Burge trial: Guilty

June 28, 2010

The jury reached a verdict today shortly after 3:00 pm, the second full day of deliberation, finding former police commander Jon Burge guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice. Burge, in a dark suit, looked somber when the jury entered and showed no reaction to the verdict in the presence of the jurors. After the jury was excused, William Gamboney, one of the commander's attorneys, walked to the end of the defense table and patted his client on the back, as if to offer comfort. Burge smiled. The crowd in the courtroom was silent, perhaps because of the US Marshals warnings about expressing any emotion and perhaps because many of those who had opposed Burge for years arrived a few minutes too late to get into the courtroom. Bond was not revoked, and it seems unlikely that it will be, so Burge will remain free until his sentencing, which is scheduled for November. Maximum penalty for the three charges is 45 years. Prosecutors declined to say afterward what sentence they would ask for. In the hallway outside the courtroom, People's Law Office attorney Flint Taylor, who has represented several men who claimed torture by Burge and detectives under his command, said he was "very elated that this jury, with only one black person, spoke loudly and clearly, that after all these years, this torture has now been recognized in a court of law and the man responsible for it is going to prison." "It took so many years, but finally there is official recognition of this sordid chapter in Chicago history," said Rob Warden, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, which has been in the forefront of the battle to get the Cook County State's Attorney, the Illinois Attorney General, Cook County judges, and the Illinois Supreme Court to recognize that torture occurred (a battle usually lost). "Justice was delayed, but it was not denied. If this hadn't happened, it would have been a tremendous setback." Warden, who said he found it "strange to be rooting for prosecutors," predicted that Burge's conviction might provide relief for the approximately 20 men still in prison on the basis of suspect confessions taken by detectives working for Burge who have been accused of using a variety of methods of coercion. If those men are granted hearings, Warden said, it is likely that their confessions will be suppressed. Prosecution would then become difficult, depending on what other evidence is available in each case and depending upon whether detectives are willing to testify given the likelihood of prosecution for perjury by the U.S. Attorney. Warden also believed that the verdict today could open the door to new civil suits for wrongful conviction. The Burge verdict is a major victory for the U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and the prosecutors who argued the case before Judge Joan Lefkow and a slap in the face of Cook County State's Attorneys who repeatedly turned a blind eye to the torture. The prosecution came 37 years after Burge first used electric shock to interrogate Anthony Holmes and decades after county prosecutors had evidence that serious crimes had been and were being committed by Burge and detectives under his command. Even as a dozen men awaited execution on the basis of suspect confessions, county prosecutors declined to investigate whether those confessions had been coerced and whether detectives had perjured themselves in testifying about how those statements had been extracted. "It's a theme in our nation's civil rights history that corrupt, bigoted or inept state systems that can't deal with their own problems require the intervention of the federal authorities," Locke Bowman, director of the MacArthur Justice Center and Northwestern law professor, said today. "This is another example. Most of the prosecutors and judges at 26th Street are deeply entrenched with the police and the status quo. It doesn't surprise me that in the end it took the U.S. Attorney's Office and the U.S. Department of Justice to do what the state authorities should have done 30 years ago." Fitzgerald's prosecution was built on a very slim thread. James Sotos and Michael Condon, Burge's city-funded attorneys, had him take the Fifth Amendment throughout civil suits that arose after Governor George Ryan pardoned four torture victims in 2003, but instituted that practice only after Burge had responded to the first two interrogatories filed in the four cases. In his answers to Madison Hobley's interrogatories, Burge denied observing or having knowledge of physical abuse and torture by Chicago police officers are Area 2. The documents were both improperly notarized by bank workers in Florida, where Burge lives, lacking essential information that notaries are supposed to record. At trial the two notaries acknowledged that they hadn't actually administered an oath, a fact which Burge's attorneys had played prominently in their opening arguments and returned to again in their motion for acquittal after the prosecution's case was complete. But the judge denied the motion, and the jury was later instructed that federal law does not require the formality of raising one's right hand and swearing to tell the truth, that someone who knowingly assumes the obligation of an oath and then provides false testimony is guilty of perjury. Burge had signed one of the documents under the words "I, Jon Burge"¦.state on oath"¦that the answers therein are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief." Thus while scores of felonies allegedly committed by Burge in interrogation rooms were not prosecutable by Fitzgerald due to the expiration of the statute of limitations, and the thousands of pages of testimony and depositions from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s in which he'd denied the torture under oath were useless for the same reason, the U.S. Attorney was able to use less than 60 words from two documents to get a conviction that many thought would never come. At a press conference after the verdict was read, Fitzgerald indicated that he doesn't see this verdict as the end of the road, that the office is still investigating officers who served under Burge. "I just feel great," Gregory Banks said when reached early this evening. Banks was one of five victims whose cases were presented by assistant U.S. Attorneys David Weisman, April Perry, and Betsy Biffl at Burge's trial. Banks said he heard the news of Burge's conviction from his mother, who spotted it on television at 4:15 today. Banks, laid off 7 months ago from his job at Moo & Oink, a wholesale and retail meat purveyor, is studying to become an alcohol and drug counselor. His life will not change as a result of the conviction, he said. Banks won a $92,500 settlement in his civil suit in the early 1990s. Afterward he had several convictions for burglary. "I am glad that they got him," Banks said, "But I am still looking for them to get the two men who tortured me." Banks was alluding to two other officers who he says beat and suffocated him in 1983, men who have not been indicted. Reached at his sister's home, Melvin Jones said he was "flabbergasted" by the verdict. "I hugged my wife, I jumped around and some things like that, but the main thing was that I got justice, something I have been wanting for 28 years." Jones, who never filed a civil suit and who is now homeless, testified that he was shocked on his foot, thigh, and penis by Burge in 1982. On the witness stand he admitted that he had been convicted of armed robbery, theft, and drug offenses. "I wasn't an angel," Jones said this evening, "but I didn't deserve the suffering he put me through. Everyone I turned to thought I was crying wolf." "I just kept hoping and praying he would have his day, and today is his day. He got a chance to reap what he sowed. I am just so thrilled about it because I told him his day would come, but he was so busy torturing me that he didn't hear me. But I think his ears have been opened up and he can hear it now." "It's like a breath of fresh air," Anthony Holmes said late tonight. "It's like a new life." Holmes, the first known electric shock victim, was tortured into giving a 60 page statement confessing to involvement in a murder and a variety of other crimes. Holmes was a leader of the Gangster Disciples as well as of the Royal Family, a gang that carried out armed robberies. He now works two jobs, doing maintenance in a clothing manufacturer's warehouse and delivering bundles of the Tribune to stores. Like Jones, he never filed a civil suit and has no option now of doing so, the statute of limitations on the torture having expired decades ago. "It won't stop the nightmares I been having," Holmes said, "but now he is going to have some of his own. He took our life away and now someone is taking his away. "It's been a long time coming. I thought they [the jury] were going to let us down. I figured he would just win again. But we got people who believe in us now."
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