Warning: This story contains descriptions of physical, sexual, and police violence.
Dear Maya, Blessed life to you and yours, always. And I pray you will have a very good day. This leaves me well. I received the book with your letter. Thank you for writing and sending the book. Your letter came as a disappointment to me. And after re-reading it, I decided the time had come for me to relieve you of our agreement for you to write about my cases. Your letter explained to me your approach to writing about me. It explains a course of writing that I'm not interested in. It isn't what I first agreed on. I thought your writing would be about my wrongful convictions in the Gibson and Ciralsky cases. Your letter impressed upon me that you plan to write something of a mini bio of my life. And that is something I'm not interested in. Yours Truly, James
When I received this neatly penned letter it had been nearly two years since I began corresponding with James Allen, a man serving two life sentences and an additional 100-200 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections for three murder cases. Allen is one of only 30 people in the state’s prison system doing time for three or more murders. Most of the others are convicted either as serial killers or people who went on murder sprees in bouts of rage or psychosis, killing people they knew or random strangers in a series of acts (or alleged acts) that followed familiar, if shocking, trajectories. While many of their stories would be the stuff of slasher flicks or film noir, Allen’s situation, at first glance, seems like something out of a mafia movie. He was the alleged getaway driver in two murder-for-hire schemes masterminded by south-side drug trafficking kingpins—while he was on parole for a cop killing.
Rather than being disappointed, I found myself awash in relief when Allen wrote that he no longer wanted me to write about him. The book Allen mentioned was The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm’s 1989 polemic on the emotionally dirty and morally suspect work of nonfiction writing. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” Malcolm writes. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
My intent had been to short-circuit the dishonesty. When I sent Allen the book (which happens to take as its narrative backbone the story of a man who claims to be wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and children), I hoped that we could have a conversation about my role in his life and his legal battle, what I could and could not promise. I thought I would eventually write something that he would consent to being published, even if he didn’t like the process I undertook to get there. But instead of helping me ease my conscience, with the letter James gave me a moral loophole.
It is “only when a subject breaks off relations with the writer,” Malcolm writes, that “the journalist is in a completely uncompromised position.” She argues that the journalist can feel free from the guilt of betrayal because an uncooperative subject doesn’t enter into the murky interpersonal dynamic masquerading as friendship that would otherwise define them. According to Malcolm, “you can’t betray someone you barely know; you can only irritate and anger him.”
This logic is, of course, as self-serving as the duplicitous “friendship” the journalist develops with a cooperative subject. Publishing a story someone doesn’t want out there is an act of betrayal even if you have no relationship to them. As a journalist, especially a white one, the way you justify it to yourself is by saying that the story is bigger than its central character, that his life experiences aren’t really just his to publicize or keep private, that they belong to everyone. This line of thinking is particularly potent when you’ve already invested significant time and energy into a story—as though with that expenditure you’ve purchased a person’s right to refuse or consent to be written about. I’d done a lot of digging by then. I decided to keep going, partially because it felt too late to turn back, and also because I believed what happened to Allen was wrong, even if I didn’t fully believe him.
In the winter of 2018 I got a note from another writer, the sort of tip you follow up on out of respect for the person who sends it. The first source is often not the most important or reliable one, but because she is first, she becomes the story’s spokesperson. Her ability to capture the journalist’s attention can make the difference between someone’s story being instantly forgotten or becoming an Oscar-winning feature.
“This guy, I know him, and he’s been locked up since 1984 for a murder that he didn’t commit,” Debbie Wilson told me in our first phone conversation. She said that after the first conviction someone had come to see Allen in prison, when he didn’t have a lawyer, and “put another murder on him that he didn’t do.” Her voice was plaintive but calm. She spoke concisely and with clear affection for the man. She told me Allen had evidence of his innocence and, after his convictions were “thrown out,” he’d done three extra years in prison because his “documents” couldn’t be found.
She hinted at a conspiracy. The authorities, she said, “keep this thing going hoping that he would just die in prison. He’s had three attacks on his life.” She made it clear that he wanted a reporter to cover his story.
Debbie’s pitch was effective. I got on Allen’s call list. Once I spoke with him directly, the actual, baroque complexity of his situation came into sharper focus. His convictions for the 1984 murders of Carl Gibson and Robert Ciralsky hadn’t actually been overturned. The Illinois Supreme Court found in 2015 that he was entitled to a rare post-conviction evidentiary hearing because another incarcerated man confessed to killing Ciralsky. He hadn’t been granted a similar hearing in the Gibson case, but he said for that murder, too, he had evidence of his innocence.
Allen’s attorney, a seasoned appellate litigator named Steven Becker, needed the original trial transcripts to prepare for the Ciralsky post-conviction hearing. But for three years the clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County couldn’t find a box of his records in her warehouse.
I never had ambitions to investigate wrongful convictions, nor an appetite for true crime stories. But I’ve always liked to report on bureaucracy and the procedural mechanics inside legal cases—the more boring, the better. So I wrote a story about Allen’s scandalously delayed access to justice and glossed over a lot of the mind-bending details of the two murders. The story, published in May 2018, allowed me to skirt around the edges of his cases, to transmit his narrative without the burden of independently verifying the minutiae of what he said happened. It helped that much of what he told me was substantiated by extensive records collected by one of the only other people in his life—a woman named Linda, who lives on the west coast and has been his devoted advocate and friend for over a decade. Without a formal legal education, she helped Allen write many of his petitions to the court. She believed absolutely in his innocence, and had amassed thousands of pages of documents, mostly through diligent use of the Freedom of Information Act, that she shared with me. She worries about her safety as a result of her work on Allen’s behalf and asked not to be identified by her real name.
As soon as I asked questions about the lost Ciralsky case records, the clerk of the Circuit Court located them in her warehouse. The gears in the rickety local justice apparatus creaked along. Debbie called me to share how happy she and James and Linda were. And then she said something that I didn’t write down, but I remember the gist of: “James was right about you. He told me to find a young person to do this story, a young reporter would do it right.”
The comment stayed with me. After the rush of publishing the initial story dissipated, it floated back up from the depths of my mind like a drowned body inflated by decomposition. It made me suspicious of myself. In a city packed with investigative reporters who dedicated their careers to researching and writing about people railroaded by corrupt cops and prosecutors, why would a young, inexperienced journalist be Allen’s preferred choice? A young reporter would do it right.
I decided to retrace my steps.
The Pontiac Correctional Center is a maximum-security prison nearly two hours south of Chicago where the state houses 1,000 men at the cost of some $70,000 per year each. For my first meeting with Allen in 2018, Debbie and I drove down through endless fields of crops one sunny Sunday morning. She was an easy travel companion, and told me her own life story with little prompting. She’d first met Allen through a prison pen-pal program her mother ran in the 1970s. When she saw him at a court appearance it was love at first sight. Though they’d had periods of rupture through the decades, he was always her one true love. She raised her son to think of him as a father figure.
Before we entered the gates of the old prison complex, Debbie took off most of her rings and watch and Bluetooth earpiece and left them in the car, keeping on a gold chain with a small cross. We placed our keys and wallets in a metal coin locker at the drab reception area and waited for pat-downs. After a while, the guards ushered us and a handful of other visitors through courtyards and hallways, past the names and portraits of former wardens, wooden cubbies where inmates receive mail, and several heavy metal gates. In the visiting room Allen walked toward us from behind a massive steel door, bent slightly forward, wearing a uniform of a light-blue button-down tucked into dark-blue pants. He smiled warmly and gave both of us hugs, reaching over a red line on the floor. Debbie got a longer one. A guard then escorted him and the other inmates behind a glass divider. We sat on folding chairs and spoke through black plastic phone receivers. For the next four hours Allen did most of the talking. The prison didn’t allow visitors to bring in notebooks, but I tried my best to keep up and asked questions to help me remember our conversation.
Allen, then 68, was friendly and thoughtful. With his sharp nose, sparkling eyes, and easy smile, he reminded me of Harry Belafonte. He took pride in his fitness and health, and looked much younger than his age, but decades in the prison system had taken a toll on his body. He has a scar over his left eye from when a cellmate slammed a TV on his head while he slept. Touching the skin puts him in direct contact with his skull and he said he suffers from PTSD and can no longer live with cellmates. He sued IDOC over this and another attack and won; the money he got in damages pays for his attorney. Despite the violence and monotony, his mind and memory hadn’t been blunted. He had a remarkable penchant for recalling dates and was a methodical, if slightly disorganized, storyteller. He launched into anecdotes as if constantly picking up threads of an ongoing, unfinished conversation, but paused carefully through his sentences to make sure every detail sunk in. His sanity and faith in God remained intact through many bouts of solitary confinement, including more than eight consecutive years at the now-shuttered Tamms supermax prison in the southernmost tip of Illinois, where he said he made physical contact with another human being only twice, during a doctor’s examination and when receiving communion. He was moved to Tamms as soon as it opened in 1998 with the other “worst of the worst” in IDOC because he was among six inmates who pulled off the largest prison escape in state history. In 1990, with the help of a guard, they cut a 9-by-14-inch hole in a second-floor window at the Joliet penitentiary and shimmied under a fence. Allen spent 12 days on the lam before being captured in Chicago.
Allen described his youthful forays into crime as conscious choices rather than inevitable mistakes or the result of impulsiveness or carelessness brought on by abuse, neglect, substance use, or peer pressure. He said he was born into a loving home in 1950, the youngest of three children. He never went hungry or felt embarrassed for the clothes he wore to school. His parents had come to Chicago from Clarke County, Mississippi, in the late 1940s. He said his mother’s parents had been sharecroppers, but his father’s family owned 60 acres of land—rare wealth for a Black family in the Jim Crow South. Allen’s father served in WWII. After the war he got a job at the Chicago stockyards and worked long hours as a steak cutter. Allen said he was just like his father—stubborn, intelligent, a hothead with a big ego—which earned him the nickname Head. When he was about 13, Allen discovered communism. He read Marx and Lenin, but what really captured his imagination was Mao’s Little Red Book. It was the mid-1960s and he was inspired by the Black nationalist thought of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. By 16, much to his family’s chagrin, he dropped out of school to pursue what he called “revolutionary activity.”
He painted a picture of his young self as a sort of Robin Hood. He and nine of his friends, calling themselves the Black Belt Rods, patrolled Washington Park and threatened pimps, drug dealers, numbers runners, and dice players to get off the streets between 3 and 7 PM, so kids could safely play in the neighborhood after school. He said one time they grabbed some pimps in chokeholds and used kitchen scissors to cut off their long hair. The intimidation worked. Their numbers grew to some two dozen boys, and they graduated to robbing the people they considered to be a cancer on the neighborhood. Allen said they would redistribute the money to local churches and the Black Panthers’ breakfast program. He was arrested for the first time at 17 for robbing a paperboy who he said also sold weed and ran numbers for a local racketeer. He was sentenced to seven months at the Vandalia juvenile boot camp in southern Illinois. After a few weeks he refused to shovel any more cow manure on the prison farm. He and a few other boys would soon stage a rebellion, pouring disinfectant into the cows’ trough and giving them diarrhea. Allen was transferred to Pontiac to serve the remainder of his sentence with adults.
When he got out, he and his buddies transitioned from robbing criminals to robbing companies that didn’t hire Black workers. One of Allen’s friends worked in the personnel department at Bell & Howell, a camera manufacturer in Lincolnwood, and saw that very few Black candidates were getting hired. And so in early January 1969, 19-year-old Allen and two accomplices in their 20s tracked the route of the armored truck delivering the company’s payroll and plotted a heist.
On the night of January 24, armed with tape, handcuffs, ski masks, small handguns, and an AR-15 robbed from a freight train, the three drove up to Lincolnwood in a stolen Buick for the real operation. But the armored truck never came. It turned out one of their friends had snitched. The cops had been watching them for weeks, and now, as 15 minutes passed and the crew was about to scrap the plan, a floodlight flashed onto their car. Allen said they never heard anyone yell they were police, just a gunshot and the thud of something on the door. He said he fired his rifle once, to take out the blinding light. Then, a hail of gunfire exploded from the darkness and the car rocked as bullets pierced through metal and glass. Ninety seconds later, his two friends were dead. Allen, who pressed his body to the floor of the back seat, was injured only in the buttocks.
There was a third victim. A Black police officer named Oliver Singleton was shot and paralyzed from the neck down. He survived for 11 months—long enough to testify at trial. Allen faced a slew of charges, including attempted robbery, two counts of murder for the deaths of his accomplices (what’s known as “accountability” or “felony” murder), and the attempted murder of a police officer. The state claimed that the police announced themselves and one of Allen’s accomplices shot at the cops. Allen believes that Singleton was shot by a fellow officer. Ballistics analysis showed that the officer wasn’t wounded by the AR-15 Allen had been clutching.
The Chicago Daily Defender noted the case as a “milestone” because Allen and another coconspirator who plotted the robbery were being held responsible for the deaths of their friends, even though they hadn’t killed them. The paper quoted Sam Adam, then already a prominent defense attorney, who claimed that it was “the first time a defendant has been indicted and tried for the murder of his coconspirators in the state of Illinois.”
At trial, Allen’s attorney didn’t put him on the stand and didn’t cross-examine Singleton, the state’s star witness. Allen said it was because his mother had begged the lawyer to do anything to make sure her son didn’t end up on death row, and going after a paralyzed cop testifying from a stretcher would not have won Allen any favors with the jury. “The jury stared at Singleton with shock and dismay etched deeply on their faces,” according to the Defender. “Their eyes were glued to the stretcher when attendants wheeled Singleton out of the chamber following his brief, five minute, statement.” The newspaper also noted, however, that the trial hinged on a statement Allen gave police the night of his arrest, while at the hospital without a lawyer. The judge denied his lawyer’s motion to suppress it, and when the prosecutor read it in court, “Allen shouted to Judge Philip Romiti: ‘Your honor, I refuse to sit here and listen to any more of these lies.’” After his attorney silenced him, the reporter noted:
"Allen stared at the floor and his entire demeanor changed. During the first three days of the trial, Allen was almost jubilant and a sly smile frequently creased his face. After the statement (confession) was read, however, Allen became openly hostile, glowering at the state's attorney and the bailiff assigned to guard him."
After a four-day trial and eight hours of deliberation, the jury (which included three Black women) acquitted Allen of murdering his friends, but found him guilty of the robbery charges and the attempted murder of Singleton. Less than a month later, before Allen was even sentenced, Singleton died. The state quickly indicted him for the murder of the policeman. After the second trial, the jury found Allen guilty but spared him the death penalty. He was given 100-200 years—an “indeterminate sentence.” The Defender quoted the judge telling the courtroom that it was meant to send a message that “the murder of a policeman would be considered a heinous crime.”
Allen remembered standing in front of the judge, asking if he’d ever have a chance at freedom again. The judge responded that he might if he could demonstrate he was rehabilitating. Indeterminate sentences came with a possibility of parole after about a decade in prison. The Tribune looked askance at that. Allen “won’t be locked away for the rest of his life,” the paper lamented in their short article on the sentencing hearing. “The parole laws would appear to be loaded in favor of killers.”
Allen spent his 20s in prison pursuing a slew of educational programs. He got his GED and was certified as a medical assistant, with qualifications in nursing, physical therapy, and surgical procedures. He completed a correspondence course for legal investigation and earned some credits through Joliet Junior College and Governors State University. He also spent a lot of time at the law library. In 1972 he was part of a lawsuit against the prison system for constitutional violations and unsanitary conditions in the now-shuttered Joliet prison’s “special program unit.” The SPU was segregated housing where prison authorities placed politically active inmates, gang members, and others they deemed “riot-prone” without due process. During federal court testimony in the case, Allen spoke of there being very little light in the unit, which made it impossible to read. “He had to drop out of a nearly completed correspondence course in accounting because guards took away his materials,” the Defender reported. “He said his counselor accused him of wanting to study accounting so he could ‘practice embezzlement’ when he got out.” The following year Allen helped establish a criminal law course for inmates at Pontiac. He said that he helped with the legal defense of the Pontiac 17, a group of inmates—chief among them Gangster Disciples founder Larry Hoover—charged with inciting a riot and murdering three guards in 1978. The cases against them ultimately fell apart, and Allen said his assistance earned him the respect of the Disciples and other prison gangs.
Allen didn’t just earn a good reputation with inmates. As he began petitioning the Prisoner Review Board for parole in the late 1970s, letters of support and praise came from correctional staff who worked with him at the prison hospital, State representative Peggy Smith Martin, an executive at Motorola, lawyers from the People’s Law Office (who represented the plaintiffs in the SPU lawsuit, and were the defense lawyers for the Pontiac 17), and from the board of the National Conference of Black Lawyers Community College of Law. There was even a letter of support from the president of a film production company that had interviewed Allen for “a law enforcement training film on officer survival.” The filmmaker wrote that he “exhibited genuine interest and concern for police officer survival, and was most interested in cooperating with anything that might help save a life.”
But officials from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office and the Chicago Police Department vociferously opposed his parole. Every time Allen petitioned the board they wrote scathing letters in protest. “He has been a threat to society all his adult life and culminated his criminal activity by brutally murdering a Chicago police officer,” State’s Attorney Bernard Carey wrote in 1978. “It is the policy of this Office to vigorously prosecute police killers,” he later wrote, and “to strongly oppose the parole of that type of felon.” In 1979, CPD’s acting superintendent wrote that the “vicious, wanton action of Allen in fatally wounding Detective Singleton while in the process of attempting to commit an armed robbery clearly indicates that he is a menace to society.” It seemed to matter little that it was a fellow officer, not Allen, who had apparently shot Singleton.
Year after year he was denied parole until finally, in April 1983, the Prisoner Review Board agreed to let him out. Allen, then 33, was sent back to Chicago with the help of letters from people eager to employ him, and community petitions vouching for his good character. He was released to live in a South Shore apartment with his fiancée, Denise Mims, under strict supervision from a parole officer.
In a letter to me, Allen described the transition to parole after more than 14 years behind bars. He wrote that the day before he left Stateville, Disciples leader Hoover “offered me money to avoid returning to prison for committing a crime of finance.” Other gang leaders did the same “in appreciation for my role in the defense of those gang leaders and members that were indicted” for the Pontiac riot. “I knew before the parole board released me that money from gangs would be available for me,” he wrote. He maintains, however, that he has never actually been part of any gang, and no prison or court record I’ve seen has shown otherwise. “I came to prison in October 1970 as a non-gang member, and I left prison April 13, 1980 a non-gang member. And for that gang leaders honored and respected me.”
He also wrote that his relatives and friends, “and quite frankly, people I did not know,” took up a collection of money and clothing on his behalf. He got a welcome home party, and soon after permission from his parole officer to travel to Mississippi to see his parents, who’d moved back in the time he was away. He said his father and paternal grandmother gave him $5,000 and bought him a new green Volvo with velvet upholstery. The “economic support” he received didn’t just take the form of cash and gifts. “In the first week of June 1983 in my hands I had over $1,300 in food stamps,” he wrote, describing in vivid detail how an old friend brought him five intact booklets in a little white bag. “I had so many food stamps I started giving food stamps to my neighbors.”
Still, Allen said he wanted to work. He said he tried a job at the People’s Law Office, but he didn’t last long enough to even draw a paycheck. He recalled that police officers would follow him to the office and harass him and that he and the lawyers came to an agreement that it was better for them to part ways. Jeffrey Haas, one of the People’s Law Office attorneys who’d written to the parole board that he was eager to employ Allen, had only the vaguest recollection of him more than 40 years later, but said it was plausible that Allen and the office were drawing a lot of unwanted attention from the police. Allen said after the PLO he tried and failed to get a job in the medical field. Finally, his dad was able to secure him a job with a lumber company in Mississippi, but the parole board didn’t approve Allen’s request to transfer out of state.
Allen said he faced regular surveillance and harassment from Chicago police officers who he said would show up in front of his house, follow him as he ran errands, and even arrest him periodically on bogus charges. In June 1984 he was arrested for illegally having a gun; he recalled being pulled by cops from the back of a cab and watching them extract a pistol from underneath one of the seats. The charges were dropped the first day he went to court. Allen took short trips to Mississippi as frequently as possible, and his mother, sister, and other relatives visited him in Chicago. He took his nieces and nephews and Mims’s son to Six Flags Great America with the permission of his parole officer. He played basketball, read books, and went to the movies, but though he was happy to be free, he described feeling unsafe and uncomfortable in a city that had changed a lot since he was 19.
He recalled that the conditions of the Washington Park neighborhood he knew growing up were “truly shocking . . . To see men and women in 1983 that I had worked closely with in the 60s, doing the very same things we had fought against to rid our hoods of was painful to my heart and mind.” He was disturbed by the ubiquity of drugs. The streets were worse than when he went away. “I cursed the parole board for not considering my request to be granted parole release to Mississippi.”
Seventeen months later, on August 9, 1984, Allen returned to his apartment with the paperwork to take another trip to Mississippi in his breast pocket. He found a swarm of police officers. His apartment was ransacked. His sister, fiancée, and their kids were confused and in tears. Allen saw a tall, corpulent detective in his living-room mirror as the officers handcuffed him. He said the detective—Michael Pochordo—squeezed in next to him in the back seat of a squad car and elbowed him in the chest every time they hit a bump on their ride to the precinct. Within a couple of days he was charged with the murder of Carl Gibson, who police said was shot in a car Allen was driving and dumped on an exit ramp off the Chicago Skyway. Later, he’d be charged with being the getaway driver in the murder of Robert Ciralsky, which happened a week before his arrest.
There are two stories about what happened next and which one you believe depends on who you see as credible, and on how the impression of credibility builds in your mind based on your own beliefs, biases, and experiences. Did the state successfully bust James “Head” Allen, a sly hit man, for two murders he dared to participate in while on parole? Or did they successfully railroad him simply for being a paroled “cop killer”? Over the course of two years I puzzled over more than 4,000 pages of police and court documents, spoke with dozens of sources, and pondered his cases from every angle. The investigation left me with some unanswered questions about James Allen. But, more significantly, it left me questioning what journalists expect from people who claim to be abused by the state.
I’m writing this story at a time when the minds of an increasing number of people with no direct experience of police misconduct and prosecutorial overreach have stretched to accept that cops do hurt, torture, and kill people; prosecutors do build cases on false testimony, false confessions, and a total lack of evidence; and America’s law enforcement and criminal punishment systems are rife with violations of both the Constitution and basic human dignity. And yet, commonly held conceptions about the people on the receiving end of these injustices remain pretty rigid, and journalists help reinforce that. We may have made some progress since the New York Times proclaimed that Michael Brown was “no angel,” but we still prefer to focus our coverage on victims of state violence who are unarmed, docile, and simple. We may not expect them to be innocent, but we expect them to be truthful and straightforward. We demand they establish their credibility by submitting themselves to scrutiny of their deepest wounds, patiently letting us poke them to see if they bleed, hiding nothing about themselves and satisfying our every curiosity. Doubt creeps in when they draw boundaries, perform, lie to make themselves appear better than they are. Doubt creeps in, in other words, when self-proclaimed victims of state violence act not as suffering and repentant martyrs but exactly the way we all do when we feel we’re being evaluated. It seems that no matter how often we see the state cheat to win criminal cases with the help of deception, violence, junk science, and cascades of cognitive biases, it’s still the state that is more likely to enter our mental courtroom with the presumption of innocence.
In one of her many dense and lengthy e-mails to me about Allen’s situation, which sometimes came with explanatory cartoon animations that she designed herself, his friend Linda wrote that I was looking at the cases “the way I was in the beginning—in terms of what doesn’t make sense.” She said that eventually she had a “mind shift” that made her see things differently. “There are two crimes. One is the murder . . . and one is the frame job.” If Malcolm is right that “what gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject’s blind self-absorption and the journalist’s skepticism,” what would it mean to direct the skepticism we reflexively have for convicts toward the state?
On the morning of June 21, 1984, police arrived on the 73rd Street exit ramp off the Chicago Skyway to examine the body of a bearded, chubby, Black man. Thirty-eight-year-old Carl Gibson was found lying facedown next to the curb about halfway down the ramp, wearing a black leather jacket and cheap black sneakers. A blue bandanna was hanging out of the back pocket of his pleated brown pants. His white shirt was soaked with blood. He wore a wedding band and a thin gold chain around his neck. He was found with his ID on him, a welfare card, and a copy of a recent criminal complaint charging him with selling drugs.
Four bullets had been fired at his left ear and neck, at least one of them from less than a foot away. There were two bullets lodged in Gibson’s head (inside the ear and at the base of his skull) and two exit wounds on the right side of his face. One of the bullets had torn through his spinal cord, one through his throat. The medical examiner also noted “chronic needle marks” on Gibson’s forearms but the toxicological report came back negative for alcohol, opiates, and barbiturates. Gibson’s last meal was likely a cheeseburger. “An obese and young appearing male was gunned down on the exit ramp,” the report summarized.
No bullets were found on the exit ramp near the body, but the blood on the scene suggested a story of movement. There were two trails—a short one close to the ramp’s juncture with 73rd Street, and a longer one which flowed from Gibson’s body. No reports confirm that the disconnected, shorter trail of blood belonged to Gibson, but in one of the first media accounts of the case the Tribune reported that Area One detectives believed Gibson to have been shot near the bottom of the ramp. Gibson’s head pointed upward, as if he’d been walking or running up toward the Skyway when he collapsed from the bullet that hit his spine.
The narrative of the police investigation over the course of the next six weeks is based on a review of CPD detectives’ “General Progress Reports”—mostly handwritten notes produced while working out on the street—and “Supplementary Reports”—typewritten summaries of investigative work filed after every day or two. This narrative may not reflect reality (because the department may not have shared all existing records in response to FOIA requests or subpoenas, because the cops could make up interview notes, because interviewees could be lying or wrong) and it may not even reflect the “facts.” But the documents do tell a story that’s worth remembering as one considers how James Allen came to be accused of being involved in Gibson’s murder.
The first notes made on June 22 by the Area One detectives assigned to the case, John Robertson and Richard Kobel, were brief: “Victim shot for unknown reasons at this time. It should be noted the victim was involved in drug traffic in the area of 65th and Cottage Grove.” One person interviewed said he saw Gibson drinking on the street around 9 PM the previous night. Gibson’s girlfriend told the cops that he walked her home around 9:30 PM, which Sherman Overstreet, “a known dope distributor” in police custody, corroborated.
Both Gibson and Overstreet worked for 66-year-old Charles Ashley, the central target of “Operation Camelot,” a months-long probe into his alleged narcotics operation. A few days before Gibson was killed, both men were arrested during a raid on one of Ashley’s drug houses. The day Gibson’s body was discovered, Overstreet checked into the Cook County State’s Attorney’s witness protection program. The detectives’ first theory was that Gibson was killed because Ashley wanted “to silence any potential witnesses against him.”
The next investigative report was filed on July 2. Detectives Robertson and Kobel had identified potential suspects: Richard “Dog” Wallace and George “Lookie” Lewis, who were usually together and riding around in a small black van, according to a confidential informant. The informant said that two days before the murder Dog was seen with Ashley, and that on the night of the murder Gibson was seen entering the black van to join “two unknown male blacks.”
A week later the detectives interviewed Ashley. He said he didn’t know anything about the killing, but that he’d seen Gibson talking to someone he knew to be a cop two or three times a week for “a couple of months.” He mentioned that Gibson had a beef with someone named “Bull.” Ashley also wanted to know whether detectives had made any progress on investigating the armed robbery he’d reported a few days earlier, when he was attacked in an alley behind his home.
On July 11, Robertson and Kobel interviewed Dog, who told them he’d learned about the Gibson homicide from the Sun-Times. He said he didn’t own a car or have a driver’s license or know anyone with a black van. Dog’s lawyer objected to him answering questions about where he was the night of the murder, but Dog agreed to take a polygraph on the condition that his lawyer be allowed to see the questions beforehand. No more records related to this investigation were produced for nearly a month. Dog, Lookie, and Bull were never mentioned again in any records related to the Gibson murder.
On Wednesday, August 1, Area One got hit with another homicide. This one happened in Hyde Park on the 4800 block of Kimbark—a leafy street lined by sprawling, historic homes. The basic facts, per the first police report: Robert Ciralsky, the 60-year-old white owner of a drug and liquor store on 58th and Indiana in Washington Park, was accosted by two Black men as he was getting out of his car in front of his home around 11 PM. Ciralsky’s wife Paula and 14-year-old son Robert Jr. heard two shots that brought them to the window. The boy grabbed a gun and saw the men standing over his father’s body, which was sprawled in the front seat of his light-blue Lincoln. He yelled at them to freeze and fired a shot, which sent them running. Ciralsky died within the hour. The autopsy would later confirm that he succumbed to gunshots to the forehead and shoulder, which pierced his brain and lungs and left medium-caliber bullets lodged in his tissues. Among his personal possessions were tan slacks with a torn left pocket, an address book, some jewelry, and a wallet.
When interviewed by detectives Brian Regan and Steve Glynn that night, Ciralsky’s wife, son, and son-in-law (who worked at his store) confirmed that he would take home cash from the register when he closed his shop, usually in a rubber-banded roll that he carried in his left pocket. The family believed that such a roll with up to $1,500 was missing. The detectives noted that Ciralsky was “apparently shot during the course of an armed robbery” by assailants who either followed him home from the store or were waiting for him to arrive.
Several neighbors were interviewed about the killing. Two of them said that they saw two Black individuals inside an unfamiliar brown car (perhaps a Camaro) with California plates idling with the lights off on the corner just north of Ciralsky’s house shortly before the incident. Three others saw a dark-colored car speeding off after shots were fired, driving north in reverse on Kimbark, and then east on 48th. No one could describe the assailants.
Detectives also interviewed the last people who saw Ciralsky alive—John Dorbin, who’d worked for Ciralsky for the last 30 years, and a CPD sergeant named James Moran who’d been friendly with the shopkeeper. Dorbin said he and Ciralsky closed up the store and as they left, Moran had pulled up and Ciralsky stopped to chat. Dorbin and Ciralsky both got in their cars and drove north on Indiana; Dorbin didn’t see anyone following Ciralsky home. He told the cops that Ciralsky was fearful of assailants—in 1958 he had shot and killed three men attempting to rob his store in one week—and used to carry a gun home with him “but had stopped the practice after being arrested several times for the gun.”
The day after the murder, Paula Ciralsky told detectives that a few hours after her husband was killed she received a call from someone “she described as a [Black woman] with a southern accent.” The woman asked to speak to her son, calling him Robbie—a name only family and friends used with Robert Jr. When she told the woman that her son was sleeping, “this woman then stated, ‘If he could shoot at them then he is a witness,’” and hung up. The detectives noted that Paula immediately hired a security guard for the house.
Two days later, Area One detectives Robertson and Kobel (who had been working the Gibson homicide) filed a report after another conversation with Paula. She said that the money her husband’s shop made the night of the murder was found safe in the cash register, meaning he probably had no roll of cash in his pocket—the new theory was that nothing had been stolen. “Apparently the offenders were interrupted in their robbery attempt,” the detectives concluded.
The widow provided one more piece of information to detectives at the end of August. The Ciralskys’ estate attorney contacted Area One to relay that Paula had come to recall that one of the two assailants looked like a man called “Irwin” who “hangs out at the garage at 48th and Indiana.” Despite this new lead on a potential suspect, after that tip the murder investigation went cold.
The big break in the Gibson case arrived unexpectedly between August 5 and August 7. Area One Detective Michael Pochordo—who until then hadn’t been involved in the investigation—said he received a phone call from Darryl Moore. Moore, who would later testify that he did “enforcing” for Charles Ashley, was locked up on narcotics and weapons charges at the Cook County Jail. He told the detective he had information about the Gibson killing.
In a sworn affidavit to a judge, Pochordo claimed he’d known Moore for four years and that Moore had provided him with relevant and accurate information on ten other homicide investigations, which resulted in six convictions. Pochordo said Moore told him that Ashley first offered him $2,300 and three ounces of cocaine to kill Gibson. When Moore refused, Ashley told him he would ask Henry Griffin and James Allen to do it. Moore said that Griffin and Allen told him a few days later that they’d accepted the contract and that Griffin showed Moore a .38-caliber revolver he intended to use. Moore also said Allen showed him an ice pick that he would use to help kill Gibson.
Not only did the alleged killers apprise Moore of their plan and show him their weapons, but they also told him it was an “easy contract” when he saw them a couple of days after the murder. Moore said they told him they were now searching for Ashley to get paid and that Allen threatened to kill Ashley if they didn’t get their money. Allen allegedly said he’d made a tape recording of the discussion they’d had with Ashley about the contract and that the tape would be sent to the cops if the “old man” crossed him.
Pochordo wrote in the warrant affidavit that, according to Moore, Allen and Griffin were driving in Griffin’s black Chevy truck with wide gray stripes on the sides when he saw them before and after the murder. The detective cited earlier police reports about Gibson being seen entering “a black van” with two Black men on the night he was killed. But he didn’t mention that the confidential informant who observed this said the men in the van were Richard “Dog” Wallace and George “Lookie” Lewis.
A judge approved the search and arrest warrants against all three suspects, in addition to a wiretap warrant for Griffin, whom Moore claimed he could engage in further conversation about the murder over the phone. The next afternoon all three men were arrested. Allen was taken from his South Shore apartment, Ashley was pulled over in Hyde Park, and Griffin was confronted by police while naked on the toilet in his nephew’s Washington Park apartment. Along with him, police also arrested two women, Velores Brooks and Evon Knox, and recovered two guns (a .32 and a .38), 99 credit cards, 53 personal identification documents, and six driver’s licenses belonging to other people.
It’s difficult to piece together what exactly happened inside Area One headquarters at 51st and Wentworth after these arrests. Chicago police and prosecutors didn’t make video or audio recordings of interrogations in the 1980s. Arrestees frequently weren’t given an opportunity to call a lawyer. Black and Latinx suspects sometimes disappeared in CPD stations for many hours and emerged bruised, bloodied, even electrocuted, having confessed to all manner of crimes.
The statement that would prove to be the linchpin in Allen’s case for the next 35 years was dated the day of his arrest and signed by Pochordo’s partner, Catherine Reardon. Though Allen has never claimed that he was physically mistreated at Area One, he maintains that this police report about what he said was fabricated. In essence, the statement is a confession—not to knowing participation in the murder, but to being there when it happened.
Reardon’s notes on the statement appear on several pages of a CPD “General Progress Report” notepad. Unlike every GPR produced on this case until that point, the space where a supervisor’s signature is supposed to appear is blank. The first four pages are shorthand notes in wide scrawl, but subsequent pages are a highly detailed, typewritten narrative. Here’s the story attributed to “Head”:
Allen said that a few days before Gibson was killed, Griffin approached him and asked if he wanted to split $5,000 in exchange for helping him lure some man out of a building who Griffin would then kill. Allen said he wasn’t interested in being part of a murder, especially not for $2,500. He also asked why the man was being killed, but Griffin refused to tell him more. The next day Griffin approached Allen as he was playing basketball and said that a man named Chris Walton had told him that he’d given Allen a gun to pass on to him. “I told Grif that I didn’t talk to Chris and he didn’t give me any gun,” Allen said.
The night of the murder, Griffin had invited Allen to his home. Charles Ashley phoned and then came over. Allen said he remembered Ashley from before he went to prison and remarked that “it looked like his arthritis was killing his ass.” Allen overheard Ashley asking why it was taking Griffin so long to “kill the two sons of bitches.” Allen said that Ashley was referring to his own brother, who’d assaulted him a few days before that, and “the snitch.” Ashley also wanted to see which gun Griffin would use on “the snitch,” and said the pistol Griffin showed him was too rusty. He gave Griffin $200 in $50 bills and told him to buy a different one. “I want that son of a bitch dead before the morning,” Ashley said, according to Allen.
After that, Allen rode with Griffin to Chris Walton’s place. Walton clarified that he’d given a gun to someone else to pass on to Griffin, not Allen, saying, “This ain’t the Head I’m talking about—I’m talking about Muscle Head.” Darryl Moore was also at Walton’s place, and Allen said he showed Griffin a couple of guns, though he never actually saw any weapons change hands. Griffin and Allen soon went back to Griffin’s house, picked up three of his relatives, and drove them to a game room at 93rd and Stony Island. Allen stayed in the car and Griffin went inside the building with the three relatives. He came out shortly after with only one person, whom he introduced to Allen as Carl. Griffin asked Allen to drive his car and sat in the back seat, which Allen said was “unusual.” Carl rode shotgun. “I knew something was wrong,” Allen said. Griffin told him to drive to 90th and Saginaw to get five pounds of quinine that “Doc” Ciralsky had sold to Ashley. (“He sold quinine and stuff for mixing up dope,” Allen explained to the cops about Ciralsky, whose murder their colleagues at Area One had already been investigating for more than a week.) Then Griffin told Allen to take the Skyway back to their neighborhood.
As Allen drove north on the Skyway and they approached the 73rd Street exit, “three or four loud shots rung out. That’s when I [dis]covered Grif had shot Carl in the back of the head . . . Carl had slumped over, the blood was all over the car.” Allen said he pulled the car over on the exit ramp, his ears ringing. He jumped out and Griffin pointed the gun at him and shouted to get back in the car. Allen said he took off running and didn’t stop until he reached his home about two miles away.
After the murder, Allen said Griffin made several more threats against him and that to protect himself, he recorded an audiotape describing what happened so that he could turn it over to the police. After learning about the tape, Griffin and Ashley approached him several times about buying it from him.
Reardon’s typewritten narrative breaks here. But it’s possible to glean the next part of Allen’s story, because it was summarized in two other documents: a formal, typed Supplementary Report Pochordo and Reardon filed to clear and close the case, and an undated memo Cook County assistant state’s attorney Neil Cohen wrote to his boss Kenneth Wadas. Cohen was a leading prosecutor in “Operation Camelot” and had been working for months to build a case against Ashley. In his memo, Cohen wrote that after Allen was arrested and brought to Area One, Allen actually spoke to him first, one-on-one, then agreed for Pochordo and Reardon to enter the room and repeated “substantially the same statement.” Here’s how the story Allen allegedly told them ends, according to Cohen’s memo:
Sometime in July, Ashley and Griffin cornered Allen and he got into Ashley’s car. During the conversation, Ashley asked Allen to pull a tire iron out from underneath the front passenger seat where he was sitting. The object was actually a gun. As Griffin menaced Allen with a .45 automatic from the back seat, Ashley told Allen to hold the gun like he was going to shoot and to really press his fingers into the metal. With Allen’s prints on the gun, Ashley had him drop it into a ziplock bag. Ashley then waved over a man whom Allen recognized as a CPD detective and gave him the bag with the gun. The detective also looked at Allen’s ID and told him that if the gun was used in a crime he’d be arrested for it. Allen said that on August 3, Griffin called him and said that Ciralsky had been killed. Allen’s prints were “on the gun that did the killing.”
There are many strange things about the form and content of Allen’s statement, which, according to Cohen and the Area One detectives, he gave totally voluntarily, without the presence of a lawyer, and almost without prompting even though he never signed the statement, or wrote anything himself, or agreed to go on the record with a court reporter. Allen had had significant experience with the criminal legal system—indeed his convictions related to the 1969 heist attempt hinged on statements he made to the cops after his arrest without a lawyer present. He’d been part of constitutional lawsuits against the Department of Corrections, was certified as a legal investigator, was presumably as well-versed on his rights as any criminal suspect could be. And yet he apparently spoke openly to law enforcement officials after being arrested for murder and even signed a waiver of his rights about an hour and a half after the interview concluded. Not only did Allen confess to being present during Gibson’s murder, but he also volunteered information that could tie him to the murder of Ciralsky.
Reardon’s handwritten notes on Allen’s story sprawl across the wide-ruled GPR pad in a mess of abbreviations and incomplete sentences. On the last of the handwritten pages, a second, distinct handwriting appears next to Reardon’s. It’s angular and thin and slanted, and captures details of the story as though two people listening only had one piece of paper to take notes on. The pages that follow are typed and remarkable not only for their level of narrative detail, but for their fidelity to speech pattern. Both the handwritten notes and the typed notes start at the beginning of the story—as though the statement was first noted by hand and then retyped. A handwritten sentence such as “Told him it looked like his arthritis was killing him,” becomes “I told Chuck that it looked like his arthritis was killing his ass,” in the typed version. It seems likely that the handwritten notes were taken down as someone was speaking. But the typed ones—unless Reardon had a prodigious ability to recall subjects’ speech patterns or a tendency to embellish on her notes—read like they were transcribed from an audio recording. However, there is no record of Allen ever being recorded at the police station. He told me he never saw a recording device in the interview room (and besides, he said he never made any statement to Pochordo or Reardon).
Michael Pochordo died in 2017. He and several other Area One detectives stand accused in a pending federal lawsuit of manipulating a lineup and coercing a false confession to an arson out of 14-year-old Adam Gray in 1993. Gray was sentenced to life in prison for murder but was exonerated after more than two decades behind bars. I wrote a letter to Catherine Reardon, including a copy of her GPR and asking to talk about how murder investigations were conducted at Area One. She wrote back that she wasn’t comfortable discussing old homicide cases. She later declined an opportunity to respond over the phone. None of the other detectives and sergeants who worked at Area One with Pochordo and Reardon and are still alive returned my phone calls.
I showed the GPR to Bill Dorsch, a retired detective who worked at Area Five in the 1980s and was instrumental in exposing the corruption and abuses of his colleague Reynaldo Guevara.
“All I did was homicides, I don’t recall anyone even having a tape recorder,” Dorsch said. “They’re putting everything from verbal conversation into handwritten notes,” he said, describing detectives’ typical interview procedures. “You use the GPRs to enhance your memory of what you learned. It wouldn’t be unusual to add to the notes, but it’s usually done in the Supplementary Report and not in a typed GPR.” Though Dorsch said it’s possible that a detective might take some “literary license” in depicting how an interviewee speaks, he found it strange that it would extend to information that had nothing to do with the matter at hand—such as remarking on someone’s arthritis.
The lack of a supervisor’s signature on the report also raised red flags, especially given the fact that this was a murder case involving a high-profile target like Ashley and the suspect being interviewed was a paroled “cop killer” arrested on a warrant. “I can’t understand why a sergeant wouldn’t sign” a report that represented a crucial breakthrough in a big investigation “unless the sergeant knew something was wrong and didn’t want to put his name to it,” Dorsch said. He concluded that the handwritten interview notes were likely “enhanced at a later date” with the typewritten pages. “There’s no proof of when the report was written,” he said. “They could have gone back after the handwritten GPRs and decided, ‘We gotta make this better than it is.’”
Steven Drizin, a false confession expert and codirector of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, also found the GPR strange and said it was unusual that it was typed. Drizin confirmed that CPD didn’t make recordings of interviews or interrogations in the 1980s. I also spoke to Andrea Lyon, a distinguished defense attorney with a long track record of acquittals in death penalty cases. Lyon was a public defender through the 1980s and handled many cases out of Area One. She had only the vaguest recollection of Pochordo as a detective with a reputation “for having done a lot of dirt,” but she’d encountered Reardon several times. Lyon recalled that when Area One cases got to court, Reardon would often be the one testifying to confirm that the defendant confessed to the crime and denying that there was any coercion. “Reardon would play this role, like, ‘I was there and I took notes and I know what happened,’” Lyon said. “It kind of got to be a joke in our office, like, ‘Oh Reardon took notes? Then someone confessed.’”
Allen’s story as it appears in Reardon’s GPR, her and Pochordo’s final Supplementary Report, and Cohen’s memo to his boss contains a few noteworthy differences. For example, Chris Walton and the story of a gun and a mix-up between “Head” and “Muscle Head” is missing in the Supplementary Report and Cohen’s memo. Cohen also writes that Allen said he didn’t stop to pick up quinine from 90th and Saginaw. In the cops’ reports Allen doesn’t mention anything about getting on the Skyway southbound and then making a U-turn to go north. While Cohen notes in his memo that Allen signed a waiver of his rights after speaking to him and the detectives, the detectives wrote in their Supplementary Report that Allen signed the waiver before making his statement.
The portion of the story about a gun with Allen’s fingerprints on it being given to a cop and then being used to kill Ciralsky was also noted in a fourth document. After being briefed by Cohen on August 9, the commanding officer at Area One’s violent crime unit wrote a memo to CPD’s Internal Affairs Division asking them to investigate whether some officers might be working with Ashley. Strangely, even though the Area One detectives who’d been working the Ciralsky case had also been part of the task force that arrested Allen, Griffin, and Ashley that day, they didn’t file any reports to indicate a new lead on the case—not one, but two potential suspects. However, records show that Allen’s and Griffin’s fingerprints were run against those collected from the Ciralsky murder scene soon after their arrest: there were no matches.
The three documents that purported to capture Allen’s statements—Reardon’s GPR, Cohen’s memo, and the detectives’ Supplementary Report—were never introduced into evidence at trial. The detectives weren’t called to testify, either. Instead, the state put on their fellow prosecutor, Cohen, who testified about Allen’s statement using his own memo as a memory aid. The report produced by Reardon did make it into the hands of the public defenders representing Allen, but when they asked Cohen about it, he testified that he’d never seen it. His testimony was inconsistent with his own memo on several minor points, but the jury wouldn’t have known that since they never got to see it themselves. They wouldn’t have known that elements of the story that Cohen was attributing to Allen on the stand were more in line with the confession he and the Area One detectives had obtained from Henry Griffin.
Besides Darryl Moore, Henry Griffin was the only other person to implicate Allen in Gibson’s murder. Cohen questioned Griffin in the presence of a court reporter beginning at 11:58 PM, nearly ten hours after his arrest. He didn’t have a lawyer and in the transcript he agrees to waive all of his rights. Griffin’s statement, unlike Allen’s narrative and detail-rich account, is essentially a Q&A, with Cohen asking specific, even leading, questions and Griffin responding mostly with one-word answers. On several points, this version of the story differs from Allen’s.
Griffin confirmed that the hit on Gibson was ordered by Ashley and he did it in exchange for $2,500. He said that Allen was present when Ashley showed up at his apartment on June 20 and asked him to kill Gibson that night. Griffin said they went to Darryl Moore to get a gun. He also said that they were driving a blue rental car, while Allen had said they were in Griffin’s car but never specified its color or make.
Echoing Allen, Griffin said they left Moore’s and picked up three of his relatives and dropped them off at 93rd and Stony Island—where they picked up Gibson. He told Allen to drive, Gibson rode shotgun, and Griffin himself sat in the back. Cohen asked where Allen drove the car to, but Griffin doesn’t say anything about a stop to pick up quinine a few blocks away, instead he answered only: “Skyway.” He said they first got on it at 89th Street, drove south, then made a U-turn at the toll plaza and drove north.
Here’s the weird thing about this U-turn detail, which prosecutors would mention again and again during court proceedings: There is no entrance to the Skyway on 89th. And even if there was, driving south from there and then turning around at the toll plaza would have been impossible, since the toll plaza is at 88th—north of 89th. In Allen’s narrative (as captured by Reardon), there’s no mention of where they got onto the Skyway after picking up quinine, but he does say the pickup location was at 90th and Saginaw. The two streets don’t actually intersect, because of a park and the Skyway overpass cutting through the area, but there is a Skyway entrance ramp just two blocks from there, which would have allowed them to drive northbound, past the toll booths, and on toward the 73rd exit ramp. Even though Allen never mentions a U-turn in Reardon’s notes, Cohen wrote that he did in his memo.
Cohen and Griffin’s exchange about the murder is particularly laborious. Cohen asked what happened as they drove northbound on the Skyway.
Griffin: Carl Gibson was killed.
Cohen: Who killed him?
Griffin: I did.
Cohen: What did you use to kill him?
Griffin: A .38.
Cohen: How did you kill him?
Griffin: Shot him.
Cohen: How many times?
Cohen: How close, in what part of his body did you shoot him?
Griffin: In the head.
Cohen: Where in the head?
Griffin: In the back of the head.
Cohen asked Griffin to demonstrate how close the gun was to the back of Gibson’s head by putting his finger to Cohen’s head. He then asks what happened to the body.
Griffin: It just sat there.
Cohen: Could you see pieces of his head go flying?
Cohen: Was there any blood?
Cohen: Where was the blood coming from?
Griffin: Back of the head.
Griffin didn’t mention his accomplice fleeing after the shooting. He said he pulled Gibson’s body out on the exit ramp and that he and Allen later dumped the rental car “out on 100-something [Street]” and gave the gun to Charles Ashley. Though Cohen wrote in his memo that the court-reported conversation happened after he’d talked to Allen, Cohen didn’t ask Griffin about Allen running away, making a tape about what happened, whether he threatened Allen after the murder, or about cops working with Ashley. He didn’t ask him anything about the quinine they were supposed to pick up for Ashley or the Robert “Doc” Ciralsky murder, either.
Before the interview ended, Cohen asked Griffin how he’d been treated while at Area One. “Nicely, nobody bothered me,” Griffin said. He confirmed that he’d been allowed to drink something and have cigarettes and use the bathroom. He confirmed that no one had beat him or forced him to say anything or made any promises in exchange for his statement, and also that he wasn’t under the influence of any controlled substances. At the end of the transcript, however, Cohen made a handwritten note that Griffin had refused to sign the confession and asked to speak to a lawyer.
Griffin’s confession ultimately resulted in his conviction for Gibson’s murder. Judge Earl Strayhorn, who presided over the trials of all three codefendants, found Griffin’s actions so deplorable that he sentenced him to death. This was remarkable because Strayhorn, one of Cook County’s first Black judges, had been a staunch opponent of the death penalty, and had never sent anyone to death row in his 15 years on the bench. Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Strayhorn said he imposed the death sentence “strictly for punishment . . . I thought it was the only sentence that was warranted under the facts of the case. I never had facts like this before.″
In the late 1990s, Griffin, having lost all of his appeals in the state court system, turned to the federal court to get his conviction overturned. After several high-profile exonerations of innocent men who’d been convicted on the basis of coerced confessions, there was also a massive statewide push by advocates to get Governor George Ryan to commute the sentences of all defendants on Illinois’s death row. Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions represented Griffin in his federal court case and in his clemency petition to the governor. Eighteen years after his arrest, a grim new story about what happened at Area One on August 9, 1984, came to light.
In the clemency petition attorneys laid out Griffin’s background as the victim of severe neglect, abuse, and molestation in his childhood, his history of mental illness, and his hardcore drug addiction. (His original defense lawyer failed to present these mitigating factors before his sentencing.) “Griffin was under the influence of heroin at the time of his arrest,” his attorneys wrote. In fact, on the barely audible wiretap tape with Moore, Griffin’s speech was slurred and disconnected and he became “increasingly incoherent to the point where twice during the recording he lapsed into unconsciousness.”
The lawyers argued that Griffin “was easy prey for the manipulations of the police during interrogations.” At first detectives told him that they were only interested in Ashley and Allen, and that if he confessed to the murder they’d work out a deal. Griffin said “the police wanted Allen as much as they wanted Ashley because Allen had previously killed a police officer.”
One of the women arrested with Griffin, Evon Knox, was his sister. When Griffin refused to make statements against Allen and Ashley, Pochordo threatened that Knox would be charged with the murder. While this was going on, Griffin could hear his sister screaming in another part of the Area One precinct. Like him, Knox had been “in and out of mental institutions” throughout her life, and Griffin feared that she “would not be able to psychologically handle being criminally charged.” Griffin also worried that if she was charged she’d lose custody of her children.
As he was faced with the choice of confessing and implicating two other people in the murder or seeing his sister charged, Griffin was going through heroin withdrawal and needed to use the restroom. The cops wouldn’t allow him to go, even after hours of interrogation, “until he eventually soiled himself,” his lawyers wrote. “Under the influence of drugs, humiliation, and threats to his family Griffin finally succumbed to the pressure and agreed to make a statement.”
According to Griffin’s clemency petition, the leading questions during the court-reported statement went hand in hand with “physical force” doled out by police officers “to make sure he answered correctly.” Whenever Griffin hesitated in his responses, the petition continued, “an officer standing behind him would dig his fingers into Griffin’s neck and shoulders, applying significant pressure that left bruises. When he did not know an answer to a question, the court reporter and other officers would leave the room, and leave him alone with the officer standing behind him, who would proceed to punch him about the body.” After each beating, Pochordo would come back into the interview room “and coach him as to the necessary facts.” After that, the court reporter and others would come back in and the on-the-record statement would resume.
Griffin confessed to the murder, his lawyers wrote, and implicated people who weren’t involved because he “knew that his statement could not be corroborated” and he thought that he would be “vindicated by the evidence.” But, rather than pointing away from him as the likely killer, his confession would only function as evidence of his guilt. Ultimately, Griffin was taken off death row when Governor Ryan commuted everyone’s sentences to life in prison. However, a federal judge declined to overturn his conviction.
Griffin made one last attempt to get a new sentence. During the hearings in 2011 and 2012, he was remorseful about having actually killed Gibson; multiple relatives, friends, and a psychologist testified that he had been admitting he was the shooter for years. Though he’d had a record of violence and violations during his earlier years in prison, the witnesses and prison reports showed that his behavior and outlook had changed. Cook County judge James Linn wasn’t convinced that he deserved another chance and imposed a life sentence again. “I’m not sure that it is in the interest of the rest of our society to have [Griffin] walking around as a free man,” Linn said. “He always seemed to find the wrong people to associate with. I am not sure I have confidence he’s ever going to make good decisions about that.” Griffin continued to appeal Linn’s decision in subsequent years, arguing that the judge should never have been assigned to the case due to his familiarity with the Gibson homicide—a few minutes before Linn announced his decision, Griffin learned that Linn (an assistant state’s attorney in 1984) was captured in one of the Gibson crime scene photos, standing next to the body. But his quest to get free was doomed. After contracting COVID-19 at Dixon Correctional Center last winter, Griffin died in prison on January 14, 2021. He was 73 years old.
Allen and Griffin never testified against one another. Nor was Griffin’s confession used against Allen at his trial. But neither was evidence that Griffin exculpated Allen as early as August 13, 1984. Just three days after their arrest, Griffin signed a statement saying, “On June 21st 1984 I alone, without the knowledge of James Allen shot and killed Carl Gibson.” At trial Allen’s defense attorneys wanted to enter the letter into evidence and argued that it wasn’t hearsay, and was as admissible as Darryl Moore’s testimony. Judge Strayhorn didn’t allow it. Less than three months before his death, in a message to Allen discussing the case, Griffin once again said, “You was set up!”
The Gibson case was classified as cleared and closed on August 12, 1984. The last investigative report, however, was filed by Reardon and Pochordo ten days later. An anonymous tip led the detectives to discover Griffin’s 1980 black International Harvester Scout (a two-door, Jeep-like vehicle) at a repair shop half a mile from the Skyway exit ramp where Gibson’s body had been found. The attendants at the shop told the detectives that the Scout had been there “for quite some time,” and identified a photo of Griffin as the owner. Evidence technicians noted “that the vehicle had been thoroughly washed.” No physical evidence of a murder was discovered in the Scout, nor any evidence linking Gibson or Allen to the vehicle. As for the blue rental car in which Griffin told Cohen he’d killed Gibson and then dumped on “100-something” Street—presumably covered in blood, and perhaps having a bullet lodged in its trim or a bullet hole shattering its glass—it was never recovered. No evidence related to this car would ever be presented at trial.
In the absence of any real evidence the cases against Allen, Griffin, and Ashley (who never gave any statements to police) relied on the stories told by Neil Cohen and the state’s other star witness—31-year-old Darryl Moore. Moore’s credibility, unlike the assistant state’s attorney’s, unraveled quickly when he took the stand on June 25, 1985.
Nearly everything Moore has ever said about himself in court, to the press, and on paper has been contradicted or denied, either by himself or others who know him. But one can get a sense of who he was and what he was up to the previous summer by triangulating between decades of statements and records. A member of the Disciples gang who’d done time for rape and robbery, Moore worked at a drug house on 47th and Indiana. He knew Griffin and Allen, but not very well. He’d known Ashley since he was a kid, because Ashley was lifelong friends with Moore’s father. Moore claimed on the witness stand that he took contracts to beat and kill people from “whomever, you know, wish to hire me to break somebody’s legs or to murder someone. It is for profit.”
Moore’s testimony—often spoken or mumbled so incoherently that he was repeatedly asked to keep his voice up—was riddled with inconsistencies. He was impeached on the stand multiple times throughout the trial. (On one day of testimony, he both admitted to and denied being involved in the 1980 murder of a sex worker.) He denied telling Pochordo many of the details the detective had attributed to him in his warrant affidavit, including that he’d supplied him with information about other homicides. Information about the dates he allegedly met the defendants, what they talked about, who had which weapons, the money offered by Ashley to kill Gibson, and other details were scrambled.
Ashley’s defense attorney, Sam Adam, eventually brought in Moore’s mother and brothers to testify that they wouldn’t believe him under oath. Two of Moore’s brothers testified that he had bragged for several years that “even if he went to jail, he could always get out of jail by telling the big, fat honkie Pochordo any story.” Adam also tried to establish that Moore wanted revenge because he believed Ashley was responsible for the murder of his 14-year-old brother.
Allen’s public defenders also painted Moore as having a vendetta against Allen. One witness testified that Moore had told him that Allen “had embarrassed him or did him some type of wrong,” and that Moore vowed to get even. (There was at least one other potential witness who could have testified that Moore was setting Allen up to take the fall for the Gibson murder, but he was never called.)
In exchange for his trial testimony in this case, the state had dismissed Moore’s pending drug and gun charges and allowed him to plead guilty and get time served for an armed robbery. It would later come to light that the state paid him more than $65,000 in cash, rent, car bills, hotel stays, plane tickets, and even bought him a food truck. He said he lived a “lavish lifestyle” and continued to sell drugs while getting payments and protection from the police department and State’s Attorney’s Office.
Moore began recanting his testimony in the Gibson murder case a year after the trial. In a videotaped conversation with Ashley’s and Griffin’s attorneys, he said he never met with Ashley to discuss a contract hit on Gibson. He said he lied about meetings with Griffin to plan the murder, and about Griffin and Allen admitting to him that they killed Gibson. “I told the lie under oath,” Moore said on the recording. “Mike Pochordo told me basically everything to say.” Moore said the information in the sworn affidavit Pochordo submitted to get a warrant to arrest Ashley, Griffin, and Allen, which cited him as a reliable source, was “totally false.” When the lawyers asked if he knew why Pochordo wanted him to lie, Moore said that the detective “suspected Chuck Ashley of being behind about eight killings and he wanted a big bust.”
Moore also claimed that the prosecutors built their case on lies. He said that at one meeting with Pochordo and several assistant state’s attorneys, Cohen said “he would give anything up in the world to sustain a conviction against Chuck Ashley.” Years later Moore stood by the video recantation during federal court testimony.
Of course, since Moore’s own family members testified that they wouldn’t believe him under oath, there’s reason to doubt anything he said. As a result of this case, his unreliability as a witness—and the state’s willingness to pay him to get convictions—became notorious in Chicago legal circles. “Nothing good can be said of Darryl Moore. He is a hit man, drug pusher, robber, rapist, junkie, parole violator, and perjurer,” a 1987 profile of Moore in Chicago Lawyer magazine began. Moore was also profiled as a “quintessential snitch” in a 2004 Center on Wrongful Convictions report on jailhouse informants’ testimonies being the “leading cause of wrongful convictions” in U.S. death penalty cases. Indeed, according to the report, “the first documented wrongful conviction in the United States involved a snitch” who, in exchange for his own charges being dropped, was placed in a cell with a murder suspect in 1817 Vermont. The snitch testified that his cellmate confessed to killing a man—the man was later found alive. The Center found that recanted and discredited snitch testimony accounted for nearly half of all death row exonerations since the 1970s. “When the criminal justice system offers witnesses incentives to lie, they will.”
In 2002 Moore, Pochordo, and Cohen were called to testify in Griffin’s federal case, during the course of which it was confirmed that the state spent tens of thousands on Moore to be a witness. Moore (who was then incarcerated for the 1987 rape of an 11-year-old girl, which occurred while he was living large on the state’s dime) continued to assert that he lied about everything and that the state knew that. Pochordo, meanwhile, stood by everything he’d written in his reports and warrant affidavit but repeatedly said he didn’t recall any details about the case. He claimed that he didn’t know Moore was being paid thousands by the State’s Attorney’s Office. Cohen also denied knowing anything about the specific payment arrangements his office had with Moore, and said he wasn’t the one responsible for his charges being dropped. He did admit that he knew Moore to be a liar. “Darryl would probably say anything to get more money out of the State’s Attorney’s Office,” Cohen testified.
Remarkably, Moore wasn’t the only jailhouse snitch deployed against Allen. Perhaps fearing that Moore wouldn’t be a solid enough witness on his own, the state also called 62-year-old Sherman Overstreet, who had been part of Ashley’s drug operation and became a police informant. He testified that just two weeks before the trial, while housed in protective custody at the Cook County Jail, Allen talked to him one-on-one about his involvement in the Gibson murder. Allen himself was briefly in the witness quarters because the state offered him a deal to plead guilty and take a six-year sentence, which he says he ultimately turned down because he didn’t want to go along with what he characterized as the “lies” from Cohen’s memo. And he was sure he’d beat the case. Overstreet said Allen told him that he had been the driver, and that “he wore tight gloves, driving gloves, to keep from leaving fingerprints.” He said Allen described driving on the Skyway with Gibson and making a U-turn at the toll booth. When Allen’s attorneys cross-examined Overstreet, he admitted that he had pending charges for selling drugs and that he’d made a deal with prosecutors to get time served in exchange for his testimony.
If Allen was on trial today, it’s likely that neither Moore nor Overstreet’s testimonies would be admissible against him. Since 2018, Illinois law has required pretrial reliability hearings for informants testifying in murder and other high-level felony cases. Prosecutors have to disclose any plans to use trial testimony from jailhouse informants at least 30 days in advance. They also have to disclose what they offered informants for the testimony and any other cases in which the informants were used.
Despite the shakiness of the jailhouse snitches’ testimonies and the total absence of physical evidence tying him to the killing, the jury found James Allen guilty of the murder of Carl Gibson on July 2, 1985. As was typical in the pre-DNA era, it was a case built entirely on stories. These stories, like all stories, hinged largely on the perceived credibility of the storytellers.
Allen didn’t testify at his own trial (neither did Griffin or Ashley). This was likely because his lawyers wanted to prevent the state from grilling him about his prior criminal record and murder conviction. Besides asking the judge to declare a mistrial at least five times during the proceedings, his attorney also filed a motion for a new trial after the verdict and was denied.
The only time that Allen spoke on his own behalf was at the sentencing hearing on August 26. For nearly two hours he tried to convince Judge Strayhorn that he deserved a new trial and that he had not been adequately served by his public defenders. Allen brought up illogical and contradictory elements of Overstreet, Cohen, and Moore’s testimonies. He read a statement from a witness his attorneys hadn’t called to testify about how Moore bragged that he’d get out from under his charges because he’d fed a cop friend information about the Skyway murder that he himself had committed. He expressed dismay that his lawyers hadn’t called other witnesses who were locked up with Moore in August 1984, whom he allegedly told that he was involved in the murder.
Allen said that during a pretrial meeting, one of the prosecutors assigned to this case, Larry Victorson, told him plainly “that had it not been for my prior conviction of a murder of a Chicago police officer that I would not even be tried or charged.” He said that Victorson admitted there was no evidence linking him to the crime except the “alleged statement” he gave to Cohen “which until this date I have not had the official opportunity to refute.” (When the judge asked Victorson for a response he said he had none “except categorically to deny any statement that Allen attributed to me.”)
Allen accused the state of moving him into protective custody right before the trial so that he could be in the same place as Overstreet to make his alleged confession more credible. He said Cohen gave a “totally different account” from Overstreet’s when the two testified about his alleged confessions. “Somebody is lying. Is Mr. Neil Cohen lying or Mr. Overstreet lying?”
Although Allen was represented by Jamie Kunz, a highly regarded public defender, he was unhappy with the quality of the defense. He thought Kunz’s partner, Marianne Burke, was sympathetic to him, but he suspected Kunz believed the account of the murder allegedly collected from “Head” at Area One. In his closing argument, Kunz essentially told the jury that Allen wasn’t guilty because he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. “I have never told anybody that I was ever present in that car at that time of that murder because I was not,” Allen said.
He seemed to regret taking a jury trial rather than a bench trial, but said he was worried that Judge Strayhorn would have a bias against him because he had “served 14 years, two months, 19 days, 11 hours, 39 seconds in prison for the murder of a Chicago police officer.” He was outraged that his parole officer, Curtis Miller, hadn’t been called as a witness to testify and produce documents that he’d been harassed and threatened by police since the day he’d been paroled. Allen claimed that on the day he was released Chicago police officers arrested and held him for 23 hours, running him through four lineups before a witness to a neighborhood shooting said he wasn’t the guy. He said Miller could have testified that this happened to him eight more times in subsequent months, and that no charges against him ever stuck.
The transcript of Allen’s argument about why he deserved a new trial runs for 23 pages. The judge interrupted only once, to make an adjustment to Griffin’s execution date, which he had set earlier that day. After Allen concluded, Strayhorn promptly denied his motion. He then asked Allen if he had anything else to say before his sentence was imposed. Allen broke out into another long, impassioned monologue, which stretches across 21 pages of the transcript.
“I’m ashamed about the criminal justice system,” he began. “I’m ashamed of the vast majority of our men in blue who will not let bygones be bygones. Who have no regard or no meaningful attitude toward rehabilitation and who feel that a police officer’s life is more sacred than that of any other person that you might have residing in the streets of Skid Row.”
He pleaded with the judge not to impose a life sentence. “Life to me . . . is a death sentence in itself,” Allen said. “Surely, I will lose a great deal of things I regard as being invaluable to me. The support of family and friends who might even think I had something to do with this murder, who stayed with me throughout that 14-year period of time that I was in prison. Who believed in me to have been a changed person. I don’t know what it’s going to do [to] them, but I certainly know what it’s going to do for me. I think it would take away my will. I have had a will, your honor, that was stronger than this building. That will was to regain my freedom and prove myself a responsible citizen upon my release back to society . . . I don’t know, your honor, if a life sentence will sustain that will. I don’t know, your honor, if it would make me a better person.”
Allen said that prison hadn’t turned him into someone who would “deliberately take a life without justification.” He said that his greatest wish was for Pochordo to be prosecuted for the “lies, deception and trickery that he did in this case.” He said there could be no justice with people like him working as cops. “He takes the only thing that differentiates this country from the Soviet Union which is justice and liberty and freedom, and makes a mockery out of it for the sake of saying, ‘I got Charles Ashley’ and saying . . . ‘we sent James Allen back to prison.’” Before he concluded, Allen also criticized the media and said that at least one reporter had been there for every day of the trial but had never written anything about the allegations against Pochordo.
No more moved by this speech than by the first, Strayhorn sentenced Allen to life in prison. A few weeks later he gave a life sentence to Charles Ashley, who was already fighting advanced colon cancer and would be dead by December. As Allen was settling back into prison life at Stateville and working on his appeal, he learned that the state wasn’t done with him yet. In early December 1985, Detective Michael Pochordo came down from Chicago for a visit.
Two documented police narratives lead up to Allen’s indictment for the murder of Robert Ciralsky. One is loosely sketched out in a jumble of chicken-scratch General Progress Report field notes signed by Pochordo (though not by a supervisor) and dated between November 1985 and January 1986. The other is a typewritten Supplementary Report that Pochordo filed on February 19, 1986, to clear the homicide. The GPRs present an impressionistic investigative history and appear to have been written in real time as the detective conducted interviews, mostly with Allen, a man named Franklin Freeman from Rockford, and Darryl Moore. These notes would be easy to overlook if they didn’t include details that were later omitted or changed in the neat “Supplementary Report,” which told the following story:
At the end of November 1985, Pochordo, who hadn’t been involved in the investigation, received an anonymous phone call from a Black woman who said that if he wanted to solve the Ciralsky case, he should look closer at the people who killed Carl Gibson. He didn’t report whether he made an effort to talk to Charles Ashley, who was then on his deathbed at Cook County Hospital. Henry Griffin, who was at the Menard penitentiary in southern Illinois, declined to be interviewed. Allen, however, agreed to meet.
Pochordo wrote that he also contacted Moore who said he had “direct knowledge” about the murder. Though the early police investigation had indicated that the shopkeeper had been killed in a botched robbery, Moore revealed that his murder was actually a contract hit ordered by some very powerful people. According to Pochordo, Moore was “extremely concerned” about his and his family’s safety and requested to speak directly to a prosecutor “so as provisions could be made for their safety.” Pochordo wrote that he arranged to meet Moore together with Assistant State’s Attorney Rick Beuke from the gang crimes unit.
Pochordo reported that Moore said that Ciralsky was killed because he’d stopped supplying quinine used to dilute heroin “to several south side dope dealers” and that one of them, Ashley, had asked Moore to start tracking Ciralsky’s whereabouts a few weeks before he had Gibson killed. Moore said he agreed to do this and enlisted Allen to help him. A few days after Gibson was murdered, Moore went to meet Ashley and a much bigger fish.
Willie “Flukey” Stokes belonged to a generation of Black midcentury drug kingpins who ran independent operations in America’s major cities. He was an Al Capone-type character who was notoriously flashy, notoriously wanted by police, and notoriously uncatchable. He flaunted his wealth as the proceeds of a prodigious gambling talent, as he had his own tables in Vegas. When his son was murdered he famously buried him in a Cadillac-shaped coffin, memorialized in a Stevie Ray Vaughan song. Flukey was beloved, the sort of old-time gangster who handed out turkeys on Thanksgiving, gave single mothers money to avoid eviction, sponsored prize fighters and Little League teams, and paid for neighbors’ expenses, even as his workers ran a vast drug and weapons trade in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. He wasn’t a gang leader, though, and wasn’t affiliated with anyone but himself. He’d been on local and federal law enforcement radars for years. Now Pochordo had a narrative that tied him to a murder.
Pochordo wrote that Ashley and Stokes told Moore that Ciralsky had to be killed, and they asked him “to provide some very reliable people to carry out this murder.” Moore recommended Allen and Griffin “due to the fact that they were very successful in the murder of Carl Gibson.” Stokes said the murder needed to look like a robbery “so as not to draw suspicion on himself and other drug dealers,” and asked that a third man be involved in the hit. Moore said he knew a guy—Franklin “Frankie T” Freeman.
According to Pochordo’s report, Moore said that a second meeting took place at Griffin’s apartment with Allen and Freeman. Not only were Stokes and Ashley there, but so were Harry Scott and Prentiss King, two more south-side drug dealers who had a beef with Ciralsky. Though he wasn’t there himself, Moore “later learned” that the squad would be paid a total of $10,000, an ounce of heroin, and an ounce of cocaine for killing Ciralsky. Over the next several weeks, the three hit men tracked Ciralsky’s whereabouts and finally made their move: Allen drove, Griffin pulled the trigger, and Freeman went through Ciralsky’s pockets.
Pochordo and his partner George Rotkvich drove out to Stateville to see Allen on December 9, 1985. Allen was read his Miranda rights and—though he’d just been convicted of a murder he said he didn’t do on the strength of Pochordo’s police work—agreed to talk without a lawyer. Pochordo told him he was accused of being involved in the Ciralsky murder. Pochordo wrote that he “declined to divulge the source,” but told Allen that the source knew that Ciralsky was killed for cutting back on quinine to some “well-known” dealers. Allen allegedly stated that this information “appeared very accurate” but that he needed time to think before speaking further. Pochordo apparently didn’t find it strange that Allen had told him after his arrest for the Gibson murder that Griffin was threatening and intimidating him throughout July 1984, but was now confirming the story that the two had worked together to kill Ciralsky.
The following week, Pochordo, his partner, and Assistant State’s Attorney Beuke went to the Rockford jail to interview Franklin Freeman, who was detained there on unrelated charges. Freeman also agreed to talk without a lawyer. Like Allen, he inquired about the source of Pochordo’s information and said, “‘I just can’t talk about it now because the type of people involved in this aren’t the type of people you can just talk on.’” Pochordo told him to call if he changed his mind.
Sometime in the next day or two, Allen called Pochordo and said he wanted to meet again, but this time with an assistant state’s attorney present. Again, Allen agreed to talk without a lawyer. He told the investigators and Beuke that he’d been approached by “gang leaders” and questioned about his meeting with Pochordo. He asked about immunity from prosecution in exchange for his cooperation, but Beuke told him “that was entirely out of the question.” Allen then “asked to speak to Det. Pochordo alone” and for provisions to be made to protect his family because he was afraid of the people he’d be talking about. Then, with Beuke and an investigator from the prosecutor’s office back in the room, Allen discussed the contract murder. Pochordo notes that his story was “consistent” with the testimony he would later give to the grand jury.
Days before Christmas, Pochordo and Beuke went back to Rockford to speak with Freeman. He again spoke without an attorney. The detectives revealed that they’d had a long conversation with Allen. Freeman then told a story that would be consistent with his grand jury testimony. He repeated that he feared for his and his family’s safety. Freeman said that a $25,000 hit had been put out on Allen inside Stateville penitentiary.
Allen called Pochordo again the day after Christmas, saying he was in danger and wanted to talk as soon as possible. At the meeting Allen told Pochordo and Beuke that “his faction of the gang would not accept the ‘contract’” to kill him, but the Vice Lords had. (This is the first and only record I saw of Allen being affiliated with a gang.) Allen was avoiding the showers and asked to be locked in his cell. A few days after the conversation, Pochordo and Beuke helped relocate him to the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal detention facility in downtown Chicago.
Pochordo wrote in his report that shortly afterward he paid a visit to Prentiss King, one of the four alleged drug dealers who allegedly commissioned the murder of Ciralsky. King said he knew he was a suspect in the investigation because he’d received a letter from Allen “demanding some money for a lawyer.” Pochordo and Beuke spoke with Allen about the letter. He said that, fearing for his life and that of Denise and her son, he wrote the letter to help put the word out to other inmates that he wasn’t cooperating with the cops.
Allen wrote a similar letter to Harry Scott (which, unlike the one to King, I was able to obtain). It greeted him with “Dig Scotty” and continued in a brusque, conversational tone: “For your information both you and I along with Fluky [sic] has been accused of killing Doc,” Allen wrote. He said that he didn’t know about the murder and that since Freeman, a friend of Scott’s, had accused him, Allen wanted $10,000 each from Scott and Stokes. If he didn’t get this money to hire a “decent” attorney, “then jack you are going to go down,” Allen threatened. “I am not going to take the weight for this murder I have been accused of committing. I have been charged [with] a second murder that I did not commit.” Allen said the state had made him an offer to become their witness, and in return he’d “get a break.”
After Allen, Freeman, and Moore’s grand jury testimonies in the first two months of 1986, Allen, Freeman, Griffin, King, Scott, and Willie “Flukey” Stokes were all indicted for the murder of Robert Ciralsky. By then Charles Ashley had died. Moore again escaped charges despite claiming he took part in the plot.
That was the Chicago Police Department’s official story. In his messy notes on the General Progress Reports, though, Pochordo logged several points that he never mentioned in this final report. The first was that, after getting this remarkably detailed story about the murder from Darryl Moore 15 months after it happened, Pochordo went to see Ciralsky’s widow and son with mug shots of the new suspects. Neither could positively identify them as the assailants. Allen’s black-and-white photo “looked like” one of them, but less so when a color image was shown. Pochordo noted that they “can’t be sure, want to forget.”
The second major omission from the detective’s Supplementary Report was that a lie detector test was administered to Franklin Freeman on the same day he had confessed to Pochordo and Beuke. The examiner concluded that Freeman told the truth when he said that he didn’t know Ciralsky would be shot but said Allen and Griffin were at the scene. Freeman was lying, however, when he said he saw Griffin shoot Ciralsky. Lie detector tests, of course, are notoriously unreliable and inadmissible in court. The polygraph examiner told Rockford detectives that Freeman’s responses could have been read as lies due to him being “nervous because he felt he was going to be charged with murder.”
Pochordo also made no mention in the official report that on at least one occasion he visited Freeman at the Rockford jail with Moore, and that the two were left alone to speak for a while. Two additional details about the Ciralsky murder investigation didn’t make it into Pochordo’s General Progress Reports nor his Supplementary Report: Allen, Griffin, and Freeman’s fingerprints didn’t match any of the ones collected from the crime scene; and on the day of his arrest in August 1984, Allen had claimed that a gun with his fingerprints on it, which may have been used to kill Ciralsky, might be in a ziplock bag with a Chicago Police detective who was working with Charles Ashley.
The murder indictment against Willie “Flukey” Stokes was a media spectacle. Richard M. Daley, who then headed the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and was three years away from becoming Chicago’s mayor, held a triumphant press conference about finally catching Stokes and the other “reputed drug kingpins” who were the “largest-volume drug traffickers on the city’s South Side.” Daley presented a narrative that mirrored the story Moore first told Pochordo, painting Ciralsky as a supplier of quinine used to cut pure heroin, and that he was killed in retribution for reducing his sales. Besides the fact that Allen was a convicted cop killer who had an early parole, not much was mentioned about the hired hit crew.
Though Ciralsky’s murder had hardly garnered any media attention back in 1984, now his name and connections to the drug underworld were widely publicized. A few days after Daley announced the charges, the Tribune reported that Ciralsky’s widow, a Black woman living among mostly Jewish neighbors, “discovered a burning cross” in the front yard of the family’s Hyde Park home. But the high-profile indictments proved to be a flash in the pan. The case against Stokes fell apart six months after he put on a show surrendering himself to a Cook County judge. In August 1986, Stokes’s attorneys videotaped Moore recanting his grand jury testimony and shared it with local TV reporters. Allen and Freeman signed affidavits recanting their testimonies, too.
“I’ve been proven innocent,” Stokes, bedazzled in diamond rings and necklaces, told the press when he was cleared. “I’m gonna try to go to Las Vegas and shoot some dice.” Moore, meanwhile, was quoted in the Sun-Times saying he’d intentionally lied to the grand jury in exchange for some $30,000 from CPD and the State’s Attorney’s Office. “I blackmailed the system,” he said. “They put together a case based on lies. They knew the whole case was a lie. I asked them to pay me to keep my mouth shut.”
Daley’s spokesman denied they’d paid Moore that much money and said that despite dropping the charges prosecutors still believed Moore’s testimony. “The story he told rang true and fits the available evidence,” the spokesman told the Sun-Times.
“Richie Daley wanted Flukey big time,” Kevin Bolger, who represented Stokes, told me. Bolger, a former cop and prosecutor who describes himself as a “street guy,” and is still practicing criminal defense, said Daley’s staff convinced him that getting Stokes would help him become mayor. He recalled Pochordo as a “bitter man who I thought was a racist and didn’t like the fact that Flukey had a lot of money and nobody could get him.” It didn’t surprise Bolger that the detective was working with a “scumbag” like Moore because “he fit right in with Pochordo.” What made the state’s story about the Ciralsky murder so absurd was that Stokes just didn’t do business the way they told it. He didn’t use quinine to cut his cocaine and heroin, but opted for the infant laxative Mannitol. And he would never have been at a meeting with three other dealers voting to kill anyone in front of some hit men hired off the street. Flukey handled his beefs privately with a “family” of close confidants, including an enforcer on his payroll who “enjoyed killing people. He would do it for fun.” Indeed, three months after being cleared, Stokes was killed by members of his own “family.”
With the whale out of their net, the state also dropped the cases against King, Scott, and Griffin. Allen and Freeman were the only ones left on the gallows. Prosecutors “wanted somebody’s blood and those guys were the ones whose blood they were gonna get,” said Craig Katz, who represented Allen at trial and now works as a political consultant. The state had Allen and Freeman’s grand jury testimonies to hang them with, despite their multiple recantations.
Just a year before, the most definitive and iconic thing to ever be said of grand juries was published in a New York Daily News interview with Sol Wachtler, chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals. Prosecutors “now have so much influence on grand juries that ‘by and large’ they could get them to ‘indict a ham sandwich,’” he said, arguing that the grand jury system for indictments should be abolished altogether. Unlike regular trial juries, grand juries are composed of citizens who determine whether there’s enough evidence to bring criminal charges against an individual. Grand jury proceedings are always secret, though court reporters make transcripts for prosecutors’ later use. The grand juries only hear what the prosecutors want them to hear. Witnesses testify under oath, but there’s no one there to cross-examine them, eliminate hearsay, tease out inconsistencies, and object to leading questions. Lying to a grand jury is perjury, and prosecutors could also theoretically face charges for knowingly putting on a lying witness, but any actual consequences for doing so are virtually unheard of—their own colleagues would have to hold them accountable.
Freeman had been the first to testify before the grand jury, on January 17, 1986. ASA Beuke (who would later testify that he never produced a single report about his meetings with Moore, Allen, and Freeman in the months prior) led the questioning. Freeman’s story about the plot to kill Ciralsky was substantially similar to Moore’s. But he made several statements that were at odds with existing state records related to the case.
Freeman misidentified the location of Ciralsky’s store twice. He described a Godfather-like scene in which Stokes, Ashley, King, and Scott voted on killing Ciralsky, each of the dealers taking turns saying “hit him.” Freeman testified that on the night of the murder, Allen drove him and Griffin around in a “two-door, powder blue Buick” and stayed in the car as Griffin shot Ciralsky “and I guess it hit him in the head.” The next day Griffin’s girlfriend was sent to Stokes to pick up “a bundle of hundred dollar bills wrapped up in rubber bands” and the drugs the crew had been promised. Freeman testified that two days after the murder he ran into Stokes on the street and was told “that was a good job. You took care of us.” Freeman said that he left for Atlanta the day after that.
Moore testified to the grand jury ten days after Freeman and rehashed the story he told Pochordo months before.
Allen was the last of the three to testify on February 7, 1986. Beuke didn’t ask him anything about the story he told police in 1984 linking himself to the Ciralsky murder weapon. Instead, the story Allen told the grand jury generally mirrored Moore and Freeman’s. He, too, said that they carried out the hit on Doc in a light blue “1981 or 1982 Buick Regal.”
This two-door blue Buick is an especially curious detail. In the earliest police reports from the Ciralsky homicide, witnesses to the killing and its immediate aftermath said they saw the perpetrators get away in a dark-colored sedan. One couple saw two Black individuals idling on the block in what might have been a brown Camaro before they heard gunshots. While Camaros are also two-door models, the bullet-shaped muscle cars bear little resemblance to the boxy, elongated silhouette of the Regal.
Allen testified that on the night of the murder, after following Ciralsky home from the store, he parked the Buick, “maybe a half car length or a car length off 48th and Kimbark.” Allen said he could see Ciralsky’s car parked from where he was. He saw Griffin shoot Ciralsky twice with a revolver and Freeman kneel down to rifle through his pockets.
No one was there to point out to the grand jury that with the foliage at its fullest on that August night, it was highly unlikely that Allen could have seen Ciralsky’s car given its distance from where he claimed to be parked. Allen said the two accomplices rushed back when a third shot rang out, then he described their getaway route: east on 48th “to the block following Kimbark and made a right hand turn, went down 55th Street and from 55th Street I made another right turn.” The grand jurors probably didn’t know that this would have been impossible since the street following Kimbark is Kenwood, and if he’d made a right turn there he would have dead-ended at 49th. After the hit, Allen said, Griffin sawed off the barrel, took off the trigger of the revolver, and “placed it in one of those Crown Royal liquor bottle sacks with drawstrings,” and had it delivered to Stokes.
Allen also testified that after he got paid he ran into Stokes on the street and that the kingpin told him “he appreciated how well the contract had went.”
A few days before his testimony, Allen said he was going to lie to the grand jury. On February 3, 1986, he wrote a letter, which he addressed to the attorneys representing Stokes, Scott, King, and Griffin. He even got it notarized as an affidavit at the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
He wrote that on Pochordo’s first visit to Stateville, the detective told him that Moore and Freeman had incriminated him and those to whom the letter was addressed in the murder of Ciralsky (this contradicted Pochordo’s claim that he didn’t reveal the source of his information). On subsequent visits, Pochordo, along with Beuke, threatened to charge him with Ciralsky’s murder and told him that Moore, Freeman, and Griffin had “confessed.” Allen said he was promised “special considerations” if he cooperated and reminded that, because of his prior murder convictions, “the probabilities were great that I would be sentenced to death if convicted.” He wrote that his fears were “compounded” when he was, without explanation, transferred from Stateville to the MCC, where he was denied access to his personal property, books, writing materials, hygiene items, the commissary, and wasn’t allowed to smoke. He was also kept in solitary confinement for nearly a month (this contradicted Pochordo’s claim that Allen asked to be transferred).
Allen said he agreed to testify because he was “told that all I had to do was simply corroborate the statements” already made by Freeman and Moore. “I have no knowledge [if] what I will say is the truth or not,” he said. Allen wrote that he would tell the truth at a trial in front of a judge and jury: That he never witnessed Stokes, Scott, King, or Ashley discuss a contract hit on Ciralsky, that he had never been hired to kill Ciralsky, and that he didn’t know who killed Ciralsky and why. “This letter is part of my truthful testimony. I know that I will probably be tried for the murder of Ciralsky, a charge that I am innocent of, however I cannot give false trial testimony against Mr. Willie Stokes and any of the above mentioned.”
Allen carbon copied Reverend Jesse Jackson, then at the height of his political career, and Father George Clements, a Black south-side Catholic priest famous for his social justice ministry.
Four days after his testimony, Allen wrote and notarized another letter to the same attorneys, which was later submitted to the court. “I took the witness stand . . . and gave false testimony,” Allen wrote. “Here and now I state that every word of my testimony was false.” Allen then went through every element of the testimony and reasserted that he had lied. He again said that Pochordo and Beuke coerced him into testifying, and added that they showed him statements Moore and Freeman had given. Not only that, Allen claimed that Beuke gave him the transcripts of their grand jury testimonies to prepare. (Beuke would deny this at trial.)
Allen wrote that he testified to save his life and to bring what he believed to be Pochordo and Beuke’s “unethical conduct” to light during an eventual trial. He hoped that the grand jury testimony would give him a chance to be a trial witness so he could finally “tell the truth.” Allen wrote that he knew he was opening himself up to perjury charges, but this didn’t worry him because he felt “a compelling desire to reveal to the media, the public, the court and the judge or jury the blatant and callous miscarriage of justice that was being practiced by the prosecutor and investigating officers.” Allen concluded by writing that Beuke told him that he would prosecute Stokes’s “ass and send him to prison for the rest of his life . . . and if I can I’ll send you to death row.”
Franklin Freeman, too, wrote a letter to Stokes’s legal team recanting his grand jury testimony in March. Several months later, both Allen and Freeman signed sworn affidavits that were presented by their codefendants’ lawyers in court, once again recanting their testimonies. Allen also wrote that Pochordo and Beuke gave him “inducements” in the form of “financial aid to my common-law wife.” Freeman swore that when Pochordo came to see him in Rockford, he was given police reports and images to study. He wrote that Pochordo threatened him, and that “inducements were offered to me in return for my providing false testimony.” These included dismissal of his pending felony charges.
Though Allen, Freeman, and Moore’s recantations were enough to destroy the cases against Stokes, King, Scott, and Griffin, Judge Michael Toomin didn’t allow them into evidence at the trials. Following the rules of evidence, Toomin also barred any mention that the cases of the codefendants had been dropped. Steven Drizin, of Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, explained that “the courts are inherently suspicious of recantation evidence because of who is recanting—they’re either witnesses or snitches,” he said. Judges “are less likely to believe that intimidation by the police and prosecutors is a factor in the original statements,” than they are to believe that people were pressured to recant by defendants and their advocates later. Nevertheless, recantations “are often the bread and butter” that have led to the discovery of wrongful convictions from the pre-DNA era. “We know now that many people are pressured to lie under oath,” he said. “What happens is police officers will pressure a witness to agree to a certain set of facts. The prosecutors take that witness to a grand jury and get them under oath and that makes it even more difficult for that person’s recantation to be believed.”
Sixteen years later, during Griffin’s habeas corpus case in federal court, Freeman testified that Beuke and Pochordo told him that Allen and Moore had gone to the grand jury before him, and that he needed to just go along with the story Beuke would be telling. (He was actually the first of the three to confess under oath to being involved in Ciralsky’s murder.) To prove he couldn’t have been involved, he said that in early July 1984 he and Allen robbed Ashley, King, and Scott, and then he went to Atlanta until September. “How are they going to pay me for a contract when I stuck them all up,” he said. “It don’t make sense.”
When attorneys asked if it was Allen’s idea to stick up Ashley because he hadn’t been paid for the Gibson killing, Freeman said no. “It was my idea to rob Ashley.” Allen, who he’d known from prison, just “knew all of the heavyweights in the city that did the dope.”
Allen maintains that Freeman was lying about all of this and that he wasn’t sticking anyone up while on parole. I couldn’t talk more about it with Freeman because a few years ago, at the age of 67, he died of pancreatic cancer at the same prison as Griffin, where the state incarcerates elderly and sick people. His last conviction was for a robbery attempt at a gas station. His sister said he’d gotten too old and slow to get away. As she described the ups and downs of her brother’s life, the addiction that haunted him, how he loved to dance, she was emphatic that the Ciralsky case was bunk. “Frankie was a stickup artist,” she said. “Killing just wasn’t in his nature.”
“Everyone was lying so I played along with them,” Freeman said in 2002. He testified that soon after the grand jury he had a conversation with DEA agents who were building a federal case against Stokes. “They told me I was lying to my face,” he recalled. “They say that for a person who participated in the crime, I don’t have my lines down tight . . . The street, the getaway, they didn’t believe me.”
Indeed, one of the DEA agents, John Zandy, had testified at trial that after several lengthy conversations with Allen and Freeman, they found that a lot of their information didn’t check out. When I reached Zandy by phone, he didn’t have many recollections about the case. He did remember, however, that Pochordo was “a real p.o.s.” He recalled having a conversation with the detective about his note-taking. “He said, ‘Hey I write stuff when I get around to writing it,’ that sort of thing . . . The feeling that I got was that I wouldn’t want to be dealing with this guy on a regular basis,” Zandy told me. “It seemed like he had an agenda, like he was just interested in getting somebody.” Zandy also said that Ciralsky’s widow, who died in 2009, “handsomely despised Mike Pochordo,” and told the DEA that the detective was harassing her. “She said something to the effect that he would come by their house with a bullhorn and demand she come out to talk to him.”
If Allen had nothing to do with these murders, what was he doing on June 20 and August 1, 1984?
Allen’s public defenders in the Gibson case, Kunz and Burke, never put anyone on the stand who could provide him with an alibi. Worse still, they had to stipulate to a letter Allen wrote a few months before the trial to his friend Lance Bell (aka Santa Bear), a former Black Panther:
"Listen, Bear, I want to use you as a witness in my case to simply say the following. That you called my home at approximately 3:15 a.m. June 21, 1984 . . . We talked for about ten minutes. That's all I need you to say. I'm saying I was home at the reported time of the murder. I have Denise and three other people who's going to testify I was home, so will you do this?"
The defense’s motion that could have listed potential alibi witnesses wasn’t in the case file, likely lost or misplaced during his many failed appeals. Kunz died in 2016, and when I reached Burke by phone in Florida she said she wasn’t interested in talking. “I am paranoid,” she said. “I worked for 30 years with people who were very violent and I’m not interested in being a part of that anymore.”
Though public records indicate that Denise Mims hasn’t died, all e-mails bounced back, phone numbers were disconnected, and her social media presence is nonexistent. No one who seemed like a relative responded to my texts and voicemails, and a letter I mailed was returned. Finally, I went to ring the doorbell at her last known address—a tidy, recently constructed apartment building in Auburn Gresham run by Catholic Charities. Her name was still in the directory, but the property manager told me Mims had moved out more than seven years ago.
When I asked Allen about his letter to Bell and why Mims didn’t take the stand, he said she couldn’t have given truthful testimony about being with him the night of the murder. Nor could anyone else. “The only thing I can say is I was home alone,” Allen told me. He said his lack of alibi should allay more suspicions than it raises. “I was an experienced criminal at a young age,” he said. “Don’t you think that I would be smart enough that if I had participated in a murder I would have planned an alibi just in case I was ever arrested?” He said he had a curfew and his parole officer, Curtis Miller, could have phoned him at any time of night. Miller, who died in 1988, wasn’t called to testify either.
I wondered if maybe his sister could tell me if he was shaking down drug dealers in the summer of 1984, as Freeman and Moore had both testified years apart, or if he was complying with his parole and subsisting with the help of family and friends. After writing her a letter, I received a call from her daughter, who was about eight years old when her uncle was arrested. She cried as she recalled how the gun-toting police officers stormed in, “tore up everything in the apartment, tore up our suitcases.” They were all packed to leave for Mississippi that day. “And while they were doing it I look out the window and I see him walking down the street, I’m looking at my mother and my little brother was crying and I remember [the cops] saying, ‘You need to shut them up or we’re taking them to DCFS.’”
Allen had told me he hadn’t spoken with his sister in years and that he thought she and her family probably believed he was guilty. “It wasn’t anything like that,” his niece said. “She said she knew he didn’t do it.” They lost touch when Allen went to the Tamms supermax. “There was a time we could not communicate with him and after I found out we could, it had been so long since we had that we never reconnected.” She was friendly and warm and said it was weighing on her that they hadn’t been there much for her uncle. “I don’t want him to think that we don’t love him,” she said, breaking into tears. She said her mother likely knew what Allen was up to while on parole and that they’d think about an interview. But after our first conversation she didn’t answer any more of my calls, texts, or e-mails.
Allen didn’t have an alibi in the Ciralsky case, either. While Freeman was faced with the same challenges—being implicated by Moore, having an extensive criminal record, confessing his involvement to the grand jury—his attorneys could prove that he’d been in Atlanta at the time of the murder.
Craig Katz, who represented Allen, told me his defense strategy was “relying on the fact that their evidence was sketchy at best.” Katz has always believed that Allen was innocent. He’s also sure the state withheld exculpatory evidence from him (a constitutional violation that Allen has unsuccessfully claimed in his appeals). Still, he sees the fact that Allen escaped a death sentence as both a miracle and one of his greatest professional accomplishments. “I literally got one person on the jury, one woman, not to vote for the death penalty, it was 11 to one,” Katz recalled.
“If it had been anybody other than James with his baggage I don’t think it would have gone anywhere. There just wasn’t anything [in the state’s case] that was credible,” Katz said. He recalled his client was confident as they prepared to go to trial, convinced that an acquittal in this case would help him get the Gibson murder conviction reversed, too. “He totally believed he’d beat it,” Katz told me. “He believed that the truth would come out and everybody would see that Darryl Moore is a slimebag and the state’s attorneys and the detectives were in cahoots to put this on him and that he’d walk.” Katz paused, the background noise of his car briefly filling the silence on the phone. “He was right. I think that’s the way it probably should have worked out.”
Unlike the public defenders in the Gibson case, Katz decided to put Allen on the stand. He figured since his client was most likely going to death row it wouldn’t hurt. Allen testified to much of what he’d written in his recantations. Not only did he describe how Pochordo and Beuke coerced him, but he also testified that the state paid his family money while they were grooming him to become another snitch against Stokes and the other dealers.
Katz asked why Allen went along with it. “After the initial fear,” he responded, “I began to plot to prove Pochordo to be a liar.” He said that when the detective came to see him at Stateville for the first time, he mentioned that Moore claimed they met in the month before Ciralsky was killed. This contradicted Moore’s testimony during the Gibson trial that he didn’t see Allen for more than a year after Gibson was killed. Allen thought this showed that Moore was lying and that Pochordo was funneling perjurers into court.
It’s unlikely that his careful observations about these subtle inconsistencies made much of an impression on a jury grappling with a sea of admitted lies, recantations, and fluid and changing statements from almost everyone involved in the case. “If you lied [to the grand jury] under oath, why should the jury believe that you’re not lying today?” Katz asked him. “I just hope that they believe me,” Allen replied.
When Assistant State’s Attorney William Gamboney cross-examined Allen, he asked if it would be fair to say “that when you’re in a tight spot, you lie?” Allen said it would not be fair. Gamboney then grilled him on statements he made during a pretrial hearing a year earlier that contradicted what he said on the stand now—about how long he’d known Harry Scott and whether he’d ever seen him in Ciralsky’s store. They were inconsistencies that don’t seem germane to Ciralsky’s murder, but, for Allen, it didn’t look good. It couldn’t have helped that when Gamboney read out the transcript of Allen’s statements from the earlier hearing and asked if he’d made them, Allen repeated: “I don’t recall, I may have.”
By the time the cross-examination concluded, Allen admitted that he wasn’t always a reliable narrator. “I have been deceptive in my life,” he said. “I have been manipulative before.”
As he made his closing arguments, Katz said he’d warned the jury about this. “I told you that I didn’t think Mr. Allen was going to be a particularly sympathetic figure,” he said, noting that everyone who’d testified agreed about Allen being an “intelligent, well spoken, cunning, manipulative individual.” He argued that the reason Allen went along with the state at first was because he was trying to “get something out of it for himself”—better living conditions in prison, money for his family, new evidence to vacate the Gibson murder conviction. He argued that the state knew their case amounted to smoke and mirrors but they were betting that no jury would believe Allen’s version of events. “This guy is the perfect patsy,” Katz said about Allen, calling him a “bit player” in the failed crusade to put Stokes and the other big-time drug dealers behind bars. “Because nobody is going to believe two-time convicted murderer James Allen when he says that he didn’t have anything to do with this.”
Katz then leveled with the jury. “There is nothing I can particularly say that’s going to help you make the decision as to whether or not Mr. Allen was lying when he testified before you,” he said. “They are thinking it over there at the state’s table, that once a liar, always a liar, but let’s remember something: Originally he was going to be their liar.”
The evidence of Allen’s innocence in the Ciralsky case couldn’t get much stronger than another man coming forward as the killer. In 2009, Robert Langford began writing affidavits about how he and a different man named James Allen (who was also known as Kirby) had killed Ciralsky during an armed robbery. Langford is serving a life sentence for killing Kirby and another man. In addition to writing at least five affidavits, he has also given a deposition claiming responsibility for the murder. He is scheduled to testify to it in court on August 23.
In his confessions, Langford described how he and Kirby followed Ciralsky after he closed up his shop. “As Mr. Ciralsky was about to get out of his car my accomplice and I confronted him, and told him he was being robbed and to empty his pockets. He refused to do so. At that time I shot him and proceeded to take money from his pocket, several thousand dollars.” Although the early police reports on the murder noted that the Ciralsky family didn’t think any money had been taken, one of Ciralsky’s pants pockets had been discovered torn open after the attack. In his most recent affidavit, signed in 2018, Langford explained that “Kirby gave up my name to the authorities in connection with the murder of Robert Ciralsky. Afterwards, I shot Kirby, as well as a man named John Goolsby, in Chicago.” He clarified that “the man I know as ‘Head,’ whose name is also James Allen, was not present on the night that Mr. Ciralsky was killed and knew nothing about the armed robbery plan.”
Langford declined my request for an interview through Andrea Lyon, who was his public defender on the double murder case and has continued to keep in touch with him. Lyon even wrote about him in one of her books, describing a man who’d witnessed horrific abuse in his home as a child, culminating in his father cutting open his mother’s stomach in front of the boy’s eyes. Langford ended up with a murder conviction at age 15, for giving another boy a gun and telling him to shoot someone. He did 20 years and was repeatedly raped while improperly incarcerated with adults. He and Allen, who only knew him by his nickname, Vampire, crossed paths in prison in the 70s. He was in and out of prison on gun cases through the 80s, before going down for the murders of Kirby and Goolsby. Lyon witnessed him undergo a remarkable personal transformation in prison as he learned several languages, pursued every educational opportunity, and played a big role in mentoring his nephews into successful adulthood. Lyon wasn’t surprised when she learned he’d stepped forward to take responsibility for a murder he’d never been charged with.
“I’m ready to admit to the crime because I’ve fell in love with an honest woman and she has made an honest man out of me,” Langford wrote in a letter explaining his decision to Allen’s friend Linda in 2010.
Allen believes that if his conviction for the murder of Ciralsky is overturned, he’ll have an easier time proving that the cops and prosecutors lied in the Gibson case, too. Allen has always maintained that Assistant State’s Attorney Neil Cohen asked him after their brief conversation at Area One whether he’d heard the name Langford in connection with the Ciralsky killing—nine days after it happened. Allen believes that because Cohen asked him about Langford, the prosecutor must have known all along that Allen was not involved in the Ciralsky murder. So far, his attempts to introduce Langford’s affidavits as evidence of his innocence in Gibson’s murder have been unsuccessful. In March, Cook County judge Diana Kenworthy denied him permission to file another post-conviction petition. In her order the judge wrote that the issues Allen was raising “are frivolous and patently without merit,” and that Langford’s confessions to killing Ciralsky don’t serve as proof that Cohen, Moore, or Overstreet lied under oath about Allen telling them he was a part of the Gibson murder.
During one of my conversations with Drizin, the false confession expert, he reflected on how Allen’s cases are “an interesting story about the currency of credibility.” The state was perfectly willing to negotiate for information with Darryl Moore to land convictions, and just how much they were willing to pay him and what crimes they were willing to let him get away with was never disclosed to the defense. “The fact that he was paid $66,000 was fine to the State’s Attorney’s Office and fine for CPD,” Drizin said, but “when someone like James Allen is trying to negotiate for information, we look at that as a reason not to believe his testimony.” Criminal trials, he said, “are often not about the truth. They are about credibility.”
It’s not hard to believe that Moore and Overstreet were lying jailhouse snitches, but Allen’s claims that Neil Cohen—now a judge in the Cook County Circuit Court who’s married to Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff—lied under oath, too, are harder to swallow. Aside from not having solid evidence to prove this, Allen is up against a man with a generally clean reputation. I had many conversations with sources who knew the Cook County criminal courts in the 1980s—including public defenders, civil rights lawyers, journalists, and others familiar with the cops and prosecutors who may have, and did, play dirty. It didn’t shock anyone that Area One detectives, including Pochordo, and gang crimes unit prosecutors, including Beuke (who didn’t respond to my multiple attempts to reach him), were being accused of foul play. But the accusation that Cohen made up a defendant’s confession and then committed perjury raised nearly everyone’s eyebrows.
A 1985 Tribune Sunday Magazine profile described Cohen as a straitlaced, ambitious, meticulous, true-believing crusader against drugs working under Kenneth Wadas (now a supervising Circuit Court judge and among the most frequently reversed on appeal). As state’s attorney, Daley appointed Wadas, a Marine who’d served in Vietnam, to lead his hard-charging narcotics unit, and Wadas picked Cohen because he wanted “people working for me who are eager to get these dogs in court and kick their asses.” Cohen confirmed that he was the right man for the job. “I want to win,” he said. “It is my ego on display in that courtroom, and it’s a big one. Sometimes being on trial is better than sex.” Cohen, who was born just a couple of months after Allen and grew up in Evanston, was clear that he hated drug dealers and saw them as a scourge on society. “If a guy makes a mistake and gets caught using, I have some compassion for him. But if he gets caught dealing, fuck him.”
Operation Camelot was developed in Cohen’s first few months working for Wadas. Bringing down Ashley’s $3 million-a-year heroin business was doubtless a pivotal moment in Cohen’s career. But even Lyon, who was in the minority of people I interviewed who considered Cohen’s reputation as an honest and forthright person to be overblown, was surprised to hear him accused of going as far as Allen says he did. “My impression of him was that he wouldn’t do anything outright illegal,” she said. Allen hasn’t been claiming the cops forced him to make a statement and then had him repeat it to a prosecutor the way he says they did in the Ciralsky case. Allen has been claiming—in testimony, court filings, and innumerable interviews—that Cohen fabricated Allen’s statement, then fed it to the cops, and lied about it under oath.
I called Cohen at home and on his cell phone, sent e-mails and messages through the Office of the Chief Judge, and even showed up to his courtroom on the 23rd floor of the Daley Center. Finally, after passing yet another message through one of his law clerks, saying I wanted to discuss Operation Camelot, I got a call back. “The judge did respond and he says to advise you that he has nothing to say to you,” the clerk said with a hint of snark in his voice. He declined to comment a second time through a spokesperson who cited state rules of judicial conduct that prohibit judges from commenting on pending cases. Allen is currently appealing Kenworthy’s latest ruling on the Gibson case.
Testifying in Griffin’s 2002 habeas corpus case, Wadas said the prosecutors knew Allen didn’t shoot Gibson and considered getting him on their side to bolster their case against Ashley, but his “criminal background, it was so horrendous that . . . we didn’t think that it would help us that much, because his credibility would be too bad.” Wadas agreed with Griffin’s lawyers that Moore wasn’t “the most savory witness,” but said “Allen was convicted of a prior murder, Darryl Moore wasn’t.”
Were it not for his credibility being bad, Allen may have had a better shot at beating the case, even with the jailhouse snitches working against him. In the absence of any physical evidence, without any written or court-reported confession, and without any reliable witnesses or an alibi, the jury would have been left to ponder whether or not Allen told Cohen that he was driving a car for a friend who was involved in something shady when a guy he’d just met was unexpectedly shot. It would have been the prosecutor’s word against Allen’s. Maybe they would have still believed the state that Allen wasn’t just an innocent bystander, but maybe, as Allen put it in one of his petitions to the court, “the only thing that would have remained is one big REASONABLE DOUBT.”
What is a reasonable doubt? It’s supposed to mean that if there’s even the slightest suspicion that the defendant didn’t commit the crime, a jury is supposed to find him innocent. It’s what it means to have “the benefit of the doubt.” But on the other side of the conviction, it’s the cops and prosecutors who get to benefit from doubt. Even when they win by cutting corners—lying on affidavits to get warrants, coercing confessions, having witnesses commit perjury—the state gets to move on. The detectives retire with their pensions, the prosecutors start private practices and become judges.
Having hardly had the chance to enjoy the presumption of innocence since he was 17, Allen has to prove the state guilty from behind prison walls. He lost all the appeal arguments about trial judges making the wrong calls. To win now, he has to collect new evidence of his innocence, and prove that it was not something that his lawyers could have discovered at the time of his trial. He then has to convince a judge that this evidence is strong enough to merit a hearing, and go through appeals if she doesn’t think so. And if the hearing is finally granted, as it has been in the Ciralsky case, he has to wait. Langford’s confession brought him to the doorstep of this hearing six years ago. After innumerable delays due to his records being lost, and the reassignment of the case to different judges, and a pandemic that shuttered courts for over a year, a date was finally set for June. On the eve of the hearing, “two days from now” turned into “two months from now” when one of the seven state’s attorneys tasked with reviewing all post-conviction claims in these decades-old cases asked for more time to prepare. There are no speedy trial laws on the other side of a conviction.
If Allen can’t win in an actual courtroom, all he has left is the court of public opinion. The advantage he has with journalists and the public is that since he went away, the Internet and cell phones have made the daily horrors of law enforcement violence and impropriety impossible to ignore. While Cook County’s courtrooms are still populated by many of the same players and attitudes that worked to put him away in the mid-1980s, more of us than ever seem willing to believe a story like his.
At the end of the day credibility isn’t really about facts or truth, it’s about our assessment of the storyteller. We perceive someone we like or have been taught to trust as credible even if he’s telling an absurd story. Credibility is a birthright for some, along with their race, class, and wealth. Credibility can be something cultivated through good social skills and the right people vouching for us, but there’s so much out of our control. Whether the storyteller seems believable also depends on what the listener has already seen and lived.
There’s an old journalist’s chestnut that “it’s the story that matters, not the storyteller.” Usually it’s invoked to justify keeping ourselves out of our articles. The saying, of course, is bullshit because we serve as the gatekeepers to people’s stories. There are no stories without our assessments of their credibility. For every source that doesn’t fulfill our expectations, there are so many others that will. As one reporter who covered the Gibson and Ciralsky trials for the Tribune put it to me, after sharing the generally positive recollections she had of Allen: “It’s always so hard when someone admits that he lied and then you’re just not sure about it and there’s a million other stories to cover.”
Janet Malcolm points out that the nature of the relationship between the nonfiction writer and her subject is fundamentally transactional: Allen wants his story to be written and I want a story to write. This relationship “seems to depend for its life on a kind of fuzziness and murkiness,” she argues. “If everybody put his cards on the table, the game would be over.” I felt that I was putting my cards on the table when I sent him The Journalist and the Murderer, and at first the game did seem to be over. But it wasn’t, because a man trying desperately to get out of a maximum-security prison doesn’t really have the luxury of folding. A few months after he disengaged, I started hearing from Debbie again, then from Linda. When I reached back out to reconnect, Allen called right away. As we caught up, mostly on my endless questions about his cases, I also asked what he’d thought of Malcolm’s book. He said he agreed with her arguments. Perhaps he was sincere, but I also wouldn’t blame him for saying whatever he felt I wanted to hear. Since the 1960s, the journalists who’ve written about him have not shared his race or class background or truly known a life like his. I am no exception. Throughout his life the media has done nothing but amplify the state’s arguments that James Allen is a killer who deserves to be locked up. Even when the state’s stories became comically absurd, journalists went on reporting them with nary a skeptical word about the police and prosecutors. And yet, he was still willing to trust me—to let me turn the horrors and tribulations of his actual life into another story.
Over the years I assessed and reassessed Allen’s credibility, playing armchair psychologist alone and with others. I observed the devotion of the people who know him best, two women with an unshakable faith in his innocence. I nitpicked at things he said that didn’t add up, fact-checked everything I could until I hit dead ends in records and memories. I weighed the likelihood of his claims that so many different people have told lies about him against the likelihood of him lying to me. I could tell you what I think about the guy, if I personally find him credible, but these subjective assessments would probably say more about me than they would about him. They would be laden with the same cognitive biases that got him into his predicament in the first place. I’m in no position to draw conclusions about James Allen, I’m only in a position to not be another publicist for the state’s conclusions about him. Whether or not he is a credible person has nothing to do with whether or not he should have been convicted for the murders of Carl Gibson and Robert Ciralsky.
After all this time I can confidently say that I know his cases, but I still don’t really know James Allen. He’s a 71-year-old Black man from a poor neighborhood who’s spent all but 17 months of the last 52 years behind bars. Over the span of my entire life he’s endured years on end of solitary confinement, survived violent attacks, had to hear about loved ones succumbing to disease and death, never sharing in the grief of their last moments. He’s also missed out on most of the joys, big and small, that amount to what we think of as living—raising a family of his own, holiday meals, the caresses of a pet. His survival depends on speaking, but his only way of getting himself across is through rare and highly supervised visits, one-ounce letters, 2,000-character e-mails, and a few 20-minute phone calls per day when his prison isn’t locked down. Some days he can get more calls than others if he trades Kool-Aid, chips, or a Snickers bar for someone else’s phone time or stays inside while everyone else goes out to the yard. Every bit of these communications is monitored and recorded and can be used against him if he’s ever able to go back before the Prisoner Review Board to ask for his parole to be reinstated or for a gubernatorial pardon.
Through all these intermittent and unreliable moments of “connection,” I observed a charming and polite person swimming against the tide of being a lost cause. He’s boundlessly optimistic about his prospects of getting out. He’s not particularly remorseful about the deaths of the three men he didn’t kill, but is haunted by the fact that he didn’t call his mother on a day she asked him to in 1988, missing his last opportunity to speak to her. Besides that, I only witnessed his upbeat confidence waiver once, as he remembered a fellow Stateville inmate who was executed in the 90s. Recalling a brief conversation in the visiting room, Allen sounded frail and had to clear his throat several times to finish the story. “I’ll never forget his look, and the tears I seen coming out of his eyes when he said the police lied on him and put him to death for a murder that he didn’t commit. That voice is with me every day. Because I know how they lie.” v
This story was produced with support from the Illinois Humanities’ Envisioning Justice initiative, the Logan Nonfiction Program, and the Social Justice News Nexus fellowship at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. Medill students Neena Rouhani and Alison Saldanha contributed reporting to this story.
A note on this week’s cover story
It seems fitting that my last major story for the Reader (at least for now) is one I’ve been working on for about half of my time here. I first wrote about James Allen for the May 24, 2018, issue, but that story, which was about a fifth of the length of this one, barely […]