Reasonable doubt | Chicago Reader

Table of Contents Related Story A note on this week’s cover storyRelated 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 […]

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.”

Jacquelin Burkhammer

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