Alleged Police-Torture Victim Freed
Man spent 23 years in prison for murder after he confessed to
direction of former Cmdr. Jon Burge
By Matthew Walberg
January 15, 2010
Freed Thursday after almost a quarter century behind
bars, Michael Tillman said it "feels good," but he also
had a grim prediction for the
who allegedly tortured him into confessing.
"They'll get what they got coming," Tillman told
reporters in the
"The system will do to them what they did to me."
Tillman stood in borrowed clothes and nervously fidgeted
with a black stocking cap as he addressed the news media
moments after special prosecutors dropped charges
against him for the 1986 slaying and rape of Betty
Howard in an abandoned South Side apartment.
He is the latest longtime inmate to be freed because of
allegations of torture by detectives under disgraced
In court papers, special prosecutors brought in to
handle the case said that if Tillman was retried, the
state would be unable to disprove that the confession
had been coerced. And there wasn't enough other reliable
evidence to convict him of the murder, they said.
The special prosecutors went on to acknowledge evidence
of "a pattern and practice of abuse" at what is now the
detectives -- which Tillman's lawyers heralded as a
first for the state.
"In 35 years -- starting with Richard Daley, Richard
Devine, Lisa Madigan -- no prosecutor in charge of these
cases has ever conceded that a man was tortured or
abused at Area 2," attorney
handled numerous Burge-related cases, said outside court.
A Madigan spokeswoman defended her office's handling of
some of the Burge-related prosecutions, noting that six
inmates have been freed in recent years after careful
analyses of their cases.
Howard, a single mother, had left for a birthday party
for her 2-year-old son when they were abducted in their
apartment building and taken to a vacant unit. The boy
was locked in a nearby bathroom as his mother was tied
to a radiator, sexually assaulted, stabbed and shot.
Tillman has long alleged he was tortured into
confessing. He was sentenced to life in prison after his
first conviction in 1986 in a bench trial before Circuit
Judge Kenneth Gillis, now retired. He appealed on the
grounds that his confession was coerced and should not
have been used at trial. But in overturning his
conviction and ordering a new trial in 1991, the
Appellate Court found fault instead with the
effectiveness of his lawyer. A jury found him guilty again in 1996.
In raising the alleged torture again last year, Tillman
contended that over three days of questioning, Burge's
detectives beat him with a phone book, staged a mock
execution by holding a gun to his head and covered his
head with a plastic bag. He also alleged that detectives
poured 7UP into his nose after forcing his head back in
what his lawyers called a crude form of waterboarding.
In their court papers, the special prosecutors noted
that detectives under Burge had given conflicting
explanations for blood found on the floor of the room
where Tillman was interrogated.
The prosecutors also pointed out that evidence appeared
much stronger against Clarence Trotter, who is also
serving a life sentence for Howard's murder. He was
found in possession of the murder weapon and personal
property of the victim's, and his fingerprints were
found on a pop can at the murder scene.
Burge, who was fired in 1993 for the abuse of a
suspected cop killer, is scheduled to go to trial in
federal court in May on charges he lied while testifying
in a civil proceeding about the alleged torture under
his watch. No detectives under his command have been
charged with criminal wrongdoing.
During a 15-minute hearing Thursday, Assistant Special
State's Attorney Myles O'Rourke asked that the murder
and rape charges against Tillman be dropped because he
was convicted with "coerced statements" and the state
couldn't prove his guilt based on the remaining
"unreliable evidence." Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan
then dismissed the case, freeing Tillman after about 23
1/2 years in custody.
Moments later, as Tillman's handcuffs were being
removed, O'Rourke approached Tillman's mother, Jean, as
she wept in the front row of the courtroom gallery.
"Sorry this took as long as it took," O'Rourke said.
But Tillman's release devastated Howard's relatives, who
still believe that he was responsible for her murder.
"It's truly messed up that the police messed up this
case, and because of that, Michael is getting let out,"
said the victim's daughter, Angelita.
After his morning release, Tillman celebrated with
friends, family and his legal team over lunch at
MacArthur's Restaurant, his first post-prison meal.
After so many years behind bars, Tillman was startled at
the automatic hand-soap dispenser in the restroom of the
cell phone up to his ear and seemed perplexed by a flat-
screen television that wasn't turned on. "What's that
for?" he asked.
"I feel that it went great today, but I just didn't
appreciate being locked up for 23 and a half years for
something I did not do," he said over corn bread, fried
chicken, barbecue ribs and collard greens. "It hasn't
hit me yet. When I'm by myself and just thinking, then
it will hit me. Right now I'm just happy."
more than 20 other inmates he estimates remain behind
bars despite their allegations that their murder
confessions were coerced by Burge and his detectives.
"It is incumbent that everyone who has a documented case
of torture or abuse from Area 2 and Burge's people, that
they have a new hearing and a new trial without that
tortured confession," he said. "It doesn't mean that
they are all innocent. It doesn't mean that they are all
guilty. ... But, regardless, they are all entitled under
the Constitution and the law not to be convicted in part
or in total on tortured, coerced confessions."
obtain a certificate of innocence -- similar to a pardon
-- that would entitle him to nearly $200,000 in
compensation from the state for his years in prison.
Freelance reporter Jessica Pupovac contributed to this report.