Fighting the Illinois Death Penalty

While we had worked on several significant and politically important death penalty cases during our first 20 years – the Pontiac cases in the early 1980s were one example – in the early 1990s we began to take on cases where the political significance of the case was the death penalty itself.  As Illinois sent more and more people to death row, and the reality of the death sentence being carried out became more stark, we decided that fighting death penalty cases was significant and important work, and that it was right to put a substantial portion of our energy there and we began to represent a number of death row prisoners in post conviction proceedings.

One of our first cases involved Larry Mack, who had been sentenced to death after he was convicted of the murder of a bank guard during a bank robbery. As was true with many death penalty cases, he was represented at trial by an attorney who was extremely ineffective and who mounted almost no challenge to the State’s case. We argued that Mack had never been properly found eligible for the death penalty, since the jury never determined that he intentionally killed the guard, and we were successful in persuading the judge to throw out the death penalty and then successfully defended the decision on appeal before the Illinois Supreme Court. The Mack decision was then used by several other persons sentenced to death in getting their death sentences reversed. On remand, the State again attempted to obtain the death penalty but we were successful in persuading the jury to reject it.

In the mid-1990s we took on the death penalty case of Nathson Fields, who was accused of being an El Rukn gang member who had shot two rival gang members in a supposed battle over drug turf. Although the case against Fields was never strong and rested almost entirely on very questionable eyewitness identifications, the trial judge, Thomas Maloney, who was renowned for being nasty, racist and pro-prosecution, ruled that the witnesses were credible and sentenced Fields and his co-defendant to death. After we filed the post-conviction petition Maloney was indicted for official corruption, and one of the counts was that in Fields’ case he had extorted a bribe of $10,000 from Field’s co-defendant in return for promising to acquit, had actually received the cash, but had then returned the bribe when he, correctly, suspected that he was under surveillance by the FBI.  Eventually Maloney was convicted and served a lengthy prison term. Although the State did not acknowledge that trial before a corrupt judge who had taken a bribe from a co-defendant denied Fields a fair trial, and appealed the case to the Illinois Supreme Court, we were able to get the conviction and sentence thrown out. Many years later the case was retried and Fields was acquitted.

We also took on another death penalty case involving Maloney, representing William Bracy in a federal habeas corpus petition.  Bracy had also been tried and sentenced to death before Maloney, at a time when Maloney was actively soliciting bribes. Although no bribes were passed in Bracy’s case, we argued that Maloney was prejudiced against defendants who did not bribe them – he treated them very severely in order to conceal his pro-defendant rulings in cases in which he did take bribes, and to recruit more defense attorneys to pay bribes by making it clear that you had to pay to win. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals initially scoffed at this theory (over an impassioned dissent by Judge Rovner), but the United States Supreme Court held that Bracy was entitled to discovery to see if the theory could be backed up. When we did this discovery we found a previously hidden report from the United States Attorney’s office which concluded that Maloney used precisely this strategy to conceal his corruption and recruit more bribers.  Eventually, after several years of litigation and appeals, we were able to have Bracy’s death penalty thrown out for good.

Our work exposing torture in the Chicago Police Department also led directly to another death penalty case. Aaron Patterson was tortured by Area 2 police into assenting to an inculpatory statement, then, only moments later, scratched a recantation which documented his torture onto the bench in his interrogation room. The detectives who obtained the statement were some of the same detectives who had been involved in many other cases of torture, and included the notorious Jon Burge, yet this information had never been presented to the trial court. In 1994 we took over the case on post conviction review and began to build a powerful evidentiary record of the torture history of Burge and the other police involved in Patterson’s interrogation, and demanded an evidentiary hearing.  After being turned down at the trial court level we pursued an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court and obtained a landmark ruling that defendants who alleged that they were tortured by Chicago police officers were entitled to post conviction relief, even if there was no evidence of lasting physical injuries. After remand, and several years later, Patterson was pardoned on the basis of his innocence.

We also represented two Indiana death row prisoners. In one, the case of Kevin Hough, we battled for years to get a new sentencing hearing, but by the time we got the case it was already on federal habeas review, which makes it very difficult to obtain relief. Eventually, Kevin was executed. In the other, where we represented Zolo Azania, the case was still in the state court system, where Zolo had twice been sentenced to death. Through the extensive research and  indefatigable efforts of Erica and Michael we were able to establish that the jury pool used at Zolo’s second death sentence trial excluded many African Americans, and this was enough to get him a new trial, though we had to go to the Indiana Supreme Court to get it. We then represented Zolo in the trial court, where the State was still aggressively seeking the death penalty, and after years of litigation and yet another appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court were able to get the death sentence rejected and Zolo sentenced to a term of years

In addition to representing individual clients who had been sentenced to death we also were actively involved in the movement to abolish the death penalty in Illinois. This movement took years to foster and develop, led by committed activists including our old friend Dick Cunningham who was tragically killed in 2001, and our former partner and continued comrade Chick Hoffman. Steps along the way included a moratorium on the infliction of the death penalty, and later the mass commutation of all death sentences in Illinois by former Governor Ryan in early 2003. At the hearings into the commutations we represented several clients, including Renaldo Hudson, Cortez Brown, William Bracy, Leroy Orange and Bernina Matta, and presented compelling evidence about the torture ring led by Burge which was implicated in several of the death penalty cases. After the commutations were announced we helped successfully defend them before the Illinois Supreme Court. We then continued to participate in the fight to abolish the death penalty in the state, efforts which reached fruition with abolition in Illinois in 2011.


Early Days
The Murder of Fred Hampton
Government Surveillance
Representing the Panthers in Downstate Illinois
Attica New York Prison Riots
The Fred Hampton Murder Trial
Prisoner Rights Work
Puerto Rican Independence Movement and the Puerto Rican Community
Fred Hampton Appeal
George Jones Street Files and False Imprisonment
Representing Demonstrators, Protestors, and Activists
Puerto Rico Work Continues
Police Brutality and Torture
Continuing to Represent Demonstrators and Activists
The Attica Prison Civil Case
Continuing Work in Solidarity With Puerto Rico
Fighting the Death Penalty
Sexual Abuse Litigation and Illegal Strip Search
Back to the Supreme Court
The 1996 Democratic Convention
Policy and Practice Cases
False Arrests and Convictions
Continuing to Defend Dissent
Continuing the Fight for Justice in the Chicago Police Torture Cases
Criminal Defense for Civil Rights Abuses
Jail Suicide
Opposing the Criminalization of the LGBTQ Community
People’s Law Office and The National Lawyers Guild