Chicago police torture victim speaks at ECC
By Janelle Walker For The Courier-News September 12, 2012 10:30AM
Attorney Carolyn Frazier listens to former prisoner Ronald Kitchen on Sept. 11, 2012, at Elgin Community College. Kitchen spent 21 years in prison — 13 of them on Illinois' Death Row — for a quintuple murder he did not commit. He was arrested in 1988, at age 22, after two women and three children were found dead in their home on Chicago's Southwest side. He falsely confessed to committing this crime after allegedly being beaten for several hours by detectives working under Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge, who is in federal prison for lying under oath about alleged torture of African-American men to extract confessions in the 1970s and 1980.Carolyn Frazier was one of the law students assigned to his case. | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 14, 2012 1:26PM
ELGIN — Ronald Kitchen says he just wanted the beating to stop.
On that day back in 1988, the then-22-year-old Chicago man had been pulled off the street and accused of the murder of two women and three children. A jailhouse snitch — a man he knew, but not well — told police that Kitchen had bragged about the murders to him over the phone.
In July 2009, following 21 years in prison — 13 of those on death row — Kitchen was exonerated. Instead, former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge is in federal prison, serving a four-year sentence on charges he lied to investigators looking into allegations that, under his watch, officers routinely beat confessions out of African-American men.
Kitchen and Carolyn Frazier, one of the law students assigned to his appellate case, were at Elgin Community College on Tuesday, sharing the story of how a man could end up on death row for a crime he did not commit and how attorneys were able to prove his innocence.
The talk was part of the school’s Humanities Center Speaker Series. It was fitting, said professor David Zacker, to hold the conversation on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“Nine-eleven marks an important event in our history, challenges our sense of identity in this nation, our sense of values,” Zacker said. “The story illustrates … our values as stated and our values as practiced.”
When Frazier was assigned to work on Kitchen’s case, she had only taken one criminal law class. “My husband said he knew more than me because he watched ‘C.S.I.,’ ” on TV, Frazier quipped.
But as she, Kitchen’s attorneys and other students began digging into the case, it quickly fell apart, she said.
“Ronald got lucky enough that he got an appellate attorney who believed in Ronald’s case and in Ronald,” Frazier said.
Kitchen admits he was not a perfect citizen. He sold drugs and was familiar with police.
He also didn’t have a problem doing time for something he’d actually done, Kitchens told the packed room of ECC students.
“I believed in the system. You do a crime, if I get caught up, I am going to get what I get,” he said.
But he thought that if he said yes, he’d done the murder, he’d get the beating — 17 hours worth to his memory — to stop. Once he got in front of a judge, Kitchen said, he believed the case would be thrown out and he’d go home. “I would get in front of a judge, he would see what happened and it would be over,” Kitchen said.
There was a myriad of evidence in the case, Frazier said, including blood and fingerprints, that were never tested. Several other people were questioned. Those other suspects, they discovered during the appeal, had failed polygraph tests. But all other avenues of investigation were ignored once the jailhouse snitch pointed a finger at Kitchen.
There were many police on both the state’s attorney’s office staff and in the police department who, years after the conviction, believed in Kitchen’s innocence, Frazier said. “It is not just the defense attorney here,” she said.
When Kitchen was convicted, DNA evidence was in its infancy, she added. Now, DNA makes convictions seem much more reliable.
But, she added, false confessions — from police abuse or psychological tricks — still happen. Jailhouse informants still testify at trial, and receive some sort of consideration from officials for their complicity.
“We need to have talks like this to educate people” about abuses in the system, and reform is needed, Frazier said.
There are also people, she conceded, who believe the end justify the means — beating confessions from suspects. “Maybe someone in the audience will talk to someone … whose mind will be changed if they have a meaningful discussion,” she said.