Burge trial: Police react to the verdict

July 1, 2010

Two days after Jon Burge was found guilty of two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of perjury, I asked a range of policemen who'd served with the former commander or at the same time for their reactions to the verdict. John Byrne, who served as Commander Jon Burge's sergeant for many years, who has also been accused of participating in torture, and who now works as a private investigator, wrote: First, Jon Burge should have never been tried in Chicago because twenty-plus years of relentless pounding from an increasingly liberal media precluded his receiving a fair trial here. Even Richard Speck, murderer of seven nurses, got only months of adverse publicity before his trial was moved to Peoria, Illinois, in 1967. Second, Judge Joan Lefkow's bias toward the prosecution in the courtroom was palpable. Jurors can be affected by such behavior in two ways: They can either be turned off by it and reject it, or they can accept it and run with it. They chose the latter in Burge's case, due in no small part to pre-trial adverse publicity they could not be reasonably expected to erase from their minds. Further, Judge Lefkow should have never allowed Andrew Wilson's testimony to be read into evidence because, inter alia, Wilson had only been cross examined in a civil case where Jon Burge's liberty was not at stake. [Lefkow ruled that as Wilson had been cross examined numerous times by lawyers who had Burge's interest, the testimony was admissible.] Third, had Jon Burge been an ordinary civilian he would not have been indicted for perjury, the basis for which was lying in interrogatories in a civil action. People lie all the time in interrogatories, depositions, and trials in civil matters on both sides of a suit, and they are not prosecuted for perjury. Even witnesses for the prosecution and defense lie in criminal trials with impunity. Lying is never right, but selective prosecution isn't either. Moreover, had Jon Burge been an ordinary citizen he would have been acquitted because there was more than enough reasonable doubt raised to negate a finding of guilt. Even Michael McDermott's testimony would have been a wash in any other criminal trial. [McDermott, who served under Burge, testified for the prosecution with a grant of immunity. He claimed he'd seen Burge put something transparent over the face of armed robbery suspect Shadeed Mu'min. Mu'min testified he'd been suffocated with a typewriter cover.] Society demands a lot of its police officers, and rightfully so, but when some in society get a peek at the underbelly of police work, i.e., homicide investigations, they squeal like stuck pigs, take convicted murderers' outrageous allegations as gospel, and demand the heads of dedicated police officers on a stick; and, unfortunately, a compliant liberal media have carried their water, giving convicted murderers a virtual stage to shout out their lies and embellish them, for over two decades. One would think that with all the major advances in forensic science the homicide clearance rate in Chicago would be higher than the 80%-plus it was twenty-five years ago but, sadly, it is not because homicide detectives, the proud bunch they once were, have come to realize they can't even shout at a suspect, lest they be disciplined or, worse, criminally charged. The homicide clearance rate is stuck around 35% in Chicago; and, I predict, it will remain there for generations. Society reaps what it sows. A retired police commander, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote: The jury did its job - at least as it relates to Jon Burge. I'm very confident that the good men and women of the Chicago Police Department didn't know what Burge and his little crew were up to. But what about those much higher in the pecking order who did not investigate the numerous claims that people were being tortured. Who were Burge's immediate supervisors? Case closed??? John Eierman has known Burge since the two were in grammar school together. He later served with Burge in the third and fourth district, and both worked on the same floor of Area 2 for about two years, starting in 1973, but Eierman says he never hung out with Burge or his friends. Eierman retired from the force in 1995 after 22 years as a patrolman. He is now a highly regarded private investigator. In an interview, he said he found the claims of torture preposterous, and he told a story that he thinks illustrates Burge's disdain for brutality and excessive force. "One day I am assigned to the emergency room at South Chicago hospital. This was punishment duty because I'd been late for work. I couldn't sit there all night, so I'm walking the street in front of the hospital and some guy, kind of battered, comes up and says he's just been robbed, his van was taken from him by guys who had rifles and shotguns, they had also robbed a gas station and two or three other places, and they'd robbed a policeman and had his gun. They'd kept this guy for awhile and then kicked him out of the van. "I said, "ËœTake me back to where you got kicked out.' So he takes me about eight blocks away and stuck on a side street is the van, nobody in it. I'm thinking, "ËœThese idiots live right around here.' So I go around, I'm looking in the windows of houses, and in the basement of the third or fourth house, I see the guys, the rifle, the shotguns, and I call on the radio for help. "Burge comes with about ten other policemen. Burge and me knock on the door, the mother answers, I can't remember what we told her, but we got in. As soon as I hit the steps, the basement light goes off. Burge is in back of me and the rest of the cops are outside. "So we get down there and I dove behind the couch. I knew they were in the back, opposite from where I was at the time. I yelled, "ËœDrop your guns or I'm going to light you up like a Christmas tree.' The back of the basement light goes on, one guy has a gun and he drops it, and we take three guys into the 4th district to book them. "While we're doing the paperwork, one of these guys gets into it with one of the other officers, getting into a real pissing contest, saying he would beat the officer up if he wasn't wearing handcuffs. And he starts spitting, he's slobbering on me. And I'd had it. It took a ton of abuse for me to get pissed at a bad guy. I usually thought they were pretty sad cases. But this guy had been going on for a half hour. And I said to the other officer, "ËœGet out of here and shut the door.' And to the guy who's slobbering I said, "ËœTurn around, I'm going to take the cuffs off you, we'll see who's gonna beat up who.' "And I don't know if Burge heard me or if he just got lucky, because he opened the door and he said, "ËœJohn, what are you, crazy? You got a great arrest here, you're going to screw it up by beating this guy up?" And he takes the guy and puts him in the lockup. "Why didn't he shut the door and say, "ËœGo ahead and do it?' I was willing to do it. If he's the bad guy, the torturer, why didn't he let me get into it with this guy? "You know later, when I was in Area 2 all the time, I never heard screaming, I never heard stories about torture, I never saw anything like that. I wouldn't cover for Burge if I had seen something. I don't believe a hair of this torture shit happened." Howard Saffold joined the police in 1965 and retired in 1991. In 1968, he was one of the founders of what is now known as the African American Police League. In a phone interview last night, he said, "My first reaction to the verdict was that it was a slow justice, but a justice nonetheless in a case that was so egregious that it had put the whole justice system on trial, and jury is still out on whether or not the justice system will ever be viewed without skepticism from the public's perspective because of the time lag from the initial complaint [of torture] until the final adjudication." Saffold went on to commend the federal government for mounting a perjury and obstruction of justice prosecution when all avenues of indictment for the torture itself were precluded by the statute of limitations. By contrast, he said, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office had been convicted along with Burge. Its various leaders, particularly Richard Daley and Richard Devine, "knew, or should have known, the injustice being inflicted by Burge and his colleagues." Richard Brzeczek, now a defense attorney, was police superintendent in 1982 when Andrew Wilson was arrested. After receiving a letter from a Cook County jail doctor urging that Wilson's charges of torture should be investigated, Brzeczek opened an OPS investigation and sent the letter on to Richard Daley, then state's attorney, and asked for guidance. Daley did not respond to the letter. The OPS investigation went nowhere slowly, and was closed more than two years later, well after Brzeczek had been replaced as superintendent, with charges marked "unsustained." Brzeczek's response to the verdict was to make a proposal for reform. In an email, he pointed out that for decades, civil juries in police misconduct cases have often found in favor of the abused plaintiff and against the officers who committed the abuse, but usually the offending police officers suffer no consequences as a result. Taxpayers' funds are tapped to pay damages to the plaintiff. "History has shown us,"Brzeczek wrote, "that isolated civil suits and/or criminal prosecutions are not a deterrent to police misconduct," he wrote. He proposed that the damages paid to plaintiffs in police misconduct cases should be added up each year and the police payroll budget for the following year should be reduced by that amount. "This way the police officers, all of them, would pay the bill rather than the taxpayers. Maybe that would cause some change in the attitude that little to no risk exists. "In addition, since there is no remedy under the Civil Rights Act for a person victimized by police perjury, the state statute on perjury should be amended to the extent that upon conviction of a criminal defendant, the statute of limitations for perjury is tolled as to any potential prosecution of police witnesses whose testimony resulted in the conviction of that defendant. In the event that subsequent to conviction, it is determined that the defendant was framed or otherwise wrongfully convicted based on the false testimony of or withheld evidence by police officers, those police officers could then be prosecuted for perjury, obstructing justice, official misconduct, etc. as the statute of limitations would begin to run only when it is determined by a court that the defendant was wrongfully convicted." Former Area 2 detective Tom Bennett, also now a defense attorney, worked under Burge in the early 1980s but is not considered to be one of the A Team, also known as the midnight crew, the group of officers who have been accused of participating in the torture of suspects. "It is a sad day for John Burge, for the police department, and for the city of Chicago," Bennett said in a phone interview. "No one likes to see these things happen. "I wasn't friends with him, but I like him. He was a good cop. The police department was his life. He was a nice guy to work for, and I worked for a lot worse. If you were doing your job he was all for you. But he didn't like laggards or sloths. On the street, he was never afraid, he was willing to risk his life. It's a shame." Bennett, who left the unit in 1983, doubts the torture took place, not because he is familiar with the cases and the evidence, but because noise carried so well in the roughly 1,100 square feet the violent crimes unit occupied in the old Area 2 building on the corner of 91st and Cottage Grove. "If somebody said, "ËœF___ you,' you could hear it all over. If someone came in, you heard their feet before you saw them. Tile floor, plaster walls, nothing there to absorb the sound"¦.There are apartment buildings right next door, two second floor and third floor apartments, they didn't call anyone. And the fire department across the street, the firemen were almost all black. "Why didn't anyone say, "ËœI heard screams?' No one heard screams. If I were going to kick somebody's ass, you would hear screams. I would scream if somebody were kicking my ass." Bennett's question about the lack of screaming rose at Burge's trial. While some men alleged they had been tortured at a time when the station was relatively deserted, Andrew Wilson claimed he'd been given electric shock at a time when the station was packed with people. Sammy Lacey, an African American detective who came by the building that morning, claimed he'd heard a scream while he was on the street outside, but on cross examination he admitted that the news media had been there in force, both in and around the building. None of them ever reported hearing anything of the sort. On the other hand, Wilson claimed that while he was being shocked with a hand-cranked device, the current forced him to involuntarily grind his teeth, which could, of course, inhibit screaming. Doris Byrd and the late William Parker, African-Americans who served as detectives in Area 2, have previously said they heard painful noises coming from men being interrogated behind closed doors. Parker said that in approximately 1973, he heard "a shrill inhuman-type cry" that came from someone who was obviously in pain, that he opened the door to see what was going on and saw "a black male that was on the floor. His pants were open and down and he was handcuffed to the radiator." Burge and two other detectives were in the room, and one of the detectives seemed to be trying to hide something from view. Parker made that claim in a court-reported statement in 2004 given to People's Law Office attorney Flint Taylor. Parker was listed as a witness for the prosecution in Burge's trial, but he died three weeks before the trial began.
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