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Marcellous Pittman

Other Exonerations with False Confessions from Cook County, Illinois
At 5:45 p.m. on October 31, 2001, police in Chicago, Illinois, responded to a report of a gang disturbance on the city’s south side. During the response, Officer Patrick Doyle was shot in the chest, but his protective gear prevented any serious injury.

The next day, 18-year-old Marcellous Pittman saw a television report that said he was wanted for questioning by the police. Accompanied by his grandmother, Pittman went to the police station at 51st Street and Wentworth Avenue at about 1:15 p.m. and asked to speak with an officer he knew. The officer handcuffed Pittman and then questioned him for about an hour. Another officer arrived, and he questioned Pittman about his ties to local gangs. A short while later, officers took Pittman upstairs and turned him over to Detectives John Halloran and James O’Brien.

At 1:38 a.m., more than 12 hours after he came to the station, Pittman gave a videotaped statement to an assistant state’s attorney. She asked Pittman whether he retrieved a gun from a hiding place in the park and fired three times at an opposing gang member, Vashon Prince, missing him but hitting Doyle instead. Pittman said yes. Later, he said, “When I started to pick up the gun, that’s when the member of the Calumet ran toward me. And when they ran toward, I walked like a little bit towards 51st Street. That’s when I got to firing. Then I walked back – I ran towards the fence and I just threw the gun and I ran.”

At the end of the interview, the prosecutor asked Pittman whether he had been treated well while in custody. Pittman said yes and that he had been given food and allowed restroom breaks.

Pittman was charged with two counts of attempted first-degree murder and one count of aggravated battery.

Police recovered the weapon used in the shooting and found a fingerprint on the gun. It was not consistent with Pittman’s prints.

On June 19, 2002, Pittman wrote his attorney a letter, asking for copies of his case and the evidence against him. He also wrote: “I have something to tell you that happen[ed] at 51st [&] Wentworth police station that I was scare[d] to tell somebody. The reason why I held it in so long, I didn’t want anything to happen to my family.” Pittman didn’t elaborate. The lawyer stopped representing Pittman the next month, returning the retainer, because his family could not afford the expense, and a series of public defenders began representing Pittman.

His first public defender filed a motion on April 2, 2003 to suppress Pittman’s statement. The motion said that Pittman had not been read his rights and that the statements “were obtained as a result of physical coercion” and “psychological and mental coercion.”

This public defender was reassigned a few months later. The second public defender said he would continue pursuing the motion to suppress. On July 14, 2004, a third public defender took over Pittman’s case. She told the court a month later that she was withdrawing the motion. Pittman would later say this attorney told him that she did so because she thought the motion was unlikely to succeed.

Pittman’s jury trial in Cook County Circuit Court began on August 24, 2005. Doyle testified about the shooting but could not identify who shot him. Prince also testified but could not make an identification.

A witness named Eric Plunkett testified for the state. He had given a statement to police on November 1, 2001 stating that Pittman said he was going to get a gun after the fighting between the two gangs started. But at trial Plunkett said Pittman didn’t say that and that he couldn’t see who was shooting. He also said that his statement against Pittman, whom he knew, had not been entirely truthful. “Some of it was coerced by the investigator,” Plunkett said, referring to Halloran and O’Brien, the detectives who interviewed him.

Halloran testified that Pittman confessed quickly, right after he and O’Brien entered the interrogation room. Pittman’s attorney did not conduct an extensive cross-examination and did not ask Halloran the reason for the lengthy delay between the confession and the videotaped statement.

Pittman did not testify, and his attorney presented no evidence after the state rested. On August 26, 2005, the jury convicted Pittman on the three charges. He later received a sentence of 80 years in prison.

In 2008, after his initial appeal, Pittman’s conviction for aggravated battery was vacated, and his sentence was reduced to 30 years.

In 2009, the Illinois General Assembly created the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission to investigate claims of torture by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge or officers under his supervision. Both Halloran and O’Brien were part of that group.

In March 2013, Pittman filed a pro se petition for relief claiming actual innocence. He said that Halloran and O’Brien beat him while he was in custody, coercing him into making a false confession. He also said that his attorney had provided ineffective representation because, over his objections, she had withdrawn the motion to suppress. A judge in Cook County Circuit Court dismissed the petition as frivolous, and Pittman appealed.

The Illinois Court of Appeals for the First Judicial District reversed the dismissal in 2015 and sent the case back to Cook County for a hearing on the merits of Pittman’s motion, which the judges said was not frivolous.

“Defendant has consistently claimed that his confession was the product of physical coercion perpetrated by Detectives O'Brien and Halloran,” the court wrote. “His claims of abuse are strikingly similar to other claims of abuse involving officers supervised by former Commander Jon Burge.”

In addition, the court wrote that O’Brien and Halloran had been identified in other allegations of torture before the commission or in court proceedings.

Prior to the appellate court ruling on his case, Pittman filed a complaint in 2014 with the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission that also claimed his confession was the result of physical abuse by Halloran and O’Brien. While in custody, Pittman said, the officers stripped him down to his underwear and handcuffed him with his hands behind his back. “I was punched in the body area, slapped in the head, and choked to the point where I was going to faint,” he said. Finally, Pittman said, he “agreed to do anything they want.”

During the hearings on his complaint, Pittman testified about the abuse he said he suffered at the hands of the officers. Pittman had not raised the issue of torture in his first appeal. He told the hearing officers that his appellate attorney had said it wasn’t a viable appeal strategy because the motion to suppress had been withdrawn and never addressed at trial.

On November 14, 2018, the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission ruled in Pittman’s favor, sending his case to the Cook County court for more hearings.

The commission said it found no definitive proof of torture, in part because of missing records from the public defenders, but that Pittman’s initial allegations of abuse – made in his motion to suppress, needed to be explored. “Combined with substantial pattern and practice evidence against the detectives in this case, on balance, this constitutes sufficient credible evidence of torture meriting judicial review.”

Prior to a judge in Cook County hearing the case, Gov. J.B. Pritzker commuted Pittman’s sentence to time served on December 4, 2020. Pittman was released from prison four days later. Earlier in 2020, Pittman’s attorneys with the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School had petitioned Pritzker to release Pittman, noting that Pittman was a model inmate who had completed two-thirds of his sentence and was likely innocent. The petition also said that Pittman had a congenital heart disease that placed him at high risk for serious illness if he contracted COVID-19.

Beginning in November 2021, Judge Alfredo Maldonado of Cook County Circuit Court held five days of hearings on Pittman’s claim of torture. Many of the witnesses had also appeared before the commission, but Halloran and O’Brien also testified, each denying that they abused Pittman or any other suspects during their careers. They also said that Pittman confessed quickly and voluntarily to the shooting.

At the hearing, Pittman’s attorneys presented evidence from more than 30 cases where defendants said Halloran and O’Brien abused them. Pittman also testified in greater detail about the abuse he received from the officers. He said that he told the officers about his heart defect, and one of them told Pittman that he would die in the interrogation room if he kept lying. He said the officers also made threats against his grandmother.

Judge Maldonado vacated Pittman’s conviction on June 17, 2022. He wrote that Pittman presented credible evidence that he had been tortured. The denials by the officers seemed at odds with the established timeline of events after Pittman went to the police station on November 1, 2001.

If Pittman confessed quickly, why did an assistant state’s attorney wait 12 hours to take his statement, Judge Maldonado wondered. “Looking at all the evidence presented, this court does not believe that Pittman quickly confessed and that he sat quietly in police custody for hours awaiting an interview,” Judge Maldonado wrote. “Such a contention flies in the face of logic and reasonableness.”

The ruling did more than simply grant Pittman a new trial. It also suppressed the use of Pittman’s videotaped statement in any new trial.

Judge Maldonado granted the state’s motion to dismiss the case on October 12, 2022.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 10/26/2022
Last Updated: 10/26/2022
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault
Reported Crime Date:2001
Sentence:80 years
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No