Wednesday, July 26, 2017

On Murderers and Babysitters (Part Three)

There is a postscript to this story that explains why I added the word "babysitter" to the title of these blogs.

I had maintained contact with Ike along with his dedicated lawyer,  Aviva Futorian. I remember one visit at Pontiac when Ike was led out in chains to talk with us through glass. He was intensely aware of his “slave-like” status and told me he was deeply embarrassed. He didn’t want to be seen in chains and we found discussions labored and the visit didn’t last long. We did talk about my six year old son Jess.  Ike’s art gave meaning to his life and my little Jess had artistic talent.  Ike had sent Jess a picture and Jess drew one for him along with a few words that a six year old could muster to someone in such an incomprehensible situation.

Ike's letter to my son, Jess
It was at this Pontiac visit that Ike told me that he would not be able to send any more pictures to Jess since his pencils had been taken away from him as possible “weapons” and he was unable to draw with the crude colorless implements they allowed him to have.  

As someone who had killed a prison official Ike had to be constantly aware of threats to his life by correctional officers. His treatment by guards was hostile and at times cruel.  Taking away his colored pencils seemed to me mainly about breaking his spirit.

Things changed a few years later. As Ike sat on death row, Illinois Governor George Ryan became aware of the torture of black gang members by Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge. Several of these men who had been sentenced to death were exonerated by DNA evidence. Ryan ordered hearings to be held on every inmate on death row to allow testimony, mainly from victims, on whether the Governor should grant clemency.  

Two motivations drove me to show up to testify on Ike’s behalf. The nature of his trial had convinced me that some ways had to be found to counter the reign of stereotypes and demonization of gang trials.  And second, my own interactions with him had taught me Ike was not an evil monster, despite having committed evil acts. He was more than one thing and there was a depth of humanity to a man who interacted so sensitively with my son. I had found Ike was likeable and I believed he could be redeemed and rehabilitated.

I showed up at the state office building where the hearing was to be held and entered a room packed with prison guards and officials. They were lining up to testify and filled with hate. One mid level corrections bureaucrat said “Easley must be killed before he kills again.” The testimony went on for a couple of hours before the chair introduced Ike’s new appointed attorney who was visibly intimidated by the show of force by dozens of armed correctional officials. 

His comments are a good example of what passes for a legal defense in many gang trials. He was appointed to make the case for clemency.  I’ll repeat all of his comments verbatim. He said “Here is Professor Hagedorn who will say something on Ike’s behalf.”  That was it, his whole case. 

Everyone’s eyes glared at me as I took the stand. My Oppositional Defiant Disorder kicked in and I briefly summarized the unfairness of Ike’s trial. But my main argument was that this man, who was labeled a monster who had to be killed, was a human being with much good in him. I talked about his abused childhood and feelings of abandonment. I recalled his peacemaking actions in the prison. But I mainly talked about his exchanging letters and art work with my young son. Why would you kill someone who could show such feelings of empathy? Why not treat his emotional distress and let him channel his anger into art? 

There were some jeers but mostly angry stares implying “how dare you defend this monster.”  But the room was stunned when I concluded that if Ike Easley could be paroled and given another chance at life I would welcome him as a babysitter for my son.  I remember a couple of journalists running out of the room to phone in the story and a few newspapers reported my comments. The correctional officials just looked at me in disbelief. My testimony made no sense to them whatsoever. I lived in a different world than they did. Some frames never interact.

Ike only was granted clemency since Gov. Ryan commuted sentences for everyone on death row.  If you haven’t read Ryan’s remarkable clemency statement, it can be found here. If Ryan had looked at clemency case by case I’m quite sure he would have succumbed to pressures by the correctional bureaucracy and Ike would not have been spared.

It was Ike Easley’s trial and humanity that put me on the path to confront stereotypes and demonization at criminal trials.  To me justice in gang trials means two things. First jurors should decide cases and sentences on evidence not on fear and false generalizations. Second gang members are human beings.  Doing evil doesn’t mean you are evil. My empathy for the families of victims does not stop my feeling empathy for a gang member who killed. Another word for “murderer,” after all,  is “human being.”  And I know that is hard for most people to accept.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

On Murderers and Babysitters (Part Two)

Defendant also attached to his post-conviction petition a report by John Hagedorn, who is a sociologist and an expert on street gangs. In his report, he conceded that the gang-related evidence may not have changed the outcome of the guilt phase of the trial. However, he opined that the gang-related evidence "exercised considerable influence on the jury in the penalty phase of the trial. In other words, if the gang issue had not been such a major focus of the trial, I believe the jury would have been substantially less likely to ask for the death penalty.”

We disagree…

People v. Easley.  Supreme Court of Illinois.·148 Ill.2d 281 (Ill. 1992)

My involvement with Ike Easley’s appeals led me to immerse myself in studying the power of stereotypes.   One key lesson I’ve learned from my studies in social cognition is that a jury already has an image of a gang member in mind before a trial starts, what is called a prototype. This prototype is typically of a gang member as a “savage beast” and left unchecked, juries will be receptive to evidence that confirms their stereotype and reject any evidence that contradicts it.  My expert witness work is aimed at helping jurors question their stereotypes so they are more able to accept "discrepant information" or evidence that doesn't fit with pre-existing images. 

We think in metaphors which according to Winter “are neither true nor false, but have consequences, perceptions, inferences, and actions.”  This means if a gang member is like a savage beast then a jury will believe he is likely to have killed "like an animal" as alleged.  The savage beast metaphor includes the related notion that such wild animals need to be “put down.” Stereotypes can kill.

You probably guessed Ike's jury was all-white. But this was not by accident. The prosecutor excused every black potential juror with the argument that since they lived in black communities where black gangs also resided,  jurors were likely to be intimidated by the threat of gang retaliation. Despite criticism of this tack by the Seventh Circuit Ike did not face a jury of his peers.

But it gets worse, much worse. Because of the intense publicity in the area around Pontiac, Ike’s trial was moved to Will County and the city of Joliet. In the week before the trial, three El Rukn gang members had murdered a Joliet prison guard and newspaper accounts of this crime circulated among Ike’s jurors. Ike remembered the judge making comments about the El Rukn murder during the trial. If Ike's case evoked a frame of gang members as savage beasts who kill prison guards, the environment in Joliet at the time strongly reinforced that frame.

Pontiac Correctional Center
The prosecutor had been prohibited by the court to allege the killing was the result of a gang conspiracy. The court found there was no evidence of such a conspiracy and this was affirmed by the Illinois Supreme Court on appeal. Despite this admonition, the prosecutor claimed in his opening statement, during trial, and at closing that the killing was ordered by the Black Gangster Disciples. The image was the gang letting the beast Ike Easley out of his cage and telling him to “kill.” The Supreme Court ruled that while the allegation of a conspiracy was “improper” Ike “suffered no prejudice therefrom.” I disagreed.

Let me tell you about killing. Randall Collins says violence is hard. While there are “hit men” who are cold and mechanical about killing, most murder is done in passion and with adrenaline flowing. The court acknowledged after Ike was detained he yelled out ““all you honkey motherfuckers want is a nigger donkey to pin this case on, and I am your donkey, I am your killer.”  Ike denied to me that any gang meeting had ordered the killing.   In one of the most emotional exchanges of my life Ike talked about the “uncontrollable” urges that streamed over him once the violence had begun and he and Taylor fought for their lives. Afterwards Ike said he blacked out and  “I threw up like a motherfucker.”  These are emotions, triggered by an extreme event — the killing of Ike's best friend and revulsion toward his own violent act.  Therapists say people like Ike can be responsive to long term treatment.  To me Ike's emotional response to his violence was an indication of his humanity and an example of how killing violates deeply held norms.

The final “nail in the coffin” in enflaming the fears and prejudices of the jury was not mentioned in any of the court decisions. I pointed out in my statement that a “moral panic” atmosphere surrounded the trial. My field notes capture the pi├Ęce de r├ęsistance that inhibited reason from deciding this case.

Finally, in my mind, the most damaging event was the manner in which the jury was protected during trial. Defense attorneys have told me that sharpshooters were deployed to protect the jurors.   When the jurors asked why there were sharpshooters, they were told something like that "the gang may want to kill jurors." It is hard to underestimate the impact this must have made on the jury. 

It is not easy to use System 2 logical reasoning when you are in a state of fear. “Terror Management Theory” finds that people, e.g. jurors, when faced with threats to their own mortality are more likely to rely on stereotypes and not think analytically.  Duh. What do you think the jury was feeling while being told Ike’s gang might kill them? 

Consider the scene: An all-white jury, in a setting that recently witnessed a similar murder of a local guard by gang members, listening to a prosecutor who improperly alleged a gang conspiracy and then had the deliberating jurors surrounded by sharpshooters protecting them from being assassinated by the gang.  I don't care what the jury decided, it was not based on a reasoned judgement of Ike Easley’s potential for rehabilitation or any dispassionate consideration of justice. Fear, not facts, drove that jury to their fatal decision and sent me on my path of studying the power of stereotypes in court.

One final chapter remains: the clemency hearings and the commutation of Ike's death sentence.

Cohen, Stanley. 1972. Moral panics and folk devils. London: MacGibbon & Kee.

Collins, Randall. 2008. Violence : a micro-sociological theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Greenberg, Jeff, Sheldon Solomon, Mitchell Veeder, Tom Pyszczynski, Abram Rosenblatt, Shari Kirkland, Deborah Lyon. 1990. "Evidence for Terror Management Theory II: The Effects of Mortality Salience on Reactions to Those Who Threaten or Bolster the Cultural Worldview." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58(2):308-18.

Maruna, Shadd. 2001. Making Good:  How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild their Lives. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Winter, Steven A. 2001. A Clearing in the Forest:  Law, Life, and Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Monday, July 24, 2017

On Murderers and Babysitters (Part One)

As I near my 70th birthday I have been asking myself why I spend so much of my remaining time in life consulting for the defense of gang members who are charged with murder. While some may be innocent, most are guilty.  How can I justify this?

For many of the lawyers I work with defending gang members means upholding civil liberties and giving their client the best defense they can offer.  I’m not a lawyer and many cases boil down to technical disagreements and narrow applications of the law more than issues of justice. 

On the one hand, ethically, I do not believe people who kill should get away with it.  I feel empathy for offender and victim.  On the other hand I think our sentencing policy is draconian.  Incredibly, one in every five African Americans in prison today are serving life sentences and two thirds of all inmates serving life are minorities.   Human beings, even those who kill, are still human beings and I do not think they should be caged like wild animals for their natural life.  

During sentencing I try to explain gang involvement in such a way that a judge can have a bit more understanding, if not compassion.  A gang member’s life should not be reduced to a snapshot of a crime scene, but considered as one frame in a life long movie of change and maturation. I believe everyone deserves a chance at rehabilitation.

I’ve been immersed for two decades in the literatures on how we think in stereotypes,  but I began my court work not through books but experience. What directly pulled me into this field was getting to know gang members who killed and learning how their trials were conducted.  Let me introduce you to Ike Easley.

Ike Easley's current IDOC photo
Ike was one of the first expert witness cases I took and I’m afraid explaining his importance will take three blogs over the next three days.  The issue with Ike was not whether he killed: he committed not one, but two homicides. Let me walk you through his case from its beginning to the commuting of his death penalty sentence by then Gov. Ryan of Illinois. 

Ike was a severely abused child who was bullied at school. When his sister was being repeatedly struck by her boyfriend and threatened his mother,  Ike intervened. When the the abuser went for a gun, Ike shot him first.  Wolfgang calls this victim-precipitated homicide and this kind of murder is quite common. Ike reasonably argued it was self defense. He had no criminal record and was taken by utter surprise by a guilty verdict and a sentence of 20 years in prison.  Cook County Jail was also a shock, and Ike’s membership in the then Black Gangster Disciples was both a protective factor and an emotional response to what he saw as an unjust sentence.

Ike’s second killing got headlines and a high profile trial. Ike stabbed and killed Robert Taylor,  the Assistant Superintendent of Pontiac Correctional Center.   Taylor was a widely admired African American administrator and his murder sparked outrage among prison officials and prosecutors.   Ike’s trial resulted in a guilty verdict and the death penalty.  I got involved with the case through Ike’s appellate lawyer, Aviva Futorian, on a habeas petition of ineffective counsel in his original trial.  

I traveled to Menard where Ike was incarcerated and awaiting an execution date. I did not know what to expect in meeting this double murderer.  He had been transferred from Tamms, Illinois’ super max prison that was recently closed.  He was singled out in media accounts as among the “worst of the worst.”  This didn’t fit with the man I met.   I found Ike to be a gentle giant, soft spoken and an astute cultural critic. He was keenly aware of the culture of violence  promoted on TV and on the streets where he grew up. He admitted he experienced the effects of this culture personally and felt an obligation to warn youth of its dangers. In my statement to the court I compared him to troubled white kids I knew growing up in Clintonville, Wisconsin.

Magic to My Soul by Ike Easley
On my first visit we had an intense four hour conversation about what had happened on the day of his lethal assault on Taylor and exchanged personal experiences and outlooks.  Ike had never admitted to the murder and his vivid description of the incident to me was one of the most emotionally draining experiences of my life.  Ike is extremely emotional and his pent up rage contributed to both murder charges.  He also displayed a sensitive, artistic side and questioned me about my own children and life.  I'll explain the "babysitter" in the title in a later blog.  We connected on a human level in the first and subsequent meetings.

My conversations with Ike were the beginnings of my realization that gang members, like all of us, have multiple conflicting identities. While Ike had killed he also loved and at most times lived a life of peace. In prison he had often functioned as a peacemaker, breaking up fights.  For abused children like Ike who have faced unjust, racist treatment throughout their life extreme events can trigger inner violence.  This is what happened at Pontiac in 1987 as Ike snapped.

The events surrounding the murder were much more complex than presented at the trial as a cold blooded gang-ordered “hit.”  Conditions at Pontiac were described by many observers as “out of control.” Gangs were at war within the prison and weapons and drugs were everywhere. The year after Ike’s conviction, 16 guards were indicted for drug trafficking at the prison, This confirmed Ike’s sober explanation to me of how prison corruption was related to the murder.

According to Ike, various persons and factions within the prison administration were maneuvering to get their share of drug profits by allying with the Vice Lords and El Rukns against the Black Gangster Disciples. One of Ike’s best friends, Billy Jones or “Zodiac” was killed by guards and Ike and others believed his killing was part of a power play by guards and their new gang allies to seize control of the drug trade.  The guards claimed Zodiac swallowed a bag of cocaine and “accidentally” died but Ike told me he saw the assault on his best friend and became enraged.  Soon after Zodiac’s death Ike entered Taylor’s office with a “shank” and stabbed him to death. Tragically, there is no evidence Taylor was corrupt but only an available target for Ike’s out of control rage. 

While Ike’s history of abuse may be mitigating, his crime is surely deplorable. It is easy to see why any prosecutor or jury would be outraged. “Outrage” also isn’t a bad word to describe his trial as well.  In the next blog let me describe Ike’s trial in Joliet IL which to me is symbolically adjacent to Salem, MA.

Wolfgang, Martin E. 1957. "Victim Precipitated Criminal Homicide." The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and  Police Science 48(1):1-11.