Vindication for police torture victims

July 1, 2010

Marlene Martin of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty remembers the long struggle to win justice for victims of Chicago police torturers--a struggle that led to the guilty verdict this week in a federal trial of the torture ringleader, former police Lt. Jon Burge.

ACTIVISTS IN Chicago got the word Monday afternoon in a phone message from police torture victim Mark Clements.

"The jury has reached a verdict in the Jon Burge trial," Mark announced. "He was found guilty on all three counts--of lying under oath and two counts of obstruction of justice. Come down to the Dirksen Federal Building right away for the demonstration."

Mark, who spent 28 years of his life in prison for a crime he didn't commit, had been waiting at the federal court building in downtown Chicago since early in the morning, anticipating a decision in the trial of Burge, the former Chicago police lieutenant who led a ring of cops that tortured African American suspects in the 1970s and '80s.

Burge's trial lasted for five weeks, during which time five former torture victims testified about how they signed false confessions after being suffocated, electrically shocked, beaten and threatened with guns placed in their mouths.

The charges against Burge in this case were federal--he wasn't standing trial for the torture itself, but for the crime of lying under oath in a civil lawsuit in 2003 that he knew about or participated in the torturing of suspects.

Mark Clements reacts to the conviction of former Chicago police Lt. Jon Burge
Mark Clements reacts to the conviction of former Chicago police Lt. Jon Burge

Burge and the all-white group of detectives he commanded abused more than 100 men--22 of them are still incarcerated in Illinois prisons because of convictions obtained largely through coerced confessions. But neither Burge nor his men can ever be charged with torture because the statue of limitations ran out on that (a group of lawyers and activists have formed to push for legislation to remove any time limits on when someone could be tried for torture).

NO ONE was sure exactly how the verdict would go--and the cops were certainly ready for an angry protest in case Burge was acquitted. "There were tons of cops all over the place," Mark told me as I arrived at Federal Plaza. "I think they were prepared for a different kind of verdict. When he was found guilty, they all left."

Mark was 16 years old when he was tortured by Burge's men until he signed a false confession. When asked how he felt about the verdict, Mark spoke through sobs: "Relieved. Relieved that at least one of these people is now going to finally feel the pain. My daughter is 29 years old. I missed all those years with my daughter, sitting in those prison cells for a crime I didn't commit. I do not feel sorry for Jon Burge."

Ronnie Kitchen, a Burge torture victim who spent 13 years on death row and a total of 21 years in prison before he was exonerated, said: "I wish he had walked out in handcuffs like I had to."

Ronnie said he had "mixed feelings. It's not yet time to celebrate. We can crack a smile, but we can't start dancing yet. We have to see that the cronies who worked with him also get indicted and that the torture victims still locked up get new hearings. So we have to keep up the fight."

Another victim of Burge, Stanley Howard, who also served time on death row until he was exonerated, called in from his prison cell in Dixon, Ill., to speak to a crowd of more than 70 people who had gathered for the emergency demonstration. Stanley also reminded us that the fight continues--and at the end, a chant erupted: "Free Stanley Howard, Free Stanley Howard."

Burge is now 62 years old. He was forced out of the department in 1993 after evidence of his torture ring finally came to light in the media. But he was able to retire to Florida, collecting a full police pension (he even named his fishing boat "The Vigilante")--while many of his victims remained in prison, without any acknowledgement that each of these cases should be opened up and reviewed.

Thus, the federal case marks the first time Burge will face any real punishment for his crimes. But when he will be staring at prison bars is difficult to say--he will remain free until his sentencing on November 5, where he faces up to 45 years in prison.

Nevertheless, the guilty verdict in this case is significant. While speaking to a reporter, one of the jurors put their finger on why when they said it was hard to find a police officer guilty. Studies show that people are more likely to believe the police explanation of events, which is why it's so difficult to a guilty verdict against a cop. That's why the New York City cops who killed Sean Bell in a hail of bullets got off, like the LA police who were caught on videotape beating Rodney King.

Whether or not the Burge decision reflects a shift overall in how jurors view the role of the police, the fact that this jury didn't believe Burge is very important.

Burge and his men always operated as if they were above the law. They gambled that no one would believe poor Black men, many of them with a history of gang involvement, over the police. Now that situation is reversed, and Burge is heading to prison--which will be a powerful message to a whole group of officers who felt they could get away with anything and never pay the consequences.

For more than 20 years, Burge carried out his brand of racist vigilante justice. His standard operating procedure was to torture poor Black men into signing false convictions, and then tell Chicago "we solved another crime"--while in reality, the cops were the ones committing crimes.

ACTIVISTS WHO organized for years to win justice for the torture victims will remember where they were when they heard about this verdict.

But mixed with that fact is also some sadness. Many of the mothers who were the backbone of years of struggle to win justice for their sons were robbed of this victory.

For example, Ronnie Kitchen's mother, Louva Bell, is suffering dementia. Ronnie tried to call to give her the news, but it's unlikely she understood its meaning. Anyone who attended protests about police torture will remember Louva, with her small stature, carrying around an oversized placard with Ronnie's face plastered on it at various rallies, forums and press conferences.

Costella Cannon lost her son, also a police torture victim, to cancer in prison, but she still fought for other torture victims right up until her own untimely death in 2003. Mark Clements' mother, Virginia Clements, is suffering brain cancer and largely confined to her home. She demonstrated for years to win freedom for her son.

All of them deserve to see the culmination of their hard work. They kept their sons connected to the outside struggle during their long incarcerations, and they asked over and over to anyone who would listen: "Can't something be done about the torture cases?"

Activists who work to shed a light on our racist criminal injustice system spend much of our time and energy trying to free people from prison. It's a rarity to celebrate someone going to that hellhole. As federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said, "I'm not going to say it's a perfect measure of justice." But Burge going to prison is a step in the right direction.

We still have 22 prisoners who were torture victims and who need new hearings. But as Ronnie Kitchen said, "we can crack a smile"--and we did.

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