EDITOR’S NOTE: The Jon Burge torture scandal is a saga, now nearly 40 years old, of city, county, and federal government failure. BGA senior investigator John Conroy, who was instrumental in exposing the torture, reflects on the law enforcement officials who exceeded their authority, the prosecutors who did nothing about it, the elected officials who turned a deaf ear, and the costs incurred when our leaders aren’t held accountable.

By John Conroy

U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lefkow began her sentencing of former Chicago police commander Jon Burge last Friday by asking the commander to stand directly in front of her. From a distance of about ten feet, the slightly-built judge faced the massive commander, whose attorney had just praised him as “a man’s man,” so tough that even at 63 and in ill health he’d be a formidable foe in a fight.

Lefkow told Burge she thought he had lied in her witness box, that he had defiled the system of justice, and that he had undermined its administration irreparably.

She said she had received letters from people who described treatment at his hands that was more horrible than what she’d heard in court (considering that she’d heard men describe being shocked in the genitals and suffocated until they thought they would die, she probably did many in the courtroom a favor by not describing the content of those letters in detail).

The judge cited a “mountain of evidence” against Burge, indicated her displeasure that he’d refused to acknowledge what he’d done (his only remorse, in his brief speech before her, was for any damage done to the police department’s reputation), and then sentenced him to 54 months, double the sentence suggested by federal sentencing guidelines.

Burge’s acts of torture were beyond the reach of prosecutors, the statute of limitations having expired long before U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald took up the case. Lefkow’s sentence was for perjury and obstruction of justice, offenses committed in response to questions about torture in a civil suit filed by Madison Hobley. (Hobley had been convicted of the 1987 arson murders of seven people, including his wife and infant son. He walked off death row in January 2003, after being pardoned by Governor George Ryan.)

More than 100 men have complained of torture, beatings, and other forms of coercion and abuse at the hands of Burge and detectives who served under his command. To date, settlements, judgments, and fees paid to defend the police and the city have resulted in legal bills of more than $30 million. That figure will rise in years to come as cases now in the pipeline work their way toward verdicts or settlements. In addition, the human cost of the torture cases is impossible to measure. More than 20 men remain in prison on the basis of suspect confessions taken by detectives under Burge’s command. Other African-American men spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit. Families have been torn apart. And it is impossible to total the number of felonies committed by the “right” man while the wrong man was in prison.

In leaving perpetrators on the loose, the Hobley case is instructive. Years after Hobley’s pardon, his civil attorneys discovered 20 intentionally-set fires in a one mile radius of the 82nd Street apartment building in which Hobley had taken up residence. Hobley was a stranger to the neighborhood, having moved into the unit with his wife and son a few weeks before he was arrested. The 20 fires the attorneys identified spanned a 20-month period, 5 of them set before the Hobley fire, 15 afterward. Documents from the police investigation of the Hobley fire indicate that officers made no attempt to connect that blaze to any before or after. While Hobley was still sitting on death row, police reports surfaced revealing that a witness against him had been a suspect in two fires, set after Hobley’s arrest, within a block of Hobley’s building. Other police documents indicated that Commander Burge had interceded with his fellow officers on that witness’s behalf.

In her sentencing remarks, Judge Lefkow lamented the lack of supervision in the police department (the department allowed the torture gang to operate for decades). She pointed out that successive Cook County State’s Attorneys and federal prosecutors failed to do anything about the torture, thereby prolonging the suffering. (State’s Attorneys Richard Daley, Jack O’Malley, and Dick Devine have had successful careers in the law and politics without being held to account by any authority for the fact that they had ample evidence that torture had occurred and nonetheless chose to do nothing, even as innocent men awaited a date with the executioner.) And Lefkow decried the pattern of perjury by police officers that she sees on a regular basis in her courtroom: “…too many times I have seen officers sit in the witness box to my right and give implausible testimony to defend themselves or a fellow officer against accusations of wrongdoing. Each time I see it, I feel pain because the office they hold has been diminished.”

So what lessons can be learned here? Much of it comes down to the question posed by Plato and Juvenal: Who will guard the guards? Though the state’s attorney’s office’s role in the torture cases has been denounced for years, the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission has not sanctioned a single prosecutor or former prosecutor for looking the other way, for putting on perjured testimony, for seeking convictions instead of justice in the Burge cases. (Indeed, defense lawyers were mildly impressed when the agency recently brought a single Cook County prosecutor up on charges for courtroom offenses—a very rare event, but in this case, an event completely unconnected to the Burge cases.)

The Independent Police Review Authority (formerly known as the Office of Professional Standards) is charged with investigating a wide variety of police misconduct – excessive force, coercion, police shootings, verbal abuse, domestic violence, tasering, and “extraordinary occurrences.” IPRA received 5,541 complaints of excessive force and 11 complaints of coercion between September 1, 2007 and August 31, 2010. They referred 202 cases to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office for possible prosecution between July 1, 2007 and June 30, 2010, and though it is difficult to know how many of those involved brutality and coercion (the office could not provide a tally when contacted on Monday), it seems safe to assume that many did, as excessive force alone accounts for a majority of complaints filed. In response to a BGA inquiry last fall, the State’s Attorney’s office reported that of those 202 cases, 9 had resulted in prosecutions and 32 cases were pending “excluding police shootings and death in custodies.”

Of the nine prosecutions, four had been aided (perhaps dictated would be a better word) by videotape (the Anthony Abbate attack on bartender Karolina Obrycka in February 2007 and the December, 2006 brawl in the Jefferson Tap involving three officers). Two prosecutions were of inebriated officers (one had allegedly fired his weapon into the air outside a bowling alley where he moonlighted as a security guard, and the other officer had inexplicably attacked a 61-year-old man and 50-year-old woman in a Niles restaurant). Two other prosecutions involved domestic situations – one officer attacking a spouse, the other attacking his ex-wife and her boyfriend. The ninth prosecution was of an officer who was alleged to have broken the jaw of a teenager who had quarreled with the officer’s son.

None of the cases prosecuted involved excessive force in the context of a suspect or witness being brutalized.

In policing the police, the U.S. Attorney seems to be on the job, but only somewhat. At Friday’s post-sentencing press conference, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said that the investigation of Burge’s comrades continues. A good number, testifying under oath in civil suits, denied the torture took place. But the alumni of the Burge gang are not the only officers telling tall tales under oath. If Lefkow is seeing implausible police testimony in federal court, surely other judges in the building are seeing the same, and one would expect that judges in state court see it much more often, given the volume of cases they handle involving Chicago and suburban police officers. Federal prosecutors might be expected to leave perjury by police officers in Cook County courts to county prosecutors, but if there are people in the watchtowers there, it would seem they’ve been asleep for decades.

Asked to set the Burge sentence in context, Charles Hoffman, an attorney with the State Appellate Defender’s office, suggested looking back at Justice Louis Brandeis’s dissent in a 1928 Supreme Court decision, Olmstead v. United States.

“In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the end justifies the means—to declare that the government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal—would bring terrible retribution. Against that pernicious doctrine this court should resolutely set its face.”

>> If you’re new to this story

From the pattern of accusations against Jon Burge, it would appear that he began using electric shock to interrogate suspects in May, 1973. In the decades that followed, more than 100 men and one woman complained of shock, suffocation, mock executions, hangings by handcuffs, and other forms of torture and abuse administered by Burge and detectives under his command. The last accusations surfaced in the wake of arrests made in 1991.

Although the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office was aware that there was a pattern of accusations and convincing medical evidence, successive county prosecutors, including current Mayor Richard Daley, declined to investigate, even though leaving those stones unturned might mean that innocent men would be executed by the state. Federal prosecutors also declined to indict when approached in 1990.

Because of that prosecutorial reluctance, the statute of limitations on the acts of torture lapsed. Burge’s 2008 indictment by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was something of a fluke. Burge had made broad denials of the torture in two documents in a 2003 civil suit, and on the basis of less than 60 words, Fitzgerald found a way to indict him for perjury and obstruction of justice. He was convicted last June and sentenced on Friday, January 18, 2011. To learn more, visit this special section on the Reader‘s website.

>> Audio & Video

AUGUST, 2010: John Conroy and Michael Miner talk

Burge on 98.7WFMT Chicago’s “Critical Thinking with Andrew Patner”

Listen to Part 1

Listen to Part 2

JULY, 2010: John Conroy on Chicago Newsroom with Ken Davis