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Courtroom erupts in response to racist decision in Gerald Reed case

Free him now!
Commentary by Troi Valles |
February 18, 2020
Armanda Shackleford.
Armanda Shackleford. (Fight Back! News/Staff)

Chicago, IL - The courtroom was packed February 14. This was my fourth Gerald Reed court hearing. Usually, there is a crowd of folks who show up to support Gerald and his mother, Armanda Shackleford, who has been fighting for her son since he was arrested, tortured and framed in 1990. Shackleford sits in the front row, wearing her Free Gerald Reed t-shirt. Together we sit for an hour, two hours, three, and hear powerful men debate the innocence of a man whose sentence was vacated a year ago.

But today was different. Two alderpersons were there, Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez and Jeanette Taylor, to show their support. They joined 100 supporters of the campaign, even on the coldest day of the year, an unforgiving four degrees Fahrenheit. The word had gotten out in a big way. The movement had drawn a line in the sand to demand the court free Gerald Reed.

There should be no need for this fight. Judge Thomas Gainer already overturned Reed’s conviction in December 2018, finding that the only case against Reed was his confession that was extracted using police torture. Reed is in jail, but he can legally vote. He is kept there while the new judge, Thomas Hennelly, and special prosecutor Robert Milan determine if they can charge him again.

In court, Milan tries to weave together a version of Reed cast in shadows, a vision of a heartless murderer. Then Elliot Zinger, the defense attorney, will explain that the story Milan tells is unsupported by any real evidence. Throughout this year of proceedings, the real Gerald sits in court in his wheelchair, having been disabled by torture 29 years earlier.

Today Judge Hennelly entered around 9:30 a.m., a prompt 30 minutes late to his own hearing, and spoke about the extra research he’d been doing as of late.

“I reviewed the minutes from the TIRC decision. I don’t think that the TIRC would have any objection to me playing the recording here.” The TIRC is the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, a commission appointed by the governor to hear the cases of those who have been tortured by the police.

In the understated drama of the court, a man in a steel grey suit pressed play on a laptop connected to a large speaker. The audio struck up immediately, loud enough for the entire court to hear. I recognized the voice as Rob Olmstead, executive director of the TIRC. He was reviewing the medical records for Reed.

“This seems like a pretty obvious case. The metal rod in his leg was broken, there’s no evidence that it was like that before he was arrested, and it wasn’t broken while he was in jail,” he said. “And believe it or not, the rod still hasn’t been repaired.” His voice skipped up at the end of his sentence, communicating his incredulity. The rod was not repaired for 28 years. Reed had one surgery on it recently. He has yet to receive a needed second surgery, which is why he remains wheelchair-bound.

Olmstead’s focus on Reed’s torture seemed like a great sign. We were basically listening to the TIRC build the case for Gerald’s release. Maybe Hennelly is finally buckling. It is Valentine’s Day, after all.

“It doesn’t seem he’s the most credible witness in the world,” Olmstead said. Hennelly nodded when this part of the recording played. Uh oh.

The recording eventually ended, and Hennelly told the court, “The commission was as confused and perplexed as anyone else.” A strange statement to make, considering the decision to find Reed’s claim of torture credible was a rare unanimous decision by the TIRC.

Hennelly then pronounced that a discrepancy in the ruling of Judge Gainer allowed him a new verdict of Reed’s guilt. He referenced a recent denial of an appeal of innocence by another torture survivor, George Anderson. In it, Judge William Hooks wrote a diabolical 57-page order that Anderson was falsely claiming to have been a torture victim. Despite the TIRC finding Anderson’s claim to be credible, Hooks likened Anderson to a “ghost rider” trying to get in on a lawsuit by jumping on a bus after it has been hit by a car. Hennelly saw that decision and finally found what he’d been looking for the last 14 months: a racist, pseudo-logical excuse to throw a man’s life away.

“Gerald Reed, your ride on the Jon Burge torture bus is coming to a screeching halt,” he said. “I turn you over to the Department of Corrections to carry out the rest of your life sentence.” He gave a cavalier bang of his gavel. And it was over.

At 10:30 a.m. on Valentine’s day, Judge Hennelly sent Gerald Reed back to prison to serve out a life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit.

“Whaaat?” I could hear the voice of Mark Clements, longtime activist and survivor of police torture himself, carry through the room. “This is racist,” said Mark. “This is so racist!”

As the bailiffs cleared the court room, people were sobbing. “We have to throw out this entire system,” an older Black woman said while we waited for the elevators. “We have to get rid of this entire thing.”

On the first floor, Brian Ragsdale of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression began to chant in a thunderous voice, “Free Gerald Reed!”

“Free Gerald Reed!” We shouted back as the bailiffs tried to shush us. “Free Gerald Reed!” For once, those whispering hallways held the voices of those who had been silenced for far too long.