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.

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