Vol 2, Num 3 :: 2003.01.31 — 2003.02.13
Photos throughout this essay by Charles R. Snyder
Before leaving my parents’ house that night, I can’t resist the urge to shock my great aunt and uncle who have unexpectedly dropped by to visit. Within five minutes of their arrival, my Aunt Barb has told my mom she has big feet and my dad that he had graying, receding hair. I think maybe they can use a little disruption in their snowbird lives.
“Yeah, we’re going to a welcome-home party for the former Death Row inmates who were pardoned yesterday by Governor Ryan. It’s on the 4800 block of South Michigan.” South Michigan—an area of bittersweet memories for many of my ancestors, an area most of them fled when black people started moving in. “I’m hoping we won’t be home too late.” And with that we are out the door before Aunt Barb’s mouth had closed.
We arrive at the traditional brownstone only to wait—the former inmates are attending other parties at this point. We really don’t know what to expect. What we find is a huge banner across the front of the home for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the host of the party who focuses on exculpating those whose confessions were forced by torture. Inside, we are greeted by sharply dressed African Americans who invite us to make ourselves comfortable and directe us to the drinks in the back of the huge house. We weave our way to the kitchen through an increasingly white crowd. Professorial looking ex-hippies along with a new generation of student activists surround tables full of anti-death penalty propaganda. Tonight, the news has finally sunk in, but campaign members are considering next steps, given the imminent transfer of the governorship to Rod Blagojevich.
We get something to drink. We glance through brochures. I take notes. Rob and I tell people why we are here, mentioning *culture is not optional. The news that we are Christians meets with silence from some, a detached “hmm” from others, and genuine interest from one—Jerome. A Catholic who has been involved with the campaign for some time, Jerome is able to confirm our impression that the people most involved with this campaign are not used to sharing party space with dedicated believers.
We are not the only ones waiting for any of the three released men to arrive. A cameraman, boomman, an interviewer, and another photojournalist sit patient and ready, revealing how much a part of their job waiting really is. Later in the evening, when I meet the interviewer and have a chance to share with her the mission of *cino, I have finally settled on a pitch that appeals to the people here. “Part of what we’re trying to do is to get Christians to realize that Republican doesn’t necessarily equal Christian and that they need to consider issues on an individual basis to determine what they should support,” I say.
“Wow, that’s a big undertaking,” she replied. “Good luck. I mean that.”
We soon start hearing reports that Madison Hobley will be arriving in twenty, ten, five minutes. We learn to ignore those reports. In the meantime, we meet some interesting people, including a man I dubb “The Preacher” before I learn his name is Muhammed. He stands in the foreground of the picture here, in the middle of one of his rants. A seemingly respected, but aging member of the community, Muhammed walks around proscelitizing about how in order to change the system, we have to get into the system, like medicine affecting a sick body. With his hand on my husband’s arm at one point, he issues a sincere challenge to provide leadership for the next generation. We are unclear on the origin or intention of this challenge, but say thank you and hold the man’s gaze until he’s on to an new subject.
Unlike Muhammed’s vague statements, the people in the background of this picture are here for a clear purpose. They claim that they know of around 40 teen-agers who are currently in jail because they have been framed for crimes by corrupt police officers. They came to gain support for their cause. The accused teen-agers include the son of the man on the far right.
Another man is present to gain support for a cause. John Keeler makes little effort to control his tendency to gravitate toward anyone with a camera or notebook. He had been in Pontiac Correctional Center for burglary for three years and wants to get the word out regarding unjust treatment of prisoners at that facility where, according to him, they “warehouse prisoners like they’re animals.” Corrupt guards (he knew from experience) aggravated prisoners’ attempts to rehabilitate by smuggling in drugs for them. Officers beat inmates and filed false disciplinary reports in an effort to keep inmates in longer and appear to be properly spending the people’s tax money. According to Keeler, the corruption is all about job security.
Another aspect of prison life at Pontiac that Keeler condemns is the inappropriate treatment of those who are suicidal. Disturbed inmates are expected to meet with a psychiatrist in their cells, where lack of privacy prohibits honesty and lack of honesty prohibits healing. If a prisoner is considered immediately suicidal, he is tied to a bed for a certain period of time and them released. One of Keeler’s own friends hung himself in his cell because of inadequate care.
Keeler says he documented all of this information and even sent it to state officials, but received no reply. Their only desire is to “turn a blind eye to the truth.” He gives me his pager number so I can reach him for more information.
Finally, someone arrives who causes the camera crew to rush to attention. I’m embarrassed to have to ask who it is, but I do anyway. “Are you kidding? That’s Anthony Porter.” Porter’s proven innocence was what inspired Governor George Ryan to place a moratorium on executions in 1999.
Porter was released in 1999 after being proven innocent when the man who actually committed the crime he was convicted of confessed. He was so close to death that his funeral was already being arranged. But after 17 years in prison, Porter has had a difficult time creating a stable life for himself and his family. “Here’s a man who has been incarcerated on Death Row and now he’s free,” said Maurice Perkins of the Inner City Youth Foundation (Chicago Tribune, 1/13/03). “Nobody had provided him with any life management skills, behavior skills, reintegration skills…. He didn’t have anybody to actually…help him keep his feet planted.”
In his interview, Porter is sure to mention his commitment to speak out against the death penalty until the day he dies. He also mentions that no one who is guilty of creating false allegations has been held accountable.
After the interview, the press representatives settle back into their chairs and Porter fades into the background as much as a man in a yellow suit can. He politely asks if he can get me anything and welcomes me to make myself at home. He chats with friends, including Ronald Jones pictured with him here. Jones was also pardoned from Death Row around the same time as Porter.
Another round of people arrives, but no former inmates yet. Apparently, Madison is “following the music.” A relative is serving as the mobile DJ and his arrival with a stereo and sound system foreshadows the event we are beginning to think will never occur. But the atmosphere is definitely filling with electric excitement. Someone appeals for money to cover the fried chicken and the DJ. The camera crew stands up. Heads turn every time the front door opens.
Finally, our wait is rewarded. Madison Hobley arrives with his wife, whom he married while in prison, and sister. As he’s being guided to a position where he can be interviewed, he does what his 24 hours of freedom have no doubt been filled with up to this point. He greets and hugs, both old friends and those who fought for his release. Even as a stranger in this place, I have a sense of something made right.
“I’m still pinching myself,” says Madison, when asked what his plans are now that he’s out of prison.
Madison Hobley was arrested on January 6, 1987 for allegedly starting a fire that killed his wife, son, and five others. Next, he was beaten, handcuffed, suffocated, kicked, and drugged by Chicago police officers (including the notoriously brutal Cmdr. John Burge) before making a supposed confession that never actually appeared in court. When his case finally came to trial four years later, Madison was convicted and sentenced to death on the basis of incredibly questionable evidence and testimonies. His lawyer later signed an affidavit stating that she did not represent him to the best of her ability.
Tonight, Madison stands in the living room of one of Anthony Porter’s relatives, a free man. It’s amazing to me as I watch his wife, Kim, and his sister, Robin, cling to him, one on each arm, that an individual can make the transition in a single instant from being a prisoner on Death Row to having the world at his feet. Although, I’m sure my sense of amazement is nothing compared to what Madison is experiencing. His eyes are sparkling, his mouth drawn up in a permanent smile.
This man’s unjust death would have caused so much pain.
In the days after Governor Ryan’s announcement, I watch victims’ family members, red-eyed and trembling, state that this event is like Governor Ryan has killed their loved ones all over again. I certainly feel compassion for these people who have been victimized sometimes by very sick, very guilty murderers. But my deepest sorrow occurs over their tendency to place their healing process in the hands of a system that kills instead of in the power of forgiveness. In an instantaneous revelation, I realize that the biggest failing of the death penalty system is that it diverts attention from true healing by claiming that the circle is complete when the murderer’s life is taken. We are fooling ourselves if we think this system, even without its flaws, is perfectly just. God’s justice is balanced by his mercy, and there is no mercy in capital punishment.
Some argue that Governor Ryan is only trying to divert attention from the incriminating issues that have plagued him for the past few years and threaten to send him to prison in the near future. Some joke that he is merely paving the way for a better prison system that he himself will experience firsthand. Regardless, I believe he had nothing to gain by commuting 156 death sentences to life in prison and pardoning four men—except maybe a clear conscience. I also believe we have nothing to gain by encouraging this systematic revenge, but we have everything to gain by encouraging structures that foster forgiveness, reconciliation, and rehabilitation. It will be with the help of such structures that true healing will occur.