Ronald Kitchen lived through hell. Wrongfully arrested in 1988 for the murder of two women and three children, Kitchen was tortured by the Chicago Police Department and forced into a false confession that landed him 21 years in prison – 13 of which were on death row. In his new book “My Midnight Years: Surviving Jon Burge’s Police Torture Ring and Death Row,” Kitchen recounts his horrifying experience, exposing the tale of an innocent man’s brutalization and years stolen by those who are expected to bring about justice.
His new book technically took five years to produce, but Kitchen has survived over two decades of torture. What started as being beaten with phonebooks, telephones, fists, and guns in an interrogation room has developed into one of the most difficult and heart-tugging stories a person will encounter.
Chicago Defender: Can you enlighten us on how this book came about? What was the process for bringing “My Midnight Years: Surviving Jon Burge’s Police Torture Ring and Death Row” to fruition?
Ronald Kitchen: That book came from years and years of sitting down getting my thoughts right. It was a process of me trying to stay on track. I think embracing that I was an innocent man put on death row was the most difficult part for me putting this book together.
This is actually the second book that I wrote; the first book I worked on while I was incarcerated on death row and doing a natural life sentence. I never saw an ending coming to it. One day, I got depressed and just wrote 18 pages of years of stifled thoughts and feelings. I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The process was hard. I was reliving old feelings and new feelings about my situation.
CD: The book has grotesque detail about the brutality you encountered that people will certainly not gloss over. In one part you say “For hours I lay alone, moaning, screaming, and crying for help. And no one responded.” Besides providing chilling accounts, what do you want readers to take away from your story?
RK: I want people to realize that I was an innocent man convicted of a crime I didn’t commit. I was an innocent man who was forced to confess to a crime I had nothing to do with. But I survived the pits of hell, I survived. I’m living a healthy life. I’m married with kids.
Life goes on. Life goes on if you have the mentality and courage to move forward. But a lot of us don’t have the ability to move forward. I think about Anthony Porter who was placed on death row. He came out and his life is in utter chaos, a constant chaos.
When people read this book, I want them to see me as a survivor. I don’t want to be seen as someone who gave up and gave in, but somebody who has fought his way from out that pit that Jon Burge and Mayor Daley put me in.
I want you to see where I came from, where I’ve been, and where I am now.
CD: You specifically name Burge’s officers like Detective Michael Kill and his brutality against you, but the Burge years are dead. Do you believe times have changed within the Chicago Police Department?
RK: The only thing different now is that they have the cameras. To believe that things have changed within the Chicago Police Department is a false belief. Nothing has changed.
The only thing that has changed is that we have cell phones to record video of our encounters. But believe me, the torture is still going on; if it’s not physical, then it’s mental.
We have to believe that racism still exists. We can not believe that the Chicago Police Department is doing their job to the fullest extent, serving and protecting.
CD: I think readers would love to know how do you deal with police today. Can it be triggering to see police cars knowing that those are your past abusers?
RK: I fear the Chicago Police Department. I don’t care if I’m riding down the streets legit with my license and insurance. They pull me over, I still shake because I don’t know the mentality of the officers. I don’t know why they kill Black men at the rate they do. My encounters with them will always be full of suspicion and fear.
CD: So, eventually, the crimes of Jon Burge and his midnight crew were brought to light resulting in many activist and organizations fighting for justice for survivors of torture. This pushed Mayor Rahm Emanuel to back a $5.5 million reparations package for Burge torture victims. Is this justice? Does this repair the situation? If not, can you point to what will?
RK: I was there at City Hall when they signed the reparations package. He wasn’t the mayor when Jon Burge and his cronies had a torture ring going on. Mayor Emanuel is trying to repair a system that can’t be repaired. To repair the City of Chicago, we have to tear it down brick by brick and build something entirely new.
The City of Chicago cut 21 years of my life. They can’t give me the time I wanted to teach my son how to ride a bike or how to tie his shoe. They can’t give me anything that I missed out on. No, justice has not been served.
They [torturers] went home every night to be with their wives and their kids. They went home every night to teach their sons how to read, how to ride a bike, or how to drive a car. They went home every night to their families. They set the table and ate dinner. They got on the telephone to talk to friends as much as they wanted to. They were with their mothers before their mothers got sick and passed away.
CD: Speaking of your mother, I bet your family is proud to have you home and able to tell your story. What would you like to say about your family at this moment?
I want to thank my mom who was my number one soldier. When I came home she had dementia, so she didn’t know who I was. I also want to express gratitude towards my wife, my daughters, my uncle. I have so many people who have my back and pushed me forward. I’m so thankful.
I have seen men get walked to their deaths, executed. I am a survivor and I could not have done it without my family.
About Ronald Kitchen
From Northwestern University’s Bluhm Legal Clinic
On Tuesday, July 7, 2009, 43-year-old Ronald Kitchen, who confessed under extreme physical duress to taking part in five murders 21 years ago, was exonerated and freed from prison. The confession was extracted by Detective Michael Kill, who worked under Commander Jon Burge. Kitchen spent 13 of his 21 years behind bars on death row.
He was freed by Judge Paul Biebel, the presiding judge of the Criminal Division of the Cook County Circuit Court, after the Office of the Illinois Attorney General joined with attorneys from the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University School of Law and the law firm of Baker & McKenzie to request dismissal of the charges.
Biebel also freed Kitchen’s equally innocent co-defendant, Marvin Reeves, 50, who was represented by attorneys from Mayer Brown LLP.
Kitchen’s conviction rested primarily on his confession, but also involved a jailhouse informant, Willie Williams, who has admitted that he lied when he testified that both Kitchen and Reeves had confessed the crime to him. The tortured confession implicated Reeves in the murders, although he had nothing to do with them. Both convictions rested in part on the failure of Cook County prosecutors to provide defense attorneys with evidence of benefits provided to Willie Williams in return for his testimony.
Of 314 men and women sentenced to death under the current Illinois death penalty law, which was enacted in 1977, 20 have now been exonerated and released — an error rate of more than six percent.
Kitchen was represented by Thomas F. Geraghty and Carolyn E. Frazier of the Bluhm Legal Clinic and Mark Oates and Angela Vigil of Baker & McKenzie. Reeves was represented by Michael J. Gill and David D. Pope of Mayer Brown.