Michael Tillman becomes emotional listening to his daughter Eboni Williams recall how she underwent years of surgery and therapy for cerebral palsy while her father was in prison. Tillman was freed in January after spending more than 23 years in prison after being coerced into confessing to a 1986 rape and murder. (Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune / July 22, 2010
Exactly 24 years ago Thursday, Michael Tillman says, he was beaten, burned, smothered and threatened with death in a police interview room as Calumet Area detectives working for then-Chicago Police Lt. Jon Burge tried to coerce him to confess to the rape and murder of a South Side woman.
Tillman's eyes welled with tears as he sat with his daughter and sister while his attorneys announced the filing of a federal lawsuit against Burge, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and other Chicago police detectives alleging that they conspired to cover up the torture and abuse of Tillman and others.
"As they speak, I'm reliving this in my mind, all that happened to me, all that was done to me, to my daughter," Tillman said. "I missed my daughter. She wasn't able to walk at that time, and she needed me there."
Tillman was freed from prison in January after spending more than 23 years in prison for the 1986 rape and murder of Betty Howard after special prosecutors declined to retry him, saying there was little evidence he committed the crime and ample evidence that his confession was coerced.
Now it is Burge who faces prison following his federal conviction last month on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying in a lawsuit about ever knowing about or using torture to obtain confessions from criminal suspects.
Tillman's lawsuit, filed Thursday in federal court, repeated long-held claims against Detectives John Byrne, Peter Dignan, Ronald Boffo, Jack Hines, George Patton and the estate of the late Detective John Yucaitis as well as a host of police officials, prosecutors and city officials.
The suit alleges that after his arrest on July 21, 1986, Tillman was beaten with a telephone book, smothered with a plastic bag and nearly suffocated by detectives who forced his head back and poured 7UP down his nose. He was also burned with a cigarette lighter and taken into a room where a detective pointed a gun at him and threatened to kill him "like you killed that woman," the suit said.
Tillman allegedly confessed out of fear that he might die in police custody. He was sentenced to life in prison and remained there even though another man was convicted for the same murder two years later.
The suit also singled out Daley — then the Cook County state's attorney — for his decision to seek the death penalty against Tillman despite having allegedly been made aware of allegations of torture against Burge and his crew years earlier.
Sitting next to Tillman, his daughter Eboni Williams recalled how difficult her childhood was as she underwent years of surgery and therapy for cerebral palsy without her father's presence.
"He missed half my life — I'm 27 years old," she said. "He missed all my operations, all my milestones. He didn't get to see me take the first step they (doctors) said I would never take."
Tillman said he is still sad and angry over the torture and years stolen from him. But for now, he's "laying low" and trying to come up to speed with the myriad changes to everyday life since he entered prison.
"I learned how to text," he said, his face brightening in a rare smile. "An 8-year-old taught me how to text. An 8-year-old taught me how to use the microwave."
"You can run on for a long time, Run on for a long time, Run on for a long time, Sooner or later God'll cut you down." (Johnny Cash)
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