One sunny March morning, freed murder convict and tireless rabble-rouser Mark Clements was getting the kind of attention that had eluded him in the nearly three decades he spent in prison. Clements was leading a small rally outside the dreary Cook County Criminal Courthouse at 26th and California. The demonstrators were celebrating the fact that Jon Burge, the notorious former Chicago police commander, would be reporting to prison in North Carolina on this particular day to begin a four-and-a-half-year sentence for obstruction of justice and perjury. Burge oversaw the torture of innumerable suspects in south-side police stations in the 1970s and ’80s, and the fallout from that scandal helped Clements extricate himself from a life sentence.
Clements, who’s 46 and African-American, has a broad face with full eyebrows, a thin mustache, and gapped teeth. He’s balding and his back is rounded. He wore a hooded sweatshirt and dress slacks. He has a playful side, but he’d left it at home this morning. He’d alerted media to the rally, and before it began he strode across California Boulevard to meet a Fox Chicago reporter and cameraman.
“I’m an Area Three torture victim of Daniel McWeeny and John McCann,” he told the reporter, a young Asian woman.
The reporter was confused; he wasn’t tortured by Burge? Clements explained that the vast majority of torture victims weren’t victimized by Burge himself but by detectives under his command. The detectives who Clements says tortured him at Area Three in 1981 weren’t even under Burge’s command—Burge was serving at Area Two then—but Clements knows how to smooth corners for TV.
“You were 16 at the time?” the reporter asked.
“You spent 28 years in prison?”
“For a crime you didn’t commit?”
“For a crime I didn’t commit.”
“Thank you so much for giving me your story so quickly,” the reporter said.
Clements hustled back across the boulevard. A band of 13 people stood idly in front of the courthouse steps, awaiting his direction. Some held signs: Torture Victims Need New Trial, Honk If You Are Against Torture. A middle-aged woman’s T-shirt said, “I have multiple personalities and none of them like you.”
Clements pulled them into a circle. “I got a famous chant,” he told them. “We’ll do that a little bit, then when they’re ready to operate the cameras, we’ll be ready to go.”
He raised his voice: “When I say jail, you say—”
“Put Burge where?”
“And every cop who tortured African-Americans and Latinos!” Clements thundered.
He took a bullhorn from a demonstrator, reached it skyward like a starter does his pistol, and boomed: “OK—23 sirens in solidarity with the 23 men that remain incarcerated as a result of Jon Burge and his torture!” He pressed a button on the bullhorn, and a siren split the air. He let it wail 23 times. Lawyers and defendants eyed Clements quizzically as they passed.
“OK, now we’ll go with the statement,” Clements told his crew.
He leaned over a mike in front of two cameras and began, “Today, we are gathered here in bittersweet victory. At this very moment, Jon Burge is entering a prison in North Carolina.” But, he said, something needed to be done about the men still in prison because of the false confessions that were allegedly beaten out of them. “There are mothers crying. There are sons who are in prison dying. . . .The constitution does not give you the right to lock up people who you know are innocent.”
Marlene Martin, national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, spoke briefly. “Mark Clements spent 28 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit!” she yelled. “How many other Mark Clementses are still in prison?”
Clements resumed the mike. “Hey, guess what?” he said. “Burge is reporting to North Carolina prison right now!”
“Tell him don’t drop the soap!” one of the demonstrators called out, to gleeful laughter.
“Mr. Burge, welcome home,” Clements said.
Inside the same courthouse 29 years earlier, on the morning of September 21, 1982, Judge William Cousins was about to sentence a 17-year-old in a tan jail uniform who stood before his bench. But first he asked him a ritual question.
“Does the defendant, Mark Clements, have anything to say to the court?”
A defendant’s customary response is a short, shy mumble—”No sir,” or “Sorry to the family”—that allows the judge and the lawyers to wrap up the case and get on to other matters. Putting such a question to Clements, though, was risky, like opening a window in a thunderstorm. Did he have anything to say? He always has something to say.
“Hello. Good morning. How are you doing today?” Clements began. “I would like to take a few minutes of your time.”
He proceeded to read from ten pages of handwritten notes—and picked up steam from there. He spoke for an hour and 55 minutes in all. One of his two public defenders later told me it was the longest allocution he’d heard a defendant make “by about an hour and 54 minutes.”
The Sun-Times highlighted the rare speech on its front page the next morning: “With his hands in his pockets and his eyes fixed on a judge, a 17-year-old youth pleaded for almost two hours Tuesday that he not be sentenced to life in prison for setting an apartment building fire that killed four people.”
A jury had convicted him of that crime, but Clements insisted to Cousins he was innocent. “To tell you face to face, Judge, I did not kill them people. I never killed no one in no fire in my whole life.”
What got him charged with the murders in the first place was a statement he’d given a year earlier. An assistant state’s attorney guided this statement, and so it was much briefer than his courtroom address. Clements sat in a small room on the third floor of the Area Three violent crimes unit, at 39th and California, and, starting at 1:32 AM, answered questions put to him by ASA Kevin Moore. Detective Daniel McWeeny sat in and a court reporter recorded the proceedings. By 1:49 AM, Moore and McWeeny had less than they wanted but as much as they needed, and Moore concluded the interview. The court reporter typed up the transcript, Clements signed it, and he was charged with the quadruple murder. Those 17 minutes have been the focus of his life ever since.
Clements was convicted eight years before the Reader‘s John Conroy broke the story of torture in Chicago police stations—torture that was mostly aimed at extracting confessions from suspects, some of whom turned out to be innocent. Since he was freed a year and a half ago, and despite his remoteness from Burge when he confessed, Clements has offered himself as a prominent reminder of the crimes committed by Burge and his henchmen. He wants to “put a face on the story,” he says. And his is a horrific tale: a 16-year-old snatched off the streets and beaten by a detective into a false confession, with other detectives and an assistant state’s attorney looking the other way. And not merely beaten, but sexually tortured. For a confession that seemed to doom him to life in prison. It’s a story that most of his fellow activists accept without question, and use to further their cause.
There are lessons to be learned from Clements’s life outside this story line. His life was dreadful before any detectives or prosecutors stepped in it. But a tale about the crimes of poverty is more complicated, and not as politically potent, as a story about criminal justice malevolence. As Clements and the activists understand, when it comes to violent crimes the public’s sliver of compassion for convicts is reserved for the ones with the magic words in their narratives: “. . . a crime he didn’t commit.” Whether those words belong in Clements’s story isn’t easy to say.
On a given day, Clements is apt to be running from a meeting to a speaking engagement to a demonstration to a conference call, checking e-mail on his laptop along the way. He’s addressed college classes in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas, and California. He makes his living through speaking fees and part-time work for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. He also volunteers for the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, and he organized and led the Jail Jon Burge Coalition, pressing noisily for that result.
His pace is nothing new; his family called him Rabbit when he was a child. (“Because I was fast,” he says. “Because he couldn’t be still,” his mother says.) He enjoys making a ruckus. “He loves that bullhorn,” Marlene Martin says. It amplifies a voice that’s already deep and loud. One-on-one, Clements speaks deliberately, and, as he did at his sentencing, protractedly. The first time he and I talked it was for three hours, the second time for four. We didn’t talk, really; he talked, and I interrupted.
Clements’s intelligence was a matter of debate at his trial, and in a way it still is. At a pretrial hearing his own public defender labeled him a “dimwit.” A psychologist called by the defense said his IQ was 58 and that he had the aptitude of a 9½-year-old. The psychiatrist called by the state thought he was smarter than that—in the low-average range. Clements’s public defenders had reason to paint him in the dimmest shade: they wanted to show he couldn’t have intelligently waived his Miranda rights, and that detectives had rehearsed him on his confession “the way you would rehearse a myna bird,” as Brian Dosch, one of his PDs, said at trial. Clements had dropped out of school in eighth grade. “Academically, Mark Clements is not of the highest order,” prosecutor Daniel Locallo conceded to the jury. “Streetwise, he is. He knows the system, and he knows how to beat the system.”
“He’s a con man,” Locallo says today. He points to Clements’s speech before sentencing as evidence of his intellect: “He was more eloquent than some of the attorneys I’ve come across.” Dosch says his client’s address “kind of belied everything I’d tried to show. I think he was smarter than he tested.” Northwestern University clinical law professor Bernardine Dohrn, who helped Clements win his freedom, calls him “absolutely brilliant.” Clements says he considers himself “dumb as a box of rocks, compared to this society. This society has a lot of crafty, hidden ways.”
In his address to Judge Cousins, Clements avowed repeatedly that his confession was a sham: “I was found guilty by the jury on all lies, things that was told for me to say by Chicago police officers. I told the jury police beat me, but what happened? Not a thing. I just got called a liar and maybe a few other things in the book of bad words.”
He also described a harsh childhood—how he became a ward of the state at age three, and worked from an early age to help the aunt he lived with make ends meet. “I was ten years old delivering 125 papers, dragging them, wintertime, and my feet got frostbitten,” he said.
He pleaded for Cousins “to save some time in my life. I have ideas and plans what I would like to do in my future . . . I feel that I should have another chance in life to be someone.”
In practical terms, it didn’t matter what he said. In Illinois, then and now, the minimum term for a multiple murder was life. Since Clements was a juvenile, he couldn’t be sentenced to death, so life was the only option.
When Clements was finally done with his extended soliloquy, Cousins spent little time responding to his assertions of innocence. The jury’s verdict, he said, was “amply supported by the evidence.”
The judge dwelled instead on the case’s tragic elements. The victims “died the worst kind of deaths. Hell came to them on earth.”
Clements’s life was also tragic, Cousins observed. “A person is a creature, to some extent, of his past history, and his history has been horrible. And as Mark Clements himself, in his long statement, has brought home to this court, there are many imperfections in society, and havoc is wrought with the lives of a great many people, and justice does not prevail. But one must learn to cope. Mark Clements has not learned to cope. . . . It would appear that the defendant has taken out his frustrations and his anger against others.”
Then he gave him the mandatory four natural-life terms.
Natural life—as in no parole. As in you’d better win your appeal or a postconviction petition or you’re leaving prison in a box. In 1985 Clements would lose his appeal. Then he’d lose a string of postconviction petitions. But Rabbit would keep digging until he found a hole.
Around 2 AM on June 17, 1981, Rufus Scott was awakened by cries of a fire, and saw smoke sweeping into his apartment from under his front door.
Scott, 41, lived in one of the three apartments on the second floor of a two-story brick building at 6600 S. Wentworth. A grocery and liquor store owned by his parents occupied the first floor. The cries were coming from the street. Scott called the fire department, then jumped to safety out a window.
The firefighters who arrived around 2:15 found an intense blaze in the front entryway and stairwell. There was also a much smaller fire on the rear porch—a puddle of gasoline was burning. Next to the puddle lay a Canadian Club bottle, containing gasoline, with a piece of cloth stuffed in it. That fire was quickly stomped out. The firefighters used ladders to enter the second-floor windows and were able to rescue a 21-year-old man from one of the apartments. On the floor of a bedroom in another apartment they found 54-year-old Annabelle Moore. She died on the way to the hospital. The bodies of Moore’s husband, James, 57, and a man who stayed with them, Isadore Tucker, 46, were in a closet, one atop the other. In a kitchen, halfway under a table, was a fourth victim, 41-year-old Robert Watson. He was the most badly burned, and he smelled of gasoline. All four victims died of smoke inhalation.
The second floor was gutted. The deep charring in the front stairwell made it clear an accelerant had been used there. Firefighters also found a gasoline-filled liter Coke bottle standing at the bottom of the rear stairs.
Less than two weeks earlier, another fire at the building had burned up the bottom eight or ten rear steps, rendering that stairway unusable.
Detectives made little progress investigating the case the first week. But eight days after the fire—on the morning of June 25, 1981—an 18-year-old neighborhood resident, Derrick Banks, told them that shortly before the fire he’d seen a man collecting empty bottles in a vacant lot across the street from the building that was burned, and putting them into a car. He said he recognized the man from the neighborhood but didn’t know his name.
Detectives also talked that morning with 17-year-old Ramona Patton. She was a foster child living in a home at 6602 S. Perry, a block from the burned building—with Mark Clements and two of his sisters. Patton told detectives she’d heard that Clements had set the fire and had set others in the neighborhood as well.
“Mark Clements’s mother and father was having big problems between themselves,” Clements told Judge Cousins at his sentencing hearing. “Mark Clements and his one brother and two sisters was took from Mr. and Mrs. Clements because of their problems they was having.”
Clements’s father, who died in 2009, was a “greatly irresponsible individual,” Clements says—a drug addict and alcoholic who rarely worked and didn’t support or live with the family. When he did come by he often ended up beating his wife. According to Clements and his brother, he also sometimes forced their mother to work the streets.
“He had a trigger attitude,” says their mother, Virginia, who’s now 68. “I got places all over my body where I been cut. I’m a battered wife, make a long story short.” She was hospitalized several times after beatings. I noticed a couple small scars on her forehead and asked her about them. “Two-by-four,” she said. She didn’t keep her husband entirely out of her life because “he was the father of my kids.”
She herself was a neglectful parent, she allows—she drank and used drugs, sometimes leaving her kids home alone in their apartment at 57th and Michigan. Mark was three when the state took custody of the children and put them in the care of their aunt, Jonnie Slate.
Slate wasn’t married and got by on public aid. Her only son had been murdered. She had a basement apartment at 39th and Prairie, in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood. The area was all black and largely poor, with ghetto poverty’s usual companions, including widespread joblessness, crime, and truancy. The family moved several times to similar south-side neighborhoods. Clements says his childhood was “normal, for the particular area I was from.”
His brother, Harold Nabors, who is two years older, says that from an early age Mark was loud and talkative. He stumbled over words and slobbered and was mocked for it. “He sounded like he was three or four when he was ten,” Nabors says—so some family members treated him like he was dumb, though Nabors says he wasn’t.
School “didn’t make no sense to me,” Clements says, and he started skipping almost from the start. Aunt Jonnie would escort him in the morning to make sure he got there; he’d slip out a back door, beat her home, slip in under his bed, and go back to sleep.
He began stealing candy and pops from stores at about age nine. He also started working at an early age, mowing lawns, raking leaves, shoveling snow, selling candy on the el, and delivering papers. “I was always a hustler, that’s one thing you need to understand,” he says. Although Nabors was older, the family considered Mark the male “provider” from the time he was little. “Mark was looked upon as the one who would help Mama Jonnie out,” Nabors says. “I was looked upon as the one who would never be shit—because I wouldn’t steal. Mark would break into stores and come back with four or five packs of cigarettes. Mama Jonnie loved cigarettes. He was rewarded when he stole something—’Man, you need to do that again.'”
Clements says, “The way I looked at it, if I didn’t work or go out and steal—hell, we wouldn’t have ate.”
Slate punished the children fiercely, Nabors says. She’d whup them with an extension cord, and, to make sure her target didn’t thrash about, she’d sit on the child’s head. She weighed more than 200 pounds.
Clements and his first three siblings were about a year apart. When he was eight, his parents had one more child, Lenora. She stayed with her mother, Virginia, who was then living in Rogers Park. Clements was especially fond of his baby sister. He says that when he was 12 and Lenora was four, she’d sometimes call him asking where Mommy was. “I’d be like, ‘Who’s there with you?’ ‘No one.’ So I would get on the el and go across country and sit with my little sister, sometimes for days, because Moms would be out in the street getting high. I’d have to go find her and drag her back to the house.”
When Clements was 11, Aunt Jonnie was weakened by cancer and hospitalized off and on. “This opened the door for us to do things that normally Jonnie would not permit,” Clements says. He went to school less and roamed the streets more. By age 13 he was smoking reefer daily.
In 1979, when he was 14, the family moved into an apartment in the Robert Taylor Homes, the notorious high-rise project. Now Clements and his siblings were engulfed by violence. “You would wake up and hear that this person you knew had been shot and killed,” he says.
He started the fall of 1980 in eighth grade but soon quit going altogether. Aunt Jonnie was in a nursing home and the kids were living in their Robert Taylor unit without an adult. She died in April 1981. “She was our lifeline,” Clements says. “It puts you in a very confused state of mind.” To add to his confusion, the next month he became a father. The mother was a girl a year older than him who he knew from Robert Taylor. He didn’t get along with her but he says he helped care for their daughter in her first weeks.
Around the time of Aunt Jonnie’s death, he and his two older sisters were placed with another aunt who took in foster children, at 6602 S. Perry.
“Whoever did it will suffer hell,” Clements told Judge Cousins, referring to the fire. “That’s four lives, four people gone, down the drain for no reason.”
After talking with Ramona Patton, detectives interviewed a friend of Clements’s, 19-year-old James Robinson, at Area Three. According to the detectives’ report, Robinson said that on the night of the blaze, he and Clements had planned to burglarize a factory at 71st and State. They solicited the help of a third person, 24-year-old Kenneth Miner, because he had a car. On their way to the factory, the car ran out of gas. They got someone else with a car to push it back to 66th and Perry, where Miner also lived. Robinson said he started talking with his girlfriend, and Miner and Clements walked away down 66th, toward Wentworth. He said he next saw Clements at the time of the fire, when Clements ran past him into 6602 S. Perry.
Detectives likely also checked Clements’s record around this time. He’d been arrested on several occasions—for two burglaries, a $4 robbery, and an aggravated battery. What would have certainly caught their eye was an October 1980 charge: arson. He was found delinquent for burning the front door of a woman who lived down the hall from the Clements children in Robert Taylor.
Clements says his sister Lisa actually set that fire. (Today she says so as well.) “She put the lighter fluid on the woman’s door and set the match,” he says. “This woman had stole some money from my aunt.” He says the door was charred but the damage was minor. Police arrested him, and he spent a month in a juvenile detention facility. “I thought I can point the finger at my sister, or I can just sit here. I’m the type of individual—and I was raised this way—you protect your sisters.”
Police stumbled on Clements shortly after they talked with Robinson. Two patrol officers happened on a loud argument in the street in front of 6602 S. Perry. Everyone quieted when ordered to—except for Clements, who kept shouting and swearing, according to the officers. He was charged with disorderly conduct. The officers brought him to their district station, and, after learning that detectives were seeking him, they took him to Area Three, at about 5:30 PM.
Department policy required that police try to reach a parent or guardian before questioning a juvenile suspect. If a parent or guardian couldn’t be reached, detectives were supposed to contact a youth officer to sit in on the interrogation. At Area Three, the youth division was down the hall from the violent crimes division. Detective James Higgins, who was working the case that evening with Daniel McWeeny, testified later that they asked for a youth officer as soon as Clements arrived, but none was available. They didn’t wait for one.
Clements first denied knowing anything about the fire. According to detectives, after they confronted him with what Robinson had told them about the aborted factory burglary, Clements admitted to that, but still maintained he’d had nothing to do with the fire.
Higgins snapped a photo of Clements, drove to the neighborhood of the fire, and found Derrick Banks, the 18-year-old who’d seen someone gathering bottles in the vacant lot. According to the detectives’ report, Banks said the person in the photo was the bottle gatherer.
Higgins and McWeeny confronted Clements with the Banks ID—and then Clements began spilling the rest of his story, the detectives maintained at his trial. He said that he, Robinson, Miner, and a fourth person he called “Jamaican Boy” had all been involved in the fire. Detectives picked up Miner and brought him to Area Three, and interrogated him as well as Robinson, who was still at the station. They never found a “Jamaican Boy.” Robinson and Miner denied any involvement in the fire, and after they passed polygraphs, they were released.
Clements’s confession was a muddle. It was often unclear who was supposed to be doing what to whom, and why.
He told ASA Kevin Moore that he and his three compatriots had walked to a gas station with a red and yellow gas can from Miner’s car and filled it. Soon they headed over toward the building on Wentworth. Miner directed him to collect some bottles. In the front hallway of the building they filled four bottles with gasoline. They put the bottles on the side of and in front of the building and went upstairs. He and Jamaican Boy knocked on the door of someone named William, but no one answered. Then the four of them “started fighting the boy.” Moore didn’t ask who William was or who the “boy” was; at trial, prosecutors maintained the “boy” was 41-year-old Robert Watson, the victim who smelled of gasoline.
Clements told Moore that because the boy was hollering, Miner instructed him to go outside to watch for police, but that he soon rejoined the others upstairs and resumed “hitting on the boy.”
Then Miner said they should bring up the bottles. “All of us went downstairs and got a bottle apiece,” Clements told Moore. When they got back upstairs, the boy was still in the hallway.
“Did you see them do anything to the boy with the gasoline?” Moore asked.
“They was making him jump,” Clements said. “Every time he missed a jump, they were pouring gasoline on him.” They poured it on the bottom of his pants, he said.
The four of them then went down the stairs, with Miner and Jamaican Boy pouring gasoline, Clements said. They all stepped out the door, and Miner struck a match. “I walked up to the door, so I see a big blaze, OK,” Clements told Moore. “I ran, OK. James Robinson ran. Kenny [Miner] ran. Jamaican Boy ran.”
Moore: “Now, since the police have brought you here to the headquarters they have been treating you well, isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” Clements said.
Under Illinois law at the time, a juvenile (anyone under 17) charged with murder could be tried as an adult. (If he were convicted in juvenile court, he could only be imprisoned until he turned 21.) After a hearing, a juvenile court judge ruled as expected in a quadruple-murder case: Clements would be tried as an adult.
In Judge Cousins’s courtroom, Clements’s public defenders first sought to have his confession suppressed, maintaining it had been beaten out of him. Robinson testified that while he was at the station that night, at one point he got a glimpse of Clements in his interview room. Clements was smoking a cigarette and rocking, his eyes were watery and his face was puffy, Robinson said. Robinson acknowledged on cross that he’d been a friend of Clements and his family for five years. Higgins and McWeeny testified that no one at Area Three ever laid a finger on Clements.
Judge Cousins observed that a photo of Clements taken two hours after he gave his statement showed no sign that he’d been struck. The judge also wasn’t persuaded that Clements’s age and IQ had made him unable to intelligently waive his Miranda rights. Clements was “not the brightest person in the world” but was “street smart,” Cousins said.
During the trial, the state relied almost completely on Clements’s confession. Prosecutors didn’t call Banks, the man who detectives claimed had seen Clements collecting bottles. They didn’t call Patton, the foster child who’d said she’d heard that Clements had set the blaze; all she could have offered was inadmissible hearsay. Clements maintains today that Patton had a grudge against him because of a fight they’d had shortly after the fire. He also points out that she was hardly a model citizen. Before the fire she’d already done time in a juvenile facility for one killing, and in 1989 she’d be convicted of fatally shooting her boyfriend.
The prosecutors didn’t call Robinson, either—but the defense did. He acknowledged telling detectives about the aborted burglary attempt; but he testified that he told them that occurred not before the fire, but a day after. He also denied telling detectives he saw Clements run into 6602 S. Perry at the time of the fire.
Clements told the jury that his confession had been beaten out of him by a tall white detective who entered the interview room between his interrogation sessions with Higgins and McWeeny.
He said that when he told this detective he hadn’t been involved in the fire, “He turned around and told me to cut out the bullshit.” Then the detective began punching him: “He hit me in my face. He hit me in my chest several times, and he kept punching me, like he was a madman.”
The detective supplied Clements with details about the fire, Clements said. When he left the room and McWeeny and Higgins returned, Clements told them he’d been involved in the fire after all.
He said he told ASA Moore about the beating when Moore first introduced himself. Moore left the room, and the tall white detective returned. “He punched me several times in my stomach and chest and told me to say only what he tells me to say.”
Clements didn’t offer the jury an alibi for the night of the fire. Sometimes he stayed with his mother in Rogers Park, and sometimes with his aunt on Perry, and he wasn’t sure which he did that night. Prosecutor Locallo ridiculed that in his closing argument; he said Clements couldn’t say where he was because he was at 66th and Wentworth, setting the fire. And he’d done it alone, Locallo maintained: he’d pointed to three others in his confession just to shift the blame.
The jury deliberated for five hours before returning with the guilty verdict.
Clements’s reading ability, very limited before his arrest, grew markedly in the Cook County Jail while he was waiting to be tried. A fellow inmate gave him a crime novel—part of a series he thinks was aimed at third- or fourth-grade-level readers. When he finally finished it, he swelled with pride. “I couldn’t believe that I had read a book. It made you feel as if you accomplished something in your life.”
In prison in Joliet, he started spending time at the library. The civilian librarians and the inmates who worked with them were happy to tutor convicts. “Every day you was given like ten different words, and you would have to go back to your cell and write these words out and memorize them and use them in a sentence.” He once had no use for schoolwork; now he saw it as his salvation. “I needed to know the law to prove my innocence,” he says. To know the law he had to work in the library; to work in the library he had to have a GED. By 1985 he’d gotten it.
He was in his cell in Joliet one evening in September 1984 when he heard a radio report of a horrific accident on Lake Shore Drive. A car had crossed the median, collided with oncoming traffic, and exploded in flames. Four children and three adults were burned beyond recognition. The driver was drunk. “I remember sitting on my top bunk and saying that I felt sorry for the kids but did not feel sorry for the adults,” Clements says. He was in the law library the next day when his counselor came to inform him his little sister Lenora, then 11, had been killed in the crash. “That was kinda hard,” he recalls, haltingly and tearfully today, “because that was the favorite sister of, you know—of me.”
His mother sued the city for not having an adequate median barrier, as well as the auto maker, and won a settlement of more than $200,000, $20,000 of which she gave to Clements. That money helped him pay for the massive copying and mailing he’d begun in his quest to interest people in his case.
When he had a single cell with a bunk bed, he’d sleep in the top bed and use the bottom one as his desk. The mattress from the bottom bunk, propped next to the bed and folded over, served as his chair, the bed’s metal platform as his writing surface. He sat there and wrote for hours—to the public defender representing him on his appeal, to family, friends, lawyers, preachers, reporters, political activists. Sometimes he sent out ten letters a day. For years the news was discouraging. The appellate court called the evidence of his guilt “overwhelming” in rejecting his appeal in 1985, and postconviction petitions after that were denied as well.
Some of Clements’s letters went to the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, a group that advocates for inmates it feels have been wrongly convicted. Ted Pearson, a volunteer for the alliance, read some of Clements’s letters and started corresponding with him in the 1990s. Pearson also read the transcript of Clements’s trial and found it “incredible” that he’d been convicted. In Pearson’s view, “they pinned the crime on a young black man to solve the case without actually solving it.”
Pearson says it troubled him at first that Clements couldn’t recall where he was the night of the fire. He and Clements “went through all the possibilities, tried to find somebody who could remember where he was.” At one point Clements told Pearson he’d suddenly remembered: he was at a friend’s house earlier that night watching a White Sox game. Pearson checked to see if the Sox game was indeed televised that evening—and found out that the Sox and the rest of major league baseball had been on strike. “Obviously he was remembering something from another time,” Pearson says. But his faith in Clements’s innocence didn’t waver. “Ultimately I had to accept the fact that he couldn’t remember and that was that.”
In 2006 Pearson created a “fact sheet” about Clements’s case, which Clements distributed widely. The fact sheet identified the detective who allegedly beat Clements—John McCann. Clements says today he knew McCann was his attacker because McCann introduced himself before beating him. Why didn’t Clements identify McCann at his trial? Because his lawyers told him not to, he says. Dosch, his public defender then, says that isn’t so.
The fact sheet also contained a charge about the beating that Clements hadn’t made at his trial. McCann not only punched him repeatedly in the face and chest—he also “grabbed Clements’ privates and inflicted excruciating pain.”
It was the genital squeezing, in fact, that made him finally surrender and say what McCann told him to, Clements says today. “He squeezed, and squeezed, and ain’t letting go the pressure—it’s one big squeeze. “Shoot. Hell. I woulda told him the mayor committed the crime.”
If that’s what made him confess, why didn’t he mention it at his trial? Clements says again that his lawyers told him not to. Dosch denies that as well.
In 1983 Clements lodged a complaint with the Chicago police Office of Professional Standards alleging McCann had beaten him at Area Three. After an OPS investigator interviewed Clements in prison, the office deemed the complaint not sustained. There’s nothing about genital squeezing in the OPS investigator’s report. Clements says he told the investigator about the squeezing but “OPS wrote down what OPS wanted to write down.”
That same year, Clements also sued McCann and the Chicago police in federal court. Clements wrote up a detailed description of his alleged beating by McCann—with nothing about his genitals being squeezed. The suit was dismissed.
Why would Clements add genital squeezing to his claim? “I don’t know—make it sound worse?” Dosch says. He notes that in some of the allegations about detectives working under Burge at Area Two, “detectives were fucking with [suspects’] testicles. He may have read that or heard that and decided that was a good thing to add.”
Clements says he didn’t talk publicly about the genital squeezing earlier because until recently no one believed police were doing such things. “If someone don’t believe something, you basically look for avenues that maybe they will believe more.” He says he also didn’t talk about it sooner because of its sensitive nature: “It was a pretty embarrassing thing for a kid to have to come forward and say.”
Clements’s many pleas for help seemed to be falling on deaf ears. Then, in 2007, Northwestern law professor Bernardine Dohrn visited Pontiac prison to interview inmates who’d been sentenced to life for crimes committed as juveniles—part of an effort continuing today to abolish that sentence. That’s when Dohrn met Clements. “October 31, 2007,” Clements says. “I’ll never forget that day.”
Dohrn also recalls it vividly. “When I walked into the conference room he was sitting there with a stack of papers almost up to his chin”—papers related to his case. “He was organized in a way no one else was. I was totally knocked out by his determination. He’d written hundreds of lawyers. I’d say something about Jenner & Block, and he’d rattle off their address because he’d written to them.” He also had smart ideas about attacking his conviction in court, she says. Dohrn was there to interview him but “he had the agenda, not me. He was a man on a mission.”
Dohrn said she made it clear to those she interviewed that she wasn’t there to help them with their cases. But she thought she could help Clements, since a special prosecutor was examining Burge-related cases and detective McWeeny had been involved in some of those. With Dohrn’s intervention, a large corporate firm, Skadden, took Clements’s case. He was ecstatic. He’d felt the public defender who’d been representing him on his postconviction petitions had been too busy to give them proper attention.
Four Skadden lawyers crafted a petition that leaned heavily on the Burge revelations in the decades since Clements was convicted. “Until recently, courts and juries were unaware of what was happening with all-too-much regularity during the 1980s in certain Chicago Police Department interrogation rooms,” the petition said. It noted McWeeny’s alleged “good cop” role in some of these cases. It also noted that McCann had been the subject of “multiple allegations of physical abuse of suspects to elicit a false confession”—although none of these allegations had been proven.
The Skadden lawyers also maintained they’d found new evidence of what had led to the fire—evidence they said proved that Clements had nothing to do with it. They’d obtained affidavits from people who’d lived near the burned building who said that one of the second-floor tenants had dealt bad drugs to members of a motorcycle gang—the “Munsters”—that hung across the street from the building. The affiants said they believed the Munsters had torched the building in retaliation. The lawyers cited the previous fire at the building as further evidence of the feud between the Munsters and the tenant.
The Skadden lawyers filed their petition in February 2009. That summer, the office of special prosecutor Stuart Nudelman, a retired judge and a former public defender, offered Clements a deal: the state would vacate the four murder convictions against Clements if Clements would then plead guilty to one of them—the murder of Robert Watson, the victim who’d smelled of gasoline. Since Clements would no longer be convicted of a multiple murder, he could be sentenced to less than life—and he’d be sentenced to the 28-plus years he’d already served. He’d be released as soon as the deal was consummated.
Clements could have rejected the offer and continued to fight for his complete exoneration. But that could take years, his lawyers told him—and, of course, if he lost, he very well might die in prison.
On August 18, 2009, in a courtroom four floors down from the one in which he’d been sentenced to life, Clements signed the agreement. His signature was larger and more flamboyant than the one he’d affixed to his confession 28 years before. Prosecutors from Nudelman’s office noted for the record that their own investigation had left them with “grave concerns about the constitutionality of Mark Clements’s present sentence.”They didn’t specify what those “grave concerns” were, and they didn’t return calls for this story.
One of the Skadden lawyers, Timothy Nelsen, says he thinks Nudelman may have been troubled by an issue that Clements and his lawyers couldn’t legally raise—the jailing of a juvenile such as Clements for life.
Prison policy required Clements to be shipped back to his current penitentiary in Pontiac before he was released. His daughter—28 by this time—picked him up there. Prison officials said he could change into street clothes before leaving, but in his haste to leave he opted not to. “I was thinking, ‘These people may change their minds.'”
Dosch was pleased to learn Clements had been freed. “I think it was a false confession,” he says. “I knew those cops at the old Area Three. That’s what they did—you ain’t getting out of there until you give a statement.” That, however, wasn’t what happened to Robinson and Miner.
Locallo, the trial prosecutor, was irked by the agreement. He’d gone on to become a judge and had been a colleague of Nudelman’s on the bench. “No offense to Stu, but I don’t understand why they cut the deal with him. He killed four people.”
“I have did things wrong in my life,” Clements told Cousins. “But that don’t mean I can’t change my life. That don’t mean I can’t be somebody.”
Dohrn eased Clements’s transition to life on the outside. She got him into a computer class and had interns coach him on other everyday matters. “He’s an intrepid learner,” she says. “He will go over and over a subject until he gets it.”
“He surprises me at every turn,” says Marlene Martin, the director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. “He’s already so integrated into our work.” Clements serves as both a board and staff member for the organization, which is pressing for other criminal justice reforms in Illinois now that the death penalty has been abolished.
Clements says that campaigning for his freedom taught him to focus in a way he never was able to in school. The stretch of life he lost makes him determined to take advantage of what remains, he says. He plans to spend those years doing “what I was born to do—expose wrongs within our system.”
Clements had asked Judge Cousins to save some time in his life. He now allows that prison, ironically, may have done that. “Without the imprisonment, I probably would be dead,” he says. “There are many people I have known or grew up with that are now dead—either by accidental shooting, or drive-by shooting, or drug overdoses. So I do look at the ups and downs of all this. But it speaks very poorly of society that someone would have to leave it to transform their life.”
He got married in prison to a woman he’d corresponded with, but they divorced after 13 years. Last November he married a woman from Belarus. They live in Skokie.
He’s already seen two of his criminal justice hopes realized since he was freed—the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois and the jailing of Burge. Now he’s advocating for parole hearings for prisoners who, like him, were sentenced to life for crimes they were charged with as juveniles. And he’ll also keep lobbying for hearings for the alleged victims of Burge-related torture who remain in prison.
“He still is on a mission,” Dohrn says. “Now it’s to get everyone else out who deserves to get out.”
That’s not everyone who claims he was beaten into a false confession, Clements says. He gets voluminous mail from inmates making such allegations, and he screens it for Ted Pearson’s alliance. “Guys are always gonna holler that they was beat,” he says. “Ted will tell you, if I don’t believe that stuff, I take it and throw it in the garbage can. I used to be sitting [in prison] watching TV, I hear these guys plotting—’I’m gonna say the police beat me.’ Now you sending me a letter talking about you was beat. So when I see the mail come in, I tell Ted: ‘Garbage; good; garbage; oh, man, you can definitely throw out this one here.'” Clements says the convicts with valid claims have a harder time winning relief in court “because these other guys is playing games.”