On November 2, 1983, Darrell Cannon was woken up by the Chicago police banging on his door. He knew the drill. As a longtime gang member, run-ins with the cops were common. He'd already served more than a decade behind bars for a murder conviction.
But that day, something unexpected happened: Darrell says the cops tortured him while they were questioning him. During the torture, Darrell confessed to a crime that landed him back behind bars for 24 years.
This didn't just happen to Darrell. Between the 1970s and the 1990s, more than 100 people—most of them black men—say they were tortured too. The city of Chicago has officially acknowledged that this happened. Earlier this year, the city approved a $5.5 million reparations package to 57 of the people who suffered at the hands of the police.
Planet Money reporter Noel King interviewed Darrell shortly after he picked up his reparations check earlier this year. She shared his story as part of a larger Planet Money episode called "Paying for the Crime." And today, in collaboration with Planet Money, we're sharing more of Darrell's story with you. It's a story about money—and the things that money can't solve.
"I hate 'em," Darrell says. "That ain’t never gonna change."
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DARRELL CANNON: He said, "You gonna tell us what we want to know?" And I looked at him. Said, "I ain’t got nothing to tell you." And he said, "Okay. You gonna talk before the day is over with." And he put the cattle prod back in the bag, and walked back out.
ANNA SALE: This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
…and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale… and this is Darrell Cannon.
DC: Growing up was beautiful. It was much more peaceful back then, you very seldom seen the police. All areas was well mannered. There was no drugs on the streets back then. Those were carefree times.
AS: Darrell grew up on the south side of Chicago. He was born there in 1951. He talked about these early memories with my friend Noel King. She’s a reporter for the podcast Planet Money.
NOEL KING: How far from where we are right now did you grow up?
DC: Uh, few miles. It’s called Woodlawn area. And that’s around 63rd Street. Matter of fact, Lou Rawls had a song out about 63rd St.
NK: Can you tell me how the song went? I don’t know it.
DC: He talked about, "They say this is a big, big city but I live in the poorest part. I know I’m on a dead end street in a city without a heart."
AS: Noel visited Darrell at his home in Chicago earlier this year. She was there to report a story about police torture. And about an attempt by the city of Chicago to make amends for it. Decades ago, the police tortured Darrell while he was being questioned about a crime. Earlier this year, along with 56 other men, Darrell received a financial settlement from the city. He got a check. The city of Chicago called it "reparations." For Noel, that word stood out.
NK: I think about race in America all the time. I’m biracial. My dad was black, my mom was white. And I think of reparations as an attempt to fix things that have gone wrong, with either money or with an acknowledgment that terrible things have happened. But no one ever really expects that reparations are going to be granted. So when the city of Chicago went ahead and used this word, I was astonished. And I went to Chicago to ask these men how they felt about getting the money, how they were going to spend it. And what I learned is, they appreciated getting the money, but it certainly didn't seem to lead to anything like forgiveness. Especially not for someone like Darrell Cannon.
AS: That’s why I wanted to share Darrell’s story with you. It’s about money—and money’s limits—to deal with and heal a gross injustice. Noel first told Darrell’s story in a Planet Money episode. I’ve asked her to share more of Darrell’s story because I think it’s really important. But it's not a simple story. Darrell was a victim of police torture. At the same time, as he told Noel:
DC: I’ve never been an angel.
AS: A warning, this episode includes graphic descriptions of physical torture.
DC: I wanted to be in a gang because of some of my friends—matter of fact, majority of my friends—were in one. And I liked the camaraderie that they had with each other.
NK: As a kid, Darrell Cannon says he was kind of a momma’s boy. His brothers and sisters were all older than him, so after they left the house, it was just him and his mom. He remembers they used to go to church together every Sunday.
AS: But by the time Darrell was a teenager, gangs had started carving up the streets in his neighborhood. He decided to join one. They were called the Blackstone Rangers.
DC: I joined on my own. I wasn’t forced to join a gang or no peer pressure. It was just something I wanted to do and I did it.
NK: How’d your mom feel about that?
DC: She didn't. She didn’t like it at all. In fact, when I got away from the house, I would put my black scarf on my head, which signified I’m a Ranger. But soon as I got near the house, I'd take it off. Because if I didn’t my momma would knock it off.
NK: She would beat you?
DC: Hoo hoo! My momma didn’t play. My momma didn’t play.
AS: But that did not stop Darrell. His involvement in the gang quickly escalated.
DC: The Blackstone Rangers were considered to be the most dangerous, deadliest gang in the city of Chicago. I was considered to be a shooter.
NK: Why were you considered a shooter?
DC: Because I would shoot!
NK: Because you had good aim or because you had a gun?
DC: Oh yes. I was extremely accurate.
AS: When Darrell was 15 years old, he shot and wounded two rival gang members. He went to juvenile detention. And then in 1971, when Darrell was 20, he was convicted of shooting and killing a store owner. He was sent to prison, where he was locked up for more than a decade. Darrell was released on parole in 1983. By then, the Blackstone Rangers had become the El Rukns—a highly organized gang whose members, according to the FBI, were suspected of committing several hundred murders.
NK: When he got out of prison, Darrell moved into an apartment building that the gang owned. And then, on November 2nd, 1983, just before dawn, Darrell woke up to this bang, bang, bang, at the door.
DC: Any time you hear some banging like that, you know it’s got to be police.
NK: And who are you living with at that time?
DC: At that time I had a commonlaw wife named Carla. She and I was living together. She rushed to the door 'cause she knew it was the police too.
NK: And were you scared? Did you say, Carla, don’t go get the door? Or was it better for her to get the door?
DC: That gave me time to hide. And I could hear them telling her to get out the way. They called her a bunch of "b"s, everything else, and they was rushing through the house looking for me and I was hid in the closet.
NK: How did you hide in the closet?
DC: Just hid in the closet and put clothes in front of me. And at first they open the closet door and then he left the door open and he thought I wasn’t in there. And then another one of them happened to move the clothes to the side, and there I was.
AS: The cops were there to arrest Darrell for murder. The body of a drug dealer who’d been shot in the head had been found a week before. Someone in Darrell’s gang had said Darrell was involved.
NK: The detective who found Darrell in the closet pointed his gun at Darrell and told him: lay down on the floor. And Darrell says right at that moment, he wasn’t especially scared, but his cat was.
DC: I had named my cat Killer. Jet black. Killer went up the wall. (Laughs) White folks scared the living daylights out of Killer. Killer was running everywhere.
NK: Darrell laughs remembering this—and that's actually something he did a lot, he laughed remembering his worst memories. But he says at the time, he was furious.
DC: I mean they called me a nigger so much that you would have thought that was my name. Um, I had only seen on TV about the south, the klans, and I still really couldn’t identify with it because it was so far away. But that day, November the 2nd, 1983, they gave me a first-hand crash course of how black people felt in the south. Because these detectives, make no mistakes about it. They were extremely racist. Extremely racist.
NK: Had any white person called you the N word before?
DC: Mmm mm.
NK: That was the first time.
DC: First time.
DC: 1983. First time in my life being called a nigger by a white person. If I hadn’t had the handcuffs on I’d have busted them right in the mouth. I was mad.
AS: The cops took Darrell downstairs and put him in the police car. As they drove him to the police station, Darrell says one of the cops, a detective named Peter Dignan, started hitting him on the knee with a heavy black flashlight.
DC: Peter Dignan started asking me questions about a murder that happened in one of our areas, and because I wouldn’t answer his questions he started beating—"Nigga, what’d I say? You hear me talking to you?" And he started beating me on my knee. And it hurted, beyond a shadow of a doubt.
NK: Were you tempted to—I mean, did you know anything about the crime? Could you have said, I didn’t do it, but I know who did?
DC: If I had known, I wouldn’t have told them.
DC: Because I wasn’t raised like that. You know. That just because they done snatched you for what somebody else did, you gonna quickly tell 'em, no no no, that wasn’t me, it was somebody else. No. No. I wasn’t raised that way. I was raised that if I do know, psh, mum’s the word. If you end up being charged with this, hopefully your lawyer will be able to prove that you had nothing to do with it.
NK: When Darrell got to the police station, he assumed he’d have a chance to call his lawyer. This was the routine. Instead, they took him in handcuffs and sat him in an interview room.
DC: And I was in there I don’t know, maybe 10, 15 minutes maybe before one of 'em came in with a shopping bag. And that was my first time seeing the cattle prod.
NK: How did you know it was a cattle prod? I wouldn’t know what that looks like.
DC: I had seen long cattle prods when I was in Saint Charles. Saint Charles is a penitentiary for kids. And I worked on the farm and I had seen huge ones. I never knew that they made one this small.
NK: What does it look like? It’s about the size of my microphone. Two feet long.
DC: Yeah. And it has two prongs that stick out. And the prongs are the ones that when they touch you with it, it’ll shock you.
AS: Darrell says the cop that came into the room took the cattle prod out of the bag and implied that it would be used on him if he didn’t talk.
NK: Did you think that he was serious right then?
DC: I don’t know. I probably had mixed emotions about whether or not they intended to stick me with that cattle prod or something. And if they did, I said, well this is probably where they’re gonna do it at, if they do it.
AS: But Darrell was wrong. Coming up, what happened after he was put back into a cop car and driven away from the station.
DC: This is not my first experience with police beating on me. They used to take me down to 11th Street and hit me upside the head with a phone book. So I’ve had that before. But nothing to the extent that these sadistic son of a guns did.
AS: We’ve been hearing a lot from you since the results of the election came in last week. It’s been an emotional time.
To me, this election was about who gets to feel like they belong in America in 2016. And the results just flipped the sense of alienation from one side to the other. And so, we decided to ask you what you wish other Americans understood about you…but don’t.
What I want people to understand...
I wish other people understood that...
I want to be able to continue to work hard and pay my taxes.
It doesn't mean I'm that I'm a racist or a bigot.
I'm just feeling so sad today.
It can be really lonely not seeing many people like me succeed.
They don't know that I'm not only legal, but American.
We’re still collecting your responses. Record a voice memo or write an email about the thing you want other Americans to understand about you. Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re going to be featuring some of your responses—and taking your calls live—during a special radio call-in show next Tuesday, November 22 at 8 pm Eastern Time. You can stream it live on WNYC.org. We really hope you’ll join us. We need to keep talking about this together. Watch our Facebook and Twitter feeds for more details.
On the next episode…
My relationship with porn has evolved, but I embrace it.
Pornography...and your relationship to it. Over the last few months, you’ve been sharing how you experience porn—the good, the bad, and everything in between.
I remember so clearly the fluttering, sweaty discomfort I felt.
I had rich relationships with thousands of willing partners. Except that it was all in my imagination.
I don't watch it, I don't care if you do.
AS: This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
NK: And I’m Noel King, reporter for Planet Money. The police officers who arrested Darrell Cannon first took him to a police station on the south side of Chicago. But then, when Darrell didn’t confess, three of the officers put him back in into an unmarked squad car and drove him southeast.
AS: Darrell says the three cops—John Byrne, Peter Dignan and Charles Grunhard—drove Darrell to a deserted place near some railroad tracks.
DC: They got me out the car and one of the first things they said was, nigger, look around. Nobody's going to hear or see nothing we do to you. And when I looked around, there was nothing but isolated area. Now, I started to get concerned. I said uh-oh, this ain’t right at all.
They took a shotgun out the trunk of the car. And that’s when they said, okay, now nigger you going to tell us what we want to hear? I said, man, I ain’t got nothing to tell you. You know. And that’s when Dignan tried to force the shotgun in my mouth. Split my lip, and he chipped my two teeth. And then when they had the barrel in my mouth, they said, okay, nigger you going to tell us what we want to hear? And I'm trying to tell them, I don't know nothin', then one of them said, go ahead, shoot that nigger. That’s when they pulled the trigger. CLICK.
When I heard that trigger click, in my mind, my mind told me that he had just blew the back of my head off, 'cause my hair stood straight up. And at that point, I was beyond fear. Fear wasn’t even an option anymore. To me, I honestly thought I was going to die.
But when that didn’t work, they took me around to the side of the detective car, and they opened the back door of the detective car and made me turn sideways where my feet was outside the detective car. They pulled my pants and my shorts down, and that’s when Sergeant Byrne was standing in front of me with that cattle prod, and Grunhard came around to the back seat and he pulled my hands up and when he did, he jerked my hands, my cuffs, and I lay down in the back seat, and Byrne turned the cattle prod on and stuck it to my testicles. The pain that I felt from that was something I ain't never felt before in my life. And in doing so—I kicked him. And when I kicked him, I knocked the cattle prod out of his hands. And the back part of the cattle prod came open and the batteries came out. And when he reached down to get the batteries I tried to kick him in the face. I just barely missed him. You know, I regret that too, because if I could have kicked his teeth out of something or broke his nose or something, I’d have felt much better.
AS: Darrell says the torture didn’t end there. The cops put the cattle prod back together and kept burning him with it.
DC: I yelled so much that I became hoarse. It seemed like a eternity. But it wasn’t that long. And finally I said, okay, I’ll tell you anything you want to hear. And then they started asking me questions all over again and I said, yeah, yeah, that’s the way it was. That’s the way it was. Because by then, my mind was so messed up.
NK: Darrell confessed. He said he was there when the murder happened. That he didn’t pull the trigger, but that he was an accomplice. And then, before the cops took him back to the police station, they stopped—at a gas station.
DC: At the gas station, they said, you want something to drink? Because my throat was dry and for it to be so cold outside, they thought I wanted coffee. I said, no, no, no; get me a pop. I want something cold. And they took my money that they had took from me and bought me a pop (laughs) with my money. Yeah...
NK: See, I...
DC: And then I bought them something, too. They took my money and spent it on themselves as well. I mean, they...
NK: I - you can - you laugh. You can laugh.
DC: Yeah, because it is so sickening that it's comical.
AS: When Darrell was finally taken back to the police station, he says he was put in a cell. By that time, it was evening. Almost an entire day had passed since he had been taken by the police from his apartment.
DC: And I laid there on that steel bench in that cell, balled up in a knot, and it seemed like my internal system was still burning from that cattle prod. My testicles, and that whole area there, was burning, burning, you know, like it was a fire inside.
NK: Darrell wasn’t given the chance to talk to his lawyer until a couple days later. But when he did, he told him everything about the arrest and the torture.
CANNON: And that’s when he told me, I want you to draw some drawings for me. Where they took you, who did what, everything. I said, man, I can't draw. He said, give me some stick figures. I said, okay. And that's what I did.
NK: But those drawings didn’t help. Not right away, at least. Darrell went to trial. His lawyer told the judge that Darrell’s confession had been tortured out of him. They argued it shouldn’t be used in court. But the judge turned them down.
AS: Darrell’s forced confession—that he knew the murder was going to take place, and was present while it happened—was used as evidence in court. And because of that, Darrell was found guilty of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
NK: What is going through your head at this point?
DC: I’m gonna fight this, and sooner or later I’m gonna prove my innocence.
NK: You didn’t get down, you didn’t think—
DC: Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Because I understood that if I stopped fighting, my life is over.
NK: So Darrell didn’t let it go. Early on, he submitted a handwritten complaint to the city of Chicago. It detailed what he'd been through. The city gave him a small settlement—3000 dollars—but didn’t admit to any wrongdoing. And the money didn’t mean anything for Darrell's sentence. He was gonna stay locked up.
AS: Meanwhile, other stories of police torture in Chicago started to emerge.
MICHAEL TILLMAN: They put a gun to my head, they put a plastic bag over my head.
RONALD KITCHEN: "We have ways of making niggers talk."
ANTHONY HOLMES: I could feel the vibration coming in, the electricity coming through my body.
RONALD KITCHEN: And he gets that nightstick, and he put that nightstick between my legs.
MADISON HOBLEY: And finally they decided to put a plastic typewriter cover over my head.
MICHAEL TILLMAN: I felt like I was gonna die.
AS: While looking into these claims, an investigator with the Chicago Police’s Office of Professional Standards re-opened Darrell’s case.
DC: And she went on the southeast side of Chicago and kept driving around, driving around, looking at my drawings and she found the torture site. And when she found it, she called forensic. And had them come out and take pictures. Pictures were exactly like I drew.
AS: It took years for Darrell’s case to work its way back through the system. In 2007, after one of many new hearings, Darrell was released from prison. 24 years after he’d gone in.
DC: I often tell people that God has brought me through a hell of a battle. That I’ve had to deal with the death of all of my family members. I lost my mother, my father, my grandmother, my son, my brother—I lost all of them at separate times to the death angel. And the pain—the pain of that and the anger of that never goes away.
AS: More than 100 men—most of them black—have come forward with stories similar to Darrell’s. City investigators have found that between the 1970s and 1990s, there was systematic torture by police working under a commander named John Burge. In 2010, Burge was sent to prison for lying about the torture. He was released last year. The three cops who Darrell says tortured him—they were never punished. The statute of limitations ran out. One of them, Charles Grunhard, has died. Peter Dignan and John Byrne have denied Darrell's account to other reporters. Neither responded to Noel's request for comment.
NK: Last year, the city of Chicago approved 5.5 million dollars in reparations for 57 of the men who’d been tortured—including Darrell Cannon. The reparations package also includes psychological counseling, job train ing, and free tuition at Chicago's city colleges for victims and for their families. And, one last thing: the public schools in Chicago are gonna teach students in the 8th to 10th grades about the torture.
AS: Darrell got his reparations check from the city in January for 97 thousand dollars. The checks were going to be mailed out, but Darrell wasn’t taking any chances.
DC: I went and got it.
DC: Because I don’t trust the system! I don’t want you talking about we sent it, you haven’t gotten it yet. You know? I went in and said, my name is Darrell Cannon and I’m here to pick up my money. And they in turn said, may I see your ID? They already knew what money I was talking about, I didn’t have to say “torture money.” And they took that, said, okay, we’ll be right back. And the man gave me my check.
NK: What did you do with it right then and there?
DC: Put it in my coat pocket. And we left, I went to the bank, put mine in the bank.
NK: Put it in savings or checking?
NK: Darrell has spent a lot of the money. He bought a car for himself, and one for his wife. He sent his daughters some money.
AS: And when his brother died earlier this year, he bought him a nice plot on a hill. Darrell says that’s so he can look down on people. Darrell bought his wife a ring, too.
DC: We was passing by the diamond place, and I said, which one of them look kinda nice to you? She said, "Oh I like that set there, 'cause that’s a double set." I said pardon me, I’d like to have that set there. And her knees got weak. “Are you cry-” I’m not playin', babe. Give it to her. And it was 1000 dollars. And I paid cash for it.
NK: Was that a good feeling?
DC: Oh yes ma’am. Yes ma’am. You know, I’ve never shied away in saying that the money didn’t help. It did help. But it’s not a ruling factor. The jobs, the curriculum, all those things are even more significant because those are things that are ongoing. The money, the 97 thousand is no longer 97 thousand.
NK: How much is it now?
DC: Probably about maybe a little over 9 grand.
NK: Little over 9 grand.
DC: Yeah. But at least I can go to work every day in a car now that I don’t have to worry about smoking or breaking down.
NK: Your old car was not -
DC: Oh lord. The money has allowed me to continue the things that I need to continue.
NK: But Darrell also says the money can’t change what happened to him. It can't give him back the 24 years he lost. And it doesn’t change the way he feels about the officers who tortured him.
DC: You know, my lawyers don't like for me to say what I'm getting ready to say, but I still say it anyway. And that is I cannot stand the air that they breathe. I hate them just that much. I would love to use a cattle prod on any one of them.
NK: You wouldn't.
DC: Yes, I would. You know, I know it's wrong to say.
NK: Would you?
CANNON: Yes, yes, yes, because it was so, so cruel that I would want them to experience what I felt. And I would shock them until one of two things happened: they had a heart attack or the batteries died. I ain't lying. I ain't lying. If it took all day, I'd (imitating cattle prod). And I would just continuously do it. You know, some people may wanna hear it, some people may not wanna hear it. But I’m gonna tell you the truth. That’s why I tell all clergymens, when they say, "Son, don’t hate like that," you know, "Let your life go on, let God handle it." And I’ll tell a clergymen quick, I respect what you’re saying. God gonna do what he does. Darrell Cannon gonna do what he does. I hate 'em. That ain’t gonna change.
AS: That’s Darrell Cannon. He lives on Chicago's south side.
NK: When he got out of prison, Darrell went to work for Ceasefire. That's an organization that teaches gang members alternatives to violence. He still does some of that work today. A website about the torture victims’ cases will be online early next year. It’s called the Chicago Torture Archive.
AS: Thank you to reporter Noel King and NPR's Planet Money podcast for sharing this story with us. You can find Planet Money on iTunes or anywhere that you get your podcasts. Check out their episodes. One that I really liked from earlier this summer was one Noel reported about a Baltimore neighborhood and how hard it's been for them to get one abandoned building torn down.
Death Sex and Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m based at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Emeryville, California. The team includes Katie Bishop, Chester Jesus Soria, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Our interns are Ali L’Esperance and Rich Renelique.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney. And keep sending us your responses to this election at email@example.com.
NK: Darrell walked me around his house, and he showed me some of the things he’s bought with the reparations money. There was a fancy bed for his little dog, he had a new phone, and he showed me one of the cars he bought.
NK: What color is that, that’s gold?
DC: I like to call it champagne.
DC: Yes ma’am.
NK: I like that.
DC: Very eloquent and nice.
NK: That phone is champagne too, isn’t it?
NK: You like the color!
DC: Well, it suits—the car and the phone—and I like to be kind of color coordinated.
NK: Suits the man too.
DC: What can I say? Only in America. (Laughs)
AS: I’m Anna Sale…
DC: ...and Noel King, reporter for Planet Money.
AS: And this is Death, Sex & Money, from WNYC.