Police torture on trial

November 11, 2008

It was common knowledge for years that Jon Burge oversaw a torture ring in Chicago police stations--but the most powerful officials in the city and state did nothing.

YEAH, YEAH, YEAH! Former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge was finally indicted and arrested. It's about time someone had the courage to stand up and take action against this racist maniac.

I should be happy about this historic event, but I'm not, because my happiness is overshadowed by much disappointment.

I'm disappointed that he wasn't charged with the more serious crimes of heinous battery, aggravated assault and battery, hate crimes, conspiracy and other related charges. He is only charged with perjury and obstruction of justice "because the time to bring [torture-related charges] has long expired," according to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. "We will try to prove that Burge and other officers tortured suspects, and he lied about it in 2003 during sworn depositions."

Burge and officers working under him (all of whom are white) psychologically and physically tortured over 150 Black suspects for over a 20-year period to obtain false and coerced confessions. These torture confessions were used to secure wrongful convictions of men who were sentenced to long prison terms, natural life without parole and even death--like I was. Many of these men are still incarcerated.

Columnist: Stanley Howard

Stanley Howard is a former Illinois death row prisoner who was exonerated and pardoned by former Gov. George Ryan in 2003. He was a victim of police torture carried out by Chicago police, and from behind bars, he formed the Death Row 10 with other victims of torture. Though still imprisoned unjustly, Stanley works with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and writes regularly for its newsletter, the New Abolitionist. You can write to him at: Stanley Howard N-71620, 2600 N. Brinton Ave., Dixon, IL 61021.

I'm disappointed because county, state and federal officials had many opportunities to charge Burge, but choose to either look away or help to cover up his crimes.

He should have been charged in 1982 after Dr. John Raba, head of medical services at Cook County Jail, wrote to Police Superintendent Richard Brzeczek, informing him of accused cop killer Andrew Wilson's claims of being tortured by cops.

Wilson claimed that he received burns from being tied to a radiator, his face was swollen from being eaten and kicked, and he received electric shocks on many parts of his body from what he described as a "black box." Dr. Raba said that Wilson had injuries which supported these claims, and he requested an investigation.

Instead of investigating, however, Brzeczek sent a copy of Raba's letter to then-Cook County State's Attorney Richard M. Daley. Daley and his top subordinate, Richard Devine decided not to take action against Burge or even respond to Brezeczek's letter.

Realizing that top police brass and the state's attorney's office were not going to take action against him, Burge and his men continued torturing suspects with impunity. So much so that over 55 men were tortured while Daley looked the other way and used the torture confessions to obtain convictions and death sentences.

I'M DISAPPOINTED because he should have been charged in April 1987 after Illinois' highest court threw out Wilson's conviction and death sentence. The court stated that Wilson received many injuries while in police custody, and therefore, the lower court should have thrown out his confession.

He should have been charged after my mother and a host of others testified before the city council in October 1989 and on Christmas Eve 1990, or after Amnesty International issued its first of many reports in January 1991 calling for a full investigation.

He should have been charged in 1991 after the Office of Professional Standards, the office assigned to investigate such abuses, found that from 1973 to 1985, there was a practice of systematic abuse of suspects by men under Burge, including "psychological techniques and planned torture, and that certain command personnel were aware of the abuse and encouraged it either by actively participating in it, or by failing to take any action to stop it."

Instead of taking action, Daley, who became the mayor of Chicago in 1989, city attorneys and police officials fought hard to suppress the report, though it was ordered released by a federal judge in February 1992.

After much publicity and public pressure, the city fired Burge in 1993 and admitted in open court that Burge had, in fact, "savagely and sadistically" tortured suspects.

The city had thrown Burge under the bus, and everyone, especially those of us who were on death row, was excited and hopeful of obtaining new trials without the torture confessions. We believed it would have been impossible for the state to continue their diabolical assertions that the confessions were given voluntarily.

The scandal had grown so large that some of the most powerful officials in the city, county and state were involved in one way or another--looking the other way or covering it up.

I BEGAN organizing the torture victims who were sent to death row, and I named us the "Death Row 10." With the help of our families, friends and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, we began holding protests, rallies and demonstrations in front of police headquarters, the criminal court building, City Hall, the state's attorney's office and the State of Illinois building to draw attention to our collective demands for new trials without the confessions.

"It is now common knowledge that, in the early to mid-1980s, Jon Burge and many officers working under him regularly engaged in the physical abuse and torture of prisoners to extract confessions," said U.S. District Court Judge Milton Shadur. "Both internal police accounts and numerous lawsuits and appeals brought by suspects alleging such abuse substantiate that those beatings and other means of torture occurred as an established practice, not just on an isolated basis."

By the time Judge Shadur made that statement in 1999, the number of torture victims had ballooned to over 150 suspects, and Richard Devine, now the Cook County State's Attorney--like Daley and all the other state's attorneys before him--used his position to unequivocally oppose relief for torture victims.

Here, we had a federal judge saying that U.S. citizens were tortured and some of them were on Illinois' death row--and no one did anything.

Even in January 2003, when then-Gov. George Ryan told the world about Burge and the torture scandal before pardoning four members of the Death Row 10, no one did anything. Instead of prosecuting Burge and those involved, Devine called the pardons "outrageous" and "unconscionable," and threatened to challenge them in court.

I cannot be happy about Burge's arrest when the county spent $7 million on a special prosecutor that refused to charge him--a special prosecutor with strong political ties and connections to those involved in the scandal.

I cannot be happy about Burge's arrest when the special prosecutor, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who was appointed to take Devine's place over the torture cases because of Devine's conflict of interest, has done nothing to give the torture victims relief since her 2002 appointment.

It was heartbreaking to hear public officials and the national media talk about the torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, but not utter one word about the largest police torture scandal in U.S. history.

We live in a society that looks the other way when scores of Black men are tortured into giving false and coerced confessions, and the government and courts refuse to overturn their convictions once the truth is revealed. I can guarantee that if all of the torture victims were white, and the torturers were Black cops, the national media and public official would have never stopped working until justice prevailed.

I agree with U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald--charging Burge with something is better than not charging him at all. Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Burge was arrested. But over 20 torture victims remain incarcerated. How can I be happy?

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