Puerto Rico’s Colonial Case in the United Nations

This in-depth essay looks at the history and current status of Puerto Rico’s colonial case within the United Nations. With interviews from Petitioners at this year’s Decolonization Committee hearings, it provides an overview and update of efforts in support of Puerto Rico’s independence before the international body.


On June 23, 2014, the Special Committee on Decolonization of the United Nations heard more than 40 petitioners speak on Puerto Rico’s colonial condition. It then approved by consensus a resolution reaffirming “the inalienable right of the people of Puerto Rico to self-determination and independence in conformity with General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV).” Presented by a Cuban representative, members of the Committee from Iran, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Costa Rica also made supporting statements, some on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

But the Committee, created by the UN General Assembly in 1961, has adopted more than 30 similar resolutions since its first in 1972. Why hasn’t this affected a change in Puerto Rico’s colonial status? Were there other efforts within the UN prior to this?  And what more can be done within the UN to support the decolonization of Puerto Rico?

Part I—Background of the Case

Early Years of the United Nations

To observe the frustrated struggle of Puerto Rican independence advocates within the UN Special Committee is to observe the most recent chapter in the uphill battle such advocates have faced within the UN since its founding in 1945. Among the first to take on this challenge and opportunity were associates of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico. Lawyer and Party member Julio Pinto Gandía would serve as its delegate at the founding meeting in San Francisco, and the next year, as a result of an active and consistent presence, the UN would officially grant the Party observer status as a non-governmental organization. Thelma Mielke, an American pacifist, would be chosen by the Party to take up this post.

When the Charter of the United Nations was signed, its Declaration Regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories (Chapter XI) applied directly to the case of Puerto Rico. By Article 73 of that text, the United States found itself obligated to promote the well-being of its people, and to submit yearly reports to the UN Secretary-General detailing their economic, social, and educational conditions. An ad hoc committee was then formed in December 1946 to ensure these international obligations were carried out.

Thelma Mielke, only person to exercise observer status in the UN on behalf of a Puerto Rican organization. Source: Lydia Collazo Cortez/Facebook

Besides pressuring the U.S. to follow through with its obligations, the Nationalist Party also submitted its own reports on a more regular basis, sometimes bi-weekly, to delegates at an unofficial level. On August 26, 1947, it even filed a petition for audience with the Secretary-General, and to appear before the ad hoc Committee. With only India, Egypt, and Russia insisting petitions be heard, the other members of the Committee, which by rule was composed of an equal number colonial and non-colonial powers, either voted against or abstained, resulting in the Party being denied its request. This was the first major event in the struggle for Puerto Rico’s independence within the UN.

Effects of the Commonwealth Formula

In 1948, as the U.S. government was preparing to draft a constitution to mask its colonial relationship with Puerto Rico, it passed a law criminalizing independence sentiment on the island. In response, Nationalists organized an uprising initiated on October 30, 1950. According to uprising leader Elio Torresola, the fighting was to conclude with the coalescence of all forces in Utuado, when they would seek the supportive intervention of international organizations, such as the UN. The day after it began, UN observer Thelma Mielke wrote the Secretary-General asking that the case of Puerto Rico be considered in the General Assembly. The response given by an assistant two days later was “the Secretary-General is not in a position to take action on the matter.” Disappointed, Mielke was further informed on November 6 that, without explanation, her observer status had been removed.

Letter to Thelma Mielke from UN noting her loss of observer status. Source: pedroapontevazquez.com

By then, more than 200 National Guard members activated by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín were well on their way to quelling the uprising, having bombed by air the towns of Jayuya and Utuado, and arrested more than a thousand. With many Nationalist leaders in prison, the Commonwealth Government was constituted on July 25, 1952. Immediately, the U.S. took action to clear its obligations under the UN. With support from its imperial allies, the abstention of others, and the symbolic endorsement of the new colonial government, the U.S. succeeded in getting the UN General Assembly to pass Resolution 748, officially removing Puerto Rico from the list of non-self-governing territories on November 27, 1953.

Part II—The Passing of Resolution 1514

UN Resolution 1514 Presents New Opportunities

Resolution 748 was a major blow to the case of Puerto Rico within the UN. With Puerto Rico disguised as a ‘free associated state,’ the U.S. and its allies maintained its strategic bloc preventing any consideration of the territory by the UN for years. What would mark the end of this period of imperial hegemony would be the adoption of the landmark Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (Resolution 1514) on December 14, 1960. Proclaiming the need to bring colonialism to “a speedy and unconditional end,” the resolution established self-determination as an inalienable right of all peoples. In a resolution passed the following day, three status alternatives were clearly defined for specific use in determining whether a territory had reached self-government.

Because the U.S. Congress maintained absolute control over Puerto Rico under the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution despite the ‘free association’ represented by the Commonwealth, the significance of these resolutions was not lost on independence advocates. Thus, when the UN established the Special Committee on Decolonization on November 27, 1961 to oversee the application of Resolution 1514, the opportunity to raise the case of Puerto Rico before the organization once again clearly presented itself. The Committee met for its first time on March 1, 1962.

Ché Guevara during 1964 UN speech where he expressed solidarity with Puerto Rico on behalf of Cuba. Source: telegraph.co.uk

Immediately, the Committee received a document by the Movimiento Pro-Independencia (MPI) formally requesting an audience with the Committee, and that the Committee visit Puerto Rico to survey its conditions. Then a member of the Committee, the U.S. exercised its usual pressure to prevent any Puerto Rican independence organization from being recognized within the UN, resulting in the document being ignored without even being acknowledged as received. Nevertheless, in 1972 the Special Committee would at last address Puerto Rico. Through the committed work of various groups, and the active solidarity of Cuban ambassador to the UN Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada, a breakthrough was finally achieved that year when the Committee passed its first resolution in favor of the Caribbean territory’s inalienable right to self-determination and independence. This resolution opened wide the doors of the UN for Puerto Rico after nearly being closed nineteen years earlier in 1953. A new chapter in its international struggle had begun.

Part III—The Contemporary Context

Plebiscites and U.S. Government Status Initiatives After Resolution 1514

Since the first in 1972, there have been 33 resolutions by the Special Committee affirming the applicability of Resolution 1514 to Puerto Rico. Each by their nature invalidates Resolution 748, which the U.S. uses to argue Puerto Rico as being outside the Committee’s jurisdiction. On the island, four plebiscites (1967, 1993, 1998, and Nov. 6, 2012) that have taken place to measure status option preferences have also resulted in no U.S. Congressional action. Human rights expert Wilma E. Reverón Collazo has outlined the problematic nature of these plebiscites, most notably in a discussion paper she presented at the 2013 Regional Seminar of the UN Special Committee in Ecuador.

Wilma E. Reverón Collazo at the 2013 UN Regional Seminar in Quito, Ecuador. Source: inhep.blogspot.com

In her discussion paper, Reverón Collazo highlighted five commonalities of the plebiscites: 1) each were realized without consideration of international law despite coming after the passing of Resolution 1514; 2) none were binding on the U.S. government; 3) none have compelled or succeeded in getting the U.S. to take action based on the plebiscite results; 4) none were preceded by a non-partisan, non-sectarian educational campaign informing people in detail of the consequences of each option; and, 5) none obtained the consensus or participation of all the political parties, each being boycotted by one party or another.

Similar initiatives by the U.S. government have also proved futile. An Ad Hoc Advisory Group begun under President Nixon in 1973 and concluded under President Ford in 1976 drafted legislation to provide the island greater autonomy that never went to Congress. A policy developed by President Carter in 1978 that would have had the executive branch supporting all possible status options, and a call by President Bush in 1989 for Congress to authorize a referendum, also concluded without Congressional action. These efforts are noted in a 2011 report produced by the most recent U.S. initiative, the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico begun by President Clinton in 2000. Created to examine status and voting process proposals, the Task Force was continued under President Obama in 2009 with the added responsibility of seeking advice and recommendations on various island policies and issues. Besides going nowhere, these initiatives also ignore the terms laid out under international law regarding decolonization.

The Non-Aligned Movement and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States

International support for Puerto Rico’s independence, beyond coming from several governments, also comes from two notable international bodies, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). Established in 1961 by twenty-five newly independent countries seeking to promote national sovereignty, cooperation, and social justice, NAM has strongly supported the application of Resolution 1514 to Puerto Rico since its Second Summit in 1964 Cairo. This support was actually a factor in the UN Special Committee finally taking up the issue in 1971, and the passing of the previously mentioned resolution of 1972. NAM, currently with 120 member countries, continues to play a role at its summits by calling for the UN General Assembly to address the case of Puerto Rico, most recently in 2012 Tehran.

Olga I. Sanabria Dávila at the Non-Aligned Movement's 2012 Summit in Tehran, Iran. Source: otropuertoricoesposible.org

CELAC, on the other hand, was only recently created in 2010. Composed of thirty-three independent countries in Latin America and the Caribbean desiring an end to the historic influence of the U.S. in that region, CELAC offers Puerto Rico a new international platform. In a “Forum for a Free and Independent Puerto Rico” held last January in Caracas, the President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, announced his proposal to integrate Puerto Rico as a member of CELAC. This proposal, should it gain the active support of all 33 member countries of CELAC, would produce a significant development in the case of Puerto Rico on the international level, and provide greater impetus for the UN General Assembly to take it up. In one of four interviews following, Wilma E. Reverón Collazo further explains why.

Part IV—Interviews with Special Committee Petitioners

Recent Petitioners in the Special Committee on Decolonization

While preparing this essay, I had the opportunity to interview four petitioners from this year’s Special Committee hearings. Two presented on issues directly related to Puerto Rico’s colonial condition, while the others presented more in regards to the status issue.

Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan—

Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan. Source: nlg.org

Since filing a petition last year with the National Lawyers Guild before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights alleging human rights violations in Vieques by the U.S., Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan has had the opportunity to promote it in various places. This was her first time testifying before the United Nations.

Connecting Puerto Rico’s status to the case of Vieques, Bannan said: “One cannot discuss Vieques and the military occupation and destruction of the island without discussing the colonial context of Puerto Rico. Were it not for the fact that Puerto Rico is a colony of the U.S., the US Navy never would have expropriated and bombed Vieques. If Puerto Rico were a sovereign nation, no other foreign military agency would have been able to commit the atrocities as it did in Vieques without it being considered an act of war.”

“Organizations and Viequenses have been providing testimony before the Decolonization Committee for many years,” Bannan added. “And each year the Committee reaffirms its position that the military use of the island violates international human rights law and principles, and that the subsequent clean-up is both an inadequate remedy and is not being appropriately administered.”

“While the United States’ unofficial position is not to recognize or give credence to the Committee’s conclusions or recommendations,” Bannan went on to say, “it provides a much needed voice to the people and countries that remain colonized and thus have been stripped of political power, such as Puerto Rico and Palestine. The body is important because it provides a forum for issues related to the colonial status to be raised, including the ongoing military presence and repercussions of it in Vieques. Additionally, the resolutions issued by the body contribute to what is known as customary international law, or a compilation of official opinions, statements and conclusions issued by bodies such as the UN that contribute to developing human rights norms and principles.”

Jan Susler—

A Chicago-based lawyer, Jan Susler has petitioned before the Special Committee for a number of years on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild-International Committee. Presenting before the Committee several issues related to Puerto Rico’s status, we spoke with her specifically about Oscar López Rivera, whom she is currently attorney for.

Jan Susler testifying before the Special Committee. Source: nlginternational.org

“It’s a world body,” Susler said on the importance of the Special Committee as a forum for Oscar’s case. “A lot of times Puerto Rico is not so visible to the rest of the world. This is one moment when Puerto Rico is important to the world, so it’s enormously significant in campaigning for Oscar’s release.”

Susler added, “Resolutions have been adopted by consensus, without a vote, and people are impressed that this world body has taken a position.” This position includes support for Oscar’s release. “One of the presenters this year from Puerto Rico asked the Committee to make an intervention directly with the U.S. on Oscar’s behalf,” she told me. “The previous chair from Ecuador also went to U.S. representatives in the UN and did talk about Oscar.”

While she agrees Oscar’s imprisonment is symbolic of Puerto Rico’s own colonial bondage, Susler went further to say: “He’s also a symbol of resistance and hope for many people. And it goes beyond the question of Puerto Rico’s colonial case. It’s a humanitarian concern issue, and the Committee recognized that this year and last. The sense of unfairness and level to which the U.S. has gone to keep him in prison continues to outrage people, and it is a very uplifting and significant thing that this struggle is recognized on that level. After they passed the resolution, a number of ambassadors spoke, and many mentioned Oscar.”

Susler sent me a copy of her presentation before the Committee. You can download it here.

Wilma E. Reverón Collazo—

Co-President of the Movimiento Independentista Nacional Hostosiano (MINH), Wilma E. Reverón Collazo is a practicing attorney based in San Juan. Invited in recent years as a human rights expert from the Puerto Rico Bar Association to UN regional seminars, she provided me insight into the present situation at the UN in light of recent developments.

As a general statement to open our conversation, Reverón Collazo stated: “the Special Committee’s influence is limited because Puerto Rico is not on list of non-self-governing territories. The U.S. has used that as a way of asserting their position that the UN has no jurisdiction, and that Puerto Rico is a domestic internal affair. They don’t recognize the intervention of the Committee and refuse to apply international law.”

“Last year there was a delegate sitting in the U.S. bench during the hearings on Puerto Rico, but he did not say a word,” Reverón Collazo told me on the level of U.S. participation. “Most of the time his head was in his hands. In May 2013 there was a regional seminar in Quito. The U.S. sent emissaries, and though we exchanged some words, they did not participate publicly. This year there was another regional seminar in Fiji, and the lady present from the U.S. Embassy took notes but said no words. At this year’s hearings there was someone from the U.S. delegation, but he sat behind where his sign was. He was there, but not officially. What can we take from all of this? At least they’re listening.”

Wilma E. Reverón Collazo testifying before the Special Committee. Source: copronu.blogspot.com

Reverón Collazo did have more promising information to share. “If there has been any positive political situation for Puerto Rico to finally get to the UN General Assembly,” she said, “it’s next year because of several factors.” One of these factors is the creation of the regional body CELAC in 2010. “The way the UN works, it is of utmost importance that you have the support of your regional group. Puerto Rico has been gaining the support of the Latin American community, but not as staunchly and clearly as right now following two declarations made by CELAC, especially the last one in June in Havana. They specifically mandate CELAC to appear on behalf of Puerto Rico in the Decolonization Committee, and to work with the Committee to seek and propose solutions to the question of Puerto Rico. If we manage to really bind the 33 countries making up Puerto Rico’s geographic region, and get those 33 votes behind Puerto Rico’s case, we will be better able to get the question of Puerto Rico into the General Assembly.”

“A lot of the fears have to do with uncertainty after so many years under U.S. rule, and since we‘ve never been an independent country,” Reverón Collazo said, reflecting on the hesitation many express towards independence on the island. “People are still lost and don’t believe they can survive on their own. We need someone, like the UN, to say that when a territory transitions to independence there are these programs that can help, these funds available, and that this is not going to be a leap into the void. That educational process is vastly needed in Puerto Rico.” Suggesting that aiding such a process is the biggest contribution the Special Committee could make right now, she would ask it to “visit Puerto Rico to hear what the people have to say on the island’s condition, and receive consultations on the possibility of a constitutional assembly on the status question. The community knows the UN must not be an arbiter, but an institution to give information and orientation, and that ensures these processes are done in a fair, non-partisan manner.”

Olga I. Sanabria Dávila—

Active internationally around Puerto Rico’s colonial status since 1986, Olga I. Sanabria Dávila has served as representative of the Puerto Rican Committee of the United Nations for the last eight years. In our conversation, she outlined this year’s developments in the UN with respect to the island, and commented on potential decolonial processes.

Immediately, Sanabria Dávila pointed out two parts of this year’s resolution that directly address recent events. One part mentions the rejection of the current status in the 2012 plebiscite, further stating that, “that status prevents [the people] from taking sovereign decisions to address the serious economic and social problems of Puerto Rico.” Another part concerning the recent status debate in Puerto Rico notes several proposals for a constitutional assembly on status, highlighting “the ineffectiveness of consultations originating in the United States,” and, “the principle that any initiative for the solution of the political status of Puerto Rico should originate from the people of Puerto Rico.”

“These are elements that have to do with the present political moment and status debate,” Sanabria Dávila told me. “In Puerto Rico the credit standing has been downgraded. That makes the fiscal situation in Puerto Rico very challenging. And this situation is difficult to resolve because the colonial status is like an economic straitjacket.” On the recent status assembly debate, she said: “The PPD had promised they would carry out a status assembly, and it was somewhat widely supported by the independence movement. But when the Obama administration said they would assign a law providing 2.5 million dollars for the Puerto Rican people to hold another plebiscite, they went with that instead.”

“In Puerto Rico,” Sanabria Dávila added, “the idea of a status assembly as a more viable way than plebiscites of initiating a decolonization process is gaining ground. The consensus adopted would go to the Puerto Rican people to be approved, and once this happens Washington would have to listen. The U.S. has to support a mechanism that is a true exercise of the sovereignty of the Puerto Rican people, and the plebiscites they continually promote do not help. The status assembly gives them that opportunity.”

Olga I. Sanabria Dávila at a CUNY Grad Center panel on the status question. Photo by the author

As far as bringing Puerto Rico’s case to the UN General Assembly, Sanabria Dávila had this to say: “The fact that CELAC is supporting helps. When we bring the case to the General Assembly, countries from other regions will ask for the position of your region. So CELAC’s support helps a lot. Of course that NAM has historically supported decolonization also helps, but it’s important that our region states their support for the case of Puerto Rico at the UN, the highest international body. What happens in Puerto Rico is also crucial. The campaign to bring its case to the General Assembly has to be further articulated.”

Turning our focus to the Diaspora, Sanabria Dávila pointed out the continuous process of migration, stating that because of it, “Puerto Ricans in the Diaspora continually have an interest in Puerto Rico and its political status, even though some generations at this point might not be that interested.” Regarding its participation in a status assembly, she said, “a few models, including one by the Puerto Rico Bar Association, which independence sectors generally support, has a component dealing with the right of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. to participate, and to be elected as delegates for a status assembly. This model is beginning to gain ground, but there is still a lot of work to be done in Puerto Rico and the Diaspora.”

“There is a way of determining who are nationals of a country, regardless of whether they live in that country or not,” Sanabria Dávila further explained. “Generally, if you were born in the country, you’re a national. If both or one of your parents were born in the country, even if you were born outside and continue to live there, you are also considered a national. In the case of Puerto Rico, there are whole classes of people who fall under that category that would be eligible for election as delegates to a status assembly. The process would have to be originated in Puerto Rico, but the Diaspora has a good level of organization whereby some kind of structure could be elaborated to allow its participation.”

Part V—Conclusion

Thoughts Going Forward

Although the United Nations has presented a challenge to advocates of Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination and independence since it was founded, as the highest international body it nevertheless remains an important platform for the promotion of this right. While the UN is limited in influence due to Puerto Rico’s removal from the list of non-self-governing territories in 1953, the Special Committee on Decolonization has produced 33 resolutions since 1972 in favor of the Caribbean territory’s right to independence. In light of this, efforts to bring Puerto Rico’s case to the UN General Assembly should, and will, continue. Recent developments, like the support of CELAC, the regional bloc created in 2010, ought to serve as motivating factors to intensify international advocacy work so that a significant development in Puerto Rico’s condition can occur sooner rather than later.

The United States must recognize Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination, and look objectively and supportively at decolonization proposals originating from the island. The idea of a constitutional assembly recently debated on the island may provide one opportunity. Olga Sanabria told me that, though the situation is constantly changing, one of the more supported assembly models also calls for the participation of civil society organizations, such as environmental, women’s, community, youth, and LGBT groups. Such an act of national sovereignty requires incredible social engagement, only heightened by the Diaspora’s right to participate in the process. If this project were to gain momentum, with broad participation founded in an unbreakable commitment to Puerto Rico’s decolonization, the U.S. may be compelled to abide by its resolutions. The UN would then play a significant role in overseeing the subsequent exercise of sovereignty.

For now, the current situation must be addressed. As challenging as this situation may seem from a historical perspective, unfolding world events have produced new opportunities. To let them pass us by would be to ignore the UN’s call for a speedy and unconditional end to colonialism. How seriously we choose to work towards these ends in the coming years will determine how long it will take to see the beginnings of the construction of a new Puerto Rico founded upon self-determination and independence.

  • Pedro Albizu Campos. Memorandum on Non-self-Governing Territories and the United Nations, Nov. 17, 1947. Escritos (Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas, 2007).
  • Loida Figueroa. El caso de Puerto Rico a nivel internacional. Editorial Edil, 1979.
  • Carmen Gautier Mayoral. El nacionalismo y la descolonización internacional hemisférica en la posguerra. La nación Puertorriqueña: ensayos en torno a Pedro Albizu Campos (Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1993).
  • Carmen Gautier Mayoral; María del Pilar Argüelles. Puerto Rico y la ONU. Editorial Edil, 1978.
  • Ana M. López; Gabriela Reardon. Puerto Rico at the United Nations. North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), 2007. Accessible here: https://nacla.org/article/puerto-rico-united-nations.
  • Juan Mari Bras. Puerto Rico, el otro colonialismo; Intervenciones en la Organizacíon de Naciones Unidas y el Movimiento de Países No Alineados (1973-1981). Comité Central, Partido Socialista Puertorriqueño, 1982.
  • Ramón Medina Ramírez. El Movimiento Libertador en la historia de Puerto Rico. San Juan, 1970.
  • Marisa Rosado. Pedro Albizu Campos, Las llamas de la aurora: acercamiento a su biografia. Ediciones Puerto, 2008.
  • Miñi Seijo Bruno. La insurreccion nacionalista en Puerto Rico 1950. Editorial Edil, 1997.

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“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” Michael Brown and Police Violence in Ferguson

“Our Hands Are Up, Don’t Shoot Us!”

Protestors faced the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department with their hands raised and chanted for local law enforcement to not shoot them dead. Last weekend, in the early afternoon, Darren Wilson, a white police officer repeatedly shot and ultimately killed an unarmed 18 year old African American youth. Witnesses reported that the young man did not assault the officer and raised his hands in the air, when he was fatally shot. The community responded with shock, anguish and outrage which has spread to the entire country. The police killing of Michael Brown has reignited concerns about racism, the increasing militarization of police and the protection of the right to protest.

Officer Wilson ordered Michael Brown out of the street and reached through his squad car window to grab Michael by the neck. Approximately five minutes later, and by the time a second officer arrived on the scene, Michael Brown was dead. Later the police chief would report that Officer Wilson fired more than one shot but he could not comment on the total number of shots that were fired in the killing of Michael Brown. Following the shooting, Ferguson police alleged Michael had been involved in a convenience store theft earlier in the day, although they acknowledge it did not relate to the reason he was stopped.

The community reacted in protest coming together for candlelight vigils, demonstrations and hundreds participating in the face off at the police station. Some local businesses were damaged as anger and frustration mounted. The police responded by donning riot gear and firing rubber bullets and tear gas at community members and journalists who came to cover the story. The police patrolled the streets with a sniper sitting atop an armored personnel carrier that looked like a military tank. Over the three days following the killing of Michael Brown, more than 50 people were arrested. Police critically wounded a man near the protest sites and shot a pastor in the stomach with a rubber bullet. A recent graduate of Howard University working as a legal assistant was shot in the head while participating in the protests.

Racism Redo
Ferguson, Missouri is a northern suburb of Saint Louis. Educators describe it as a relatively stable, working and middle income community of 21,000 people. The city’s population is 63% African American and the municipal leadership and police force are predominately white. In fact, 50 of the 53 officers on the Ferguson Police Department are white. Academic studies of traffic stops in Ferguson reveal that 86% of those stopped by police are African American. Commentators across the country are reminded of Trayvon Martin and the demonstrators chanting “I can’t breathe” to protest the killing of Eric Garner in New York as a result of a police chokehold.

An important distinction about the killing of Michael Brown as compared to others who have been killed by police is that it happened in broad daylight and in front of witnesses. The NAACP and national civil rights leaders are involved in supporting the community in Ferguson. On the other hand, a Missouri chapter of the Ku Klux Klan has sickeningly called Officer Wilson a “hero.” It is important and incumbent upon all those who seek equality and justice to be vigilant in witnessing racism and speaking out against this blight that continues to show itself in our communities and institutions.

Militarization of the Police
The response of the Ferguson Police Department to the understandable and justified outrage over Michael Brown’s killing was to show case for the nation the increasing militarization of local law enforcement and the spread of military weapons to police departments. The New York Times graphically shows the flow of assault rifles, armored vehicles and more to police forces across the country. You can see it here.

Tear gas is a chemical weapon that is prohibited from international warfare by the Geneva Convention. So-called nonlethal weapons are over a billion dollar global industry and business consultants predict an increasing market and high demand from law enforcement agencies. Ali Issa, a national field organizer with the War Resisters League explains “Tear gas and the police militarization that always comes with it do not appear in Ferguson and nationwide in a vacuum.” The Department of Defense, in recent years, supplied hundreds of millions of dollars worth of “excess” military equipment to law enforcement agencies. The targets of these weapons are often communities of color and poor people.

Representative Marcia Fudge, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus released a statement on Thursday, August 14, 2014, that included: “Instead of being respected as citizens of this nation who have the right to vocally oppose what they believe is mistreatment, these people, many of whom are young adults, were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and police equipped as though they are militia in a war zone… Law enforcement is supposed to protect and serve, not search, intimidate and assault.” Missouri senator Claire McCaskill added “We need to de-militarize this situation—this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution… my constituents are allowed to have peaceful protests, and the police need to respect that right and protect that right.” Representative John Lewis quoted Martin Luther King Jr., “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.”

People’s Law Office echoes the outrage over the killing of Michael Brown and the militaristic and violent police response to the community reaction. As a civil rights law office who handles cases of police shootings and other forms of police brutality, we are recognize the racism and repression of dissent in Ferguson as being all too familiar.  We stand in solidarity with the residents of Ferguson, Missouri and remain committed to the search for justice.

Judge reverses course, recuses self from trial of Palestinian immigrant

Just two weeks after he angrily refused to recuse himself from the terrorism-related trial of a southwest suburban Palestinian immigrant, a federal judge with ties to Israel changed his mind Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Paul Borman said he would hand the trial of Evergreen Park woman Rasmieh Odeh to another judge after discovering his family had an investment in a Jerusalem supermarket that Odeh was convicted by an Israeli court of bombing in 1969.

Supporters of the 66-year-old Odeh — due to stand trial next month on charges she lied about that terrorism conviction when she emigrated to the U.S. in 1995 — hailed Borman’s decision Tuesday as a major victory.

“This is a vindication for the defense,” said activist Hatem Abudayyeh. “Our opposition to Judge Borman hearing this case had nothing to do with his Jewish faith and everything to do with his decades of support for the state of Israel.”

Odeh’s attorneys had asked Borman to recuse himself because he had been honored with a civic award in part for his support of Israel and because his family had raised more than $3 million for a pro-Israeli charity.

After 50 of Odeh’s supporters travelled last month from Chicago to Borman’s Detroit courtroom, an indignant Borman issued a ruling accusing Odeh’s lawyers of “careless and rank speculation” for suggesting that he couldn’t be impartial in her case.

Odeh’s lawyers did not have “a shred of factual support” for their “startling” suggestion that his many trips to Israel mean he has information about torture in Israeli prisons — a key issue in Odeh’s defense — he said at the time.

But on Tuesday he revealed prosecutors had provided him on Monday with a translated copy of Israeli court documents, which name the supermarket Odeh was convicted of bombing as “SuperSol.”

Borman’s family, which owned the Detroit-area’s “Farmer Jack” supermarket chain, had a “passive investment” in SuperSol at the time of the bombing, which killed two people and injured many more, Borman wrote.

Though he insisted “I do not have a personal bias against Defendant Rasmieh Odeh” and stood by his earlier comments, the judge wrote that his family’s investment in “SuperSol at the time of the 1969 bombing could be perceived as establishing a reasonably objective inference of a lack of impartiality.”

The case has been reassigned to U.S. District Judge Gershwin A. Drain, who also sits in Detroit.

Odeh’s lawyer Michael Deutsch said Borman had done the right thing, adding that he was “not surprised” to learn that the judge had more links to Israel than previously disclosed.

Deutsch had previously argued that Odeh was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of torture at the hands of her Israeli captors when she failed to disclose the 10 years she spent in an Israeli prison to immigration officials.

This article is from the Chicago Sun-Times BY KIM JANSSEN Federal Courts Reporter August 12, 2014 2:50PM

Torture Survivor Alonzo Smith Wins An Evidentiary Hearing

Chicago Police Torture Survivor Alonzo Smith Wins a New Evidentiary Hearing!

Today, in an important ruling, Circuit Court of Cook County Judge Erica L. Reddick granted Alonzo Smith a new hearing to present evidence that he was tortured by Chicago Police and forced to confess to a crime he did not commit. The night he was tortured, Mr. Smith was left bloodied on the floor, fearing for his life. He eventually relented to the abuse and falsely confessed to the murder and robbery of James Fullilove.

This tortured confession led to his wrongful conviction and incarceration for 20 years. Mr. Smith has steadfastly maintained his innocence and has persistently alleged that he was tortured by Sergeant John Byrne and Detective Peter Dignan, members of the now convicted, former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge’s notorious Midnight crew.

January 21, 1983: Tortured Into Confessing
Mr. Smith claimed that on January 21, 1983, he voluntarily traveled to Area 2 Police Headquarters to answer questions about a criminal investigation. Once he was there, he was interviewed by Burge, who threateningly warned him that he would talk “one way or the other” “before the night was over with,” and that they “had ways of making [him] talk.”
Later that evening, Dignan and Byrne took Mr. Smith down to the basement, where he was forced to sit on a swivel chair with his hands cuffed behind his back. Dignan then opened a grey plastic bag and brandished a rubber black night stick. Dignan hit Mr. Smith several times between the legs with the rubber nightstick and Byrne kicked him in the stomach. Both Dignan and Byrne hit Mr. Smith on the palms of his hands and the back of his legs with their nightsticks.

Dignan and Byrne then pulled a plastic bag over Mr. Smith’s head and tightened it with a large rubber band. While the bag was over Mr. Smith’s head, Byrne kicked him in the stomach, and Dignan hit him in the stomach with his nightstick. Dignan and Byrne told him that this was just “round one,” and when Mr. Smith again denied involvement in the crimes, Dignan and Byrne bagged and beat him again. This torture left Mr. Smith on the floor with his lip busted and blood on his clothes. Unable to take any more punishment, Mr. Smith agreed to falsely confess to a crime he did not commit, reciting a fabricated statement to a Cook County State’s Attorney fed to him by Byrne and Dignan.

Challenging the Torture-Induced Confession and the Way Forward
Back in 2000, Mr. Smith filed a successive post-conviction petition, which was amended in 2013, setting forth a wealth of newly discovered evidence to corroborate his torture allegations. This evidence consists of reports, testimony and court decisions which unequivocally establishes that Burge and the men under his command systematically tortured and abused suspects and witnesses at Area 2 and 3 Police Headquarters from 1972 through 1991. The new evidence also demonstrates that Dignan and Byrne have been accused of torturing scores of African American suspects, just as they did Mr. Smith, in a strikingly similar manner with precisely the same or similar objects. Many of these individuals have since been exonerated or have had their convictions overturned because their confessions were physically coerced.

Today, announcing her decision from the bench, Judge Reddick ruled that Mr. Smith was entitled to have an evidentiary hearing regarding his allegations that his confession was the product of physical coercion, finding that the that the newly discovered evidence presented in his petition was “monumental” and “significant.” She further found that Mr. Smith was entitled to proceed with his Brady claim in which he claims that evidence demonstrating the pattern and practice of torture at Area 2 Police Headquarters was withheld from him throughout his legal proceedings.

If Mr. Smith prevails at that hearing and the Court finds that his confession was physically coerced, his conviction will be vacated and he will be entitled to a new trial.

In response to learning of the decision, Mr. Smith said “I am overwhelmed with happiness. It is the first step towards freedom. God is good.”

Public Statement from Brian Church of NATO 3

The following is a public statement from Brian “Jacob” Church of the NATO 3.  Jacob is serving his sentence at Pinckneyville Correctional Center.


You can write to Jacob at:
Brian Church
P.O. Box 999
Pinckneyville, IL 62274


To my dearest friends and comrades,

I want to thank you all for your never ending love and support for the three of us as we continue to resist this system of state oppression.  The last two years have been a long, hard fought struggle, but finally, with trial done and sentences handed out, we’re on the home stretch.

I’m pretty sure I can say for all three of us that had it not been for the international showing of solidarity for our struggle, we would have been in a different, and much worse, situation.  For me, this support has helped me both physically and mentally.  You all have been most inspiring and uplifting, with constant reminders to stay strong and keep my head up.  It has helped me stay focused and to remember why I resist in the first place.  Please know that even if I may not have written back, that every letter and book I have received has been read and appreciated.

I also wanted to give special thanks to our really great team of attorneys and paralegals working around the clock, through thick and thin, even through the pains of childbirth, just to make sure we were able to have a fair and proper defense.  Your counsel and advice, your opinions (professional and otherwise) and the ability to fight like lions in the courtroom, matched with your dedication to seeing Justice served, has been priceless.  This is probably a good thing because we probably couldn’t have paid anything anyhow, as Tom likes to point out.

Lastly, I want to thank the NATO 3/NATO 5 support committee.  Your weekly visits, media outreach and fundraising has been so important to our defense and spirits.  You have worked for over two years to support us, putting your personal lives on hold and you never had to do any of it.

Every single one of you have my absolute respect for what you’ve done and that’s what helps to make this struggle so worth so much to me.

As it stands right now, I should be released in November 2014.  I cannot wait to see how much things have changed.  Two and a half years may not seem like a lot out there, but we feel every day of it in here.

Much love,
Brian Church



$40 Million Settlement in Wrongful Conviction Case

On Wednesday June 25, 2014, an historic $40 million settlement was reached between the Illinois State Police and the Dixmoor 5.  The settlement has been called the largest wrongful conviction settlement in state history and was announced less than a week after the news of a similar settlement for the Central Park 5 in New York City.

wrongfullyconvicted Dixmoor 5 with their civil rights attorneys (photo by Chicago Tribune)

The Dixmoor 5 were young African American men who were falsely convicted of raping and murdering their 14-year-old classmate in 1991. Despite a complete lack of any physical evidence connecting the young men to the rape and murder, police fabricated confessions by three young men who implicated themselves and two others. Even though the confessions did not match each other or the facts of the crime, all five were wrongfully convicted and sent to prison.

People’s Law Office represent Jonathan Barr, along with the noted civil rights firm of Neufeld, Scheck, and Brustin from New York.  A civil rights lawsuit alleging wrongful conviction was filed on Jonathan’s behalf in 2012.

Jonathan, who was 14 years old at the time of the crime, was convicted in 1997 and given an 85 year sentence.  Jonathan never gave up protesting his innocence and was eventually able to establish that DNA evidence recovered from the victim showed that the sex assault and murder had been committed by a known sex offender, Willie Randoph. Jonathan was imprisoned until 2011 when he was released based on the DNA findings, after spending 18 years in prison.  In 2012 he was awarded a Certificate of Innocence.

While this settlement vindicates Jonathan and the other four men and compensates them for the injustice they suffered, this can never give them back the years they spent behind bars for a crime they did not commit.  Civil rights cases like these are part of the struggle to hold police and prosecutors accountable for the systemic injustices inherent in the criminal legal system.

News Coverage of the Settlement:
$40 Million Wrongful Conviction Settlement Chicago Tribune
$40 Million Settlement Between Dixmoor 5 and Illinois State Police Chicago Sun-Times
Dixmoor 5 Win $40 Million WGN-TV
Dixmoor 5 Men Will Receive Settlement from ISP  WLS

For more information on the case:
Read the Complaint in the civil rights lawsuit
People’s Law Office post when lawsuit was filedPeople’s Law Office commentary on the 60 Minutes piece covering Dixmoor 5 and other false confession cases in Cook County

To learn more about our work on this issue, visit the Wrongful Convictions page and the Victories page to see past successful settlements and jury verdicts we’ve obtained for our falsely convicted clients.

Federal Appeals Court Rejects Case of Torture Survivor

Federal Appeals Court Rejects Torture Survivor’s Case

BY G. Flint Taylor 
Published June 26, 2014 in recognition of International Day of Support for Victims of Torture
This article originally appeared at In These Times

‘[G]iven all the things you know now and all the corruption that came to light … don’t you think that it’s a thin reed on which you’re attempting to hang your resolution to say, given all of that, $3,000 is a fair settlement?’

As declared by the United Nations in 1997, June 26 is International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Unfortunately, the U.S. Court of Appeals may have set an alarming precedent for torture survivors around the country with its decision in victim Darrell Cannon’s case late last month.

On May 27, the court shocked Cannon and his supporters by opting to deny him full compensation for the brutal treatment he incurred at the hands of the Chicago Police Department starting in 1983. Led by the notorious Commander Jon Burge, who was fired from his position in 1993 and convicted of perjury in 2010, the Chicago Police victimized at least 120 African-American suspects over the course of two decades, including Cannon, who was tortured before being imprisoned unjustly for 24 years. Despite a number of other survivors receiving millions of dollars from the city of Chicago, Cannon was left with almost nothing—suggesting that the U.S. legal system is all too willing to abandon survivors behind a smokescreen of denial and victim-blaming.

Cannon’s lawyers argued his case in front of the three-judge federal appeals court in January of 2013. (Full disclosure: the author represented Cannon in the U.S. Court of Appeals.) After sympathizing with Cannon’s situation at oral arguments, the court withheld its decision for 16 months. Then, in a stunning reversal of form, it rejected his appeal in a lengthy opinion written by the very judge who had most strongly backed Cannon’s position during the arguments.

Cannon’s criminal case

Darrell Cannon’s 31-year quest for justice began in November 1983, when he was arrested for the murder of a drug dealer by a contingent of midnight-shift detectives who worked for Jon Burge. They allegedly dragged him to a police car, where Cannon says Detective Peter Dignan told him that they had a “scientific way of questioning n*ggers. When Cannon refused to talk, he says Sergeant John Byrne, who was Burge’s self-admitted “right hand man,” and Dignan took him to a remote site on the far southeast side of Chicago, where they enacted a mock execution. After pretending to put a shell in his shotgun, Cannon recounts that Dignan forced the barrel of the gun into his mouth and pulled the trigger. Dignan allegedly repeated this action two more times. On the third, Cannon says he believed that the back of his head had been blown off.

When Cannon still refused to confess to the murder, he says, Byrne and Dignan threw him into the backseat of their car, pulled down his pants, and repeatedly shocked him on the genitals with a cattle prod. Racked with pain, Cannon agreed to cooperate; after the torture stopped, he withdrew his agreement. Cannon alleges that Byrne and Dignan then administered another round of electric shocks, this time shoving the cattle prod into his mouth. Cannon then relented and gave a false confession that implicated himself in the murder.

During his trial in 1984, Cannon moved to suppress his confession because it was given under torture, but the motion was denied by Cook County Circuit Judge Thomas Maloney. (Maloney would later go to federal prison for taking bribes.) Later that year, Cannon was convicted, but his conviction was reversed on appeal, due to racial discrimination during jury selection. Cannon was then held in prison for a decade on murder charges; finally, in 1994, he was re-tried, only to be re-convicted after Maloney’s successor, John Morrissey, denied him the right to introduce newly uncovered evidence that included 28 cases of Chicago Police torture, including 16 in which Byrne and Dignan were accused of abusing other African-American suspects. On appeal in 1997, the Illinois Appellate Court ordered the trial court to conduct a new hearing on Cannon’s motion to suppress his confession, at which time he could introduce the newly uncovered torture evidence. In doing so, the Court strongly condemned the prosecutors’ arguments, saying, “In a civilized society, torture by police officers is an unacceptable means of obtaining confessions from suspects.”

Back in Cook County Criminal Court, Cannon’s lawyers presented evidence of other acts of torture by Byrne and Dignan. They also produced a 1990 Chicago Police Department Report that officially found that there was “systematic” torture and abuse under Burge. The same report noted that Byrne and Dignan were “players” in Burge’s pattern and practice of barbaric cruelty. Cannon’s lawyers also offered a previously suppressed 1994 CPD report that specifically found Cannon had been tortured by Byrne and Dignan, as well as expert psychological evidence that further corroborated Cannon’s claims of torture.

In 2004, the prosecution dismissed Cannon’s case altogether, likely on the unstated grounds that Cannon’s confession had indeed been made under torture. However, the Illinois Prisoner Review Board refused to release him because of a parole hold from a prior conviction. Finally, in 2007, after two parole hearings and an order from a Cook County Judge, Cannon was released from prison after serving 24 years—nine of which he served in Tamms supermax prison.

Cannon’s civil case

After his criminal case was dismissed in 2004, Cannon filed a torture and wrongful conviction lawsuit in federal court. But he faced a significant hurdle. In 1986, while in a rural southern Illinois prison, Cannon had filed a handwritten damages complaint alleging that he was tortured by Byrne and Dignan. In response two years later, the city of Chicago offered him a nuisance value settlement amounting to $3,000. Cannon’s court-appointed attorney—a general practice lawyer who had never worked on a civil rights case, let alone one about torture—advised him to take the deal. Cannon received $1,247 of his settlement; his lawyer took the rest. And as part of the deal, he signed a broadly worded release that included all claims related to his torture that might arise in the future.

When Cannon filed his second damages suit after being released from prison, the city and police defendants attempted to dismiss it. They argued that Cannon’s paltry 1988 settlement agreement prevented him from seeking more compensation against city officials on all of his claims. Meanwhile, starting in 1989, evidence began to surface that the city of Chicago had engaged in a widespread campaign throughout the last decade to conceal Burge’s sadistic practices. In 2006, Judge Amy St. Eve held that this cover-up constituted a fraud by the police defendants and the city—thereby nullifying Cannon’s 1988 settlement. In other words, had Chicago not engaged in concealing the reign of torture by Burge and his cronies, Cannon might have found it much easier to argue that he, too, had been included in the string of victims, and to demand more compensation as a result.

In July 2007, the Chicago City Council held hearings on the Burge torture scandal. There, several Council members, along with U.S. Member of Congress Danny Davis, publicly urged Mayor Richard M. Daley to settle all of the outstanding torture cases, including Cannon’s. Within months, the city had settled four of the five cases for a total of $19.8 million—and offered Cannon nothing. Instead of settling, the city poured extensive legal fees into further contesting Cannon’s case.

Then, in 2011, Judge St. Eve reversed her prior ruling. This time, she sided with the city, deeming the cover-up irrelevant to the issue of fraud. Cannon knew he had been tortured, she said; therefore, he had not been deceived and was not entitled to anything more than his scant original $1,247.

Cannon appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and in January 2013, a three-judge panel of that court heard oral arguments in the case. Led by Judge Ilana Rovner, the court repeatedly upbraided the city’s attorney. Rovner herself passionately rebutted the lawyer’s assertion that the police defendants simply denied that they tortured Cannon, stating that “they didn’t just ‘deny’—they lied, they cheated, they committed fraud, they committed cover-ups.”

“Here are the facts,” she continued. “These officers take a man with a prior murder conviction. Then they lie, then they torture him into making a statement that leads to a second murder conviction, then they lie about it, then they destroy evidence, then they engage in this incredibly lengthy cover-up with other city officials. You’ve got to help me. [On] [w]hat planet does he have a [fair hearing] in the courts under those circumstances?”

As the beleaguered city lawyer concluded his argument, Judge Sarah Barker, a former U.S. attorney from Indiana, focused on the insufficient settlement given to Cannon in 1988:  “[G]iven all the things you know now and all the corruption that came to light … don’t you think that it’s a thin reed on which you’re attempting to hang your resolution to say, given all of that, $3,000 is a fair settlement?”

The Federal Court of Appeals decision

On May 27, 2014, the Appeals Court, in a lengthy opinion authored by the same Judge Rovner, upheld the District Judge’s decision. In its opening paragraph, the court set the tone for its decision:

This appeal casts a harsh light on some of the darkest corners of life in Chicago. The plaintiff, at the time of the events giving rise to this suit, was a general in the El Rukn street gang, out on parole for a murder conviction, when he became embroiled in a second murder. Among the defendants are several disgraced police officers, including the infamous Jon Burge, a man whose name evokes shame and disgust in the city of Chicago.

After reciting a version of the facts that highlighted the details of Cannon’s criminal case while forgoing any recitation of the voluminous record of cover-up that supported his claim, the court proceeded to reject, one by one, all of the arguments that Judge Rovner and her fellow panel members had previously embraced.

The court held that Cannon was bound by the provisions of his 1988 release, and he had thereby forfeited his wrongful conviction claim. Moreover, it refused to acknowledge that this settlement was the product of fraud. In doing so, the panel ruled that although Cannon “knew that Byrne and Dignan were lying” when he signed the release, and that these officers “surely would have lied about torturing others,” Cannon and his court-appointed lawyer purportedly could have “pursued other avenues” to obtain evidence that there was a pattern and practice of torture by the officers who tortured him. Obviously, Cannon and his lawyer would have been working against a wide-ranging campaign to cover up Byrne and Dignan’s torture—but the court, after emphasizing this fact during oral arguments, refused to acknowledge its determinative significance in its written decision.

Furthermore, the panel went so far as to erroneously assert, in the face of a strong evidentiary record to the contrary, that all of the city’s efforts to cover up the evidence of torture came after Cannon settled his case. In doing so, it also minimized the breadth and depth of the cover-up and the role of high-ranking officials in it, essentially reducing the decades of perjury by Cannon’s torturers in numerous cases to a “he said, they said” controversy.

The court then highlighted Cannon’s criminal history, noting that he was a gang leader and a “convicted murderer out on parole” at the time of his arrest.

“It is difficult to conceive of a just outcome given the appalling actions by almost everyone associated with these events,” wrote the panel.

In conclusion, the court rightly asserted that the case “casts a pall of shame over the city of Chicago,” singling out “the police officers who abused the position of power entrusted to them” and the “city officials who turned a blind eye to (and in some instances actively concealed) the claims of scores of African-American men that they were being bizarrely and horrifically abused.” Even so, however, it refused to find that Cannon’s $1,267 net settlement was unfair.

“What the officers did to Cannon was unconscionable,” the court now argued. “The settlement was not.”

The pall of shame darkens

Even as the court acknowledged the systematic torture of African-American Chicagoans, however, its emphasis on Cannon’s criminal history implied that his gang membership and prior murder conviction somehow negated his treatment at the hands of city police. In doing so, it effectively blamed Cannon for his own ordeal. Considering that Cannon has now devoted his life to quelling gang violence as a CEASEfire supervisor—and that Byrne and Dignan narrowly escaped perjury conviction alongside Burge—such justification seems particularly ill-founded. On June 9, Cannon’s lawyers asked the full court to reconsider the three-judge panel’s decision, a request that is very seldom granted.

The U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision, though gut-wrenching, is unfortunately not unheard of, particularly with regard to Chicago’s torture history. Over the past 40 years, state and federal courts as well as prosecutors have very seldom been open to providing fair justice to the African-American survivors of Burge-related police torture.  More than 100 were sent to prison—a dozen to death row—on confessions tortured from them. At least 20 remain there, some 25 to 30 years later. While relatively few have been fairly compensated for their torture and wrongful convictions, many more, like Darrell Cannon, have received either nothing or a mere pittance.

In Cannon’s case, had the highest federal court in the Midwest ruled in his favor, it would have been unequivocally declaring that the Chicago police torture cover-up reached up to the highest levels of the local power structure and had lasted for more than three decades. And just as importantly, it would have likely aided others who were put behind bars by Burge, Byrne and Dignan and sent a message to the city that it should fairly compensate all Burge torture victims. But in an all-too-familiar display of failing judicial courage, Judge Rovner and her colleagues chose to retreat instead. Their failure to do the right thing leaves us, once again, to contemplate the words of comedian and people’s philosopher Lenny Bruce, who once famously said, “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.”



Convictions Tossed for Two Clients of People’s Law Office

Lewis Gardener and Paul Phillips were wrongfully convicted of acting as lookouts for a 1992 murder and spent nearly 15 years in prison.  In January of this year, lawyers from People’s Law Office filed a petition seeking to overturn their convictions.  Yesterday, June 24, 2014, the State’s Attorney agreed and asked the judge to vacate the convictions.

Gardner and Phillips at People's Law Office (photo by Chicago Tribune)Phillips and Gardener were 15 and 17 at the time of the crime and were coerced into giving false confessions.  In total, police obtained false confessions from seven people in the case, establishing the false police theory that three participated in the shooting and four others (including Phillips and Gardener) acted as lookouts.

One of these co-defendants, Daniel Taylor, was convicted and ultimately exonerated, after it was exposed that police and prosecutors withheld crucial evidence.  One of those pieces of evidence was that Taylor was in police lockup at the time of the murder.

The next step for Phillips and Gardener is to obtain Certificates of Innocence so they can receive compensation for the years they spent in prison for a crime they did not commit.

For more coverage of this recent development, read the Chicago Tribune story by Steve Mills: Judge Tosses Convictions of 2 Who Spent 15 Years in Prison

This case is part of our ongoing commitment to helping fight wrongful convictions and cases of false imprisonment.  The injustices of the criminal legal system in this country run deep and wide and these examples of wrongful conviction expose the problems in the system.  For more information on our work on the issue, visit the Wrongful Convictions page on this site.

If you or a loved one were wrongfully convicted and you are interested in filing a civil rights lawsuit, contact our lawyers at (773)235-0070.

Traiciona la democracia la prisión de Oscar López


1 junio 2014


Con 71 años de edad y 33 años de cárcel cumplidos en prisiones remotas, muy distantes de su país, acusado de conspiración sediciosa, pero sin que se le haya probado delito de sangre alguno, Oscar López Rivera es símbolo de una flagrante deshonra para sus carceleros y una afrenta a la democracia que falla en respetar los derechos humanos.

Porque Oscar López Rivera, al margen de su ideología y de sus aspiraciones, es un ciudadano que dedicó dos años de su vida al servicio militar activo, en la guerra de Vietnam, y que se sacrificó duramente por el mismo Estados Unidos que ahora se empeña en mantenerlo aislado, tratando de acallar los reclamos para que lo excarcelen e intentando mantenerlo fuera del foco de la atención mundial.

Pese las peticiones unánimes del pueblo y desde todos los sectores, e importantes voces desde la comunidad internacional, Oscar López sigue recluido en la prisión de Terre Haute, Indiana, y el gobierno de Estados Unidos persiste en ignorar el reclamo para que el anciano activista político y líder comunitario salga a hacer compañía a sus familiares, principalmente a su única hija y a su nieta.

Habría que preguntarse cuál es el empecinamiento de un gobierno, el de Estados Unidos, que presume de sus acciones en favor de los presos politicos del mundo entero -en Ucrania, con Yulia Timoshenko; en China, con el artista Ai Weiwei; en Venezuela, con el opositor Leopoldo López; en Cuba, con el exprisionero Guillermo Fariñas, y hasta en Rusia con el grupo feminista punk “Pussy Riot”, – pero que en su propia casa mantiene sepultado a un puertorriqueño que, de 1986 a 1998, sufrió uno de los regímenes carcelarios más crueles que existen, el de confinamiento en solitaria en la prisión de Marion, Illinois. En Marion, cárcel de extrema seguridad construida en 1963 para sustituir la de Alcatraz que acababa de cerrar, Oscar López superó más de una década sin contacto alguno con familiares o amigos.

El hecho mismo de que, en contradicción con las políticas carcelarias de casi todos los países del mundo, a Oscar se le mantenga en una prisión tan alejada de Puerto Rico, lo que obstaculiza las visitas regulares de sus familiares, es una forma de tortura incomprensible por parte de una nación que proclama su vocación humanitaria. El presidente Obama, que alegó sentirse conmovido al visitar la histórica celda de Nelson Mandela en Robben Island, Sudáfrica, debe saber que en la cárcel de Terre Haute, en Indiana, hay un hombre acusado por los mismos “delitos” que Mandela -la misma figura legal: conspiración sediciosa-, que, a diferencia del líder sudafricano, ha cumplido seis años más de cárcel: de 27 que padeció Mandela, a 33 que acaba de cumplir Oscar López.

Obama tiene la potestad de indultarlo hoy mismo, y debe hacerlo. No se le pide clemencia, sino que cumpla un mandato moral de respeto a la condición humana y, por lo demás, un acto de dignidad, valentía y autovaloración hacia un hombre de principios contra el que se ceban la venganza de estado, el discrimen ideológico, la prostitución de la justicia, la presión de agencias federales de seguridad y la crueldad.

La excarcelación de Oscar López no debe seguir posponiéndose, y el reclamo para su liberación tendrá que seguir siendo unánime y no caer en las trampas del pesimismo o las cábalas políticas electoreras. Los asuntos internos de Estados Unidos, incluso sus procesos eleccionarios, no tienen que importarle a nadie a la hora de exigir la inmediata devolución de ese ser humano a la tierra a la que pertenece, la que lo vio nacer. Es un hombre mayor que ha demostrado una conducta ejemplar y que no merece enfermarse o incapacitarse en prisión, algo que causaría gran dolor e impotencia a todo su pueblo.

El gobierno de Estados Unidos está moralmente impedido de interceder por ningún preso político, en ningún lugar del mundo, mientras continúe el presidente burlándose de la memoria de Mandela y violando los derechos civiles, políticos y el derecho a la libertad de Oscar.


The ongoing imprisonment of Oscar López is a betrayal of democracy


June 1, 2014


At 71 years of age and having served 33 years in remote prisons, far away from his country, accused of seditious conspiracy, but never having been found guilty of shedding any blood, Oscar López Rivera is the symbol of a flagrant dishonor for his jailers and an affront to democracy that fails to respect human rights.

Because Oscar López Rivera, beyond his ideology and his aspirations, is a citizen who dedicated two years of his life to active military service, in the Vietnam War, and who rigorously sacrificed himself for the very United States that is now engaged in keeping him isolated, trying to silence the calls for his release and intending to keep him out of the spotlight of worldwide attention.

In spite of the unanimous demands of the people and from every sector, and important voices in the international community, Oscar López is still held in the prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, and the United States government persists in ignoring the call for the release of this elderly political activist and community leader, so that he can be with his family, mainly his only daughter and his granddaughter.

One must ask why the government of the United States would be so stubborn, a government that boasts of its actions for the rights of political prisoners in the whole world – in Ukraine, with Yulia Timoshenko; in China, with artist Ai Weiwei; in Venezuela, with the opposition leader Leopoldo López; in Cuba, with ex-prisoner Guillermo Fariñas, and even in Russia with the feminist punk group “Pussy Riot” – but in its own country keeps buried alive a Puerto Rican who, from 1986 to 1998, suffered one of the most cruel prison punishments that exists, that of solitary confinement in the prison of Marion, Illinois. In Marion, a super-maximum security prison built in 1963 to replace Alcatraz, which had just closed, Oscar López managed to survive more than a decade with absolutely no contact with his family or friends.

The very fact that, contrary to the criminal justice policies of almost every country in the world, Oscar is held in a prison so distant from Puerto Rico, hindering regular family visits, is a form of incomprehensible torture by a nation which purports to have a humanitarian calling. President Obama, who claimed to feel moved when he visited the historic cell of Nelson Mandela in Robben Island, South Africa, should know that in the prison at Terre Haute, in Indiana, there is a man accused of the same “crimes” as Mandela – the same legal charge: seditious conspiracy – for which, different from the South African leader, he has served six years longer in prison: Mandela endured 27 years in prison; Oscar López has just marked 33 years in prison.

Obama has the power to release him today, and he should do so. He’s not being asked to pardon, but rather to fulfill a moral mandate of respect for the human condition and, apart from that, an act of dignity, valor, and self-worth for a man of priniciples against whom state vengeance, ideological discrimination, the prostitution of justice, pressure by federal security agencies, and cruelty are imposed without mercy.

The release of Oscar López cannot keep being postponed, and the call for his freedom must continue to be unanimous and not fall into the trap of pessimism or electoral political cabals. Internal affairs of the United States, including its electoral processes, need not matter to anyone when it comes to returning this human being to the land he belongs to, that saw him come to life. He is an older man who has conducted himself in exemplary fashion and who does not deserve to get sick or incapacitated in prison, something that would cause great pain and impotence to his entire people.

The government of the United States is morally impeded from intervening on behalf of any political prisoner, in any place in the world, while the president continues to mock the memory of Mandela, violate civil and political rights and Oscar’s right to freedom.

33 Day Walk for Oscar López Successful

By: Alberto Rodríguez


Photo Credit: Lin Benitez

May 2014 was an exciting and historic month in the three decade long campaign to free Puerto Rican Political Prisoner, Oscar López Rivera. Oscar is the longest held Puerto Rican Political Prisoner convicted in  U.S. federal court for seditious conspiracy for his commitment to the independence of Puerto Rico. Commemorating the anniversary of his 33 years in captivity, the campaign for his release organized “la Caminata Nacional 33 en 33 por Oscar.” (33 in 33 Walk for Oscar). This walk began April 27 in the small central
town of Gurabo and toured 33  towns in 33 days to raise awareness about the case of López Rivera and to gather support for the  call for his release.

Each day one town was connected with another in a  333 mile walk through winding mountainous roads. While a small, hearty core group of activists and supporters participated in consecutive daily walks, each town added its own flavor, sometimes its own mayor, and often hundreds of walkers —  an eclectic group of young people, seniors, athletes, elementary, high school and college students, unions, musicians, civic and religious groups, elected officials, those in wheel chairs  and the able bodied, pro-independence activists,  supporters of the present political status with the U.S., as well as supporters of statehood.


Photo Credit: Alina Luciano

People in small rural villages and barrios stood and waited at their front gates for the “Caminata”. Passing cars blasted their horns and shouted their support. Children came out of their classrooms to shout approval and display signs they made themselves, of love and support for Oscar. Some schools even allowed their students to leave the classroom to join the walk.

When the walk reached each town’s plaza, a beautiful cultural event took place with music and poetry. Under a blazing afternoon sun, children sang while others read their writings dedicated to Oscar.

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Photo Credit: Lin Benitez

As the walk in the mountains was underway, another event took place in San Juan called “Al Mar X Oscar” (To the sea for Oscar), inspired by a letter from prison to his granddaughter Karina, in which he wrote, “… after the family, what I miss the most is the sea. It’s been 35 years since the last time I saw it.” On a beautiful Sunday afternoon on May 25, hundreds marched along the waterfront of Old San Juan while row boats, paddle boats, rafts, kayaks, fishing boats, long Asian inspired dragon boats, jet skis, practically anything that could float accompanied them. At the foot of the century old walls of the Spanish fort, El Morro, the water crafts landed with a “cabezudo” papier-mache puppet head representing Oscar wading on shore symbolically representing his arrival to Puerto Rico by sea. Oscar’s daughter Clarisa López and granddaughter Karina Valentín emotionally greeted the symbolic Oscar. At a cultural and political rally held in front of El Morro, Clarisa stated, “We are going to achieve what seems the impossible … returning my father to the motherland …” The multitude present shouted their approval.

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Photo Credit: Cultura Profética

On May 29 the Caminata arrived in front of the Federal Building in San Juan after successfully visiting 33 towns in 33 days. In solidarity with the Caminata, Oscar walked 333 miles in those 33 days, in the prison yard. The women who meet the last Sunday of  every month on the Dos Hermanos Bridge demanding Oscar’s release marched from the bridge in Old San Juan to the Federal Building in the financial district of San Juan.Headed by Oscar’s daughter Clarisa and the President of the Bar Association, Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, dressed in pink t- shirts, with flags and posters with messages of support. Then the Caminata arrived, headed by a giant key held by some of the former Puerto Rican Political Prisoners released in 1999 by presidential commutation of their excessive sentences. Behind them were delegations from each of the towns that the Caminata had marched through, along with artists, athletes and members of different political parties as well as civic and religious organizations. The Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, and former political prisoner Rafael Cancel Miranda were present. A rally of celebration and joy followed the end of the Caminata. Oscar’s attorney Jan Susler, a partner in the People’s Law Office, stated that the work in Puerto Rico around Oscar’s release was having positive results in the U.S. She mentioned that this year’s Puerto Rican Parade in New York was paying tribute to Oscar and calling for  his release. She said, “I ask you to continue with that consistency, that emotion that inspires us to continue working for Oscar’s release.”

The Puerto Rican people have sent a powerful message to the White House that we want Oscar López Rivera released from U.S. custody now. In the midst of the worst economic crisis the island has experienced in decades, high energy and food costs, mass exodus to the U.S., primarily of the young and the educated, a crumbling education and health system, a rise in crime and the insecurity and anxiety it creates; Oscar López has not been forgotten, and the call for his release is front and center. In a recent editorial of El Nuevo Día, the most widely read newspaper in Puerto Rico with a clear pro-American editorial position stated the following:

At 71 years of age and having served 33 years in remote prisons, far away from his country, accused of seditious conspiracy, but never having been found guilty of shedding any blood, Oscar López Rivera is the symbol of a flagrant dishonor for his jailers and an affront to democracy that fails to respect human rights. In spite of the unanimous demands of the people and from every sector, and important voices in the international community, Oscar López is still held in a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. The United States government persists in ignoring the call for his release. The government of the United States is morally impeded from intervening on behalf of any political prisoner, in any place in the world, while the president continues to mock the memory of Mandela, violate civil and political rights and Oscar’s right to freedom.

Photo Credit: Alina Luciano

From his jail cell, Oscar López says, “I can’t afford to think about freedom. The future is very unpredictable and I have no clear idea of when I will leave prison. I don’t like illusory optimism.”  As a former Puerto Rican political prisoner myself, I can fully understand the need to guard oneself from such thoughts and dreams. Here in Puerto Rico, there is a mass sense of optimism and faith that President Obama will do the right and just thing and release Oscar. This optimism is not idealistic or unfounded but very much rooted in a proud history of witnessing our political prisoners walking out of the gates of U.S. prisons. Here, there is faith in the power of a united Puerto Rican people demanding in one loud, clear and unwavering voice “Free Oscar López Now!”