Burge trial: The commander sells his story

June 18, 2010

On the witness stand yesterday morning, former police commander Jon Burge did his best to present himself as a man who was master of a difficult job in difficult times. Yes, there had been hundreds of murders on his watch at Area 2. Yes, he'd dueled with the El Rukns and the Gangster Disciples and a variety of smaller gangs. Yes, drugs and guns and violence were the order of the day. But he was tough, willing to tell the jury, in frank, cop language, how he played things with suspects. ("I told him, "ËœI'm not going to blow smoke up your rear end.'") And he was a master of detail. Asked what high school he went to, he didn't say "Bowen," but "James H. Bowen, 2710 East 89th Street." He was precise on dates. He recalled what seemed minor aspects of cases, casually mentioning, for example, that when Andrew Wilson was arrested, there was a mail carrier in the station who had provided information. (He left out a detail or two in that account: The postal worker was Doris Miller, 45, a neighbor of the Wilsons', who had never been arrested before, and who later testified that she had been handcuffed to a windowsill in an interview room, was denied access to a toilet for about 14 hours, and ultimately had to relieve herself in an ashtray in front of a man also confined in the room.) He showed the jury he could laugh at himself (after they saw footage of a 1982 press conference where a trim Burge with red hair stood behind the police superintendent, the commander noted that his hair was a bit different then -- it is now as white as snow -- and that he was a few pounds lighter (I'm guessing upwards of 75 pounds lighter). And he cried, once when describing a briefing just before cop-killer Andrew Wilson was arrested, and a second time, as the noon break approached, he was near tears as well. In the afternoon, under cross examination, he got testier. "I have said that to you about four times, counselor," he snapped at prosecutor David Weisman. He said he'd only heard of the possible existence of a "code of silence" on the police force a few years ago from "a bottom-feeding lawyer." He demanded more of the jury, asking that they believe that he wanted to make sure cop-killer Andrew Wilson was "treated in the nicest possible way" after his arrest for the brutal murder of two Irish American police officers. In the morning, he'd told the jury he was the kind of supervisor who would often peak into an interrogation room to monitor his detectives, but in the Wilson case, which may have been the most important case of his career, he told the jury he'd hardly seen Wilson after his arrest, and certainly not after an afternoon lineup. (Wilson describes an electric shock session, and even the assistant state's attorney who took Wilson's confession, testifying in the 1992 Police Board hearings, put Burge in the interview room with Wilson immediately after the statement -- though the jury doesn't know that as it hasn't come into evidence. The assistant state's attorney has taken the Fifth.) Burge asked that the jury believe that Anthony Holmes, a man he identified as the "barn boss" in prison, the "toughest guy in the penitentiary," was "quite cooperative" from the get-go after his arrest. All it took, the former commander said, was a brief interview in which Burge and a homicide detective pointed out Holmes's predicament, and after that the renowned tough guy gave a statement more than 60 pages long, implicating himself and a good number of his friends, confessing to a series of violent crimes, some of which the Area 2 detectives didn't know had been committed. (At the outset of the trial, Holmes told a harrowing tale of electric shock and suffocation at Burge's hands.) Burge's department commendation for the Holmes arrest, briefly displayed yesterday, praised his "skilful questioning." Burge seemed to want the jury to believe he was highly competent, a man you'd want to have in charge, and yet something of a bumbler when dealing with a lawsuit that might cause him severe financial damage. At the outset of that lawsuit, he was asked in written interrogatories if he had ever used a long list of abusive practices, some of them clear (the use of "firearms, telephone books, typewriter covers, radiators, or machines that deliver electric shock" to inflict pain, suffering or fear) and some of them considerably less so ("the use of photographs or polygraph testing" as a form of verbal or physical coercion). In his answer he objected to the question (number 13 on the list), as "overly broad, unduly vague, and ambiguous" and calling for a legal conclusion, but he went on to say, "I am not aware of any." Yesterday, he wanted the jury to believe that because he didn't understand the vague clauses, he shouldn't be taken to task for denying the ones that a child could understand. "What is your understanding of question 13?" his attorney asked. "Beats me," Burge said. The most difficult selling job came late in the day, when prosecutor Weisman asked Burge about his confrontation with the armed robber Shadeed Mu'min in 1985. On Monday, former Area 2 detective Michael McDermott, given immunity from prosecution, described seeing Burge put something transparent over Mu'min's face, and Mu'min took the stand on Tuesday and described being suffocated with a typewriter cover three times. Yesterday, Burge praised McDermott as an "excellent police officer and a very good detective." Weisman asked if there was anything that a reasonable person could have misconstrued had they witnessed the incident, anything that a reasonable person could have mistakenly believed was Burge putting plastic over a man's face. "I don't believe so," Burge said. But he offered the jury the possibility that McDermott was making it up to meet the demands of prosecutors. "He appeared to me that he was terribly distraught and under tremendous pressure." McDermott's past is littered with cases in which he was alleged to have abused suspects. Juries have acquitted men who allegedly confessed to him. Confessions he has taken have been suppressed by Cook County judges, impressed by allegations that they were coerced. He is probably quite familiar with "tremendous pressure." But the jury doesn't know that. The extent of McDermott's checkered career hasn't been displayed.