To Catch a Torturer: One Attorney’s Pursuit of Jon Burge

To Catch A Torturer: One Attorney’s 28-year Pursuit of Racist Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge
By Flint Taylor of People’s Law Office
Originally published at In These Times

On February 13, 2015, former Chicago Police Commander Jon G. Burge was released from Federal custody, having served a little less than four years of his four-and-a-half year sentence for lying under oath about whether he tortured scores of African-American men during his time as commander. Less than a week before, I sat across from him in a small room in Tampa, Florida, questioning him, pursuant to a court order, yet again about his role in a torture case—this time, the case of Alonzo Smith, who was repeatedly suffocated with a plastic bag and beaten with a rubber nightstick in the basement of the Area 2 police station by two of Burge’s most violent henchmen after Burge informed him that they “would get him to talk, one way or another.”

Reading from a prepared script, the 67-year-old Burge, weakened by several physical ailments but nonetheless exhibiting a hostility that has marked our many encounters over the years, responded to my first question by once again invoking his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. He then stood up, informed me that he would not respond to any further questions, and started to leave the room.

After I told him that he would be in violation of the judge’s order if he left before I had finished my questioning, he reluctantly returned, and asserted the Fifth Amendment to each and every subsequent question, including to the most damning one: Was the torture of Smith part of a pattern and practice of systemic and racist torture and abuse against African-American men which he orchestrated? After a contentious concluding exchange between us, a look of smug self-satisfaction came across his face as he answered my final question by stating, “I exercise my Fifth Amendment rights—even though I would like to say you are a liar.”

Of course the answer to that question of the systemic and racist nature of Burge’s torture is now well established by a mountain of evidence that has been assembled over nearly three decades in the teeth of an unremitting official cover-up that has implicated a series of police superintendents, numerous prosecutors, more than 30 police detectives and supervisors, and, most notably, Richard M. Daley, first as the State’s Attorney of Cook County, then as Chicago’s long-serving Mayor, in a police torture scandal that had spanned the more than 40 years that I had been a lawyer at the People’s Law Office.

A torturer in blue

My law partners, Jeffrey Haas and John Stainthorp, and I first became aware of Jon Burge and his connection to police torture in 1987 when Andrew Wilson, a convicted cop killer, called us from death row and asked us to represent him in the pro se lawsuit that he had filed against Burge and several of his associates at Area 2 Detective headquarters. Wilson’s allegations were chilling: suffocation with a bag, burns from a cigarette, beatings, and, most frightening, repeated electric shocks from a black shock box to his genitals, ears and fingers that caused him to be badly burned on a steam radiator across which he was handcuffed at the time he was shocked. With some trepidation, we took the case, and I was soon sitting across from Burge in a small conference room confronting him about his torture of Wilson.

At that time, Burge was at the height of his powers, having recently been promoted from Lieutenant to Commander, completing a meteoric rise in rank in the Chicago Police Department. Burly, red-faced and supremely arrogant, Burge had used his clout with the city to retain, at taxpayer’s expense, a former Deputy to then-State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley to represent him. Posturing as a hero for capturing Wilson and obtaining his confession, Burge vehemently denied any wrongdoing and scoffed at my persistent attempts to expose his lies.

In the winter of 1989, the Wilson civil case went to trial before a Judge, Brian Duff, who referred to Wilson in an off-the-record comment as the “scum of the earth.” Burge took the stand and I was once again thrust into the role of his interrogator.

After the first day of my cross examination, we received a voicemail at our office from an anonymous source. This source, whom we later dubbed “Deep Badge,” worked with Burge at Area 2 and supplied us with information which began the process of blowing the lid off the cover-up. Deep Badge informed us of another Burge electric shock victim, Melvin Jones; the names of Burge’s co-conspirators; and claimed that State’s Attorney Daley and Mayor Jane Byrne were aware of Wilson’s torture.

We sought to confront Burge before the jury with this newly discovered evidence, but the judge, while recognizing that this evidence was “explosive,” would not let me do so. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury, unaware of the unravelling cover-up, hung, necessitating a second trial.

While we awaited the re-trial, we pursued the leads given to us by “Deep Badge” and found a number of other torture victims who were serving time based on confessions tortured from them by Burge and his confederates. One of them was Anthony Holmes, who was tortured with electric shock by Burge just after he became a detective in 1973. Armed with this information, I again deposed Burge, who brazenly denied any misconduct in each and every one of the newly discovered cases. At the re-trial, Judge Duff denied us the right to confront Burge with these newly discovered cases, and when I tried to do so, the judge, egged on by Burge’s lawyer, repeatedly held me and my co-counsel in contempt.

As a result of the judge’s unremitting bias in favor of Burge and his lawyers, after an eight-week second trial, the all-white jury absolved Burge. We appealed the decision, and the evidence that we had uncovered compelled the Chicago Police Department to reopen its investigation into the Wilson case and to pursue the question of whether the torture was systemic.

The investigation produced two determinations: that Burge should be fired for his torture of Wilson, and that the torture at Area 2 was “systematic” and implicated command personnel. The Department moved to fire Burge—while suppressing the findings of systematic torture.

Targeted by Burge

During this period, the reality of personal risk became more apparent. Burge publicly called me an “idiot” in response to my testimony before the Chicago City Council, and his defense committee and the Fraternal Order of Police repeatedly mounted personal attacks against me and my law partners. A friendly police employee told us of an alleged threat that Burge had made to “blow us away.”

I spoke with another unnamed Burge associate on the phone who asserted that Burge had tortured innocent suspects and women, and an African-American former detective who worked in Area 2 clandestinely came to our office and told me about a Burge torture scene he had witnessed in 1973. Unknown to us at the time, Burge had enlisted one of his former associates to comb the Area 2 files in an attempt to discover the identity of Deep Badge. (I also learned from a neighbor that Burge had a boat. The neighbor had seen Burge cruising in Chicago’s Monroe Street Harbor; the boat was aptly named “The Vigilante.”)

Burge was brought to trial before the Chicago Police Board in the winter of 1992, amid a local furor that was occasioned by our successfully obtaining the public release of the CPD’s finding of systematic torture, a rally for Burge which attracted 3,000 cops and prosecutors and a boisterous counter rally that the Task Force to Confront Police Violence organized. Jeff Haas, who was a moving force in the Task Force, and I often attended the six-week Police Board hearing, at which Wilson, Jones and a third Burge victim all testified.

Burge took the stand and denied that he tortured these men, and we suffered Burge’s wrath when we publicly commented on the evidence. Nearly a year later, the Police Board issued its decision to fire Burge, and I was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times as saying that “the person in charge of the systematic torture had been fired,” and that the department should “implement” the findings of systematic torture by “clean[ing] house.”

On the heels of the Police Board decision, the Fraternal Order of Police unsuccessfully attempted to honor Burge with a float in the St. Patrick Day’s Parade; a few weeks later, the Federal Appeals Court, citing Judge Duff’s refusal to permit the questioning of Burge before the jury about the other cases of torture, granted us a new trial in the Wilson case.

Burge relocated to Florida, the City of Chicago quietly permitting him to resign after his firing became final. As a result, in 1997, he began to collect his police pension. That same year, after a second appeal, we obtained a $1.1 million dollar settlement in the Wilson case.

Justice reform beyond police torture

At about this time, the struggle against police torture joined with the movement against the death penalty that was spearheaded by a group of death row prisoners who had been tortured by Burge and his men. These men, who called themselves the Death Row Ten, joined with lawyers, activists, and other foes of the death penalty and police torture in a unified effort that resulted in a death penalty moratorium, the appointment of a Cook County Special Prosecutor to investigate Burge’s crimes and, in 2003, Illinois Governor George Ryan’s commutation of all Illinois death sentences and pardon of four of the Death Row Ten—Leroy Orange, Madison Hobley, Aaron Patterson and Stanley Howard—on the basis of innocence.

The innocence pardons permitted the four men to file law suits, and my law partner Joey Mogul and I became lead lawyers for two of them. This gave us an avenue to further investigate Burge and his confederates’ crimes. I journeyed to Florida, Arizona, Tennessee and several Illinois prisons to track down and to record the statements of numerous Burge torture survivors.

Accompanied by an investigator and a court reporter, I also convinced several retired African American Area 2 detectives to give sworn statements. In these statements, the detectives, who were excluded from the actual torture sessions, told of seeing Burge’s electric shock box, hearing the torture victims’ screams and participating in discussions about the torture which was sometimes referred to as the “Vietnam treatment.” They also recounted how Burge’s threats of violence and their fear of retribution—the police code of silence at work—kept them from coming forward until they had retired.

In the early stages of these four lawsuits, a still-arrogant Burge, with the blessing of a new generation of taxpayer funded private lawyers, answered under oath a series of written questions by again denying that he participated in, witnessed, or otherwise had knowledge of any acts of torture. Shortly thereafter, in the summer of 2004, I travelled to Tampa with an investigator (who also served as a de facto bodyguard) to obtain an order from a Florida judge (whose nickname, I soon learned, was “Dirty Harry”) to compel Burge to appear at torture survivor Darrell Cannon’s parole revocation hearing.

Outside of the courtroom, Burge, referencing the $1.1 million dollar Andrew Wilson settlement, which we had earned many times over after 10 years of intense legal struggle, told a Chicago Tribune reporter who had journeyed from Chicago that “you would think Taylor would retire after getting a million from the city,” implying that the principal aim of the cases exposing decades’ worth of racist torture by the police department of the third largest city in America was for some human rights attorneys to get rich.

After the court session, we traveled south to Apollo Beach in search of Burge’s house and a picture of The Vigilante. Our efforts alerted the local St. Petersburg newspaper to run a feature article about the alleged police torturer living quietly in their midst under the cloud of “accusations [that] are like something out of a wartime prison: electric shock and cattle prods; near suffocation with a typewriter bag; mock executions with a pistol.”

“Not unlike a Nazi war criminal”

On September 1, 2004, Burge appeared in Chicago to answer questions in a consolidated deposition in the four lawsuits and Cannon’s parole revocation hearing. The videotaped deposition was held in a mock courtroom in his lawyers’ downtown offices, and they smuggled Burge in through a back entrance to avoid an angry demonstration, the media and three process servers who were attempting to subpoena Burge to testify before the Special Prosecutors’ grand jury.

I questioned Burge for nearly four hours. Having received some prudently revised legal advice, he repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment to each and every question. After the tense interrogation concluded, I was quoted in the Sun-Times as saying, “We feel that we have finally in some way brought to the stand and brought to public questioning a police criminal, a criminal we felt we had to hunt down, not unlike a Nazi war criminal.”

Four years later, on October 21, 2008, I received an early morning phone call from the Assistant U.S. Attorney who was heading up the investigation into allegations that Burge committed perjury and obstructed justice when he denied under oath five years earlier that he had committed torture. He told me that Federal Agents had a warrant for Burge’s arrest on those charges and he would be arrested later that morning in Florida. After 20 years of pursuit, our efforts had finally hit paydirt.

Burge’s arrest was the culmination of decades of work that had intensified since Burge’s 2004 deposition. In 2005, Joey Mogul had journeyed to Geneva to present our case to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT), and, in May 2006, the CAT issued findings that called for U.S. prosecutions of Burge and his men. In summer 2006, the Special Prosecutor had refused to bring state charges of perjury and conspiracy against Burge and had instead issued what many considered to be a cover-up report. In response, 250 organizations and individuals signed a shadow report that exposed the whitewash and renewed the call for criminal charges.

In summer 2007, hearings were held before the Chicago City Council and the Cook County Board of Commissioners at which torture survivors testified and the deposition videotape of Burge taking the Fifth Amendment was played. In the aftermath of the hearings, both bodies called for Federal prosecutions. Early in 2008, the City paid a $19.8 million settlement to the four torture survivors whom Governor Ryan had pardoned in 2003.

In 2009, while Burge awaited trial on the perjury and obstruction charges, I found myself again in Dirty Harry’s Tampa courtroom, face-to-face with Burge, seeking his return to testify in a post-conviction case where it was alleged that he supervised the torture of a murder suspect. Burge, after telling the judge that he was heavily medicated for a back problem and intended to take the Fifth Amendment if returned to Chicago to testify, stated, “Your Honor, Mr. Taylor has been suing me and members of the Chicago Police Department, for over thirty (30) years. My personal feeling is this is strictly for harassment.”

After the court session concluded with the judge opining that he would not require Burge to return to Chicago, I packed up my briefcase and opened one of the heavy wooden double doors to leave the empty courtroom. At that instant, Burge, coming back into the courtroom, opened the other door, our eyes met. He said nothing, but I felt a chill run up my spine before he pushed past me.

A torturer, finally, in jail

In May and June 2010, Burge went on trial in Federal Judge Joan Lefkow’s Chicago courtroom. The prosecution presented evidence that included testimony from Anthony Holmes, Melvin Jones and Andrew Wilson, from a reluctant white detective who testified, under a grant of immunity, about witnessing one of Burge’s torture sessions, and from two of the black detectives who had first told their stories to me.

Other prosecution witnesses included several to whom Burge had bragged about his racially motivated torture, including a woman lawyer who had previously revealed to me her troubling tale that Burge, while drinking at a local bar, had articulated an utter disdain for criminal defendants’ constitutional rights while making sexually explicit comments to her and admitting to abusing Andrew Wilson. Burge took the stand and broke his silence to deny each and every allegation of torture, and in another chance encounter after closing arguments concluded, he cursed me out.

Burge then retired to a bar across the street from the courthouse to await the jury’s verdict. According to a former prosecutor who had made Burge’s acquaintance while attending the six week trial, Burge called him over and asked him whether he thought that the jury would “believe that bunch of niggers,” referring to the African-American torture survivors who had testified against him.

The jury did believe the survivors and found Burge guilty. In January 2011, Burge was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison, and in March, he began to serve his sentence at the Federal Correctional Center in Butner, North Carolina, alongside other high profile white-collar criminals including Bernie Madoff.

Since Burge’s indictment, several of Burge’s victims had been exonerated, including Michael Tillman and Ronald Kitchen, for whom we filed civil suits. After obtaining a court order in Tillman’s case Joey Mogul and I travelled to North Carolina to again depose Burge in May of 2011.

While it was not unusual for us to enter prisons to talk to clients, this passage through the metal detectors with Burge’s lawyers was decidedly different. Burge, dressed in brown prison garb, complained of the food and medical care, then proceeded to assert his Fifth Amendment right to all questions that I posed. The deposition was videotaped, and his “testimony” was featured in videos that we made to recount Tillman and Kitchen’s horrific stories of torture and wrongful convictions.

Bearing witness to Burge’s imprisonment, albeit not for his systemic torture, and capturing it on videotape, was an important event, one which I have often cited when speaking about police torture in Chicago. Burge was behind bars, while victims like Tillman and Kitchen and the torture survivors who courageously testified against Burge were all free.

But this victory, while both symbolic and real, and grounded on decades of struggle by an anti-racist movement, did not end the battle to bring a modicum of final justice to the survivors of police torture and healing to the African American community. That struggle continues to this day, seeking reparations for the survivors and new hearings for the men still imprisoned as a result of confessions tortured from them.

Meanwhile, a broken but still unrepentant Jon G. Burge wears the well-deserved mantle of former Chicago Police commander and notorious torturer.

Family of Roshad McIntosh, a Young Black Male Fatally Shot by Chicago Police Officers, Files Lawsuit Against City of Chicago

CHICAGO, March 4, 2015 – Today, the People’s Law Office held a press conference announcing the filing of a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Chicago and Chicago Police officers responsible for the fatal shooting of nineteen year-old Roshad McIntosh.  The case is brought on behalf of McIntosh’s 3-year old son. 

On Sunday, August 24, 2014, Roshad McIntosh was on the 2800 block of West Polk Street when Chicago police officers confronted him and his companions.  Roshad began to flee, but quickly surrendered at a neighboring residence.  Despite his surrender, Chicago police officers shot at Roshad, who was unarmed, without cause or provocation, and killed him.

Cynthia Lane, Roshad’s mother, stated: “I lost my son, he was taken from me.  I’m really hurt.  Roshad’s death has affected me emotionally in ways I never knew were possible.  The law suit will never bring him back; but it will help answer a lot of questions that we have.  Our family needs to know why they shot and killed him.” IMG_0258

The Chicago Police Department has yet to identify the officers responsible for Roshad’s death or release any information regarding investigation into the shooting.

Roshad’s death has been highlighted at BlackLivesMatter actions throughout the city.  He was killed just a few weeks after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which enraged the nation and set off nationwide protests over the killing of civilians by law enforcement officers and other systemic police violence against people of color.

The lawsuit alleges that Roshad’s death resulted from the City of Chicago’s failure to adequately train, supervise, and discipline officers who shoot civilians, and failure to thoroughly investigate police shootings.  This misconduct is allowed to continue unchecked due in large part to a police code of silence which serves to protect police officers who violate the Constitution.    

Data demonstrates that over the last decade, black Chicagoans were ten times more likely to be shot by Chicago police officers than white Chicagoans.  Furthermore in the first six months of 2014, 23 of 27 people who were shot by a Chicago police officer were black.  To make matters worse, the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) rarely holds police officers accountable for their misconduct.  From late 2007 to July of 2014, IPRA investigated approximately 312 shootings by Chicago police officers. Of the investigations of “officer involved shootings” that were completed, only one officer was found to have violated any department rules.

 “The death of Roshad McIntosh was beyond tragic and is unjustifiable.  It is unconscionable that the City of Chicago continues to fight transparency and shield the wrongdoing of their police officers instead of thoroughly investigating this and other instances of police violence,” said Sarah Gelsomino, a lawyer with People’s Law Office representing the family of Roshad McIntosh.  “This lawsuit seeks not only justice for the family of Roshad McIntosh but to finally bring to light the circumstances of Roshad’s death, which the CPD has kept hidden from his family and from the public.” 

Click here to view the complaint.

Why Chuy Garcia Needs to Condemn Police Torture Site

Why Chuy Garcia Needs to Condemn Rahm Emanuel’s Police Torture Site
By Flint Taylor
Originally appeared at In These Times

Guardian (U.K.) investigative reporter Spencer Ackerman has sparked a firestorm with a series of reports exposing a “secret” site, in the heart of Chicago’s predominantly African-American West Side, at which police have conducted off-the-books interrogations for more than 15 years.

Ackerman reports that black and brown suspects and witnesses, as well as white activists, have been taken by police to the abandoned Sears and Roebuck complex, known as Homan Square, and subjected to abuse. The victims describe, variously, being denied contact with lawyers or family for up to three days, being shackled hand and foot, and being subjected to starvation, sweltering heat, sensory deprivation and beatings. On at least one occasion, a detainee—John Hubbard, 44—died in an interview room. (After the Guardian article appeared, Cook County said the death was due to heroin intoxication.)

The initial Guardian exposé prompted calls for an investigation from two former high-level Justice Department officials, William Yeomans and Sam Bagenstos, and several progressive Chicago politicians (including one, Luis Gutierrez, who has been a conspicuous supporter of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel). The city attempted to give the growing scandal the back of the hand: Emanuel stated that the allegations were “not true. We follow the rules.” The police department issued a statement claiming that the site was not secret, that lawyers had access to their clients (the lawyers disagree) and that the charges of brutality were “offensive.” The local press, beaten on the story—by a UK paper no less—and having lost many of its award-winning investigative journalists years ago, turned to the Chicago Sun-Times’ veteran police reporter, Frank Main, who has long embedded with the CPD, to attack the Guardian reports. Main said that he had been to Homan Square 20 to 30 times to be shown drugs seized in raids. This, however, exhibits only the strange hidden-in-plain-sight nature of Homan Square: Press and lawyers were sometimes allowed in, but the interrogations and brutality were never reported. Nonetheless, a local NPR reporter, relying on Main’s assertion and doggedly focusing on the Guardian’s use of the term “black site” to draw a parallel with the CIA’s secret interrogation sites in the Middle East, attempted to dismiss the reports as “exaggerated.”

The Guardian countered with yet another story, which detailed four more cases of secret physical abuse in “kennel-like” cells at Homan Square. The young African-American men describe being grilled about gun and gangs for days. This time, the alleged practices included handcuffing both wrists in a way that, according to the victim, felt like being “crucified,” and stomping on another victim’s groin.

The textbook definition

So how should we view Homan Square? The U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which has been adopted, with reservations, by the United States, defines torture as follows:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

Given this, the emerging evidence of abuses at Homan Square once again places the question of systemic, racially and politically motivated torture squarely at the doorstep of the political powers that be in Chicago.

The similarities to the Burge torture era of the 1970s and 1980s are hard to miss. While the coercive tactics that have so far been documented at Homan Square are not as extreme as those practiced by then-Police Commander Jon Burge and his men (which included electric shock, simulating suffocation with a bag and mock-executions), they still intentionally inflict ”severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental” as forbidden by the CAT. During the Burge era, lawyers and family members would call the police looking for an African-American client or loved one who had been taken into custody, only to be told that he or she was not there. When the person was finally located, Burge and his confederates had finished their torture and abuse, and in most cases, obtained a confession. Similar to Homan Square, numerous black men, including Darrell Cannon, Michael Tillman, and Alonzo Smith, were taken offsite to remote locations or to the basement of the police station to be interrogated under torture. And, as in Homan, at least one person died under highly suspicious circumstances on Burge’s watch.

Homan Square itself has a direct tie to other brutal chapters of Chicago police history: The site is geographically located in the notorious Fillmore Police District, near the former Area 4 detective headquarters. In the 1980s and 1990s, a team of well-known Area 4 detectives interrogated suspects with a viciousness that was second only to that of Burge and his men. Decades earlier, in the 1960s, Fillmore District Officer James “Gloves” Davis, and his partner, Nedrick Miller, patrolled the streets with a brutality so extreme that they are remembered by residents to this day. (Davis has another claim to infamy: When the Chicago police were enlisted by Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan and F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover’s Cointelpro program to execute the deadly West Side raid on the apartment of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, Davis was one of the leaders of the raid, and bullets from his carbine were found in the bodies of both of the slain leaders.)

More to unearth?

The first case of Burge related torture came to light in 1982, but it was more than two decades before the larger scope of his unit’s systemic torture on the South and West Sides of Chicago—120 victims and still counting—was unearthed. So it is little wonder that the stories emerging from the sprawling brick edifice chill those who have experienced similar terrorizing brutality at the hands of the Chicago police. At a rally in front of Emanuel’s City Hall on March 2, torture victim Darrell Cannon linked Homan Square to Burge’s racist torture, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr.: “Justice denied to one is justice denied to all.” Angry young activists of color at the rally suggested that the revelations to date are just the tip of an iceberg and described everyday occurrences of brutal interrogations in their communities. Since the Guardian stories hit, lawyers have come forward and complained that holding clients incommunicado is a citywide problem.

That it is, without doubt, and it is much too early to call the story “exaggerated” or to conclude that there has been transparency with regard to what goes on in those kennel-like cells. One veteran and well-respected African American activist, Prexy Nesbitt, who has lived in the shadow of that complex of buildings and had tasted the lawlessness of the Fillmore cops back in the day, has asserted, with a straight face, that Homan Square is “where the bodies are buried.” Unfortunately, in Chicago that statement can be taken literally, as well as figuratively.

On the Saturday after the first Homan Square article broke, a group of hardy protesters, led by Black Lives Matter, gathered before the fortified entrance of the main building. A spokesperson posed questions to the silent row of police guards: “How many people are you holding there?” “What are you doing to them?”

Those questions deserve answers, along with many others. Foremost among them: Given Chicago lawyers’ reports that officers feel free to practice these kinds of abuses throughout the city, what is the purpose of taking people off the books to interrogate them at Homan Square? And who, among the thousands that may be taken into custody by the Chicago police on a given week, are brought there?

The CPD isn’t telling. But an answer may be pieced together from what the police, the embedded reporter and the Guardian’s exposé have so far revealed. Here’s what we know: First, the CPD’s undercover operations and intelligence and anti-gang units are based at Homan Square. Second, selected political activists are brought there, along with youth of color. The former are questioned about “terrorist” and other political activities, and the latter are grilled about gang activities, drugs and guns. Third, detainees are secreted away from their lawyers and families for as long as possible, sometimes days. Fourth, in many instances they are not charged with a crime. Fifth, one of Homan Square’s main functions  is, by the CPD’s own admission, to “disrupt” gang activity, in a chilling echo of how the FBI’s Cointelpro program characterized an illegal set of tactics, which were also practiced by the CPD’s notorious Red Squad and Gang Intelligence Unit to trample on the rights of political activists and people of color in the 1960s and 1970s.

All of this indicates that Homan Square houses a centralized police intelligence gathering and disruption operation—secret, lawless, and out of control. Since the tactics at least sometimes include human rights violations forbidden by the United Nations Convention Against Torture, it seems depressingly appropriate to liken Homan Square to Burge’s House of Screams, to Guantanamo Bay, and yes, to the CIA’s secret black sites.

The politics at play

Two final overarching questions also must be posed: How, if at all, will the Obama Justice Department respond? And will these related human rights issues impact the mayoral runoff between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and progressive challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia on April 7?

With regard to the Justice Department, local activists remember all too well that Barack Obama, when a state senator, steered a wide berth around the Burge torture issue. That, coupled with his staunch support for his former chief of staff in the mayoral primary, make the chances of a meaningful federal investigation, at least in the short term, next to zero.

As for the race, Garcia, for his part, took a position in the primary elections that, to many progressives, appeared to be to the right of Emanuel on the issue of policing. He called for 1,000 more cops on the street in his one and only TV advertisement, a position that hardly resonated with those people of color and progressives who suffer the slings and arrows of overly aggressive, racially motivated policing. He does support the ordinance for reparations for Burge torture survivors, but came to it late in the campaign, with an ill-informed written statement. He thereby missed a golden opportunity to seize upon an issue that would have further separated himself from Emanuel—who has refused to commit to the ordinance despite its support by a majority of the City’s aldermen—while appealing to the African-American community.

The Homan Square scandal offers Garcia yet another chance to show progressives and people of color that he is committed to reform a corrupt and brutal police department. With a broad-based attack on his opponent for failing to support torture reparations or to halt Homan Square, Garcia would be taking a page from his mentor, the late and great Mayor Harold Washington. Harold’s campaign caught fire in 1983 when he heeded the advice of one of his progressive advisors and seized on the issue of rampant police brutality to attack the incumbent, Jane Byrne. His base was galvanized, and the rest is history. Unfortunately, to date, Garcia has ignored that successful example and remained silent on Homan Square. Time is running short, but to paraphrase the late Congressman Ralph Metcalfe, it is never too late to be right.

Oral Argument in AETA Challenge

On Thursday, February 19, 2015, attorneys for animal rights activists will argue for a motion to dismiss the indictment charging them with violating the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA).  The motion asserts that the AETA is unconstitutional.

Michael Deutsch of People’s Law Office represents Kevin Johnson, one of the two activists. Kevin is also represented by National Lawyers Guild member Lillian McCartin and Rachel Meerpool of Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).  Tyler Lang is represented by Geoffry Meyer of the Federal Defender Program.

The motion will be argued by Rachel Meerpool of CCR, who has represented other animal rights activists who have challenged AETA.

Kevin and Tyler are both animal rights activists and were indicted in July.  The government alleges that last year they released mink from a fur farm in rural Illinois and conspired to release fox from another fur farm.  The government claims that this non-violent act of releasing animals constitutes “terrorism.”  They each face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

Details for Argument:

Thursday, February 19 at 10 am.
Dirksen Federal Building
219 S. Dearborn, Chicago, IL
Judge Amy St. Eve, Courtroom 1241

Everyone entering the building must go through a metal detector and show a state-issued ID.

 

For More Information on this case and the AETA:

US v. Johnson case documents
Indictment
Motion to Dismiss
Government Response to Motion
Reply to Government’s Response

Background info from People’s Law Office
Read more about our work fighting political repression and representing activists and our representation of Scott DeMuth, who was charged under the AEPA.
For more of our analysis of the impact of AETA, read “AETA and the Criminalization of a Movement”

From CCR
“Freeing Animals is Not ‘Terrorism’”
Case page: US v. Johnson

Racially Profiled Youth File Lawsuit Against City of Chicago for False Arrest

Community Groups Stand in Support Demanding Equal Treatment and Protection of Constitutional Rights for All

CHICAGO – Today, Grassroots Collaborative held a press conference announcing the filing of a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Chicago and Chicago Police Officers responsible for the false arrest of Felipe Hernandez and Kevin Tapia and the evisceration of their First Amendment rights.

On March 25th, 2014, Felipe Hernandez and Kevin Tapia were door knocking to inform residents about the March 31st deadline for the Affordable Care Act when they were stopped by Chicago Police Department officers, detained, searched multiple times, and questioned. Despite complying fully with the officers and providing their supervisor’s name and contact information, they were falsely arrested and frivolously charged with unlawful solicitation of business in violation of the Chicago Municipal Code.  After being booked and detained for several hours, they were released and the charges were later dropped.

“I was shocked to be arrested for engaging in legal activity and I feared that I would now have a criminal record that could prevent me from working, continuing my education and becoming a citizen of the U.S,” stated Kevin Tapia.  “I was frightened and feared the worst for no reason whatsoever.”

“Kevin and Felipe’s arrests were deplorable and wholly unjustifiable,” said Joey Mogul, a lawyer with the People’s Law Office representing Kevin and Felipe.  “They were racially profiled as young Latino men in a predominantly white neighborhood and arrested on a bogus charge.  They should have been applauded for their political engagement by the City, and instead they were punished while exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech.”  Mogul went on to say that “such pervasive discrimination not only threatens the political participation of young people of color, but also endangers the well-being of young people of color across the city of Chicago.”IMG_1968

The lawsuit was filed just a few weeks before the Chicago Municipal elections on February 24th, 2015.

“Door knocking campaigns play an important role in our civic engagement work and the work of many organizations across our city. It’s the right and duty of citizens of a democracy to talk to our neighbors and fellow residents. It’s our hope that many Chicago citizens, including young people of color, will be exercising that right in the next few weeks. We are very pleased that Kevin and Felipe have decided to file this lawsuit now. We will continue to stand with them in support of equal treatment and protection of all of our constitutional rights,” said Amisha Patel, Executive Director of Grassroots Collaborative.

“I wanted to file this lawsuit because what the Chicago Police did was wrong and I don’t want what happened to me to happen to other youth of color, or anybody else trying to exercise their constitutional right to free speech. Our mere existence should not be deemed suspicious or criminal.  Nobody should fear getting arrested for talking with other residents about issues they care about,” said Felipe Hernandez to a crowd of community supporters.

Data demonstrates that people of color are disproportionately arrested and charged by the Chicago Police Department.  In 2012, Black and Latino youth aged 17 and under were the target of 96% of CPD arrests. And while Black youth bear the brunt of this racial profiling, and are 10 times more likely than their white peers to be arrested, Latino youth also suffer disproportionately, and are twice as likely as their white peers to be arrested.

As Timmy Rose of We Charge Genocide stated, “We believe Felipe and Kevin’s arrests are evidence of a larger pattern of policing and policies designed to further silence and criminalize black and brown bodies, particularly youth. As members of our community, we believe it is our duty to stand in solidarity with those being criminalized, to speak out against these cases and demand an end to the culture of impunity and abuse of power being relentlessly exercised by the Chicago Police Department.”

Kevin Tapia and Felipe Hernandez look forward to having their day in court.

A copy of the lawsuit can be found here. Today, Grassroots Collaborative held a press conference announcing the filing of a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Chicago and Chicago Police Officers responsible for the false arrest of Felipe Hernandez and Kevin Tapia and the evisceration of their First Amendment rights. On March 25th, 2014, Felipe Hernandez and Kevin Tapia were door knocking to inform residents about the March 31st deadline for the Affordable Care Act when they were stopped by Chicago Police Department officers, detained, searched multiple times, and questioned. Despite complying fully with the officers and providing their supervisor’s name and contact information, they were falsely arrested and frivolously charged with unlawful solicitation of business in violation of the Chicago Municipal Code. After being booked and detained for several hours, they were released and the charges were later dropped. “I was shocked to be arrested for engaging in legal activity and I feared that I would now have a criminal record that could prevent me from working, continuing my education and becoming a citizen of the U.S,” stated Kevin Tapia. “I was frightened and feared the worst for no reason whatsoever.” “Kevin and Felipe’s arrests were deplorable and wholly unjustifiable,” said Joey Mogul, a lawyer with the People’s Law Office representing Kevin and Felipe. “They were racially profiled as young Latino men in a predominantly white neighborhood and arrested on a bogus charge. They should have been applauded for their political engagement by the City, and instead they were punished while exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech.” Mogul went on to say that “such pervasive discrimination not only threatens the political participation of young people of color, but also endangers the well-being of young people of color across the city of Chicago.” The lawsuit was filed just a few weeks before the Chicago Municipal elections on February 24th, 2015. “Door knocking campaigns play an important role in our civic engagement work and the work of many organizations across our city. It’s the right and duty of citizens of a democracy to talk to our neighbors and fellow residents. It’s our hope that many Chicago citizens, including young people of color, will be exercising that right in the next few weeks. We are very pleased that Kevin and Felipe have decided to file this lawsuit now. We will continue to stand with them in support of equal treatment and protection of all of our constitutional rights,” said Amisha Patel, Executive Director of Grassroots Collaborative. “I wanted to file this lawsuit because what the Chicago Police did was wrong and I don’t want what happened to me to happen to other youth of color, or anybody else trying to exercise their constitutional right to free speech. Our mere existence should not be deemed suspicious or criminal. Nobody should fear getting arrested for talking with other residents about issues they care about,” said Felipe Hernandez to a crowd of community supporters. Data demonstrates that people of color are disproportionately arrested and charged by the Chicago Police Department. In 2012, Black and Latino youth aged 17 and under were the target of 96% of CPD arrests. And while Black youth bear the brunt of this racial profiling, and are 10 times more likely than their white peers to be arrested, Latino youth also suffer disproportionately, and are twice as likely as their white peers to be arrested. As Timmy Rose of We Charge Genocide stated, “We believe Felipe and Kevin’s arrests are evidence of a larger pattern of policing and policies designed to further silence and criminalize black and brown bodies, particularly youth. As members of our community, we believe it is our duty to stand in solidarity with those being criminalized, to speak out against these cases and demand an end to the culture of impunity and abuse of power being relentlessly exercised by the Chicago Police Department.” Kevin Tapia and Felipe Hernandez look forward to having their day in court. A copy of the lawsuit can be found here: grassrootscollaborative.org/sites/default/files/Case01061.pdf”>here.

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Our Opinion: How long must Steidl wait for a pardon from Illinois?

This was originally posted in the State Journal Registrar on Jan. 22, 2015.

Even as former Gov. Pat Quinn hastily acted on pardon and clemency requests during his final hours in office earlier this month, one long-awaited petition by a wrongfully convicted central Illinois man went unaddressed.
 
And so Randy Steidl, who ought to be considered an innocent man without evidence to the contrary, continues to wait for his name to be formally cleared by the state.
 
Steidl spent 17 years behind bars, including 12 on death row, for a crime he was wrongfully convicted of committing – the horrific 1986 double slaying of newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhodes in the east-central Illinois town of Paris. Their bodies were found in a burning home, and they had been stabbed dozens of times.
 
The investigation was a sham from the beginning, built on circumstantial evidence and rife with corruption. Steidl and another man, Herb Whitlock, were arrested. The case moved swiftly through the Edgar County justice system; Steidl was convicted within 90 days of being arrested. He received the death penalty, Whitlock life in prison.
 
But questions about the investigation quickly surfaced and never went away. A witness description of a knife didn’t match forensic evidence, and another key witness repeatedly recanted statements made to detectives. A former state police investigator later said his supervisors intentionally impeded his ability to look deeper into the case.
 
A federal judge overturned Steidl’s conviction in 2003, saying he should be released or retried because of ineffective counsel and because he reasonably may have been acquitted had a jury heard all of the evidence.
 
The case was reinvestigated and DNA evidence tested, but Steidl could not be linked to the crime. The state police commander assigned to review the case concluded Steidl and Whitlock were not involved. He later revealed he was pressured by the state police to not reopen the investigation and said he was told it was “too politically sensitive.”
 
The Illinois attorney general’s office decided not to appeal the federal judge’s decision. The state appellate prosecutor’s office said it didn’t have enough time to prepare for a new trial, but stubbornly noted there was no statute of limitations on murder and insisted Steidl remained a suspect.
 
Steidl was released from prison in 2004. Whitlock was released in 2008.
 
No one else has been arrested in connection with the Rhodes case, and many observers doubt anyone ever will be. The investigation was too hopelessly riddled with mistakes, lies and cover-ups, to the detriment of actual justice for the Rhodes and their loved ones.
 
Steidl later sued various authorities involved in his wrongful conviction, including the Illinois State Police, the City of Paris, Edgar County, the state’s attorney who prosecuted him and other officials. He was awarded $6 million in civil settlements, including $2.5 million from the state police, which, notably, shelled out an additional $3.7 million on attorneys to fend off Steidl’s claims.
 
To this day, no one involved in the apparent frame-up has ever apologized or admitted to the wrongdoing that caused Steidl to spend 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. It’s a story that has played out repeatedly in Illinois, where 19 of 298 men and women sentenced to death have been exonerated. Illinois has the highest death-penalty exoneration rate in the country.
Steidl’s continued status as a suspect in the still-unresolved Rhodes slayings – if that remains the case – is nearly impossible to justify.
 
Two other governors, George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, did not pardon him, but revelations about his case were unfolding and his lawsuits against the government were pending during their terms, so the inaction can be justified.
 
By now, though, it’s clear that Steidl can’t be connected to the slayings. If he could, someone would have done it, and the government would not have shelled out millions to make him and the whole embarrassing chapter go away.
 
Quinn formally abolished the death penalty in Illinois and made reviewing pardon requests a priority for his administration. But why he failed to pardon Steidl, who is not guilty of murder in the eyes of the American judicial system, is unclear.
 
Perhaps Gov. Bruce Rauner will see fit to do the right thing.

 

Visit our wrongful conviction page on our website for more information on Randy Steidl’s case and other wrongful conviction cases our office has worked on.

Listen to Flint Taylor on the Radio Show “This is Hell”

This originally aired on This is Hell on January 17, 2015.

Flint Taylor: “Obama, for all his pious statements after Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown, has been behind funneling money to police departments for militarization. And that means the kind of weaponry and tactics that are used on the military battlefield.”

Attorney Flint Taylor delivers a history lesson in racism, brutality and law enforcement.

Flint wrote the piece Blood On Their Hands: The Racist History of Modern Police Unions for In These Times.

The Deadline for Applications for the Summer Internship Program has been Extended

People’s Law Office is accepting applications for our 2015 summer internship and educational program, which focuses on learning about civil rights litigation rooted in social justice and radical legal work.

The program is open to law students. To apply send resume, cover letter and writing sample to peopleslaw [at] aol.com.  Applications will be accepted until February 6, 2014.  A stipend is available.

Super Lawyers Interview with Michael Deutsch

The Atticus of Attica

By Beth Taylor
Published in: 2015 Illinois Super Lawyers — February 2015

From rioting prisoners to Black Panthers to animal-rights defenders, Michael E. Deutsch has been on the front line of the fight for civil rights

Q: What were the roots of your civic activism?

A: I didn’t really become an activist until I got to law school. I graduated [Northwestern] in ’69, right at the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Then I became a law clerk in the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. The Chicago conspiracy trial was going on; these anti-war activists were put on trial for crossing state lines to encourage riots—basically to encourage demonstrations against the war.

It was a very colorful trial, and the defendants were from different parts of the anti-war movement; one was a leader of the Black Panthers. I used to go down there and watch. There was this judge, Julius Hoffman, who was very against the defendants. There was a lot of commotion and a lot of acting out and drama in the courtroom. I became very immersed in wanting to become a lawyer who represents people who are fighting injustice, and [in] working for people’s rights.

I joined a group of lawyers—which I still am part of—called the People’s Law Office, which started in 1969 and is still going strong 45 years later. We represent people who are victims of police abuse and police brutality. We also are very involved in uncovering people who have been wrongfully convicted and have been in prison a long period of time. We’ve been able to free many people from prison.

My first jury trial was on behalf of Black Panthers in southern Illinois who had been attacked by the police and shot back. They were acquitted of 47 counts of attempted murder. So that was a great way to start your legal career.

Then what really influenced my commitment was the Attica prisoners’ rebellion, which happened in September of 1971. I was one of several lawyers who came from different places to represent the Attica prisoners who, by the time I got involved, had been beaten and a lot of them shot, and the prison retaken. We were trying to get them medical care and equal rights.

The state of New York was willing to sacrifice its own guards, who were being held hostage, in order to put down this prison rebellion, even though it could have been negotiated. When they stormed the prison and shot—like a turkey shoot—they killed nine of the hostages. They originally said the hostages had died because their throats had been cut, and of course the coroner determined that they had all been killed by state police bullets.

I helped to organize the legal defense of over 60 prisoners who were facing 1,400 felony counts. We organized a group called the Attica Brothers Legal Defense and I moved to Buffalo, New York, where it was based. I spent the next four or five years going back and forth from Chicago to Buffalo. Ultimately we brought a civil rights case on behalf of the [prisoners] who were killed and tortured after they took over the prison.

I realized, working on the Attica case, how important it was to stand up for people in prison and how bad the conditions and treatment of prisoners were. That was really the cause of the Attica rebellion. I realized that I could walk away from these situations, but those people in prison or the people who were victims of injustice couldn’t. So I made a commitment that that was going to be my life’s work: to expose injustice and fight for equal rights of people.

Q: What was the outcome of the Attica lawsuit?

A: We won at trial for one of the prisoners for $4 million, then that was taken away by the Court of Appeals. But ultimately, we settled the case for $12 million for the victims of Attica.

Q: Have any of your cases taken you before the U.S. Supreme Court?

A: In 1980, I appeared in a case called Carlson v. Green, which was the case that established the right to sue directly under the Eighth Amendment for damages for cruel and unusual punishment.

I represented a black man who died in a Terre Haute, Indiana, federal prison. He was the fourth man to die in the prison hospital within an eight-month period. This man was suffering from a terrible asthma attack; the doctor refused to come, even though he lived on the prison property. After several hours of him fighting for breath, the doctor said, “Give him some Thorazine.” That’s contraindicated for someone who’s having trouble breathing, and he died.

We brought a case for cruel and unusual punishment—basically a denial of medical care. The government said, “You can’t bring a case directly under the Eighth Amendment; it doesn’t provide for a private cause of action.” That case established that right. It was 7-2.

Q: What was it like arguing before the Supreme Court?

A: It’s very intimidating in a way, but I believed very strongly in the case and I had a very strong factual situation. I’m told that Thurgood Marshall kind of poked the judge sitting next to him and said, “Look at this guy; he really believes in his case.”

Then the most interesting thing: Right in the middle of my argument, they bang the gavel and say, “It’s lunchtime.” So they get up and leave. Which is good, in a way, because then I had a whole lunch period to plan the rest of my argument. But it was so shocking. As soon it’s 12 o’clock, no matter what, they just bang the gavel and they get up and leave.

Q: Which justices dissented?

A: Then-Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice [William] Rehnquist. I recall that Justice Burger was very negative.

Q: Was it an intimidating experience?

A: The lead-up is intimidating: “I’m going to argue in front of the Supreme Court; they’re going to ask me a lot of questions. Am I going to do a good job?” But for me, I’m always very nervous whenever I go into court, no matter what. And I’ve been doing it for all these years. But as soon as I get in there and I lose myself in the struggle and I find a way to express my belief in my client and the issues in the case, nerves dissipate. I was fired up.

Q: Any other cases that really stand out?

A: A case that I’ve done on behalf of a prisoner in Indiana who was on death row and 30 days away from being executed. After many years of fighting for him, and winning once and losing once in the Indiana Supreme Court … they agreed to take the death penalty off the table, and he’ll be eligible for release in two years. He was a young black man who was accused of being involved in a bank robbery in which a police officer was killed.

Q: You also worked for two decades, starting in 1975, on behalf of the Puerto Rican independence movement.

A: I represented Puerto Rican political prisoners in U.S. courts and helped to obtain their freedom and clemency from President Jimmy Carter. I also represented Puerto Rican activists from Chicago and New York who were accused of being terrorists who were involved in clandestine work on behalf of independence. I have also testified before the U.N. decolonization committee and in other international tribunals in support of Puerto Rican independence.

Q: What changes have you seen in our society over the years?

A: One of the things that I’ve been involved with in the last 10 years is representing people accused of being terrorists.

I’ve been representing Palestinian-Americans who have been accused of giving money to people in the occupied territories and charged with providing what they call material support for terrorism. [In] one of the cases I had in Chicago, two Palestinian men, who were from Chicago, were accused of RICO [racketeering and corruption] for being part of an organization in Palestine. [Prosecutors were] saying that was a racketeering-influenced organization. Of course, the jury didn’t buy that; after a long trial, they acquitted them of everything but minor charges.

I’ve seen the courts used, in my view, to repress political activity; to over-punish people. I’ve been involved with a lot of work around the rights of prisoners and challenging high-security units. We brought lawsuits challenging keeping people locked up, basically being evaluated as threats to the institution and then being put in these units for indefinite periods of time—for two, three, four, five years in segregation. No way to get out, and no due process for getting in.

I’ve done some work for animal rights people who have been involved in releasing minks and other animals that are in these fur farms and being treated very badly. And, of course, now they’re accused of terrorism. There’s a statute called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act which makes it a crime, a terrorist crime, to free animals or do any kind of protest about the treatment of animals that interferes with these industrial animal farms.

They have been using RICO in political situations when it was supposed to be used only against organized crime, and that’s what they’ve used with terrorism too. They’ve expanded that use to use it against people who don’t fit the definition of terrorism. Just this year, I represented, with two other lawyers, these young men. My client was just 21 years old; he had come from Florida to be part of the anti-NATO demonstrations because the NATO summit was in Chicago this summer, and they were part of demonstrating and actually causing some kind of vandalism. They were found by these two undercover Chicago police who were encouraging them to take further steps beyond just minor vandalism and talking to them about making Molotov cocktails. Before they did anything—they never were able to do anything—they arrested them and charged them with terrorism.

This was the first time, under Illinois law, they used the terrorism statute since it was passed after 9/11. [They] charged these young guys with providing material support for terrorism, conspiracy to commit terrorism, and possession of an incendiary device with the intent to commit terrorism. We had a long trial in the state court in Chicago and they were convicted of lesser charges. But the terrorism charges were rejected by the jury, which basically said, “We don’t think this is terrorism. These are just young guys who went over the line but certainly aren’t terrorists.”

[In another] case, two young men are accused of freeing minks in Illinois and Iowa, and they’re charged with this Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. It may be against the law, and maybe they can indict them, but why call it terrorism? I’ve found that, if you have a jury and you start talking about terrorism, either they’re going to see it and say, “Well, it’s really not terrorism,” like they said with those NATO kids, or they’re going to be influenced by that and not be able to really fairly look at the evidence. It’s a very prejudicial kind of charge.

I’ve done a lot of work representing people who are subpoenaed to grand juries, and wrote a long law review article in 1984 that’s still being quoted by people who are opposing grand juries about how the power of the grand jury is being abused by the federal government—being usurped by federal prosecutors when the grand jury is supposed to be an independent institution.

Q: Are you seeing a lot of repercussions from what’s going on with ISIS?

A: The FBI is concerned that there are people who have gone from the U.S. over to fight with that group and other groups in Syria. The FBI is very active in terms of investigating and surveilling the Arab and Muslim communities in Chicago and in New York as well.

I’m involved in a case right now in Detroit where a Palestinian woman, who’s 67 years old—lived in this country for 20 years—was arrested because they said 10 years ago when she filled out her naturalization papers, they asked her if she was ever arrested, convicted or imprisoned, and she filled out “no, no, no.” It turns out 45 years ago, in 1969 when she was a 22-year-old student, she was allegedly involved in resistance to the new occupation when the Israelis went into Gaza and the West Bank in 1967. She was put into a military tribunal that they set up, she was horrifically tortured, and she was found guilty of being involved in resistance activities against the Israel occupation.

She’s been in this country 20 years. The reason, I believe, they brought these charges is because she’s very active in the Palestinian community in Chicago and part of the Arab American Action Network. We’re saying it’s politically motivated.

Q: You are a past legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.

A: It was started [in 1966] by lawyers who were involved in the civil rights movement in the South. One of the founders was William Kunstler, who was a well-known civil rights lawyer; [also] Arthur Kinoy and others. They set up this office in New York, and over the years it’s expanded to be involved in international human rights, women’s rights, labor rights, all kinds of different work on behalf of people who are fighting for justice in the courts.

From 1991 to 1996 I was fortunate enough to be the legal director of that institution. We had about 10 lawyers and we had a lot of cooperating lawyers who would donate their services to work on a civil rights case with the center. It’s still going strong; it was very involved in challenging the people who were put in Guantanamo and got some good opinions from the Supreme Court about that.

I was involved in several cases when I was there. One that I was proud of was getting an injunction against preventing homeless people, who were getting harassed and beaten up in Penn Station. The police would see them as homeless and jump on them and throw them out. The court said they had a right to be there and to stop any type of abuse and harassment.

Q: What do you like the best and least about your job?

A: I like fighting for people’s rights and exposing injustice. Having to be creative about how to present people’s cases to juries, basically. The thing I like least is being in front of judges who are not open-minded and are basically so pro-prosecution or pro-government that they won’t listen to reasonable arguments.

Q: What has changed in the legal arena since 1969?

A: The law has become more restrictive and the judiciary has become more conservative. Of course, I came at the time of the Warren court. After Attica, there was a period of time in which courts were trying to give prisoners constitutional rights and protect their conditions and treatment. [Recently] we’ve seen a more conservative court, both in the federal district court level and, of course, in the Supreme Court. Also, I think we’ve seen a rollback on certain basic civil rights that were being protected when I first started practicing. Even in the criminal defense field, it’s much harder to defend people, and the law has restricted some of the rights of people who are accused of crimes. We have the influx of mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws. When Attica happened, there were 200,000 people in state and federal prisons—that was in 1971, 1972. Today we have like 2.5 million.

This idea that we could somehow deal with crime by locking up more people for longer periods of time, that was the ethic that kind of took over—particularly the war on drugs and this idea that we needed to be harsher and [offer] less rehabilitation in prisons.

Q: Do you see this trend continuing?

A: The pendulum is starting to swing slowly back the other way—I think because of the financial problems that we’re experiencing. I don’t think there’s a strong sentiment among legislatures or judges that, “Oh, we’ve locked up too many people and we’re being too harsh.” But we’re spending too much money on prisons … and that’s what I think is causing the pendulum to slowly move back.

The federal sentencing guidelines are not mandatory anymore—judges can look at them but they don’t have to follow them in federal court. That’s a good development. There are rulings by federal judges about keeping people locked up indefinitely in isolation units; they’re starting to say that mentally ill people shouldn’t be kept isolated. So there’s a beginning of some liberalizing or progressive movement, but it’s slow. The pendulum has swung so far the other way, it’s going to take a while to swing back. But I’m optimistic.