle. Another cop points a gun at him. Ronald knows he had nothing to do with any car theft, so he figures he'll be able to clear up the situation without much difficulty. As the police put Ronald in handcuffs, he hollers to his family down the block. I'll be back in 45 minutes. Police bring Ronald to a South Side station called "Area 3." They throw him into an interrogation room and cuff his hands to an iron ring in the wall. And the account Ronald gives of the next 16 hours is harrowing. According to Ronald, an officer comes in and asks, "Who have you been talking to?" When Ronald doesn't know how to answer, the officer starts punching him in the chest and kicking his stomach. O ver the next several hours, that officer would leave, then come back again, over and over to ask the same question and to continue the beatings. Sometimes he'd be joined by a second officer. When that officer entered the room, he would remove his nametag before joining the assaults. After hours of beatings, a third officer came into the room, alone. He asked if Ronald was OK and if he wanted anything to eat. When Ronald asked to call a lawyer, he says the officer smiled, picked up the handset from a nearby phone, and smashed it into Ronald's skull. " Do you hear ringing now?" said the officer. On his way out, he turned off the lights, leaving Ronald in the dark. For hours, the beatings continued, with Ronald waiting in agony for the next round to start. The officers focused on areas of his body where damage wouldn't be visible. At one point, officers cuffed both his hands behind his back and used their nightsticks to beat his genitals. But their desire to cover their tracks didn't stop the police from targeting Ronald's head, too. They just used a phone book to cushion the blows and avoid leaving a mark.
Steve Drizin This torture session was clearly premeditated, mapped out in advance. The whole time, they were also calling Ronald racial slurs. The N-word just rolled off their tongues. The goal here was total humiliation, physical and mental.
Laura Nirider Hours of torture went by until Ronald finally broke. He signed a false confession dictated by the police admitting to the Gage Park killings. Based on that confession, Ronald Kitchen was charged with capital murder, meaning that he was facing the death penalty. At his first court appearance, Ronald told the judge that he'd been tortured. A few days later, Ronald was transferred to a hospital for treatment. At the hospital, his urine ran red with blood. Despite all of this, Ronald's false confession was allowed into evidence against him at trial, along with the testimony of that prison snitch who still claimed that Ronald had admitted the killings. On September 19, 1990, Ronald Kitchen was convicted of five counts of murder and sent to death row. There, he'd soon discover he wasn't alone. At least nine other residents of Illinois' death row had been tortured into confessing, too. There was something much bigger going on. What Ronald endured at Area 3 was no isolated incident. Ronald Kitchen had encountered a group of white cops who called themselves the Midnight Crew. The Midnight Crew closed cases by torturing black men until they confessed, and they operated under the authority of a Chicago police detective named Jon Burge.
Steve Drizin To understand what happened to Ronald, you have to start asking some tough questions. What kind of police officer would do this to another human being? What kind of person would knowingly break the laws of common decency, the laws of humanity, just to get a confession?
Laura Nirider When it comes to Jon Burge, the answer is complex. Here's our friend John Conroy, the journalist whose investigative reporting exposed the Midnight Crew.
John Conroy Jon Burge was a very driven police officer. Initially, he was a patrol officer, and then he was promoted to detective, and then he made sergeant, and then he made lieutenant. He seemed to me like somebody who would show up at my family's picnic and if my elderly aunt had a problem starting her car on the way home, he would have been the first one out there trying to get it working. That just seemed to me to be the kind of guy he was. On the other hand, he brutally tortured people.
Laura Nirider Jon Burge was a Chicago South Sider, born in 1947, who grew up in a white enclave called South Deering.
John Conroy He grew up, you know, working class white neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago that, during the late 1960s, went from white to Black over the course of about four years. And his family was among the last to move out. He then went off to college, flunked out after about a semester, went home, and enlisted in the military.
Laura Nirider Burge was a veteran, who served as a military police officer in South Korea and Vietnam. For his service, he earned the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart. After he returned to Chicago, Burge joined the police force and racked up more than a dozen commendations.
John Conroy Everyone wants torturers to be Hannibal Lecter, or somebody like that, out of Silence of the Lambs. Everyone wants torturers to be monsters, and they're basically normal people like you and me. Burge, for instance, once saved a woman, an African American woman, from committing suicide. She had a gun to her throat. She pulled the trigger, and he got his thumb in the firing mechanism, and it didn't go off.
Laura Nirider But his apparent heroism wasn't the full story, because Jon Burge and his underlings ended up being accused of extracting confessions from more than 200 Black men, between 1972 and 1991, using torture.
John Conroy In Chicago, the cops were under tremendous pressure because we had an astronomical homicide rate. People talk about homicides in Chicago now. They were 80 percent higher in the early 90s. And so, they had to solve crimes... They were getting information... That's another reason why people do it. They actually might think that they're helping out the good people of the community by torturing the bad ones. You do get information when you torture people. You just don't get accurate information. People will say anything to stop the torture.
Laura Nirider Accusations against the Midnight Crew started emerging just a few months before Ronald Kitchin was convicted. In January 1990, John Conroy published an investigative report in the Chicago Reader entitled "House of Screams."
John Conroy The Burge story came to me because I was writing a book on torture; but not torturers in countries that people normally suspected of torture, torture in democracies. And then a friend of mine called me and said, there's this guy named Andrew Wilson... He claims he was given electric shock by the Chicago police. And his testimony was just so compelling, the police could not explain away his injuries.
Laura Nirider Andrew Wilson was a suspect in the murder of two Chicago cops, and "House of Screams" told the story of what happened to him in police custody. The rumor was that during Wilson's interrogation, Burge and his men used techniques that Burge learned as a military police officer back in Vietnam.
John Conroy Andrew Wilson emerged from the police station with these very peculiar marks on his ears and his nose in the shape of alligator clips; they were scabs. And he had parallel burns on his chest and a big burn on his thigh. He said he'd been held against a hot radiator while electric shock was administered by a hand crank device, not dissimilar from a field telephone used in Vietnam. And because he'd shot dead two cops, nobody wanted to believe him.
Steve Drizin Nobody's going to have any sympathy for cop killers. And Burge and his Midnight Crew knew that they would be more likely to get away with torturing a cop killer than anybody else.
John Conroy You know, frankly, when we get in an uproar about torture, it's over the torture of people we like; somebody like, say, Nelson Mandela. And we are outraged. But if you torture somebody whom we don't like... Oh, that's no problem at all. So, I think the true test of a society is, can you stand up and defend the rights of people whom you abhor?
Laura Nirider During Andrew Wilson's trial, his attorneys started receiving letters, in Chicago Police envelopes, from an inside whistleblower. The department's torture problem, it seemed, went much further than Andrew Wilson.
John Conroy The letters provided a roadmap for anybody who wanted to investigate, because they listed the people who went along with the torture; and then it listed, also, the weak links: people who didn't like Burge. They wouldn't be asked to participate in the torture, but they would have been around a police station, would have known about it.
Laura Nirider After Conroy's story about Andrew Wilson ran, an avalanche of other allegations came forward. There were men who had plastic bags put over their heads, men who were waterboarded with 7 Up, men who'd had their testicles stood on during interrogation. All Black men, tortured by all white cops.
John Conroy Of course, I think race was a factor in all of this. A lot of the abuse that was inflicted was not just physical, but it was verbal, and it was regular use of the N-word.
Laura Nirider The stories were horribly similar, and the evidence was there from the beginning. One torture victim, Aaron Patterson, managed to leave a visible cry for help in the interrogation room.
Steve Drizin I mean, just picture this. This guy is being tortured, and he's scratching this message in a metal bench with a paper clip. And the message couldn't be clearer: "Police threatened me with violence. Slapped and suffocated me with plastic. No lawyer or dad. Signed false statement to murder." Why did he do this? He did it because he was afraid he wouldn't survive the torture and that even if he did survive, he was afraid that no one would believe him.
Laura Nirider Aaron did survive. And one of the other survivors was Ronald Kitchen.
Steve Drizin Ronald later realized the second officer who participated in his interrogation, the one who took off his nametag before beating him... Well, that was no ordinary member of the Midnight Crew. That was Jon Burge himself.
Laura Nirider By the time John Conroy published "House of Screams," Jon Burge and the Midnight Crew's torture campaign had been going on for nearly 20 years. Meanwhile, Burge had been promoted to commander, outranking 99 percent of the other officers on the Chicago police force.
John Conroy So, my article came on in January 1990. As we were approaching press time, I was really uneasy. I thought, oh, Jesus, you know, we're going to go with a story that says that the Chicago police engaged in torture. Nobody had said anything of the kind before. I thought there would be a furor, and we might get sued; even though we had done every legal check that could be done.
Laura Nirider Burge was a powerful man, but the allegations against him were too numerous, and too similar, to ignore. In 1991, Jon Burge was suspended from the Chicago police force. The local police union rushed to Burge's defense, throwing him a fundraiser at a union hall.
John Conroy I was there. It was packed with more than a thousand people; probably most of them cops, but I'm sure some of them were state's attorneys because I know that it was advertised in the state's attorney's office.
Laura Nirider Meanwhile, more and more allegations of police torture were coming forward: beatings, cattle prods, Russian roulette. The Chicago Police Board held a hearing in 1992 into Burge's alleged misconduct.
John Conroy Basically, it was an employment fitness hearing. It was not a criminal case. And the city had attorneys present the case against Burge, and they did a pretty darn good job, I thought. They actually sold the Police Board on the idea that something had indeed happened here.
Laura Nirider During the hearing, an internal police report came to light. It suggested that police supervisors had known about the Midnight Crew's systemic brutality for years. In 1993, the Police Board found that Jon Burge had participated in physical abuse and fired him from the Chicago Police.
John Conroy Now, the police force decision was remarkable in that it never used the word "torture." It said, "Jon Burge did kick and/or punch and/or deny medical attention to, and/or, and/or, and/or." You couldn't tell, oh well, what exactly do you think happened? So as a result of that decision, Burge got fired. But he was allowed to retire with his pension.
Laura Nirider Another agency, the Office of Professional Standards, began investigating, too, and it released a report that went a step further. The investigation found that Chicago police had taken part in a systematic, planned torture campaign that command officers knew about. Meanwhile, Ronald Kitchen, one of the victims of that torture, was still on death row for a crime he didn't commit. And remember, he was there along with other men who'd been tortured, just like him, by Jon Burge and the Midnight Crew. For years, Ronald's appeals failed, and the system turned a blind eye to the unthinkable abuse he suffered. But Ronald and the others on death row didn't stay silent. The group began finding their voices, speaking out about the fact that the Midnight Crew had tortured innocent people into falsely confessing.
Steve Drizin What's amazing to me is how these men found their voice. They did so by re-enacting each other's trials. You have to remember that when people are in prison, every instinct tells you not to talk to other inmates about your case. But these men, they acted out their case. They played the role of prosecutor, of defense attorney, of police witness. And in some cases, they convicted one another! That process gave them agency. And at the end of the day, all of these men became great storytellers. They could not only tell the story of what happened to each of them, but they could tell the stories of each other.
Laura Nirider As the Midnight Crew torture scandal blew up, Ronald's personal fight for justice became unignorable. In 2001, Ronald got a new team of post-conviction lawyers. They discovered previously undisclosed evidence about that prison snitch who claimed Ronald had confessed. Turns out the snitch had received money and early release from prison, in exchange for his false testimony. That evidence, plus the discovery of the Midnight Crew torture scandal, led prosecutors to agree that Ronald's conviction should be thrown out. On July 7, 2009, Ronald Kitchen became a free, exonerated man. Six weeks later, he was awarded a certificate of innocence. Those 45 minutes that Ronald had expected to be gone, they turned into 21 years behind bars. The Gage Park killings have never been solved. As for the other men on death row with Ronald, over the years, several of them walked free too. Those who remained in prison had their sentences commuted to life, and they're continuing to fight their cases. And what about Jon Burge? Well, as we told you, he got kicked off the Chicago police force, but neither Jon Burge nor any member of the Midnight Crew was ever charged with or convicted of any act of torture because the statute of limitations had passed by the time the truth came to light. Maybe we can find some small measure of justice, though, in the fact that Jon Burge did go to prison: for lying about torture. In 2010, Burge was sued by someone he'd tortured. During the lawsuit, Burge gave a sworn statement denying that any abuse had occurred on his watch. That falsehood was enough to convict Burge of perjury. Jon Burge served from 2011 to 2014 in federal prison, a much shorter length of time than many of his victims spent behind bars. After he left prison. Burge gave an interview calling the torture victims "human vermin." He took up residence in Florida, still collecting his police pension: $4,000 a month. He even drove a boat called "Vigilante."
John Conroy Well, no, justice was not served in this case. I mean, he was sentenced to four years in prison. He didn't serve that long. Burge was convicted 37 years after the first time we know that he used electric shock.
Steve Drizin You know, at the end of the day, Jon Burge was released after only serving a few years in prison, while Ronald and the other men on death row spent decades in some of the harshest prisons in Illinois' system. That's not justice.
Laura Nirider In 2018, Jon Burge died at his home in Florida. After his death, the police union posted a statement on Facebook saying that "The Fraternal Order of Police does not believe the full story about the Burge case has ever been told." They're probably right. Decades after Burge's reign of terror, allegations of torture by the Midnight Crew are still coming to light. In 2009, the State of Illinois formed a Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission to review and respond to these allegations. Meanwhile, lawsuits upon lawsuits have been filed and are still being filed. So far, the Midnight Crew has cost the city of Chicago $100 million in brutality, settlements, defense costs, and reparations.
Steve Drizin A reparations ordinance passed by the city council created a fund so that many of these torture survivors, those with credible claims of torture, could be compensated for what happened to them. It was a recognition and an ownership of this problem by the city of Chicago, and it's never happened before in the United States.
Laura Nirider One lawsuit, filed on behalf of 50 torture victims, settled under the condition that the story of Jon Burge, and systemic Chicago police misconduct, be included in the Chicago Public Schools' high school curriculum so that everyone remembers.
Steve Drizin We can never forget the Chicago torture scandal. Because if you don't remember, then history can repeat itself. We have to learn the lessons of history. And the best way to do it is to teach young minds about it.
Laura Nirider And that's where you'll find Ronald Kitchen today. He and other survivors of the Midnight Crew visit classrooms across Chicago, where they talk to teenagers about what they endured and what they hope can be learned from their ordeals. And if you pay attention to the way Chicago's kids react to these stories, you'll have hope for the future. They listen. They stay to hear the end of the story, even after the bell rings. "What do you think about all the recent social media videos of police brutality?" students ask. "How can we, as young people, make a change?" For his part, Ronald Kitchen has no quick answers, but he does have a quick sense of justice. As he told students at one Chicago high school: "There is no gray area in torture. You need to see it for what it really is. It's black and it's white." Hello?
Ronald Kitchen Yo.
Laura Nirider Hey, Ronald?
Ronald Kitchen Hey, how you doing?
Laura Nirider It's Laura and Steve. How are you doing?
Ronald Kitchen I'm good. I'm good.
Laura Nirider When you visit those schools, what do you hope the kids learn from hearing you speak?
Ronald Kitchen Well, I think the meaning of going to the schools is to let them know that this could happen to anybody. It's mind boggling, because the boogeyman not just touched me, stomped me, kicked me, punched me, slapped me... The boogeyman did all this to me-
Laura Nirider And then your job became to fight the boogeyman.
Ronald Kitchen Yeah.
Laura Nirider It wasn't just one bad guy. You were fighting a whole system that let these guys do what they did for so long.
Ronald Kitchen We was fighting the Goliath. And we didn't have a rock. We had a pencil and paper. And that pencil and paper came out to be stronger than a rock could ever do.
Steve Drizin It's hard for people to understand how you could get the space or the time on death row to re-enact these trials.
Ronald Kitchen We had a couple of good captains back there. They let us have law classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I thank them for helping us with the process of gaining our freedom.
Laura Nirider You and the other guys there organized, worked together, and made a big, big change, even though you were locked up. Do you talk to kids in schools about how they should come together and work to make change in the same way, find their own voices?
Ronald Kitchen Yeah. That's the whole point, of helping them find their voices. Your voice is your best weapon. And if we found our voices in the depths of hell, your voice should be heard no matter where you at.
Laura Nirider What are you enjoying in life these days, Ronald?
Ronald Kitchen My family. I think that the best antidote for me is being with my little family.
Laura Nirider Did I hear you say you were on your way to get a pony?
Speaker Yeah. Today is my daughter's birthday. She's turning nine. And the theme is Cowboy. So, yeah, I'm going to get the pony now.
Steve Drizin Oh, that's so nice.
Ronald Kitchen I'm trying to get there... She buggin' right now.
Laura Nirider Send us pictures.
Ronald Kitchen I will.
Steve Drizin When you think of this scandal, you have to think about not only Burge and his Midnight Crew, you have to think about the armies of people who knew about it and kept quiet. Every time somebody was tortured, there were police officers in that station who heard the screams. And then there were state's attorneys who came in and had to write out the confessions. There were lawyers who heard these stories from their clients. And judges who heard these stories in court...
Laura Nirider A lot of folks had to know about what was going on for so many years.
Steve Drizin This was a case of systemic racism, not just of a few bad apples. It was an open secret... A not-so-secret open secret... And think about what that does to these communities.
Laura Nirider The court system may have turned a blind eye to these defendants' stories, but they must have told their family members and their friends and their neighbors what happened to them. And this repeated story of abuse must have leaked out and saturated the South Side.
Steve Drizin An open wound that, for years, was not addressed.
Laura Nirider Injustices like the Chicago police torture scandal are at the root of what our country is experiencing right now: a national reckoning with race and the criminal justice system. These stories need to be told, so that we can collectively acknowledge the wrongs and start having a real discussion about what's right. And that's the story of the Midnight Crew. Next week, we'll take you to the United Kingdom to tell you about the Birmingham Six. Two pubs were bombed in one of the biggest mass murders in British history. And six Irish men found themselves in the wrong place, at the worst time. Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good Podcasts, in association with Signal Co. No1. Special thanks to our executive producers, Jason Flom and Kevin Wortis. Our production team is headed by senior producer Anne Pope, along with producers Jaji Hammer and Jess Shane. Our show is mixed by Jeannie Montalvo. John Colbert is our intrepid intern. Our music was composed by J. Ralph. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter @LauraNirider.
Steve Drizin And you can follow me on Twitter @SDrizin.