Web Only / Features » March 30, 2015
To Catch a Torturer: One Attorney’s 28-Year Pursuit of Racist Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge
A human rights attorney looks back at his nearly three decades going after Chicago’s notorious torturer of African-American men.
After the tense four-hour interrogation with Burge concluded, I told the press, "We feel that we have finally in some way brought to the stand and brought to public questioning a police criminal, a criminal we felt we had to hunt down, not unlike a Nazi war criminal."
On February 13, 2015, former Chicago Police Commander Jon G. Burge was released from Federal custody, having served a little less than four years of his four-and-a-half year sentence for lying under oath about whether he tortured scores of African-American men during his time as commander. Less than a week before, I sat across from him in a small room in Tampa, Florida, questioning him, pursuant to a court order, yet again about his role in a torture case—this time, the case of Alonzo Smith, who was repeatedly suffocated with a plastic bag and beaten with a rubber nightstick in the basement of the Area 2 police station by two of Burge’s most violent henchmen after Burge informed him that they “would get him to talk, one way or another.”
Reading from a prepared script, the 67-year-old Burge, weakened by several physical ailments but nonetheless exhibiting a hostility that has marked our many encounters over the years, responded to my first question by once again invoking his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. He then stood up, informed me that he would not respond to any further questions, and started to leave the room.
After I told him that he would be in violation of the judge’s order if he left before I had finished my questioning, he reluctantly returned, and asserted the Fifth Amendment to each and every subsequent question, including to the most damning one: Was the torture of Smith part of a pattern and practice of systemic and racist torture and abuse against African-American men which he orchestrated? After a contentious concluding exchange between us, a look of smug self-satisfaction came across his face as he answered my final question by stating, “I exercise my Fifth Amendment rights—even though I would like to say you are a liar.”
Of course the answer to that question of the systemic and racist nature of Burge’s torture is now well established by a mountain of evidence that has been assembled over nearly three decades in the teeth of an unremitting official cover-up that has implicated a series of police superintendents, numerous prosecutors, more than 30 police detectives and supervisors, and, most notably, Richard M. Daley, first as the State’s Attorney of Cook County, then as Chicago’s long-serving Mayor, in a police torture scandal that had spanned the more than 40 years that I had been a lawyer at the People’s Law Office.
A torturer in blue
My law partners, Jeffrey Haas and John Stainthorp, and I first became aware of Jon Burge and his connection to police torture in 1987 when Andrew Wilson, a convicted cop killer, called us from death row and asked us to represent him in the pro se lawsuit that he had filed against Burge and several of his associates at Area 2 Detective headquarters. Wilson’s allegations were chilling: suffocation with a bag, burns from a cigarette, beatings, and, most frightening, repeated electric shocks from a black shock box to his genitals, ears and fingers that caused him to be badly burned on a steam radiator across which he was handcuffed at the time he was shocked. With some trepidation, we took the case, and I was soon sitting across from Burge in a small conference room confronting him about his torture of Wilson.
At that time, Burge was at the height of his powers, having recently been promoted from Lieutenant to Commander, completing a meteoric rise in rank in the Chicago Police Department. Burly, red-faced and supremely arrogant, Burge had used his clout with the city to retain, at taxpayer’s expense, a former Deputy to then-State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley to represent him. Posturing as a hero for capturing Wilson and obtaining his confession, Burge vehemently denied any wrongdoing and scoffed at my persistent attempts to expose his lies.
In the winter of 1989, the Wilson civil case went to trial before a Judge, Brian Duff, who referred to Wilson in an off-the-record comment as the “scum of the earth.” Burge took the stand and I was once again thrust into the role of his interrogator.
After the first day of my cross examination, we received a voicemail at our office from an anonymous source. This source, whom we later dubbed “Deep Badge,” worked with Burge at Area 2 and supplied us with information which began the process of blowing the lid off the cover-up. Deep Badge informed us of another Burge electric shock victim, Melvin Jones; the names of Burge’s co-conspirators; and claimed that State’s Attorney Daley and Mayor Jane Byrne were aware of Wilson’s torture.
We sought to confront Burge before the jury with this newly discovered evidence, but the judge, while recognizing that this evidence was “explosive,” would not let me do so. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury, unaware of the unravelling cover-up, hung, necessitating a second trial.
While we awaited the re-trial, we pursued the leads given to us by “Deep Badge” and found a number of other torture victims who were serving time based on confessions tortured from them by Burge and his confederates. One of them was Anthony Holmes, who was tortured with electric shock by Burge just after he became a detective in 1973. Armed with this information, I again deposed Burge, who brazenly denied any misconduct in each and every one of the newly discovered cases. At the re-trial, Judge Duff denied us the right to confront Burge with these newly discovered cases, and when I tried to do so, the judge, egged on by Burge’s lawyer, repeatedly held me and my co-counsel in contempt.
As a result of the judge’s unremitting bias in favor of Burge and his lawyers, after an eight-week second trial, the all-white jury absolved Burge. We appealed the decision, and the evidence that we had uncovered compelled the Chicago Police Department to reopen its investigation into the Wilson case and to pursue the question of whether the torture was systemic.
The investigation produced two determinations: that Burge should be fired for his torture of Wilson, and that the torture at Area 2 was “systematic” and implicated command personnel. The Department moved to fire Burge—while suppressing the findings of systematic torture.
Targeted by Burge
During this period, the reality of personal risk became more apparent. Burge publicly called me an “idiot” in response to my testimony before the Chicago City Council, and his defense committee and the Fraternal Order of Police repeatedly mounted personal attacks against me and my law partners. A friendly police employee told us of an alleged threat that Burge had made to “blow us away.”
I spoke with another unnamed Burge associate on the phone who asserted that Burge had tortured innocent suspects and women, and an African-American former detective who worked in Area 2 clandestinely came to our office and told me about a Burge torture scene he had witnessed in 1973. Unknown to us at the time, Burge had enlisted one of his former associates to comb the Area 2 files in an attempt to discover the identity of Deep Badge. (I also learned from a neighbor that Burge had a boat. The neighbor had seen Burge cruising in Chicago’s Monroe Street Harbor; the boat was aptly named “The Vigilante.”)
Burge was brought to trial before the Chicago Police Board in the winter of 1992, amid a local furor that was occasioned by our successfully obtaining the public release of the CPD’s finding of systematic torture, a rally for Burge which attracted 3,000 cops and prosecutors and a boisterous counter rally that the Task Force to Confront Police Violence organized. Jeff Haas, who was a moving force in the Task Force, and I often attended the six-week Police Board hearing, at which Wilson, Jones and a third Burge victim all testified.
Burge took the stand and denied that he tortured these men, and we suffered Burge’s wrath when we publicly commented on the evidence. Nearly a year later, the Police Board issued its decision to fire Burge, and I was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times as saying that “the person in charge of the systematic torture had been fired,” and that the department should “implement” the findings of systematic torture by “clean[ing] house.”
On the heels of the Police Board decision, the Fraternal Order of Police unsuccessfully attempted to honor Burge with a float in the St. Patrick Day’s Parade; a few weeks later, the Federal Appeals Court, citing Judge Duff’s refusal to permit the questioning of Burge before the jury about the other cases of torture, granted us a new trial in the Wilson case.
Burge relocated to Florida, the City of Chicago quietly permitting him to resign after his firing became final. As a result, in 1997, he began to collect his police pension. That same year, after a second appeal, we obtained a $1.1 million dollar settlement in the Wilson case.
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Flint Taylor is a founding partner of the People’s Law Office in Chicago. He is one of the lawyers for the families of slain Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, and together with his law partner Jeffrey Haas was trial counsel in the marathon 1976 civil trial. He has also represented many survivors of Chicago police torture, was involved in the struggle for reparations, and has done battle with the Chicago Police Department—and the Fraternal Order of Police—on numerous occasions over his 45 year career as a people’s lawyer
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