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.

Flint TaylorMarch 30, 2015

Burge answers questions posed by the author in a February 2015 deposition, repeating his intention to take the Fifth Amendment after every question about an alleged torture case.

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.”

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."

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.

Jus­tice reform beyond police torture

At about this time, the strug­gle against police tor­ture joined with the move­ment against the death penal­ty that was spear­head­ed by a group of death row pris­on­ers who had been tor­tured by Burge and his men. These men, who called them­selves the Death Row Ten, joined with lawyers, activists, and oth­er foes of the death penal­ty and police tor­ture in a uni­fied effort that result­ed in a death penal­ty mora­to­ri­um, the appoint­ment of a Cook Coun­ty Spe­cial Pros­e­cu­tor to inves­ti­gate Burge’s crimes and, in 2003, Illi­nois Gov­er­nor George Ryan’s com­mu­ta­tion of all Illi­nois death sen­tences and par­don of four of the Death Row Ten — Leroy Orange, Madi­son Hob­ley, Aaron Pat­ter­son and Stan­ley Howard — on the basis of innocence.

The inno­cence par­dons per­mit­ted the four men to file law suits, and my law part­ner Joey Mogul and I became lead lawyers for two of them. This gave us an avenue to fur­ther inves­ti­gate Burge and his con­fed­er­ates’ crimes. I jour­neyed to Flori­da, Ari­zona, Ten­nessee and sev­er­al Illi­nois pris­ons to track down and to record the state­ments of numer­ous Burge tor­ture survivors.

Accom­pa­nied by an inves­ti­ga­tor and a court reporter, I also con­vinced sev­er­al retired African Amer­i­can Area 2 detec­tives to give sworn state­ments. In these state­ments, the detec­tives, who were exclud­ed from the actu­al tor­ture ses­sions, told of see­ing Burge’s elec­tric shock box, hear­ing the tor­ture vic­tims’ screams and par­tic­i­pat­ing in dis­cus­sions about the tor­ture which was some­times referred to as the Viet­nam treat­ment.” They also recount­ed how Burge’s threats of vio­lence and their fear of ret­ri­bu­tion — the police code of silence at work — kept them from com­ing for­ward until they had retired.

In the ear­ly stages of these four law­suits, a still-arro­gant Burge, with the bless­ing of a new gen­er­a­tion of tax­pay­er fund­ed pri­vate lawyers, answered under oath a series of writ­ten ques­tions by again deny­ing that he par­tic­i­pat­ed in, wit­nessed, or oth­er­wise had knowl­edge of any acts of tor­ture. Short­ly there­after, in the sum­mer of 2004, I trav­elled to Tam­pa with an inves­ti­ga­tor (who also served as a de fac­to body­guard) to obtain an order from a Flori­da judge (whose nick­name, I soon learned, was Dirty Har­ry”) to com­pel Burge to appear at tor­ture sur­vivor Dar­rell Cannon’s parole revo­ca­tion hearing.

Out­side of the court­room, Burge, ref­er­enc­ing the $1.1 mil­lion dol­lar Andrew Wil­son set­tle­ment, which we had earned many times over after 10 years of intense legal strug­gle, told a Chica­go Tri­bune reporter who had jour­neyed from Chica­go that you would think Tay­lor would retire after get­ting a mil­lion from the city,” imply­ing that the prin­ci­pal aim of the cas­es expos­ing decades’ worth of racist tor­ture by the police depart­ment of the third largest city in Amer­i­ca was for some human rights attor­neys to get rich.

After the court ses­sion, we trav­eled south to Apol­lo Beach in search of Burge’s house and a pic­ture of The Vig­i­lante. Our efforts alert­ed the local St. Peters­burg news­pa­per to run a fea­ture arti­cle about the alleged police tor­tur­er liv­ing qui­et­ly in their midst under the cloud of accu­sa­tions [that] are like some­thing out of a wartime prison: elec­tric shock and cat­tle prods; near suf­fo­ca­tion with a type­writer bag; mock exe­cu­tions with a pistol.”

Not unlike a Nazi war criminal”

On Sep­tem­ber 1, 2004, Burge appeared in Chica­go to answer ques­tions in a con­sol­i­dat­ed depo­si­tion in the four law­suits and Cannon’s parole revo­ca­tion hear­ing. The video­taped depo­si­tion was held in a mock court­room in his lawyers’ down­town offices, and they smug­gled Burge in through a back entrance to avoid an angry demon­stra­tion, the media and three process servers who were attempt­ing to sub­poe­na Burge to tes­ti­fy before the Spe­cial Pros­e­cu­tors’ grand jury.

I ques­tioned Burge for near­ly four hours. Hav­ing received some pru­dent­ly revised legal advice, he repeat­ed­ly invoked the Fifth Amend­ment to each and every ques­tion. After the tense inter­ro­ga­tion con­clud­ed, I was quot­ed in the Sun-Times as say­ing, 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.”

Four years lat­er, on Octo­ber 21, 2008, I received an ear­ly morn­ing phone call from the Assis­tant U.S. Attor­ney who was head­ing up the inves­ti­ga­tion into alle­ga­tions that Burge com­mit­ted per­jury and obstruct­ed jus­tice when he denied under oath five years ear­li­er that he had com­mit­ted tor­ture. He told me that Fed­er­al Agents had a war­rant for Burge’s arrest on those charges and he would be arrest­ed lat­er that morn­ing in Flori­da. After 20 years of pur­suit, our efforts had final­ly hit paydirt. 

Burge’s arrest was the cul­mi­na­tion of decades of work that had inten­si­fied since Burge’s 2004 depo­si­tion. In 2005, Joey Mogul had jour­neyed to Gene­va to present our case to the Unit­ed Nations Com­mit­tee Against Tor­ture (CAT), and, in May 2006, the CAT issued find­ings that called for U.S. pros­e­cu­tions of Burge and his men. In sum­mer 2006, the Spe­cial Pros­e­cu­tor had refused to bring state charges of per­jury and con­spir­a­cy against Burge and had instead issued what many con­sid­ered to be a cov­er-up report. In response, 250 orga­ni­za­tions and indi­vid­u­als signed a shad­ow report that exposed the white­wash and renewed the call for crim­i­nal charges.

In sum­mer 2007, hear­ings were held before the Chica­go City Coun­cil and the Cook Coun­ty Board of Com­mis­sion­ers at which tor­ture sur­vivors tes­ti­fied and the depo­si­tion video­tape of Burge tak­ing the Fifth Amend­ment was played. In the after­math of the hear­ings, both bod­ies called for Fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tions. Ear­ly in 2008, the City paid a $19.8 mil­lion set­tle­ment to the four tor­ture sur­vivors whom Gov­er­nor Ryan had par­doned in 2003.

In 2009, while Burge await­ed tri­al on the per­jury and obstruc­tion charges, I found myself again in Dirty Harry’s Tam­pa court­room, face-to-face with Burge, seek­ing his return to tes­ti­fy in a post-con­vic­tion case where it was alleged that he super­vised the tor­ture of a mur­der sus­pect. Burge, after telling the judge that he was heav­i­ly med­icat­ed for a back prob­lem and intend­ed to take the Fifth Amend­ment if returned to Chica­go to tes­ti­fy, stat­ed, Your Hon­or, Mr. Tay­lor has been suing me and mem­bers of the Chica­go Police Depart­ment, for over thir­ty (30) years. My per­son­al feel­ing is this is strict­ly for harassment.”

After the court ses­sion con­clud­ed with the judge opin­ing that he would not require Burge to return to Chica­go, I packed up my brief­case and opened one of the heavy wood­en dou­ble doors to leave the emp­ty court­room. At that instant, Burge, com­ing back into the court­room, opened the oth­er door, our eyes met. He said noth­ing, but I felt a chill run up my spine before he pushed past me.

A tor­tur­er, final­ly, in jail

In May and June 2010, Burge went on tri­al in Fed­er­al Judge Joan Lefkow’s Chica­go court­room. The pros­e­cu­tion pre­sent­ed evi­dence that includ­ed tes­ti­mo­ny from Antho­ny Holmes, Melvin Jones and Andrew Wil­son, from a reluc­tant white detec­tive who tes­ti­fied, under a grant of immu­ni­ty, about wit­ness­ing one of Burge’s tor­ture ses­sions, and from two of the black detec­tives who had first told their sto­ries to me.

Oth­er pros­e­cu­tion wit­ness­es includ­ed sev­er­al to whom Burge had bragged about his racial­ly moti­vat­ed tor­ture, includ­ing a woman lawyer who had pre­vi­ous­ly revealed to me her trou­bling tale that Burge, while drink­ing at a local bar, had artic­u­lat­ed an utter dis­dain for crim­i­nal defen­dants’ con­sti­tu­tion­al rights while mak­ing sex­u­al­ly explic­it com­ments to her and admit­ting to abus­ing Andrew Wil­son. Burge took the stand and broke his silence to deny each and every alle­ga­tion of tor­ture, and in anoth­er chance encounter after clos­ing argu­ments con­clud­ed, he cursed me out.

Burge then retired to a bar across the street from the cour­t­house to await the jury’s ver­dict. Accord­ing to a for­mer pros­e­cu­tor who had made Burge’s acquain­tance while attend­ing the six week tri­al, Burge called him over and asked him whether he thought that the jury would believe that bunch of nig­gers,” refer­ring to the African-Amer­i­can tor­ture sur­vivors who had tes­ti­fied against him.

The jury did believe the sur­vivors and found Burge guilty. In Jan­u­ary 2011, Burge was sen­tenced to four-and-a-half years in prison, and in March, he began to serve his sen­tence at the Fed­er­al Cor­rec­tion­al Cen­ter in But­ner, North Car­oli­na, along­side oth­er high pro­file white-col­lar crim­i­nals includ­ing Bernie Madoff.

Since Burge’s indict­ment, sev­er­al of Burge’s vic­tims had been exon­er­at­ed, includ­ing Michael Till­man and Ronald Kitchen, for whom we filed civ­il suits. After obtain­ing a court order in Tillman’s case Joey Mogul and I trav­elled to North Car­oli­na to again depose Burge in May of 2011.

While it was not unusu­al for us to enter pris­ons to talk to clients, this pas­sage through the met­al detec­tors with Burge’s lawyers was decid­ed­ly dif­fer­ent. Burge, dressed in brown prison garb, com­plained of the food and med­ical care, then pro­ceed­ed to assert his Fifth Amend­ment right to all ques­tions that I posed. The depo­si­tion was video­taped, and his tes­ti­mo­ny” was fea­tured in videos that we made to recount Till­man and Kitchen’s hor­rif­ic sto­ries of tor­ture and wrong­ful convictions.

Bear­ing wit­ness to Burge’s impris­on­ment, albeit not for his sys­temic tor­ture, and cap­tur­ing it on video­tape, was an impor­tant event, one which I have often cit­ed when speak­ing about police tor­ture in Chica­go. Burge was behind bars, while vic­tims like Till­man and Kitchen and the tor­ture sur­vivors who coura­geous­ly tes­ti­fied against Burge were all free.

But this vic­to­ry, while both sym­bol­ic and real, and ground­ed on decades of strug­gle by an anti-racist move­ment, did not end the bat­tle to bring a mod­icum of final jus­tice to the sur­vivors of police tor­ture and heal­ing to the African Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty. That strug­gle con­tin­ues to this day, seek­ing repa­ra­tions for the sur­vivors and new hear­ings for the men still impris­oned as a result of con­fes­sions tor­tured from them.

Mean­while, a bro­ken but still unre­pen­tant Jon G. Burge wears the well-deserved man­tle of for­mer Chica­go Police com­man­der and noto­ri­ous torturer.

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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