The Transformation of Ronald Jalil Kitchen: A Voice from Behind Prison Walls

by Virus X

Revolutionary Worker #1229, February 15, 2004, posted at

The death penalty. Under this country's legal system, it is cruel vengeance and racist double standards wrapped in the clothes of "justice." No other sentence is so final and, when carried out, so irreversible.

Nowhere was the injustice of the death penalty so exposed as in Illinois--where between 1987 and 2000, 13 wrongfully convicted men walked off death row alive. They were freed in spite of the system's dogged efforts to kill them. Often their release from death row was due solely to a belated DNA test, last- minute confession by someone else, or dedicated work of anti-death penalty lawyers, investigators, professors, and student volunteers.

By the year 2000, targeted by growing protest, the death penalty became a political embarrassment-- exposing police and prosecutorial injustice. It all came to a head on January 31, 2000, when then-Illinois Governor George Ryan, at the time a death penalty supporter and mired in a growing corruption scandal, took the unprecedented step of ordering a moratorium on executions. Five months later, Ryan appointed a commission to investigate the death penalty in the state of Illinois. In April 2002, the commission released a report that ripped the death penalty process and recommended numerous "reforms." A small majority of the panel said the death penalty should be abolished altogether.

On January 11, 2003, Ryan granted clemency to all death-row prisoners--more than 160 inmates. Four men--Aaron Patterson, Stanley Howard, Madison Hobley, and LeRoy Orange--were outright pardoned. They were all victims of police torture. Three--Mario Flores, William Franklin, and Montell Johnson--had their sentences reduced to 40 years. The rest of the death-row inmates had their sentences commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Ronald Jalil Kitchen is one of those who went from a sentence of death to a sentence of life in prison. Originally arrested in 1988, he was convicted and sentenced to death row in 1991. The state still insists today that he and co-defendant Marvin Reeves murdered two women and three children in a home on the southwest side of Chicago over a $1,200 drug debt. Ronnie Jalil has always maintained adamantly that he did not commit these murders and did not even know the victims.

His case reads like a textbook example of the "ills" and "flaws" with the death penalty that were detailed by Ryan's commission. The "evidence" used for conviction was threadbare. His "confession" that he was at the scene of the crime came after police detectives, led by notorious torturer Lt. Jon Burge, beat Ronnie with a phone book, a telephone receiver, and repeated blows to the groin. A jailhouse "witness" claimed that Ronnie gave details of the crime during a phone call--details that were known to anyone who read the daily newspapers. This witness was rewarded with an early release for his testimony for the prosecution. The prosecution's claim of a "drug connection" was based on one cop saying that the police dog "smelled" narcotics at the crime scene--though no drugs were actually recovered. Another cop claimed he found drug- related envelopes at the crime scene--though he conveniently failed to bring the envelopes back to the station for evidence. Prosecutors ignored any other possible suspects and motives for the murders. For example, a forensic investigator put forward that the murders were committed to conceal a sexual assault by someone who knew the victims closely.

This January marked Ronnie's 16th year behind bars and the first anniversary of his release from death row. He is now located at Illinois Stateville prison and recently spoke with the Revolutionary Worker .

Prison "Life"

" One day you don't want to wake up, one day you do want to wake up. You're constantly in a struggle with yourself. You got all these dark forces working against you. You got this little bitty light of hope, and you try to keep this light of hope lit, and you have all this darkness around you.. I done seen that light go out on a lot of brothers' faces. Despair came in. Hopelessness came in. The next thing that came from that was death."

For 12 years Ronald Jalil Kitchen lived under the constant threat of execution. His home was a bathroom-sized cell on Pontiac Correctional Center's Death Row. While clemency meant a reprieve from the hangman's noose, it didn't mean freedom. And for a man who has always insisted he was wrongly convicted, the prospects of spending the rest of his life behind prison walls is a bitter pill to swallow. One year after clemency, Ronnie spoke about how he's looking at this.

"To tell you the truth, I would rather be on death row than here in Stateville. That's kind of ironic, or kind of a cliche that you hear so many times--`I'd rather be on death row than here.' But to actually live in this place, and see how this place is run. To live in this filthiness. We come from taking showers six times out of a week to once a week for fifteen minutes. You come from going outside every day to going outside maybe once a week."

Add to this the mistreatment by prison guards--the abuse running the gamut from physical threats to petty indignities.

"I done come to a place that's not dangerous because of the inmates, it's dangerous because of the guards.... Don't get me wrong, you do have some whacked-out people here that's incarcerated. But the people that's supposed to be overseeing your safety are the ones putting you in danger. If they don't like me they give me a bogus ticket. If they don't like me, I can fall out and have a seizure in this cell and they won't give me no medical care. If they don't like me, they'll put a knife in my cell, or put some dope on me.. They'll provoke you in a way that they actually want to you to put your hands on them.. These are the people who are supposed to be overseeing me. It's just like the police on the street. Ain't nothing different."

Clemency and Injustice

"One day I'm gonna die in the penitentiary at the hands of the same people who put me on death row. The same people are still involved. The same people are still in authority out there. The condemned unit is not over my head, but natural life-condemned is on my head now. There's not much of a difference--the one only difference is that they're not going to give me the `go go' juice."

No one had expected Governor Ryan to empty death row. The Illinois Parole Review Board had recommended only a handful of clemencies after holding more than 100 public hearings. Prosecutors campaigned against clemency and held press conferences that manipulated the pain of crime victims' family members. Even Ryan himself had publicly dismissed the likelihood of any such "blanket" clemency --almost to the moment he announced his decision.

Many inmates and their families were ecstatic about Ryan's decision. But for other prisoners fighting to prove their innocence, clemency spared them from execution but sent their cases and fight for justice to the legal backburner. Ronnie Jalil described his reaction: "I had my hopes that if he [Ryan] do something, that he was going to actually let me go. And when he didn't let me go, it was like a blow to me..... I was distraught. I was discombobulated. I was stressed out. I was confused--I was pissed."

Police, prosecutors, and some public officials raised howls of protest. DuPage County head prosecutor Joe Birkett, Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine, and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan quickly took steps to reverse as many of the clemencies as possible. They demanded that the Illinois Supreme Court rescind the clemencies for at least 32 former death-row inmates. Ronnie Jalil finds these efforts obscene.

"They [past prosecutors] knew about the police brutality, the judge corruption, the zealous prosecutors, the lying witnesses, the jailhouse snitches--they knew about all this stuff already. But didn't nobody want to fix this."

"For them to try to undo what the former governor has done is sad, is sickening. They like the system as it is. They like to see innocent men and women being locked up. They don't care about innocence, all they care about is `Hey, we got you there. The system found you guilty, you should be guilty.'"

A System That Can't Be Reformed

On November 19, 2003, a death penalty reform bill became law in Illinois. Among other things, the law requires screening of testimony by jailhouse snitches, provides increased access to DNA data, and mandates other changes concerning police procedure (such as videotaping of police interrogations). While the new law has been touted as a major reform of the death penalty, Ronnie Jalil has another view.

"How can you reform the system? It's like we get a vase and that vase is the system. We throw it on the ground and that vase breaks in a million pieces. We got one guy saying we can get this crazy glue and put all these pieces together like a puzzle and try to reform it and rebuilt it. Can't do the system like that. Can't reform the system, no matter what kind of reform they put out there..

"The state's attorney needs their stool pigeons. They need their back-door handshakes. As far as the police wanting to show how they actually treat somebody in the interrogation rooms, they're not going to ever show that. They're not going to show slapping somebody around. They're not going to show putting bags on over their heads. Putting guns in their mouths. They're not going to show none of this stuff. Like I say, it looks good on paper, but we're going to get the same results."

As Ronnie Jalil sees it, the death penalty is only a part of the problem. "It's the whole system, period. We got guys doing natural life under the same regime. So it's not just the death penalty... We want to tear the system down brick by brick--the death penalty and the judicial system. It got to be--cause the same tactics they use to put an innocent man on death row is the same tactics they use to put an innocent man in jail for life."

Prison Changes

While he has always insisted he is innocent of the crimes he was charged with, Ronnie Jalil has never claimed to be an "innocent." For years he lived comfortably from the money he made dealing in drugs. As he explained, the Ronald Jalil Kitchen who walked into jail 16 years ago was a much different person than the one who speaks today.

"I was not part of the solution. I was part of the problem. You talk about a person in that life [drug business--RW]. That life has a lifestyle. It has many perks, if you want to call them that. Those things come with great consequences. My eyes started to open when I wanted to take that step away from that life. I couldn't do it no more. It was hurting my family, my son and his mother. I had a newborn on the way. You go through this transformation of being stable to being paranoid. You don't have to be on a drug to be paranoid. The game automatically brings paranoia with it. The higher you get up in the game, the more paranoid you become. When I realized that, I told my mama, `I'm leaving this stuff alone,' I'm backing away from it."

However, Ronnie says he didn't change much during the two years he spent in Cook County Jail waiting for trial and his first three years on death row. He was still thinking the same way that he had been back on the street.

"To look back on how I felt then, and how I think now--it's mind-blowing. I had this philosophy book by Plato, called The Myth of the Cave. He talks about these slaves in a cave. They are shackled from head to toe. They can't turn their heads to the left. They can't turn their heads to the right. All they can do is just see what's in front of them. When somebody lights a fire, all they see is shadows on the wall. One of these slaves got the opportunity to leave this cave, or to turn around to see what was going on around him. When he did it, it was so mind-boggling, mind-blowing to him, he wanted to go back and tell those slaves that didn't have an opportunity to see what's going on. When he did that, they couldn't grasp what he was saying... because they didn't have an opportunity to experience what he was experiencing. That experience scared him so bad he wanted to go back to what he knew, which was nothing--just shadows and voices. I compared that to the way I was thinking when I was young, and what I am thinking now. I was that person in a cave. All I seen was terrible voices and shadows on the wall--until I met some people.

It began with a fellow prisoner who introduced him to Islam. He began meeting and working with anti-death penalty activists. He studied literature and newspapers from various political trends. It meant waking up, and it wasn't easy.

"I started seeing things at a higher and different level. I was trying to understand my situation, trying to overcome it, basically trying to get help to fight. It wasn't a easy path for me to lose my old self and become what I am today--a thinker, an organizer, a motivator. It took a long time for me to come here."

From Victim to Fighter

"For a long time, from '88 to '98, it was just me and my mom. All we could do was just sit back and just pray. We'd pray that we'd have someone listen to us. That god send help to us. For things to turn around. For the lawyers to actually do their job. You name it we pray for it. We wrote and talked and nobody seemed to believe in what I was saying."

That changed when Ronnie became one of the regular voices heard on "Live from Death Row," a project of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. The events, originally initiated by Maryland Death Row inmate Tyrone X Gilliam (who was executed in 1998), feature live telephone question-and-answer sessions with death-row inmates. The impact on Ronnie Jalil was immediate.

"To hear that you have hundreds and thousands of people out there fighting for you, believing in your cause, is overwhelming. To have people just standing behind you, giving me that strength, giving me that motivation--is indescribable. There's no price tag on that. You talking about people that I never even met that's out there fighting for my life."

" The first time I did a `Live from Death Row,' it was scary. I didn't know exactly how the people was going to receive me. I didn't know exactly what kind of questions they were going to ask, what they thought about my situation. It was scary. As I continued to do more of them, I think my confidence built. I started believing more in the people.

" Some questions were easy to answer--like being tortured--because you speak about how the police misused you, mistreated you, forced you to do something that they know is a lie. That makes you mad. Pisses you off. But to turn around and talk about how you missed your oldest son's graduation and your youngest son's graduation. About not being able to take your kids to school for the first time in their life. Not helping them with their homework. Not talking with your kids about what fathers talk to their sons about. Those things are too painful. You just can't talk about them on a whim. That takes time. "

For Ronnie Jalil the torture, the imprisonment, the years wondering when the ax would fall became all the more acutely painful because of this absence of contact with loved ones. It's a loss that in turn has fueled his determination to seek change and justice.

"It's something that I can't never forgive them for. That just makes me more angry with them, more upset, and more than anything wanting to get out and fight against this system. Cause I don't want another young man in his prime to end up in a situation like I was and lose everything. I don't want another human being to go through what I'm going through. So it's my job, and it's going to be my job, to put their dirt in the street--to make those people that don't want to hear, listen. That's my job from now on. That's my resolution. To bring this system to its knees."


Currently, Ronald Jalil Kitchen is still awaiting a ruling on his post-conviction appeal to overturn his original conviction.