Arresting Tales

Jon Burge: torturer, hero, or scapegoat?

Most people who know anything about the Jon Burge case have an opinion as to which of those descriptions most aptly describes former CPD Commander Jon Burge.  Prosecution and defense made their final arguments, and the jury is out.  It's unlikely that anyone with an opinion on the case will feel differently about it regardless of the verdict.  I put it to you that those three depictions of Jon Burge--torturer, hero, or scapegoat--are not mutually exclusive.

It is painful to write about the Burge case.  It is complicated, long-lived and racially charged.  I started writing this post on May 25, right around the time jury selection in the perjury trial of former CPD Commander Jon Burge had started, and 13 of the first 28 jurors had been dismissed.

I came on the job in 1989, and went into investigations in 1992, just when the lawsuits and accusations started to pick up steam.  When I was a brand-new, idealistic young cop, I instinctively (deliberately?) avoided reading most of the news items about Burge.  I think some part of me just didn't want to deal with the possibility that even a fraction of the allegations could be true.  Over the years the allegations and lawsuits have piled up; in 1993 Burge was fired from the Chicago Police Department as a result of multiple abuse allegations, but he was never prosecuted.  Until now.

I have to say, I'm torn.  On the one hand, I have to think (to use a horrible cliche) if there's smoke, there's fire.  While I believe many people probably don't have too much of a problem with a cop slapping a murderer around to get a confession--at least, they didn't 20 or 30 years ago--decent people recoil from the idea of using electro-shock devices, or burning someone against a hot radiator.

On the other hand, I firmly believe that many well-meaning people cannot begin to comprehend how violent and predatory criminals are, and how well they lie and manipulate.  It does not take much for me to see how a group of career criminals could easily concoct a story, either for the purpose of retaliating against an officer doing good enforcement work, or to make money in a lawsuit.  There's no doubt that it's harder to investigate violent crime now than it was 20 years ago--it's harder to get witnesses to talk, it's harder to get confessions, and it's harder to get the State's Attorney to charge the case at all.  When Jon Burge was working, CPD cleared something like 80% of reported murders, and now that figure hovers around 37%.

(About 15 years ago I was doing a lot of investigations involving a street gang.  I got called in to the watch commander's office.   When I walked in he was talking with a man and woman.  He asked me some innocuous question, I answered, and I left.  About 15 minutes later he called me back.  The couple had come in to place a formal complaint against me, claiming that I illegally entered their apartment and conducted a search.  They even handed the commander one of my business cards.  The commander called me in to see if they'd identify me, which they didn't.  They'd been told to come in and file a complaint by one of their gang member relatives, and had gotten one of my cards from someone I'd dealt with weeks earlier.  They were attempting to get me, and my partner, to back off of something we were working on.  I had never met them before, and had never even been at their apartment.)

Jon Burge has not been charged with official misconduct or any other offense directly related to the alleged torture of prisoners.  He was charged with perjury for lying in a civil lawsuit.  His city-provided attorney, instead of advising Burge to "take the Fifth", allowed Burge to testify that he had no knowledge of, and had never participated in, any abuse of prisoners.  Federal prosecutors believed there was enough evidence that torture had in fact taken place (the result of a decade's worth of civil lawsuits and police administrative hearings) that they charged Burge with perjury.  The irony is, had Burge invoked the same 5th Amendment right that he is accused of denying the prisoners in his custody, he would never have arrived at this point.

What is the evidence against Jon Burge?  In the narrow sense, in this case, it is the testimony of a handful of felons, former defense attorneys and a couple of former police officers.  In the broader sense, the case against Jon Burge has largely been built over two decades of investigative news stories and civil lawsuits.  There is a mountain of negatives.

Reporter John Conroy of the Chicago Reader has written about Burge and related issues of police abuse since the early 1990's, and it's harrowing reading.  You can find a collection of those stories here.  He has blogged about the current trial here.  He has an interesting assessment of the weaknesses of both defense and prosecution cases here: Burge Trial: Bad hands on both sides

A man I had tremendous respect for, Dr. Robert Kirschner, said that in his opinion there was torture used against prisoners in Area 2.  Dr. Kirschner was a forensic pathologist with the Cook County Medical Examiner, and a recognized expert on torture.  He died in 2002. 

There have been multiple federal civil rights lawsuits, and millions of dollars in settlements paid out by the City of Chicago.  There have been multiple overturned sentences.  The sheer volume of accumulated evidence and witness statements led Judge Milton Shadur to make this statement: 

"It is now common knowledge that in the early to mid-1980s Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and many officers working under him in the physical abuse and torture of prisoners to extract confessions."

U.S. ex rel. Maxwell v. Gilmore 37 F. Supp.2d 1078 (N.D. Ill. 1999)

For all of that, the fact remains that Jon Burge was never convicted in a criminal court of torturing a prisoner in his custody.  He was never even charged. 

Defenses of Burge fall into two general categories:

  • Everyone is lying, and Burge, a hard-working and heroic cop battling murderous thugs, is being framed by jailbirds and gang members who are colluding.  The profit motive, in the form of large cash settlements, ensures that plenty of bottom-feeding attorneys come on board to help out.
  • Sure, Burge might have roughed up some bad guys, but all they did was beat the truth out of murderers who wouldn't have otherwise talked. 
That second defense is found more often in blog comments and barrooms than in court.  The first defense is the one that Burge's attorneys went with, and we'll see if the jury finds it convincing.  Both sides made strong closing statements:

After recalling how witnesses who had no connection to each other alleged many of the same allegations of torture, and how medical staff and attorneys corroborated their accounts, Weisman said Burge wanted jurors to believe that all of the witness are incorrect.

"The defendant wants you to believe that all those people are liars, mis-interpreters or mis-rememberers. He's (Burge) the only truth teller. But Jon Burge is the liar," Weisman said.

You see, while Jon Burge was doing his job as a rookie police officer in the city of Chicago, Anthony Holmes was infecting the neighborhood of Englewood," Beuke thundered in a thick Chicago accent, his raspy voice filling the courtroom. "Anthony Holmes' calling in life was to turn the streets of Englewood into a crime-infested, gun-infested, drug-infested neighborhood."
 
The contrast set the theme for the rest of his argument as he methodically worked through the cases of Holmes, Banks, Mu'min, Jones and Wilson, asking jurors whether they would take the word of convicted, violent felons and gang members over the words of police and prosecutors.

No reasonable person can dispute that police work is carried out in a different, and less physical way, than it was 30 years ago.  Commander Burge did not operate in a vacuum, and it boggles the mind to think that one man could have carried out the alleged reign of terror on his own. 

In 1982, when Andrew Wilson was turned over to Cook County Jail after being charged, his injuries were serious enough to cause him to be admitted to Cermak, the jail hospital ward.  The doctor in charge, John Raba MD, sent a letter to CPD Superintendent Breczek, alerting him that Wilson had possibly been abused.  Breczek then sent a letter to then-Cook County State's Attorney Richard Daley, essentially asking Daley what to do.  Daley did not respond, but more than 10 years later claimed (with no evidence I've been able to find) that Wilson did not want to go in front of the Grand Jury and so no investigation occurred.
     
Letter to Daley[1]

If there was ever enough evidence to charge Jon Burge with abusing prisoners, he should have been charged.  He wasn't, and it seems to me that this trial was less about perjury than it was about trying to make one man pay for 30 year old allegations.  Unless the prosecutor convinced the jury that this case was really about all those earlier torture allegations and not just lying in a civil trial, I wouldn't be surprised to see a mistrial or an acquittal.

Jon Burge is a product of a different time and place in policing.  It seems strange that of all the people involved in these allegations, including former Cook County State's Attorneys and Chicago Police Superintendents,  that he's the only man who's been charged with a crime.

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11 Comments

irishpirate said:

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I wouldn't put that much credence into what Breczek has to say. Breczek later ran for States Attorney against Daley and Daley unsuccessfully prosecuted him for hiring his flight attendant girlfriend to do some decorating for the police department.

He was the Police Superintendent at the time. Theoretically, he could have disciplined Burge. Burge moved rapidly up through the department ranks. I wonder if he had some outside clout or his "methods" and results made him popular with the brass. Burge continued as a Commander well into the reign of Washington, Sawyer, and the early Daley Mayoralty with a variety of police Superintendents in charge.

It's very clear that Burge not only had help from lower ranking officers, but that his bosses at the very least turned a blind eye towards his methods as did some States Attorney employees.

If there were justice in this world Burge would have been tried years ago and others would have stood on trial next to him. Then again, justice is an elusive thing.

I can understand the desire to torture or kill someone after they've done something heinous, but there have to be rules and lines that can't be crossed. Personally, I felt a strong desire to take the four mopes who killed Officer Wortham last month out to a Forest Preserve where only I would return. Thankfully, we don't live in a society that would welcome that even though it might be justified.

Wendy C said:

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"When Jon Burge was working, CPD cleared something like 80% of reported murders, and now that figure hovers around 37%."

Hypothetically speaking, is it acceptable that if Burge used less than legal methods, including possible abuse, the methods he used were justified by his record? The fact that criminals are evil justifies such methods? Is the Dirty Harry approach ever acceptable?

Joe the Cop said:

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Dirty Harry was quick to shoot, but he never used electrical shocks, burns or suffocation.

irishpirate said:

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Also in the 2nd Dirty Harry movie DH took on a group of vigilante cops and offed them.

As was said in "The Wire":

"a man's gotta have a code".

Big Mike said:

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Don't you think that it is important to get convictions on the right people. Whatever you believe, Burge will die in jail. Protate cancer is very painful.

irishpirate said:

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For some background on the Daley/Breczek love affair.

http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1P2-3825901.html

irishpirate said:

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You need to change the title of this post from

Jon Burge: torturer, hero, or scapegoat?

to

Jon Burge: Felon.

Barring a successful appeal he will live with that for the rest of his life.

Big Mike said:

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Your article fails to mention that many of those “criminals” were proven innocent and released from prison with exoneration. You also failed to mention that the reason Burge was not charged with his acts of torture was only because of the statute of limitations. That is the only reason that he was not charged and convicted of torture. It has been proven that he is a liar. If you are a fan of his kind of police work, you should pray for his comrades. They should be worried. Because Fitzgerald may come after them also. I believe that Burge has prostate cancer. It is a very painful way to die. If this is a civilized country, he will end his life in excruciating pain in a prison infirmary. I hope he will accept God into his life. If he does not, he may burn in hell forever. You also failed to mention that the people that were guilty of these crimes that these men were falsely accused of went free. Jon Burge is a monster and is lower than a pedophile. Richard Daley should also be praying.

Big Mike said:

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It is only right that Jon Burge should die in jail.

Big Mike said:

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You say in your report, "If there was ever enough evidence to charge Jon Burge with abusing prisoners, he should have been charged." You must be special education. I doubt if you are really a detective. There was evidence. You must be unable to read what the papers printed. It was beyond the statute of limitations. Whatever the case: Burge will die in excruciating pain in jail with other felons.

Joe the Cop said:

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Big Mike, thanks for driving up my page views by commenting on a 2-week old post 4 times in as many hours. Do you make a habit of commenting about articles that you don't actually read? It certainly seems that way.

Had you actually read this post, you'd see that I acknowledged the wrongful convictions that resulted from Burge:

"There have been multiple federal civil rights lawsuits, and millions of dollars in settlements paid out by the City of Chicago. There have been multiple overturned sentences."

Regarding your comment about the statute of limitations expiring, the first written abuse allegation was made in 1982 (a copy of which is in that big picture embedded right in the post, fyi) and Burge was fired from CPD for abuse allegations in 1993. In other words, the Cook County State's Attorney and the US Justice Department had more than a decade while Burge was still serving as a cop in which to investigate and charge him criminally. They also had several years after he was fired, during which civil lawsuits continued to be filed.

During that entire time, no one in a position to do so saw fit to launch a criminal investigation against Jon Burge.

In the future, you might want to take a remedial reading class, or at least take a Valium before commenting on this blog.

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