Exonerated in 2009 of a crime he did not commit, Ronald Kitchen, now 45, is finally experiencing life.
But with nearly half of his life spent behind bars, blending back into society has not been without its challenges. Finding a job, reconnecting with his two adult sons and changing his tainted image have all proved difficult. But the biggest challenge he faces is simply learning to live again.
In 1988, after being tortured and coerced into a false confession by detectives serving under former police Cmdr. Jon Burge, Kitchen was convicted for taking part in the murders of two women and three children. Kitchen spent 21 years in prison, 13 of those years on death row.
Now newly engaged, estranged from several family members and living in Philadelphia, Kitchen is attempting to rebuild his life, and regain some of the normalcy he had prior to his arrest. He received no compensation for his time in prison, he said, but has a job now with a cleaning company.
“It’s still very much new and scary,” Kitchen said. “Sometimes I have to look around and take a breath because I’m still in the process of taking everything in. I’ve been gone a long time and this is all new to me – it’s hard to describe.”
In January of this year, Burge was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for perjury and obstruction of justice in relation to a civil suit filed by one of his victims. Madison Hobley, a former death row inmate who was wrongfully convicted for the 1987 arson murders of seven people, including his wife and children, filed the suit. According to Kitchen and several other victims who were present at Burge’s sentencing, 4 1/2 years is hardly enough.
Last year Kitchen filed a civil lawsuit for unspecified damages against the people he claimed helped to wrongfully convict him, including Mayor Daley (who was Cook County state’s attorney during that period) and Burge. While incarcerated, Kitchen’s relationship with his former wife deteriorated. His brother, nephew and grandmother passed away; and his mother was diagnosed with dementia.
“There’s no amount of money, the smallest or the biggest amount, that can help me get back those 21 years,” he said. “It’s about the principle. If they can’t suffer by going to jail and experiencing what they gave me, then it’s about the principle now.”
While never proven in court, Kitchen, an African-American, believes race played a large part in his sentencing. His wrongful conviction is simply another example of the racial disparities that exist within the Illinois legal system, said Christine Martin, a professor of criminology, law and justice at the University of Chicago.
In 2003, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 inmates and placed a moratorium on Illinois’ death penalty, in part due to the alleged torture conducted by Burge and his officers. Since 1925, 298 men and women have been sentenced to death in Illinois, according to the Bluhm Legal Clinic at the Northwestern University School of Law. Of that number, 20 were exonerated and 14 of those wrongfully convicted were African-American.
“The disproportionate numbers of black men wrongfully accused merely illustrate the trend in how blacks have been mistreated all along,” Martin said.
Despite his troubled relationships and lingering anger, Kitchen said he is determined to prove naysayers wrong and live his life to the fullest. The day he left prison, he said, some guards made a bet that he would be back.
“I just want to prove society wrong,” he said. “I am not the monster. I have never been a monster. There’s nothing in this world-if I have anything to do with it-that’s going put me back in that place.”