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Darrell Cannon: Surviving Chicago Police Torture

By Darrell Cannon 

Editor’s note: Darrell Cannon was tortured by Chicago police detectives under the command of former Police Commander Jon Burge. He was a leading voice in the struggle for reparations and continues to be an advocate for justice. He and I spoke with students in Lisa Brock’s class on Ferguson at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College the week after Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he had agreed to a reparations package for Burge torture survivors. Darrell’s story is one of horror and hope, and he never minces words when he speaks. In detail, he describes his harrowing experience of torture, the uphill legal battle he faced to win his freedom, and the recent fight for reparations. Here is an excerpt from the story Darrell shared that day. ~ Alice Kim

Speaking out at a Sing-In for Reparations at City Hall. Photo credit: Sarah Jane Rhee

During that particular day on November 2nd, 1983, during the entire time that these white detectives tortured me, my name was never Darrell Cannon, my name was always “nigger” this, “nigger” that. And when they took me to the torture site [an abandoned parking lot] to torture me, one detective, the most sadistic detective one out of all of them was named Peter Dignan. He was so racist that he the one that took the shotgun. For any of you that know anything about weapons, if I say he played Russian Roulette with me with a shotgun, if you know anything about a shot gun you’d say how can he do that when there’s no chamber to spin around. Okay, I’m going to explain to you how they did it.They had me handcuffed behind my back and they had me in an isolated area. And the first thing they did when they got me out of the detective car, they said “nigger”, look around nobody’s gonna see or here anything we do. [Gently knocks his knuckles on the table twice.] I just get mad. I don’t have any pain. For me, it’s pure anger. Because of the fact that you don’t expect for so called police officers to be as barbaric as these son of a guns was.

Peter Dignan, these two teeth here he chipped and he split my upper lip forcing the barrel of a shotgun in my mouth. And the way that they played Russian Roulette is that he showed me a shotgun shell. He said, “nigger”, listen. And then he turned his back to me, and I heard what I thought was a shell being placed up in the chamber. Because when he turned around to face me I don’t see a shotgun shell, so I got to assume it’s in that chamber. And then he jacked the shotgun. He said, you gonna tell us what we want to hear. I said, I don’t have anything to tell you. One of the partners said go ahead, blow that “nigger’s” head off. That’s when he jammed the shotgun in my mouth. He said, you gonna tell us? And I’m trying to tell them I ain’t got nothing to say, and he pulled the trigger.

Then he took the shotgun barrel back out of my mouth and went in his vest pocket pulled a shotgun shell out. And they did that procedure three times. The third time they did it, to show you how the mind is, when I heard the click of that shotgun, in my mind my hair stood straight up on my head ‘cause I thought he blew my brains out. I honestly did, my mind told me that. But he hadn’t.

In trying to hang me by my cuffs, which was cuffed behind me, they wrenched both sides of my shoulders in doing so. I still wouldn’t talk. They then took me around to the side of the detective car and made me sit sideways in the car with my feet on the ground. They redid my handcuffs. One detective got in the back seat and had me to raise my arms up then he pulled my arms back, which made me lay back. They pulled my pants and shorts down and they repeatedly stuck an electric cattle prod to my testicles. I mean they shocked me so bad – [crying] pardon me – I just get mad. I’m not hurting; I just get mad.

I’m the baby of my family, and if I just could have had the opportunity to defend myself I would have felt better. But these sadistic son of a guns did not give me the chance to fight back or anything. And by the time they finished using that electric cattle prod on me I honestly was ready to say that my mother committed a crime. That’s how they can break you down.

One of Darrell Cannon’s drawings of the torture inflicted on him.

This man Peter Dignan told me that morning before they shocked me, I have a scientific way of interrogating “niggers” like you. And I did not understand what he meant until they continued to torture me that particular day. By the time I got to lock up that evening. I didn’t even know my name. I didn’t know nothing. All I knew was that my internal system was burning and I needed some water or something cold to drink.

The next day when I went to court I told my attorney what had happened, and a few days later, he came over to the jail, and he brought pen and paper. He said Darrell Cannon, I want you to draw everything that they did to you. I said I don’t know how to draw. He said give me some stick figures, I just want to show the courts what they did to you.

Those drawings you saw, I did that. They were submitted. The state’s attorney had their own psychiatrist examine the torture drawings. And their own psychiatrist said yeah, sorry to say that this happened. No man could be this detailed if it didn’t happen. We had international psychiatrists that had been all over the world interviewing torture victims. They had two different specialists come and see me at separate times. Both of them said yes, Darrell Cannon was tortured. They diagnosed me with post-traumatic syndrome. And they say I still have it today because of the fact that I get so doggone mad every time I think about it. And theses cowards, they were so afraid of Darrell Cannon that everything they did to me, they did while I was handcuffed behind my back at that.

The judicial system tortured me because they placed me in front of a judge that was ex-state’s attorney. So his allegiance was to the state’s attorney’s office. He turned me down on everything. He refused to allow my lawyers to cross-examine any of the cops on the witness stand about police brutality. He said it was insignificant and they didn’t need to do it. So I was found guilty. I have never had a single witness, a single shred of evidence against me in this murder case, only my signature on a piece of paper that they later on filled out the way that they wanted to fill it out, and they called it a confession. It was my word against three detectives.

In prison, I refused to give up. I was sentenced to natural life. They refused to allow my attorneys to even get a deposition from these particular detectives the first time around, and when they finally did allow my attorneys to get depositions, these cops lied repeatedly: they never done anything [these cops said].

I was mad and still was on appeal. The appellate court granted me a new trial. They granted me a new trial because they said that the state’s attorney’s office discriminated against me during jury selection. They excluded the black jurors and kept the white jurors even thought the Black jurors had more credentials than some of the white jurors. But this is Chicago, so I once again was reconvicted, given a natural life sentence, sent back to the penitentiary.

Darrell Cannon being as stubborn as he is refused to give up. We fought, we fought, we fought. I got a new trial a second time. This time, in coming before the judge, they placed me before a judge who was ex-prosecutor. Now my first judge, Maloney, he ended up getting indicted and convicted for bribery.

Eventually, my mother was dying, she had cancer of the lungs, and they brought me a deal. The states attorney’s office found out my mother was dying, they said look, we’ll take back the natural life sentence and we’ll give you a forty year sentence and you’ll get out in two years. So I talked to my mother. My mother said, take the deal. I’ll be around. I said okay. But God had other plans for her, because after I accepted the deal, the next year, my mother died.

[Crying] For me, that was a horrific thing to have to experience in the penitentiary, your mother dying. And they had a procedure where prisoners could go back to the funeral if they could pay for it. But in Darrell Cannon’s case, they said, no, I could not go back to the funeral even though we had the money. They said I was a security threat even though I ain’t never escaped from nowhere in my life. This was party of the psychological game they were playing with me in order to break me. But nothing worked.

March and rally at the Daley Plaza on April 4, 2014, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Photo credit: Bronte Price.

Again, Darrell Cannon is one stubborn son of a gun thanks to the ladies in my family, and that’s why I always give all praises to my mother my grandmother and my sister. I was bent on getting my freedom. I didn’t know when, but I was gonna fight. After a year, my mother had passed away, and the parole board stepped in and said Darrell Cannon we’re here to tell you that we will never ever grant you parole, you are never going home. They told my lawyers that. They were just that arrogant. They was sure that the judge would never step out on a limb and allow me to re-open my hearing again. But, low and behold, my attorneys went to court and said your honor, this is a flim flam, they tricked us so that they could get Darrell Cannon to plead guilty.

The judge said, they was wrong because I am reinstating Darrell Cannon’s suppression hearing and he will be allowed to move forward. At that point I had been in prison, I think, 22 years. And when the judge said that, the state’s attorney said, your honor we’re dropping all charges against Darrell Cannon. Just like that, we’re dropping all charges.

Darrel Cannon at Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College

Now that should have been the end of my plight, but it wasn’t. The parole board said, we don’t care that the state dropped all charges we still got you and we’re not reinstating your parole. My attorney said fine, we’ll go to court; so we sued the parole board. When we sued the parole board they put me in front of a judge who just so happens be an ex-state’s attorney. But I had a pleasant awakening. This particular judge happened to know my case. After being in front of him about a year, he finally told the parole board attorneys, look either you release Darrell cannon or I will.

Now they definitely did not want this judge to release me because if he did, I would set a new precedent that other parolees would be able to use against the parole board. So they said no, no no, we’re not gonna let that happen. They reinstated my parole and allowed me to go home. But they ordered that I not be released until after four o’clock that day, so that the news media would not be able to talk to me and put it on the early news. I mean they was thinking every step of the way, but so was Darrell Cannon.
Now the reparations are something that I’m very proud of, and I’m thankful, but the mission is not done. Those that are coming back now for new hearings, we will pack the courtrooms to say to the judge and prosecutor that it will not be business as usual; we’re here to see to that. And because of that I say that the mission is partially done but it can never be totally done until justice prevails for all of those who are in prison. And that’s where all of you come in. By all of you getting the education about this, you will be more informed. And now you are the voters. You make the difference.

We got young people, middle-aged people, old people, a combination of people, Black and white, Hispanic. They’ve all come together in a rainbow and we made reparations happen. This is history. Its’ never been done in the U.S. But Chicago will get it. Why? because of people like Darrell Cannon and others, and their spirits have allowed us to fight, fight, fight. We refused to give up.

While I was in prison, I became a certified paralegal. I utilized my time wisely. The reason why they sent me to Supermax [Tamms] was because they said I had too my influence over other “gangs.” They said Darrell cannon had too much education. I don’t even curse. And that is detrimental to white folks, especially prison people ‘cause they used to every prisoner calling them a bunch of MF’s. But not Darrell Cannon. I never cursed. I’ve always maintained my peace. So they said this man is too dog gone dangerous.

In Supermax, I’ve honestly seen people who were tough guys that came down there and tried to kill themselves because the isolation, sleep deprivation. The whole nine years, they come in the evening time, they hit a main switch, the light come on in your cell. If that doesn’t wake you up at nighttime, then when the officer leaves the wing, the door is designed to slam and that echo throughout your entire unit, so it’s going to wake you up. And this is all by design.

But again, the picture is bigger than me. God played a significant role in Darrell Cannon being here today and Darrell Cannon being in his right frame of mind. Other guys who did less time than me is crazy. Some have bad habits. I don’t drink coffee, I don’t smoke.

Celebrating reparations. Photo credit: Sarah Jane Rhee

When the news media asked me two weeks ago, what am I gonna do with my money. I say the first thing I’m gonna do is buy me a motorcycle and I’m gonna take a victory lap around City Hall. And the press all told me, when you do that please call us.

This is my mindset; this is how I think. I want it to be known, I’m grateful but I’m not content. I can never be content until justice prevails for all the people who are still in prison and have not been as blessed as I have. That is very important to me and that’s the legacy that I will leave. And to have this taught in school, I mean, now that is exciting to me because nowhere in the United States have black people been represented in this manner where curriculum will now teach the ugly matter in the city of Chicago.

That’s why I go around the country. It’s been a blessing and an honor to be around such dedicated people, because of the support that they have given us continually. Sometimes I don’t feel like talking about this but I have to. Normally, I have to drink a lot of Pepto because I get nauseous when I talk about this. But it’s my duty to speak up, it’s my duty to be an advocate for justice. And if I have to drink a case of Pepto each and every time, come on with it. Because if I’m silent then I’m a part of the problem, but if I speak I’m a part of the solution. And I’m gonna be part of the solution any day.


Visit the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials and the People’s Law Office to read more about Darrell Cannon’s story and the history of Burge torture.