Burge trial: Bad hands on both sides

June 24, 2010

It's been an interesting battle between two talented trios of lawyers, attorneys who, when the jury is not around, seem perfectly at ease and friendly with each other. Today, they do their final battle.
On the face of it, both sides began with bad hands. Prosecutors David Weisman, Betsy Biffl, and April Perry built their case on the stories of five victims -- Anthony Holmes, Melvin Jones, Andrew Wilson, Gregory Banks, and Shadeed Mu'min. As Biffl said in her opening, people who commit crimes are not nice people, "not clergymen, not nice old grandmothers." Some of her witnesses, she acknowledged, had committed "egregious crimes." Those crimes included the murder of two police officers, armed robberies, burglaries, and auto theft. No doubt she would have preferred five upstanding citizens with clean criminal records, but those aren't the sort of people who typically ended up in interrogation rooms at Area 2 in the Burge era, and if they did, it's unlikely they would have been tortured -- they'd have been too believable on the witness stand. Defense lawyers Richard Beuke, William Gamboney, and Marc Martin would probably have preferred to have different witnesses testifying for the commander as well. Assistant state's attorney Larry Hyman (who took Andrew Wilson's confession) and seven former detectives (all of them white) took the Fifth Amendment, the African-American former police superintendent Leroy Martin indicated he would as well, and it appears that another assistant state's attorney and former judge, who claims to have been present when Wilson was arrested and who vouched for Burge in the past, did the same or signaled his intentions to. Patrick O'Hara, one of the two officers who interrogated Wilson, who was not accused of brutalizing him, is dead. Also dead is John Yucaitis, an officer who was accused of giving Wilson electric shock. In the end, Burge produced only one officer to vouch for him, retired commander Frederick Miller, an elderly African American (he'd joined the force in 1957). Miller testified that he saw Wilson in the station that day and that he had no visible marks, but even Burge concedes that Wilson had a cut above his eye, supposedly inflicted during the arrest. And Miller seemed confused. He claimed to have been on the raid to arrest Wilson, which occurred at about 5:00 am, but later said he arrived at work at 8:30 that morning. He described Burge as a "hands on manager," perhaps an unfortunate choice of words in a trial dealing with torture. Another African American called to the stand by Burge, retired Cook County judge Wilbur Crooks, is a former CPD officer also, but he was testifying not to his police work or to Burge's reputation but to a confession he took in 1985 when he was working as a Cook County State's Attorney. Burge presented no officers who interrogated the five victims -- some took the Fifth, and some would not have been believable either. Two who were involved in Gregory Banks's case, for example, told conflicting stories about how he fell down a flight of stairs, sustaining injuries that a doctor who examined Banks has said were inconsistent with such a fall. The government has certain hurdles to overcome in each of the five cases. Attorneys for Holmes, who alleged electric shock and suffocation, did not file a motion to suppress his confession, which would have been the likely thing to do given their client's allegations. This can be used to suggest that Holmes made no immediate outcry to the only people who could help him suppress the allegedly tortured confession. Andrew Wilson's case was well fogged-up by the defense: anyone trying to sort through the medical evidence could only be confused (some medical personnel saw burns on the chest, some did not), and as the transport drivers, both now dead, inflicted new injuries after Wilson left Area 2, it can be baffling to figure out who inflicted what and when it was inflicted. Gregory Banks, with multiple convictions for burglary and years of drug use, told a story that involved Burge only in the most peripheral way, not as a hands-on torturer. Under cross-examination by Gamboney, Banks lost his cool completely and became obstructive, refusing to properly answer questions. It seems unlikely that he impressed the jury. Melvin Jones came to the witness stand on May 27th with a lot of baggage: much was made of him being a suspect in the murder of a state witness; he had a record for armed robbery, theft, and drug dealing; he'd been a heroin addict; he'd had a brain aneurism; and he is now homeless. Nevertheless he was no slouch on the witness stand. Unlike Banks, he kept his cool under Gamboney's pressure, not wavering from his story that Burge had shocked him on his foot, thigh, and genitals. His attorney, Cassandra Watson, followed to back up his story. Watson, an African American who passed the bar 33 years ago, now works as an administrative law judge for Cook County. Unlike Holmes's attorneys, she did file a motion to suppress, she was very certain of herself, and she testified to a running banter with Burge about "the black box" (a shocking device) and whether he was going to use it on any particular day. She testified that Burge once told her, "The black box leaves no marks." On cross-examination Gamboney took her to task for not stepping down as Jones's attorney in order to testify in his case about her knowledge of the black box, but she fired back that she'd not been idle, she'd reported it to the FBI, to a Circuit Court judge, and to the Police Department's Office of Professional Standards. The Jones story was later attacked by Burge witness Ricky Shaw, but not to great effect. Shaw, who appeared in an orange prison jumpsuit, told the jury that when he met Jones in Cook County Jail in 1987, Jones was organizing a campaign against the Area 2 detectives, recruiting people to complain about abuse and torture there. Shaw, however, has had a long career as a jailhouse informant and has been disciplined several times for providing authorities with false information. Shadeed Mumin, a bearded and hefty senior citizen and the last victim to testify, came with a lengthy career as an armed robber that seemed to clash with his slow demeanor and unthreatening appearance. He admitted he'd lied under oath before when he'd denied robbing a Brown's Chicken on the south side, which certainly hurts his credibility, and the aforementioned Burge witness Wilbur Crooks also helped the defense chip away at the Mumin story. Crooks, being African American, would seem to be someone unlikely to have gone along with torture, and he testified that the statement he took, signed by Mumin, clearly stated that the confession was given voluntarily. However, that confession was given the morning after the torture Mumin described, so it was not as if Crooks could say he heard no screams, and the torture Mumin alleged -- suffocation with a typewriter cover and Russian roulette -- typically leaves no marks, so Crooks could not be expected to have seen open wounds. And backing up Mumin's account was the government's star police witness, former Area 2 detective Michael McDermott, testifying under a grant of immunity. McDermott tried to say as little as he could to hurt Burge but couldn't dodge the fact that he'd told the grand jury that he'd seen Burge abuse Mumin, that he'd seen Burge put a piece of plastic over the suspect's face, and that Burge had pointed his weapon in Mumin's direction. Burge could offer no explanation for McDermott's testimony about the plastic, other than to suggest that the detective was under a great deal of pressure. For all of the problems in each of the five cases, the government has a certain advantage. Burge has to refute all five, but the jury has to believe only one victim was tortured to sustain a conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice. (Burge is charged with lying about the torture in two written interrogatories, documents filed in a civil suit in 2003, in which he denied any torture had ever taken place.) In closing for the Burge team, Richard Beuke can be counted on to portray Burge as an honorable man, decorated for heroism, and to lambast all five victims. (Beuke has been a good and loud lambaster throughout.) In opening arguments, Gamboney argued that if the victims were to be believed, then the Burge crew had more electrical devices than Radio Shack -- an attack on variations in the descriptions of the shock machines that Holmes, Jones, and Wilson described. Beuke will probably come back to that idea as well, and portray that trio as being in cahoots, all having been members of the Gangster Disciples. The former assistant state's attorney will also to try to run an end-around, attacking the documents on which Burge's indictment is based. In opening arguments, Gamboney portrayed them as loaded with confusing legalese and argued that the government would not be able to show Burge was ever sworn to tell the truth. Burge's signature rests underneath a paragraph that says he is filing it under oath, but the notary testified that no oath was actually given. Beuke can be expected to argue that without an oath there is no perjury. He may also highlight Burge's testimony that the words were not his, but those of his lawyer. The government will have to address both of those issues as well. Each side has been allotted two hours for closing. When that's up, the jury will have to decide whether Burge is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
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