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Man who alleges police torture is freed

Chicago man had been jailed for more than 23 years

Michael Tillman talks with reporters in Chicago on Thursday as his mother, Winter Tillman, looks on from the background.  (Associated Press)
Michael Tillman talks with reporters in Chicago on Thursday as his mother, Winter Tillman, looks on from the background. (Associated Press)
Don Babwin Associated Press

CHICAGO – A man who contends Chicago police tortured him into confessing to a murder he did not commit walked out of a courtroom a free man Thursday after more than 23 years behind bars.

Assistant Special State’s Attorney Andrew Levine said prosecutors agreed to drop the charges against Michael Tillman after concluding that without the coerced confession there was not enough evidence to convict him.

“I’m just glad justice finally prevailed,” said Tillman, 43, who was convicted of taking part in the 1986 rape and murder of Betty Howard, who lived in a building where he had worked as a handyman. The Chicago woman’s attackers tied her to a radiator in her apartment building, sexually assaulted her, then shot her to death.

In court papers, prosecutors said Tillman’s confession had been a “product of coercion” and that he had been the victim of a “pattern and practice of abuse” that had existed in a particular police station on the city’s South Side.

The papers filed this week do not detail what Tillman – along with dozens of other black men who were interrogated in Area 2 Headquarters in the 1970s and 1980s – allegedly went through at the hands of Chicago police detectives.

Tillman and his attorneys say that, in the course of three days in 1986, detectives turned an interview room into a torture chamber.

Police, they said, beat him with a phone book, and punched him in the face and the body until the floor was slick with his blood. They put a gun to his head and a plastic bag over his head and even poured 7-Up into his nose.

“It was a crude form of waterboarding (in which) they induced the feeling of suffocating or drowning,” said one of his attorneys, Locke Bowman.

Finally, as Bowman and others say happened to many other black suspects, Tillman told the detectives what they wanted to hear.

Another man, Clarence Trotter, remains in prison for Howard’s murder. In court papers, prosecutors say there was substantial evidence, including fingerprints, linking him to the crime.

Tillman’s release is just the latest chapter in a story of police abuse that has dogged the department for decades.

In 2006, authorities confirmed what the black community on the South Side had known for years: that the police routinely tortured suspects in Area 2 to extract confessions. Prosecutors appointed to look into allegations surrounding the unit and its then-commander, Jon Burge, found that some of the allegations were true but that the cases were too old to bring criminal charges.

Subsequently, a number of convictions have been reversed, some suspects have been freed, and millions of dollars have been paid out to settle lawsuits of men who claim they were wrongfully convicted.

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