G. Flint Taylor should be basking in the glow of vindication as he awaits the January 20 sentencing of Jon Burge, the retired Chicago police commander convicted for lying about a ring of torturing cops he led.
A federal jury found Burge guilty on two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of perjury last June. Taylor and the firm he co-founded, the Chicago-based Peoples Law Office, have represented several of the more than 100 black men victimized by Burge’s torture corps and have been trying to bring the rogue cop to justice for more than 20 years.
“Burges’ conviction was a significant victory for the community, particularly the African-American community,” Taylor says. “It was also an important win for the forces fighting for human rights and racial justice in this country.” However, the lack of attention to other aspects of the torture case frustrates the veteran attorney.
For many years, suspects and activists charged that Burge was operating a “black site” of torture at police district Area 2 on Chicago’s far South Side. In 1993, those charges gained enough credibility to get Burge fired, but that just allowed him to retire on a police pension in Florida.
Growing complaints forced a 2006 investigation of Burge by a Cook County special prosecutor that found evidence of systematic torture of black suspects through techniques like electro-shocks to the genitals, beatings, burning skin on radiators, Russian roulette, suffocations, and mock executions. Despite that, the prosecutor refused to indict Burge because the statute of limitation had run out on torture charges.
U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald did an end-run around the statute of limitations by charging Burge with perjury and obstructing justice, instead of actual torture. Fitzgerald successfully used the ex-cop’s deposition from a 2003 lawsuit in which he denied knowledge of torture.
In court papers filed in early November, federal prosecutors announced they are seeking at least 24 years in prison for the 62-year-old Burge. However, under federal sentencing guidelines, the federal probation office has recommended 15 to 21 months. His lawyers are seeking probation, noting that Burge is 62 and suffering from prostate cancer.
Taylor agrees with the prosecutors’ recommendations, but he is more concerned with the 20-odd men still imprisoned because of confessions extracted in Burges’ torture chambers. “Their issues must be addressed and they should be compensated,” says Taylor. “There are about 10 cops who directly worked with Burge and a broader range of people who aided and abetted his torture and lied for him.”
Despite the infamy the case brought to Chicago and the entire nation, there has been no push by local or national politicians to pass statutes against police torture. Taylor is particularly galled at the pass given to outgoing mayor Richard M. Daley, who was state’s attorney for Cook County during the worst of the torture and therefore “one of the prosecutors responsible for the nearly 30-year delay in prosecuting Burge.”
Daley has announced he will not run for re-election, and as reporters assess his legacy there is scant mention of his role in the torture scandal, both as state’s attorney and mayor. Incredibly, Taylor notes, Daley authorized the city to retain Richard Bueke, Burge’s hyperbolic criminal attorney, in recently filed cases seeking justice for torture victims. “This brings the city’s torture defense meter to $12 million,” he says.
That sum is part of the “more than $30 million the city has spent on lawyers and payouts to Burge’s victims as a result of many lawsuits,” according to the prosecutors’ court filing. The filing said Burge’s “criminal acts have tainted and prejudiced the thousands of hard-working dedicated police officers who have followed in Burge’s polluted wake.”
This depressing saga of torture in the American heartland reinforces the notion that racial bias is part of the institutional gene pool of the nation’s police departments. Burge’s conviction offers a glimmer of hope that people willing to wage a protracted struggle for social justice can sometimes win a battle. The larger war continues.
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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and host of “The Salim Muwakkil Show” on radio station WVON-AM in Chicago. Muwakkil was also contributing columnist for both the Chicago Sun-Times (1993 – 1997) and the Chicago Tribune (1998 – 2005). He is also a co-founder of Pacifica News’ network daily “Democracy Now” program and served as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, University of Illinois, the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago’s Columbia College.