CHICAGO — Lattie McGee was only 4, but he knew as much about torture as any concentration camp inmate or prisoner of war. His prison was a dark closet in his family's South Side apartment, where he often was hung upside down, bound and gagged, for hours.
Lattie liked to play with his toy cars, dance silly with his brother, watch cartoons and romp in the mud outside when the weather was warm.
But Lattie's joyous childhood vanished the summer of 1987, a summer of torture. Testimony about the agonies he endured shocked prosecutors, defense attorneys and even the judge.
Lattie's mother and her live-in boyfriend, who said he beat Lattie and his brother because he thought they were homosexual, were sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole Thursday by Cook County Criminal Court Judge Michael B. Getty.
Getty called Lattie's death "the most heinous, brutally sadistic torture and murder . . . that I have ever heard in my 6 1/2 years as a judge, my over 10 years as a prosecutor, or indeed my 51 years on this Earth."
Lattie was starved; burned with a hot iron; stuck with pins and needles, singed with cigarettes; beaten with a tree branch, hair brush, belt and hands; scalded with steaming water, and tied up with a clothesline and rope for 2 1/2 months that summer, court testimony showed.
A severe blow to his head in August was the eventual cause of death, but his emaciated body, scarred from head to foot, was so infected from untreated wounds that he likely would have died a short time later, a pathologist from the county medical examiner's office testified.
Criminal convictions in abuse cases are more an exception than the rule unless the child dies, said Dr. Demetra Soter, coordinator of the Pediatric Trauma Unit at Cook County Hospital.
Abuse cases often are not prosecuted, or even investigated, until the victim is killed because "people in high levels of position can't believe that people torture children," she said. "Hopefully, with people seeing stuff like this, they'll start to believe that it really happens."
Lattie's was one of 40,278 reported cases of child abuse or neglect in Cook County in 1987 and one of 38 reported deaths, said David Schneidman, a spokesman for the state Department of Children and Family Services. Statewide, there were 91,723 cases and 54 deaths, he said.
The numbers are worse for 1988, the most recent period for which statistics are available. In Cook County, 54 of the 42,564 reported abuse or neglect cases ended in death, Schneidman said. Statewide, 91,723 cases of abuse or neglect and 98 deaths were reported.
The night before Lattie died, his mother's boyfriend, Johnny Campbell, taped potato peels over the boy's eyes and hung him in the closet, court records show.
When Lattie was taken down the next day, Aug. 14, 1987, and asked for water, Campbell told him to act like a man and get it himself. Lattie tried, but, sapped of strength, failed. Campbell punched him in the head, the records show.
When Lattie didn't move, his mother called an ambulance. He was pronounced dead on arrival at South Shore Hospital. Lattie weighed 26 pounds, the size of a normal 1-year-old.
Dr. Shaku Teas, the pathologist who did the autopsy, was asked by a prosecutor if she found anything remarkable about his injuries.
"Everything was remarkable," she said, describing his injuries in gruesome detail as photographs of his body were shown in court.
His pelvis had been broken several days before he died, and two of his ribs had been snapped several weeks earlier, Teas testified.
Campbell, 40, pleaded guilty Dec. 6 to murdering Lattie and beating the boy's brother, Cornelius Abraham, now 8. His attorney says Campbell is psychotic.
The child's mother, 28-year-old Alicia Abraham, pleaded not guilty to the same charges and agreed to a trial without a jury. She acknowledged never reporting the torture of her children but said she did not abuse them herself. On Jan. 11, Getty convicted her.
"There can be no question that when a mother puts her child into an alligator pit that the mother has condemned that child to death," the judge said.
Prosecutors had urged Getty to order the pair executed for what Assistant State's Atty. James Bigoness called "a truly abominable crime."
But Getty said Campbell is mentally ill and Abraham did not participate directly in the death of her son, making them ineligible for the death penalty.
"It's probably one of the ugliest cases you will ever see," said Clyde Lemons Jr., Abraham's attorney, who argued that she was guilty of bad judgment but was not a murderer.
Lavonne Steger, 18, whose parents cared for Abraham as a child when her own parents died, still cries when talking about Lattie. She considers Abraham her sister and often played with the children when they were brought over for a visit.
Cornelius liked to play basketball and read. Lattie was a quiet boy with shining dark eyes and a sweet smile.