Clean house of torture claims

April 4, 2002

At least 66 people claim to have been tortured by former Chicago Police Lt. Jon Burge or police officers who were under his command.

All those making the claims were crime suspects, but there's good reason to believe most or all are telling the truth. A limited police department review concluded in 1990 that abuse under Burge was methodical. A federal judge described widespread torture in the early- to mid-1980s as "common knowledge."

The alleged torture included suffocation, burns, electric shocks to the genitals, heads slammed with phone books and "games" of Russian roulette.

Some of the suspects were released. Some confessed to crimes they had committed. Some may have confessed to crimes they did not commit--in a desperate bid to stop the abuse.

No one knows for certain what happened under Burge's command. That's why it's high time to appoint a special prosecutor to conduct a comprehensive, independent investigation of torture allegations that have been hanging over the Chicago Police Department for decades.

This Friday will mark one year since attorneys went to court seeking a special prosecutor. Cook County Chief Criminal Court Judge Paul Biebel Jr. has been considering the matter since it was argued before him in November.

Cook County State's Atty. Dick Devine is fighting the measure with gusto. Of course he is. He has much to lose should a full-blown investigation substantiate more of those claims.

Devine was first assistant in the state's attorney's office from 1980 to 1983, during which time some of the torture is said to have occurred. Some of those working for Devine today were closely involved in taking statements from individuals who allegedly were tortured; others had a hand in prosecuting them. Any thorough inquiry may put hard-won convictions in jeopardy, and might implicate some in a conspiracy of silence if they knew what was occurring inside Burge's interrogation rooms.

Devine once appeared in federal court on behalf of Burge, because the private law firm Devine joined in 1983 as a partner spent years representing the commander after he was fired.

Devine, however, casually dismisses those obvious conflicts of interest. Instead, he is trying to deep-six the appointment of a special prosecutor with the argument that the statute of limitations on any offenses has expired.

But the full picture of torture has yet to emerge. For years, the alleged victims had no idea others were making strikingly similar allegations. It is, as well, premature to say that the time to bring criminal charges has expired--before the exact details of such offenses have been fully aired.

It is time to clean house. It is time to figure out whether officers have been covering up or lying under oath about whether torture occurred. It is time to determine the exact extent of the torture, which officers engaged in abuse, how many confessions were unlawfully obtained and, most important, whether any of those confessions turned out to be false.

Eleven people from whom Burge or his officers extracted confessions are sitting on Death Row. Others are serving lengthy sentences for murder convictions. Most, probably, are guilty. A few, though, may have credible claims of innocence. Meanwhile, Burge, who was fired by the Chicago Police Board in 1993, is retired and living in Florida.

Judge Biebel should appoint a prosecutor now.


 
Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice