Exonerated felon opens up about false imprisonment

Repeatedly beaten and bruised during interrogation, Marvin Reeves’ family barely recognized him in court. But that was only the start of a 21-year stay in prison for a crime of which he was falsely accused.

Reeves, an African-American Chicago resident at the time of his conviction in 1988, spoke to current and aspiring law students Wednesday afternoon about his experience with the Chicago Police Department, which included torture on several occasions.

“I got permanent black eyes from the beatings,” he said. “It’s always a reminder.”

He and his co-defendant were accused by a convict of setting a home on fire that killed five people, including three children. After being arrested, Reeves was pushed by authorities to sign a confession, under the command of then-Lt. Jon Burge.

Burge is a now-convicted felon who was found using methods such as the “dry submarine,” which is a means of asphyxiation.

Even in spite of the visible bruises, the judge threw out the claim that Reeves was tortured, as there was no evidence of police brutality. But on the other hand, the original conviction of murder and arson was based on no evidence except finger pointing, Reeves said.

The man who accused Reeves and his co-defendant even admitted, after their releases, that he made up the story to cut a deal with prosecutors.

Reeves was sure that he was headed for death row, or at least the rest of his life in prison.

“It touched my heart when you see someone that cares,” he said, referring to the times he heard there was a protest outside the prison demanding his exoneration.

G. Flint Taylor, an attorney who defended Reeves’ co-defendant, said this type of activity was going on for almost two decades on the south side of the Chicago. He added that confessions made under torture led to the “Death Row 10,” a term coined for those who were coerced to sign a confession that led them onto death row.

Taylor criticized former Chicago mayor Richard Daley, who was then Cook County’s state’s attorney, for not pursuing an investigation into Burge. And it would have changed Reeves’ life if things played out differently, he said.

John Hanlon, legal director of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, said wrongful convictions not only take a toll on families, but also a “toll in our confidence in the criminal justice system.”

One such example of that lack of “confidence” was Troy Davis’ execution – one that was nationally debated leading up to it.

Hanlon said one of the reasons the use of the death penalty in Illinois was reconsidered was the brutality under Burge. He said Georgia, the state where Davis was convicted, has a different attitude.

“There were substantial innocence questions (surrounding the murder conviction of Davis),” he added “The stakes are high (in these sort of cases).”