The death of a criminal in blue
is a survivor of torture by Chicago police officers under the command of Jon Burge. At the age of 16, he was coerced into a confession that was used to convict him of murders he didn’t commit. He spent 28 years in prison before winning his freedom. On the outside since 2009, he has been a tireless activist and currently works with the Chicago Torture Justice Center. Here, he writes about Burge’s death and about the struggles for his victims that have not yet been won.
WHEN THE news broke on September 19 that notorious police torturer Jon Burge had died in Florida at the age of 70, the comments began on social media that Burge “has left the building.”
And gone straight to hell.
For two decades from the 1970s to early 1990s, Burge organized cops working under his command at Area 2 and Area 3 in Chicago to carry out acts of torture on suspects in order to extract confessions.
Burge got away with this until stories began to surface at the end of the 1980s connecting him and his subordinates to systematic acts of torture. Some of the unspeakable acts that suspects suffered included: electric shocks applied to testicles and genitals, shotguns placed in their mouths, beatings, waterboarding, racial epithets, suffocation by typewriter covers and cattle prods inserted into their rectums.
For decades, one judge after another dismissed the claims of suspects and defendants that they had been tortured. They agreed with police officers and prosecutors that the claims had been made up to get out from under serious charges.
Burge’s victims were charged with some of Chicago’s most heinous crimes, and the confessions they made under torture landed many behind prison walls with death sentences or natural life.
Burge is accused of torturing more than 200 suspects, including Stanley Howard, Ronald Kitchens, Marvin Reeves and myself. We had no choice but to fight or die behind the wall of an Illinois prison. It was harsh, brutal and psychologically draining.
No one believed our claims, and the criminal justice system had to be forced to acknowledge the truth — that Burge and his midnight crew of detectives were rounding up innocent men and women, taking them to police stations and torturing them until they confessed.
BURGE ORCHESTRATED one of Chicago’s worst scandals, with scores of innocent people convicted and incarcerated with long sentences. But prosecutors didn’t want to confront any of this, since they used the convictions to work themselves up the ladder for higher political office.
Richard M. Daley, the son of the famous mayor, was elected Cook County State’s Attorney, and served eight years in that position, from 1981 to 1989, when the Burge torture was at its height.
Many believed that Daley could do no wrong, but the evidence shows now that he covered up scores of cases involving Burge and his torture ring, almost from day one when he took office as top prosecutor.
Long after he was State’s Attorney and became mayor, Daley refused to even speak about the charges of torture. He only did so after years of continuous protest and public pressure from activists and lawyers, who finally won the appointment of Edward Egan and Robert Boyle as special prosecutors. Their report documented that Burge and his detectives had carried out many acts of torture on Black and Brown people.
“Burge was a criminal and worse than Al Capone,” Brian Nelson of the Uptown People’s Law Center told me. “It’s just a total insult what the city of Chicago allowed Burge to get away with.”
The Campaign to End the Death Penalty was one group at the time to take up the call for justice for police torture victims.
“The torture of only Black and Brown suspects by all white police officers, forcing confessions in the most brutal fashion, goes back to the Emmett Till era of racism,” said Marlene Martin, who was active with this group. “The only reason all of this wasn’t swept under the rug was because people fought back, including prisoners, their families, activists and lawyers.
“People have to remember that. Any amount of justice we won — and there is a lot more we need — was won because of pressure, and not by some well-intentioned elected officials.”
SO MANY victims of Burge remain behind the walls of an Illinois prison. They were promised remedies to challenge their decades-old convictions, especially after Egan’s investigation, but many have ran into obstacles, as their criminal post-conviction petitions take years and years to get a hearing before a Cook County Circuit Court judge.
Rosemary Cade is the mother of Antonio Porter, who says he was tortured into confessing to a 2002 murder he didn’t commit. He was held at the Area 2 violent crime unit for more than three days, and his requests for the assistance of an attorney were ignored by the arresting officers.
A Chicago Tribune article earlier this year reported that six eyewitnesses to the murder testified that Porter wasn’t the shooter, and new DNA evidence also casts doubt on his guilt. Yet he still sits behind walls of a prison, wondering if he will ever be set free.
Porter isn’t the only one awaiting a hearing about their torture claims. So are Stanley Howard, Johnny Plummer, Gerald Reed, George Anderson and Tony Anderson. More than 100 additional victims of torture sit in prison wondering if they will ever be granted the due process right to a hearing on their claims.
It is amazing how slow these cases are moving forward. Reed and George Anderson have both had post-conviction petitions before the court for more than six years.
Anderson’s evidentiary hearings are taking place, but have gone on for more than two years, despite one of his claims being that he is actually innocent of the crime. Reed is scheduled to start his evidentiary hearing at some point in late October, according to his attorney Elliot Zinger, who represents other torture victims such as Javan Deloney and Ivan Smith.
Now Burge is dead, and the question of what happens next is echoing around Cook County. Many people in Chicago believe his torture victims should be released, but there was a conspiracy to protect Burge and keep his acts of torture covered up, and there are still officials who have an interest in that.
In 2010, Burge was convicted on federal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, based on his lies in court documents to attempt to conceal his involvement. Yet he got to keep his entire pension.
Nelson believes that Burge got off too easily, and that city and other officials protected him to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system. He says that Burge’s entire pension should be turned over to torture survivors.
THE BURGE era has had many awful impacts, with men and women finding themselves incarcerated based on confessions that were extracted as a result of severe mental, physical and psychological torture at the hands of Chicago police.
It is the responsibility of the city of Chicago to try to make this right. The city set aside $5.5 million to pay out reparations to torture victims, but these payments have yet to be fully implemented. Plus, the pain and suffering is far from over for the men and women who are still incarcerated that appears to be never-ending.
But for Burge and his detectives, torture has paid off for them, despite their reputations being blemished.
The lessons of the Burge era must be taught throughout this country. We must continue to fight for fairness for all people who find themselves facing the criminal justice system. No one should be treated as guilty based on their being Black or Brown. Just because someone is arrested and charged doesn’t mean that they are guilty — this is a lesson that cost city and county taxpayers millions of dollars paid to the innocent victims of Burge.
As we say good riddance to Burge, we must demand accountability from the city and county as we continue to expose the truth about Burge torturers, such as retired Chicago police detectives Reynaldo Guevara and Richard P. Zuley.