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What Police Torture Looks Like

In an excerpt from his new memoir, Ronald Kitchen offers an unflinching account of how he was coerced by Jon Burge and other Chicago detectives into confessing to a mass murder he didn’t commit.

In 1988, 22-year-old Ronald Kitchen was picked up by police as a suspect in a brutal multiple murder on the South Side. Despite his repeated claims of being tortured into a confession, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. He served 21 years before he was released in 2009, amid mounting evidence of a coerced admission. He was issued a certificate of innocence, as was Marvin Reeves, who was also convicted for the crimes.

Kitchen had been a victim of the notorious Midnight Crew, a group of Chicago cops led by disgraced ex-commander Jon Burge who systematically abused suspects over the course of two decades. Some 120 victims, mostly black, have come forward with such accusations—many of whom have had their convictions thrown out.

Cover art for My Midnight Years: Surviving Jon Burge's Police Torture Ring and Death Row

In his forthcoming memoir, My Midnight Years: Surviving Jon Burge’s Police Torture Ring and Death Row, written with Thai Jones and Logan M. McBride (Aug. 1, Lawrence Hill Books), Kitchen talks about his life growing up on the South Side, his time in prison, and his efforts to find justice not only for himself but others on Death Row who were wrongfully convicted.

In the excerpt below, he recounts his experience in the hours after being arrested. His detailed description of police abuse is hard to read at points. But it’s an important chronicle, revealing the extent of the abuse Burge’s crew handed out and showing how torture could drive a man to the point where he’d confess to a crime he didn’t commit.

 

Shouts, curses, chaos everywhere as the sergeant marched me upstairs to the third floor of the precinct building. In my 22 years I had experienced a lifetime of nasty encounters with the Chicago police. But I had never been here before. This was the Homicide Division. My hands strained in cuffs behind my back. We walked in silence through a corridor of noise. I could hear cries from all directions. I smelled the sick scent of vomit coming from one of the side rooms. Confused, I turned my head right and left, trying to figure out why they had brought me here. A detective snapped me back to the present, sneaking up from behind and smashing the side of my face with a hollow clank into the cold steel of a locker on the wall.

“Look straight ahead!” he screamed.

They led me into a grim room with a scuffed-up desk, chairs, and a bank of telephones. Long fluorescent tubes cast a harsh yellow-green light. They chucked me down roughly into a chair and bolted my cuffed hands through a steel hoop in the wall. As soon as I was secured, a detective—a wiry man with a hard face—started screaming at me.

“Who have you been talking to?” His mouth was just inches from me. “Who have you been talking to?”

“I talk to a whole lot of people,” I replied, trying to keep cool and make sense of the question. Wrong answer. The detective punched me in the chest. He kicked my stomach and legs. He smacked my face with his open palms. The thuds from the blows echoed from floor to ceiling. He asked again and again: “Who have you been talking to?” I had done my share of bad things—criminal things—but there was no reason I should be in this part of the precinct. I didn’t know what offense he was investigating, or how I could be involved. I had no idea. “Who are you talking to?”

“I told you,” I said. “I talk to a lot of people.”

Wrong again. The blows thrashed down all over me. Those first strikes were the start of a long, long night. For me, it was a night that has never ended. I have told the story so many times: to judges and juries, to friends and family, to students and teachers. Every time I describe it, I relive these experiences. Not a day goes by when I do not think about what happened to me back then—during that dark night of August 25, 1988.

Ronald Kitchen, on the day of his release in 2009 Photo: Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law

And yet the morning had showed such promise. Dawn came hazy and humid to the South Side. It was a Thursday. I remember it like yesterday. I woke up filled with the kind of hope I hadn’t felt in years. It was my day off, and I’d been looking forward to it all week. I tiptoed down the hall to my son’s room and coaxed him out of bed. In the kitchen, I set Ronnie Jr. in his high chair while I fixed our favorite breakfast: oatmeal with raisins and Cap’n Crunch. Then I sat up on the tabletop while he chattered to me about his birthday party. He’d be turning three in a couple weeks. My girlfriend, Tiffany, joined us in the kitchen. Our relationship was coming to an end—at least in my opinion—but she was pregnant again and hoping that a second baby would draw us back together as a couple.

After eating I got set to go out on my regular hustle. What I mean by that was seeing girls and selling cocaine. Dealing drugs was the path I took to support my family. I was not a kingpin or anything. But I had graduated from selling on the streets. Customers would come up to a couple dope houses I rented and buy $10 and $20 bags from my employees there.

Police had busted into my house in June and discovered 700 grams of cocaine. I knew I was probably looking at several years behind bars. The afternoon of that August day, my mom and I had a serious sit down. I told her, “I’m through with this drug stuff.” I had a little more product to sell—about half a kilo’s worth. I was going to get rid of my stash and be done with it.

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I said goodnight to my mom and called Tiffany to tell her I was coming home. She asked me to stop in at the corner store to pick up a gallon of milk and a package of cookie dough. Evening had come as I walked to the shop. Before I got there, though, a beat cop rolled up on me in his squad car for the second time that day. He asked some meaningless questions, and I figured he was just giving me trouble. Then another vehicle—a burgundy Oldsmobile Cutlass, an unmarked police car—skidded to a stop next to us. The driver told me to come over, and I walked to his car.

“Somebody just pointed you out for auto theft,” said the man in the Oldsmobile.

“That’s impossible,” I answered. “If I had done something wrong, would I be standing here talking to a uniform in a squad car?” The whole idea was laughable.

But the driver, a sergeant, wasn’t laughing. Instead, he slowly and deliberately took out his gun and rested it on the windowsill. The barrel was aimed directly at me. Then he stepped out of the car and started to clip handcuffs on my wrists. By this time, Tiffany, my mother, my grandmother, and my aunties, had all come down the street to see what was going on. They were worried, but I was calm. I knew that I hadn’t stolen any cars. This was a misunderstanding that we could easily clear up. As the sergeant conducted me into the back seat of his vehicle, I turned to reassure my family.

“I’ll be back in forty-five minutes,” I hollered to them.

I had lost track of the time. But a whole lot more than 45 minutes had gone by—and yet here I was, still chained to the wall in the Area 3 precinct house. I had plenty of time to think back on my interactions with the police. I had known them my whole life. Or at least I thought I had. They always fucked with us. They would say some shit. I would say shit back. Harassment was a constant fact of life. But here in this room—this was something else. The interrogators did everything they could to baffle and disorient me. They left me waiting for hours. Sometimes I squinted into bright lights; at other points I sat by myself in absolute darkness. Then the officers would crash into the stillness with a terrifying outburst of violence.

The physical pain was excruciating. But the uncertainty and confusion—that was torture. The hard-faced detective—his name was Michael Kill, I’d eventually find out—stormed in and out of my room repeatedly over the course of several hours. Each visit resulted in blows and kicks. The third time, he returned with another man. They were a mismatched team. Whereas Kill was lean, thin-faced, and blond, the second man was fat and ruddy with a full head of red hair. I knew by the white uniform shirt he wore that he was a high-ranking officer, maybe a sergeant. That was all I could tell of his identity, however, because the first thing he did upon entering the room was remove the nametag from his chest.

No questions this time. Kill came at me again. He punched me in the left side of my face and I went down. With my hands still cuffed to the wall behind my back, I was completely helpless when I fell. Contorted half-on and half-off the chair, my shoulders were in agony. As I lay twisting there, Kill kicked me in the chest, the midsection, the testicles, the ribs. The fat commander clambered up on top of the desk and began stomping me in the back. His heavy shoes thumped into my ribs and spine.

It went on for a matter of minutes. Then, just as suddenly as they had entered, the two men disappeared, leaving me alone again, bewildered and gasping painfully to breathe. Only later—years later—would I finally discover the name of that fat man who was so determined to keep his identity a secret. Today, anyone who has read a newspaper in the past decade is likely to have heard of him. But back in 1988, as far as the general public knew, Jon Burge was just another Chicago cop.

“This is what you did,” Detective Kill sneered at me, as he shuffled photographs around on the desk. “Nigger, we know you did this.” Hours more had slipped away. The ordeal had destroyed any sense of time. I had no idea how long I had been here, or whether it was day or night. Despite all that I had been through, I still had only the most general notion about what crime the homicide squad was even investigating.

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I glanced for an instant at the pictures on the tabletop and turned away in horror; they were too gruesome to look at for long. The officer clutched my head and forced it down, making me stare at the photos. I saw crime scene snapshots of dead, disfigured bodies—the charred and burned remains of two young women and three little babies. “Nigger,” Kill sneered, “we got you on record saying you did this.” With a sinking feeling, I suddenly understood the depths of my trouble. The mystery of my ordeal—the secrecy and torture—finally snapped into focus. They wanted me for a mass murder.

Even for Chicago, the crime had been brutal and tragic. A month earlier, firefighters had discovered these five corpses inside a burning bungalow on a quiet street in the Mexican area of Gage Park. One of the women had been beaten, and the children were smothered with pillows. The fire had been set by the assailant in hopes of destroying the evidence of violence. It was a sensational case, and the police were under pressure to find the perpetrators. The women were mothers, hardworking teacher’s aides. There was another factor, too. One of the victims was the daughter of a Chicago cop.

The story had drawn some media attention, but in those days I was not exactly up on current events. I had never heard of these murders until that moment. I never spent time in the neighborhood where the crime had occurred. In the drug business, I’d had no contact with any Mexicans. But now I understood what the police were claiming I had done. The realization that I was being charged with five murders should have been terrifying. Or, if I was thinking clearly, it might have even felt like a relief—since I knew I was innocent of the charges. But it was not like a normal encounter when someone comes straight up into your face and accuses you of something you didn’t do. In that situation you would say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” My thought processes were so jumbled by the beatings that this knowledge just added to my bewilderment. Confused isn’t even the word. Mentally and emotionally I was not even in the room anymore. I was someplace else. I was in the land of What the fuck is going on? And though I now knew my supposed crime, I still had no idea why the detectives thought I was the perpetrator.

Later on, I got my first hint. A big detective, the same officer who had brought me into custody, entered the interrogation room. Playing the role of “good cop,” he asked if I was OK and offered me something to eat. I told him I wanted to know what evidence they had on me. He brought out the case file. My hands were still cuffed, so he set the papers on the desk and turned the pages. I scanned the document to see the name of the person who had fingered me to the detectives. When I saw it, I almost laughed. It was an acquaintance, at best—a neighborhood guy whose sister was dating my cousin. In the statement, he claimed that we had talked over the phone, and that during several of these conversations I had bragged to him about committing the murders.

“I don’t know why this dude told you this,” I said. “I don’t socialize with him and he don’t come to my house.” I asked the big detective if I could use the phone to call my lawyer. With a smile he walked over and lifted the receiver. Then the smile vanished. He unplugged the handset from its cord and smashed me with it on the side of my head. “Do you hear ringing now?” he asked, and thundered out, switching off the lights as he left.

Sitting there in the dark, I heard a lot of ringing. The police had gradually broken me down. They had starved me and refused to let me use the toilet. I was injured and disoriented.

I was moved into a holding area and then to a second room. During these transfers I caught a glance of Marvin Reeves, my grandmother’s godson, who was in a different interrogation room and had a massive black eye. It was morning. I could see the sunlight through the window. It had been maybe 12 hours and I hadn’t had a scrap of food or a sip of water.

“We have ways of making niggers talk,” boasted the next officer to enter. “I’m going to introduce you to the telephone book and the blackjack.” He then placed the phone directory on my skull and wailed on it with his nightstick. Oh, my God, it hurt. It felt like he was trying to knock my brains into my neck. He jabbed me in the gut with the baton until I rose to my feet, and then he shoved it between my legs and ground it into my testicles, lifting me onto my tippy toes and almost into the air with the force. He commanded me to admit I’d spoken to the informant. “I never said this shit to him,” I repeated. “I don’t know why he’s lying to y’all.”

Detectives appeared and departed. If their tactics differed slightly they all showed the same rage. Each one made the same threat, in so many words: You will say what we tell you to say. After an entire night in the police station, I hurt everywhere. My testicles were swollen, and my ribs ached with every breath. When the police finally did let me use the bathroom later that morning my urine was red with blood. But the officers at Area 3 knew how to mess up someone real bad without leaving any incriminating wounds. That’s why Kill had used open-palm slaps when he hit my face, why Burge had kicked me in the back, why the one detective had smashed the phone on the top of my head, and why other had used the telephone book to reduce the visible damage from his nightstick.

In my mind, only two paths existed: They were going to torture me to death, or I would have to confess to this crime I didn’t do.

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When the assistant state’s attorney first entered the room I hoped he might be a lifeline. That was naive. He asked if anyone had read me my rights. I told him they had not, and he began with the formalities—15 hours after my arrest. I had a lawyer—a longtime family friend, who had represented me before—and I was frantic to speak with him. I told the prosecutor my attorney’s name and telephone number and asked him to contact the man for me. He promised to look into it and left the room.

Detective Kill came roaring back in moments later, shouting, “Nigger, you just don’t know how to do what we say to do.” He smacked and slapped me around. He said he knew that we did it, Marvin and me. Everyone did. Over and over, he issued the same dark threat: “We have ways of making niggers talk.”

I finally agreed to speak to the prosecutor again, but then when he came back, I told him, “I don’t want to talk to you. I want to talk to my lawyer.” He left. And here came Kill.

“Everyone knows you did it,” he shouted, punching me again and again. “We have ways of making niggers talk.” It seemed like they could go on forever. But I’d had enough.

“All right,” I sighed, “I’ll talk to him.” This time, when the prosecutor returned, Kill stayed with us. Exhausted, desperate, aching and throbbing, and no longer able to keep up the fight, I finally said, “I’ll do whatever you want.”

This was when I gave my so-called confession. Here’s how it went. Detective Kill stood behind me and told the entire story directly to the assistant state’s attorney. According to the narrative he created, Marvin and I had murdered the women because of a drug debt. The figure he concocted—$1,200—would be cited by newspapers as evidence of our cruelty. Doing the math, reporters would claim that we had valued our victims’ lives at just over $200 apiece. Sitting across the desk, the prosecutor dutifully wrote it all down on a piece of paper. All I did was agree to it. Whatever Kill told me to say, I said it. The attorney never asked me about any particulars. All he asked was, “Is this how it happened?” And I just said yes, yes. “Anything else?” No. The entire statement came from Kill. I did not add a single detail, and I did not object to anything. During this whole time the only two words I ever said were “yes” and “no.”

I had no choice but to confess. Once I felt that the prosecutor and the police were working together, I knew that there was no other way out. Even as I said “yes” to all of Kill’s lies, I was already thinking about the future. I couldn’t imagine this statement ever holding up in court. Long before we even reached trial, I thought, the arraignment judges would see my wounds and set me free. The intake doctors would examine me and testify on my behalf. The entire system—I truly believed this—was designed to protect me from the actions of the likes of Burge and Kill. The moment I escaped their clutches, my “confession” would be seen for what it obviously was—a bunch of lies.

When the prosecutor finished scribbling, he passed the document across the table for me to see. There were large block letters written across the top that said, “Statement of Ronald Kitchen.” Beneath the heading a paragraph read, “I understand I have the right to remain silent. Anything I say can be used against me in a court of law.” I signed my name beneath those words. And I signed again on the bottom of the page. I signed it on page two. I signed it on page three. I signed every page of the confession. I didn’t even bother to read it. I knew what it said. Then the state’s attorney signed it, and he and Kill left. Drained, bruised, starving, and exhausted, I found myself alone.

The life I had led up to that moment was stolen from me by Jon Burge, Michael Kill, and the Chicago police. Precious years were taken away due to a lie that strangers told about me. Because of who I was, and the way I looked, others were eager to believe that I was a monster and a murderer. Few would show any interest—at first—in listening to my version of events.

It has taken time for me to find my own voice. But now I bear witness to this history. And when I speak, it is not only for myself but also for other survivors of John Burge’s Midnight Crew.

 

In 2013, Kitchen received a settlement of more than $6 million from the city of Chicago. Reeves received the same. In all, the city has spent a reported $115 million in compensation to victims of Jon Burge and the detectives working under him.

No indictments were made against Burge or his men for abusive behavior because statute of limitations had run out. But in 2010, Burge was convicted of federal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from a lawsuit brought by one of the victims and given a four-and-a-half year sentence.

Michael Kill, the detective most actively involved in coercing a confession from Kitchen, was accused of abusing suspects in at least 18 other investigations. He died recently.

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