Reputed Burge torture victim gets freedom but no money
BY FRANK MAIN Staff Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org May 12, 2013 4:50PM
Eric Johnson, 42, of Englewood, who claims detectives working for Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge tortured him into confessing to a 1989 double murder. He was released from prison about four months ago after serving more than two decades behind bars. | Provided photo
Updated: June 14, 2013 6:04AM
Eric Johnson never doubted he would walk out of prison — even though he was serving a life sentence.
“I’m a Cubs fan,” he joked. “I gotta have hope.”
Johnson, 42, was freed last year after spending 22 years in prison.
He claims he was tortured into falsely confessing that he was a lookout for a double murder in 1989. The detectives who questioned him worked for then-Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge, who is now in federal prison on a perjury conviction related to torture allegations.
But among Burge victims, Johnson is unique in the legal deal he cut.
He got his freedom, but won’t get a dime for what happened to him.
A special Cook County prosecutor agreed to release Johnson from prison after he entered an Alford plea, a rarely used legal tactic.
Under his deal, Johnson did not contest the allegations in one of the murder charges but continues to profess his innocence. Prosecutors dropped the second murder charge, and Johnson was sentenced to the time he already spent in prison. The special prosecutor did not return a phone message for comment.
Johnson also agreed not to file a lawsuit against the police or others. His attorneys, Robert Stephenson and Steven Becker, represented him for free.
“It’s the first time a Burge torture case was ever resolved with an Alford plea,” Stephenson said. “I have never seen a client go through so much turmoil before deciding to sign a deal.”
“I’m just glad to be out,” Johnson said in his first interview since his release from prison on Jan. 27, 2012. “I have tried to let it go, even what the police did to me. I continue to pray for God to put people in my life to help me.”
“But wrong is wrong,” he added. “You don’t do an American citizen like that.”
He said some people seem surprised to learn that he’s not going to receive a multimillion dollar legal settlement like other Burge victims.
“They ask me, ‘Are you a millionaire now?’ And I say, ‘No, I’m just happy to be here.’ ”
Johnson credits a prison superintendent with putting him on the path to freedom by encouraging him to start reading. Year after year, Johnson pored over law books doing his own research. He filed motion after motion to win his release. He kept striking out. But he kept trying.
His biggest source of solace was watching Cubs games on a TV set in his prison cell.
But sometimes being a Cubs fan was even difficult: when he was housed in a Downstate prison where the guards were Cardinals fans, they gave him cold showers when the Cubs won.
His quest for freedom hit a major snag in 2006 when a special Cook County prosecutor’s report found no credible evidence that he was tortured.
The report said Johnson gave conflicting testimony about what parts of his body were struck; a photo taken at the time of his arrest showed no signs of abuse, and he “failed to provide any credible independent corroboration of his allegations of physical abuse.”
But his attorneys later bolstered his post-conviction petition when they argued the two detectives who questioned Johnson were involved in a pattern of torturing other suspects, including Cortez Brown, who was sentenced to Death Row for two murders but was eventually released from prison.
Johnson claims the two detectives “hit me and slapped me and used foul language,” that a sergeant pointed a gun at him, so he “started making up stories they wanted to hear.”
Johnson, then 19, confessed that James Gibson, an older neighbor, paid him $50 to act as a lookout while Gibson robbed an insurance salesman, Lloyd Benjamin.
Gibson was convicted of fatally shooting Benjamin and a customer in a botched stickup and is serving a life term.
Johnson now insists he was asleep when the murders happened.
Still, he acknowledges he was “no angel,” with prior convictions for possessing marijuana and burglarizing train cars.
Johnson said it hasn’t been easy to adapt to the world outside of prison. One of the things keeping him happy is watching the Cubs.
They’re at the bottom of the National League Central standings, but Johnson remains hopeful.
“When I was locked up, I would say, ‘They gonna win it when I get out,’ ” Johnson said with a grin. “Now that I’m out, the Cubs will win the World Series.”