Would there be a Burge trial without Andrew Wilson's ears?

May 21, 2010

On Valentine's Day, 1982, Andrew Wilson was arrested in a west side apartment by Area 2 Violent Crimes Commander Jon Burge and a team of other officers. Wilson had been a fugitive for five days after killing Gang Crimes officers William Fahey and Richard O'Brien after they'd pulled him over in what must have seemed to them a routine stop. Instead of becoming a mere footnote in the annals of Chicago crime, Wilson became a driving force in the exposure of the police torture scandal. And in covering that scandal over the last 21 years, I've had occasion to wonder if former police commander Jon Burge would still be a high ranking officer today, indeed, if he might not have become superintendent, but for Andrew Wilson's ears. In testimony in his criminal case, in his civil suit against the city and the police department, and in the Police Board hearings that resulted in Burge's dismissal, Wilson maintained that hours after his arrest, he was handcuffed to a ring in the wall of an interrogation room at Area 2 when Burge walked in with a brown grocery bag. The bag contained a hand-cranked electrical device -- Wilson called it a "black box" -- with two wires attached, each topped by an alligator clip. Burge allegedly put one clamp on each of Wilson's ears and began cranking. "The pain just stays in your head," Wilson testified during his 1989 civil suit. ""¦.And your teeth constantly grinds and grinds and grinds and grinds and grinds." Wilson went on to say that although he was handcuffed, he could move his shoulders, and by pressing his ears against them he was able to spring free of the clamps. Burge and another officer solved that problem by handcuffing their suspect so that his arms were stretched from one side of the room to another, a sort of crucifixion position. On the witness stand in his 1989 civil suit, Wilson said the torture resumed.
A: . . . So I don't know if he put it back on my ears or what, but it didn't last long because he put it on my fingers, my baby fingers, one on one finger and one on the other finger and then he kept cranking it and kept cranking it, and I was hollering and screaming. I was calling for help and stuff.
What I think the officers hadn't counted on, however, was that the positioning forced by Wilson's adept use of his ears put him up against a hot radiator.
Q: While you were stretched across in this fashion, were you aware of whether or not the radiator was hot? A: I wasn't paying no attention, but it burned me still. But I didn't even feel it. . . . That radiator . . . it wouldn't have mattered. That box . . . took over. That's what was happening. The heat radiator didn't even exist then. The box existed.
Two days after his arrest, Wilson's public defenders arranged for an investigator to take photos of Wilson at Cook County Jail. He had no marks on his fingers, but the scabs on his ears looked like bites from a miniature crocodile. The burns on his chest suggested parallel branding. The burn on his thigh was jagged but linear.

William Kunkle, who previously represented Burge and is now a Cook County judge, tried arguing that Wilson's injuries were self-inflicted, or inflicted in part by transport officers after Wilson left Area 2. But the argument hasn't played well. The Police Department's Office of Professonal Standards' concluded in 1990 that Wilson had been tortured. The Police Board fired the commander in 1993. City attorneys deserted him in 1994, arguing that Wilson had indeed been shocked. And Special Prosecutor Edward Egan wrote in 2006 that the cop-killer was more credible than the much decorated Commander. "There simply has been no reasonable explanation," Egan wrote, ""¦for the burn marks and the marks on his ears." Burge was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice in 2008, charged with lying in response to questions about torture and other abuse in a federal civil suit filed by Madison Hobley, a man who also claimed to have been tortured at Area 2. That trial begins next week. Wilson will not appear. He died in prison in 2007 while serving a life sentence for the murder of Officers Fahey and O'Brien. However, because Wilson was cross-examined in two federal trials and the Police Board hearings by lawyers representing Burge, the dead man's testimony can be used in Burge's trial. You can bet that Wilson's ears will prominently displayed.
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