Friday, January 15, 2010

Tortured into confessing, Chicago man freed in Burge case

249 Exonerations and counting.

A man imprisoned for more than two decades for rape and murder on the basis of a confession he said he was tortured into making by officers under the direction of then-Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge was ordered freed this morning.

Michael Tillman, 43, confessed but long maintained he did so only after being tortured by officers under Burge’s command. And another man ultimately was convicted in the killing after evidence including his fingerprints and the victim’s possessions tied him to the crime.

“It felt good, and I’m glad justice finally prevailed,” Tillman said after being released.

Special Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Myles O’Rourke asked Judge Vincent Gaughan to drop all charges against Tillman in the murder, rape and kidnapping of Betty Howard, 42, citing “unreliable” and “forced confessions.”

Tillman’s attorney Flint Taylor said he plans to file documents seeking Tillman’s formal exoneration and might seek compensation for wrongful imprisonment.

Tillman was arrested July 22, 1986. He has long maintainted that, over three days in police custody, he was beaten with a phone book, punched in the face and stomach until he vomited blood, had a plastic bag put over his head and 7-Up poured into his nose in a crude form of waterboarding.

The result: Tillman, then 20, confessed to killing Howard, a mail clerk whose body was found in a South Side apartment building where Tillman lived at the time with his girlfriend and worked as the janitor.

Tillman told police at the time that two other men had also raped Howard before she was shot. One of the men, Steven Bell, was acquitted of charges related to Howard’s death, and the other man was never charged, prosecutors said.

He was convicted in a bench trial Dec. 18, 1986, solely on the basis of his confession, according to the petition filed in Cook County Circuit Court that led to his being freed today.

Tillman’s attorney initially raised the torture allegations during his trial, but the judge who heard the case refused to throw out his confession, and Tillman was sentenced to life in prison.

Police later arrested another man, 27-year-old Clarence Trotter. Trotter was found with Howard’s possessions, and his fingerprints and other physical evidence linked him to Howard’s killing.

Trotter was charged and convicted and given life in prison, and Tillman was granted a new trial in 1991.

But a jury again convicted Tillman in 1996. And, despite the conviction of Trotter, Tillman lost a 1999 appeal, when an appellate court decided that, despite the lack of evidence tying him to the crime or to Trotter, Tillman’s confession was “sufficient.”

Howard’s daughter Angelita and Howard’s boyfriend Ora Russell, who had proposed to her a day before her murder, said today they still believe Tillman was involved in Howard’s death.

Angelita Howard loudly sobbed as she left Gaughan’s courtroom, wailing repeatedly, “They let him go.”

Asked about how the case fell apart due to the police torture allegations, Russell said: “I’m sorry it fell apart, but. . . .I would have done more than that to them.”

Taylor expressed condolences to Howard’s family.

Tillman added, “I was a victim, too.”

Tillman, who now has two adult children, said he plans to take life as a free man “one day at a time.”

The sweatsuit-clad Tillman said his immediate plans were to get some chicken at Popeye’s and then start “getting to know his family better.”

Burge, former Area 2 commander, and more than 20 officers who worked with him have been accused of torturing confessions from murder suspects in the 1970s and 1980s. Burge now awaits trial on federal perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

Flanked by his mother and sister, Tillman said he expects that Burge and his former underlings will “get what they got coming. The system will do to what they did to me.”

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