How a group of black inmates sued for reparations after being tortured by police

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Thirty-two years ago, Darrell Cannon was dragged from his Chicago apartment in the dead of night by a group of police detectives who informed him that he was a suspect in an ongoing murder investigation.

During their first round of questioning, Cannon, then a gang member who had spent time in prison as a teenager for murder, claimed that he had no knowledge of the crime in question. Dissatisfied with Cannon's answer, the detectives loaded the man back into an unmarked car and drove him to the outskirts of the city where they proceeded to torture a confession out of him.

Cannon recounts all of this in the latest episode of NPR's Planet Money, where he describes his lengthy battle with the Chicago Police Department, which tortured and abused dozens of men of color in order to force them to confess to crimes. Though Cannon was no stranger to run-ins with the law, that night in 1982 would forever alter the course of his life.


"One of the first things they said was 'Nigger, look around. Nobody's going to hear or see nothing we do to you,'" Cannon said. "And when I looked around, there was nothing but isolated area. Now I started to get concerned."

One of the detectives pulled a shotgun out of the trunk of the car and ordered Cannon to open his mouth. When he refused, the police forced the barrel into his mouth, breaking two of his teeth in the process, and asking him again what he knew about the murder.

Again, Cannon attempted to tell the detectives that he didn't know anything. This time, the detective pulled the trigger. The gun wasn't loaded, but Cannon was, understandably, terrified. The detectives repeated this two more times, each time turning away from Cannon and pretending to load the shotgun before forcing it back into his mouth and demanding that he give up information about a murder he knew nothing about.

"Now the third time, when I heard that trigger click in my mind, my mind told me that he had just blew the back of my head off because my hair stood straight up," Cannon said. "And at that point, I was beyond fear."


When Cannon still insisted that he didn't know what the detectives were talking about, he says that they then pulled his pants and underwear down as then-Sergeant Jon Burge pulled out a cattle prod. As another officer restrained him in the back seat of the car, Burge began to electrocute Cannon's genitalia.

That night, the detectives were able to torture a confession out of Cannon that put him back in prison for over two decades for a crime that he did not commit and was later exonerated for. Around the same time that Cannon was imprisoned, John Conroy, a Chicago-based reporter, caught wind of a case similar to Cannon's that would change the man's life forever.


Conroy sat in on the trial of Andrew Wilson, a man who had admitted to killing a cop but also claimed that he'd been beaten and tortured by police before being formally brought in for booking. Unlike Cannon, Wilson had photographic evidence of the abuse that he also described as having been inflicted using a cattle prod.

"It hurts, but it stays in your head and grinds your teeth, constantly grinding. The pain staying in your head," Wilson said on the stand in 1989 when he was asked to describe what it felt like to be electrocuted. "You got to experience it yourself."


Burge, who was named in Wilson's $10 million civil rights suit as one of the officers who attacked him, vehemently denied any involvement, but the similarities between his story and Cannon's began to draw media scrutiny. Soon, a third victim came forward with a horrifying story of an encounter with Burge in which he claimed the officer played a game of Russian Roulette with his head. In 1993, the Chicago Police Department finally fired Burge for police brutality.

By the time Burge was dismissed from the force, however, more than 120 other men had come forward with stories of being tortured by Chicago officers between early 1972 and late 1991. Most of the men were black or Latino. Some were innocent and others were guilty, but all of them claimed to have been grossly abused by the system. For many, Burge's firing wasn't enough. They wanted payback from the city of Chicago.


Ronald Kitchen, a man who'd been wrongfully convicted for the murders of five people and spent over 21 years in jail (and 13 years on death row)pursued civil rights lawsuits against the city, naming Burge and then Mayor Richard M. Daley in his suit. The city eventually agreed to pay Kitchen about $6 million.

Because so many of the victims' stories and circumstances were different, there was no simple solution. For some of the victims, the statute of limitations for the police's crimes had passed, meaning that they couldn't sue the city like Kitchen had.


In 2015, decades after many inmates first alleged that they'd been tortured by police, the Chicago City Council introduced and approved a measure that paid out just under $6 million to 57 of the Chicago PD's victims.

Reparation recipients were chosen based upon longstanding legal claims that had already been filed in addition to an application process that was open to a list of potential victims identified by the The Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Organization. Cases belonging to those people who managed to file an application within 30 days of seeing their name on the city's website were then vetted by the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Kent School of Law.


Some of the men had been exonerated from their sentences. Others who had actually committed the crimes they were accused of remain in prison.

"Reparations is not a necessity, but it is a moral compunction and a moral reckoning to right a wrong. There is no statute of limitations on that," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanual said to the Chicago Sun-Times. "In three years, we settled up legally, [and issued a] verbal apology what hasn't been done in three decades."


There was a significance to the city deciding to pay out millions in reparations, a form of monetary redress that some feel more black people are owed due to the long lasting economic disadvantages caused by slavery and historic denial of homeownership. Each of the 57 men received somewhere around $100,000 last year, and while there's a degree of justice to that, Cannon remains resolute in his belief that money could never make up for all the time he lost.

"You know, my lawyers don't like for me to say what I'm getting ready to say, but I still say it anyway. I would love to use a cattle prod on any one of them," Cannon told Planet Money flatly. "Because I would want them to experience what I felt. And I would shock them until one of two things happened - they had a heart attack or the batteries died."

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