Final Words: Reflections of a Forensic Pathologist



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The Orange Crush. It sounds like an athletic team or a sparkling refreshment. Certainly not an elite division of prison guards. Not the name of an organized effort to control the incarcerated. Yet, that is what has been identified in a class action suit filed by inmates against the Illinois Department of Corrections. In an article from the Chicago Defender in 2016, I recognized the name of the leading plaintiff, Demetrius Ross.

Along with his brother, Eugene, and cousin, Ishmael Spraggins, he was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated kidnapping. He is serving 60 years for these crimes committed 23 years ago. The Illinois River Correctional Facility where he resides is known to be tough. He is not the first to allege mistreatment at the hands of his captors. This abuse is different from the usual rough handling by an individual guard. It is more systematic and involves torture.

The court-filed document likens the situation to Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s forces. Prisoners were made to stand for hours while epithets were yelled. They marched in line with their genitals touching the buttocks of the man in front of them. Handcuffs were severely tightened.

The pain and humiliation Mr. Ross is alleging makes a mockery of the sadistic crime he and his relatives perpetrated when I was Coroner’s Physician in central Illinois.

The three cousins were from Chicago, dealing heroin in a drug-running gang. They were all young, under 25; Eugene was only 17-years old at the time. The murder took place in Rock Island, Illinois, three hours away, a straight shot west on route 88. The town is one of the quad cities, on the border with Iowa, and was hard hit by closures of large industries in the 1980s.

They had kidnapped the victim, a 35-year old man, about my age at the time. From there? To there? I don’t remember. But I will never forget his name — Hector Muriel.

There was no obituary for him, but news articles were plentiful. It saddened me that the headlines were all about the killers. The victim’s name was mentioned infrequently, surfacing in the second or third paragraphs of the stories. Where was he from — El Salvador, Mexico? Did he have any family in the U.S.? Was someone waiting for him to return home on that cold Friday night of December 9, 1994?

I remember Hector clearly. And his wounds. The pain must have been unbearable. Blood obscured his facial features. His eyes were the color of chocolate. I couldn’t see them until removing the blindfold, a ratty piece of fabric. He was gagged, too. Duct tape was used to bind his wrists and ankles and hog-tie him, a position that pulled his limbs awkwardly behind his back to a single point. His petite form, wrapped in a blanket, fitted easily into the trunk of the automobile in which he was found.

Hot metal had branded his arms leaving seared flesh. A fingernail was ripped from his thumb, which was also broken. Stun-gun marks dotted his limbs and trunk. Lines of dried blood on the face and arms demarcated cuts from a knife. The weapon had been thrust deeper into the back. Bruises and welts covered his torso. All of these injuries were inflicted while he was alive.

The infraction that Hector purportedly committed was stealing $500 worth of heroin from the men the day before. Did they ask about money with each blow of their fists? What did Hector tell them before they stuffed the cloth in his mouth? Did he plead for his life, beg for mercy? Was he trying to make a big score or just in the wrong place at the wrong time?

When did they use the knife, before or after, the taser? Was the location of the drugs the answer they sought as they burned his skin? What did they use to pull the nail off his finger — pliers, forceps? Did they take turns or go at him all at once? Was each form of torture a signature specialty for each of the men?

They finally shot him — three times in the head and twice in the body, at close range. Maybe the hormones squeezed from their adrenal glands had dissipated. Or Hector had passed out, and with his unconsciousness the heady amusement of dominance, gone.

It is wrong for those in power to physically or psychologically abuse those reliant upon them. The Orange Crush should not be treating prisoners this way. My profession has taught me that violence is never the answer. It perpetuates a hopeless cycle. Yet what Demetrius allegedly suffered in jail pales in my mind with the horror he, his brother, and his cousin inflicted so many years ago. They want humane treatment, and justice, things that they denied Hector Muriel.

I remember each wound. I can never forget.

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