Michael Tillman

The body of Betty Howard, 42, was found early the morning of July 21, 1986, in an apartment building on the south side of Chicago where she resided and where Michael Tillman, 20, was the custodian. Howard had been abducted from her own apartment in the building and taken to a vacant apartment where she was bound, raped, shot, and stabbed in the heart.

Tillman voluntarily accompanied officers to a nearby police station where five detectives working under Police Commander Jon Burge — Ronald Buffo, Peter Dignan, Jack Hines, Geroge Patton, and John Yucaitis — allegedly beat, suffocated, and kicked him, threatened him with a gun, burned him with a cigarette lighter, and squirted 7-Up into his nose until he confessed. Later in the day, police arrested Steven Bell, who had helped Tillman paint the vacant apartment in which Howard’s body was found. Bell too alleged that he was tortured until he confessed. On July 25, Tillman and Bell were formally charged with Howard’s kidnapping, rape, and murder. Two weeks later, acting on a tip, police arrested a third man, Clarence Trotter, who had in his possession the gun and knife used in the crime. Trotter’s fingerprints also were found on two Coca-Cola cans found in the apartment where the murder occurred.

Tillman and Bell were tried at a bench trial in December 1986 before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Kenneth L. Gillis, who admitted both confessions into evidence even though there was physical corroboration of Tillman’s torture claims. State’s Attorney Lawrence M. Lykowski, the lead prosecutor in the case, argued falsely that Tillman’s pubic hair had been found at the crime scene, although a police crime analyst had testified only that the hairs were similar. Tillman’s defense lawyer, William O’Neal, did not object, nor did he object to the admission of blood and semen evidence that was in no way probative of Tillman’s guilt — evidence that Gillis cited as a principal reason for finding Tillman guilty while acquitting Bell. Trotter was tried separately, convicted by a jury, and sentenced to life in prison by Judge Thomas Maloney.

In 1991, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed Tillman’s conviction, blaming O’Neal for failing to object to admission of the irrelevant evidence. Tillman, however, was reconvicted, in 1996, this time by a jury, and sentenced to life in prison by Judge Vincent Gaughan. The Appellate Court affirmed that conviction in June 1999.

A decade later, G. Flint Taylor, Jr., an attorney who specialized in police torture cases, brought a petition for post-conviction relief on Tillman’s behalf. After reviewing the petition, Stuart Nudelman, who had recently been appointed special prosecutor in the torture scandal, decided to drop all charges against Tillman, who was freed on January 14, 2010. The following February 19, he was granted a certificate of innocence by Judge Paul Biebel, Jr., presiding judge of the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court. Tillman received $199,150 in compensation through the Illinois Court of Claims.

— Rob Warden