CHICAGO – Friends and relatives of community activist May Molina Ortiz are demanding that the U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois, Patrick Fitzgerald, carry out a special investigation of her death in police custody May 25.

The wheelchair-bound Molina, 55, who had asthma, diabetes and other health problems, was a frequent participant at demonstrations against police brutality and abuses of the criminal justice system. She worked with Families of the Wrongfully Convicted and Comite Exijimos Justicia (the “We Demand Justice Committee”), which have for several years accused the Chicago police, particularly the homicide squad detectives at the Grand and Central police station on Chicago’s northwest side, of framing Latino and other young people. Molina was dedicated to this cause partly because her own son, Salvador Ortiz, is serving a 47-year sentence for a murder she and the committee said he did not commit.

On May 24 the police invaded Molina’s house, allegedly to search for drugs. They claim they found some heroin, and took Molina and her second son, Michael Ortiz, to the lockup at Belmont and Western avenues, also on the northwest side. While she was there, her relatives came to the police station to ask the police to provide her with the medication she needed. Her attorney also visited her and, seeing that she looked unwell, asked the police to take her to the hospital.

The medication was never provided, nor was Molina taken to a hospital, and she evidently went into a coma and died sometime during the night of the 25th.

Anguished relatives and furious friends and colleagues of Molina carried out several demonstrations, including one at the Police Board’s monthly meeting, demanding to know why she was denied medication and why she was not taken to the prisoner section of Cermak Hospital. The police have claimed, via leaked information, that she had ingested bags of heroin and that they did not give her the medication because she was a grown woman “of sound mind” and did not ask for it. This version was met with incredulity by Molina’s supporters.

The context of the incident makes Molina’s supporters even more unwilling to accept the police version. Chicago is in the throes of a never-ending struggle over police accountability. During the 1980s and early ’90s, commander Jon Burge and his colleagues at another police station, on the south side, are known to have tortured dozens of prisoners into giving false confessions, in some cases landing themselves on death row.

Though the police eventually fired Burge, he was never prosecuted for these abuses, and many of the police and prosecutors who were complicit with Burge are still on the payroll of the Chicago Police Department or the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office (though one of the worst is now a judge).

The scandal of police and prosecutorial abuses and frame-ups (involving manufactured evidence and concealment of exculpatory evidence as well as torture), eventually led former Gov. George Ryan to commute the sentences of everybody on death row in Illinois, and to free five of the victims of Burge’s torture shop. After years of protests, a special prosecutor is now looking into the Burge case.

One pardoned victim of Burge’s torture, Aaron Patterson, has joined in the demonstrations for justice for May Molina, and was among those recently arrested in a protest over her death.

Protesters reject the idea of leaving the investigation of Molina’s death in the hands of the toothless “Office of Professional Standards” of the Chicago police, whose tendency to whitewash police abuses is notorious. They say her death cannot just be swept under the rug, and hope that a federal investigation and continuing demonstrations will usher in new struggles to make the police and prosecutors answerable to the public.

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