Jon Burge Trial: What the jurors don't know

June 28, 2010

The prosecution built its case on the accounts of five torture victims, and the jury, now deliberating, must confine itself to the evidence and argument presented in the courtroom. The more than 100 other known cases are off limits, as are the 1990 report from the Office of Professional Standards and the 2006 conclusions drawn by the Cook County Special Prosecutor, both of which indicated that Burge and his detectives tortured suspects on a regular basis. At least some of the jurors, and perhaps all, have no idea that a lengthy list of victims exists, or that previous investigations have concluded Burge is guilty. Before trial, when potential jurors were called in and quizzed one-by-one about prejudices they might have, one African-American woman was disqualified after she said she'd been reading about the torture for years and had strong opinions about it. One white man, the trustee of a Chicago suburb who was ultimately selected, said he had no knowledge at all of Burge or the accusations. The judge asked if he read the newspapers. "No," he said, "but my wife does." The victim list, which now stands at 110, is maintained by attorneys from the People's Law Office. It did not come about because of some systematic method, some combing of all the Area 2 and Area 3 cases that Burge supervised. That would have almost certainly require government resources and subpoena power, and no government body ever showed that kind of interest, even after the Office of Professional Standards concluded in 1990 that abuse had been "systematic" in the Burge regime. Even then some victims would likely have been missed, as it wasn't just the ultimately convicted who were abused, but also suspects who were never indicted and some witnesses. The list instead came about in a more haphazard fashion: PLO attorneys representing cop-killer Andrew Wilson when his civil suit against Burge and the city was heard in 1989 began getting anonymous letters in police department envelopes that pointed them to victim Melvin Jones, who claimed to have been shocked on his foot, thigh, and penis by Burge. After Jones was interviewed, a transcript of his 1982 hearing was pulled, and in it he said that Burge had boasted of having tortured two other men. Those two men led the PLO to a few others in their circle who had also been abused. The attorneys also found one-day press coverage of a defense attorney who complained in 1984 that a shock device used on Wilson had been recently used on his two clients (reporters did not follow up the complaint). Slowly, word began to get out that certain attorneys were gathering this information. Over the course of the next decade the list began to grow as various prisoners contacted the PLO and as various other attorneys began to link cases together. A list of 11 cases cited by the PLO shortly after the arrival of the anonymous letters in 1989 grew to 61 in 1997 and 107 in 2006. In closing argument at this trial, Burge defense attorney Richard Beuke portrayed the five victims as co-conspirators in a plot to blacken the commander's reputation, men who crossed paths in prison and decided to come up with the same story in an effort to suppress their confessions and make money on civil suits afterward. Prosecutor April Perry effectively refuted that notion in her rebuttal -- three of the five had never filed civil suits, and depending on such a strategy to get a confession thrown out would have been foolhardy anyway as no one had any success with it but Gregory Banks, whose confession was ruled the by-product of torture only after he spent seven years in jail. But had the jury somehow known the length of the PLO list, the argument would have been seen as even more preposterous. PLO attorney Flint Taylor analyzed the list in November, 2006, when it included 107 victims, noting certain patterns. Burge was posted to Area 2 in the years 1972-1974, 1977-1980, and 1981-1986, and it turned out that the accusations followed his tenure. They began after he first arrived at Area 2, when he left, they subsided, and when he returned, the accusations did as well. In 1988, Burge was transferred to Area 3 to serve as commander of the detective division there, and at that point, accounts of torture and abuse picked up again, this time in the commander's new domain. Twenty-six of the 107 complaints on the list are from Burge years in Area 3. He'd brought various former Area 2 detectives to Area 3 when he assumed command there, and their names, which had appeared regularly in the Area 2 complaints, appear again in the accounts of torture from Area 3. Speaking of all 107 cases in his 2006 analysis, Taylor wrote, "Burge was named as directly involved in 35 cases, and was the supervisor in all of the remaining cases"¦. Torture by electric shock was alleged in 22 cases, and the threat of electric shock in 4 additional cases. In most of these cases, the electric shock was administered by a generator housed in a dark box, with a cattle prod or curling iron type device used on other occasions. Burge was alleged to be directly involved in 15 of these cases." "Suffocation by typewriter cover or plastic bags were alleged in 23 cases. Burge was directly involved in 10 of those suffocation cases"¦.Mock executions and gun threats were reported on 15 occasions. Most frequently, this terrifying act took the form of "Russian roulette" -- guns to the head or in the mouth"¦.On five other occasions, the victim was beaten with a pistol or a shotgun. "Beatings with a flashlight were reported 13 times, with a phone book 13 times, with a nightstick 6 times, with a rubber hose or lead pipe three times, and with a small baseball bat once. On 36 occasions, the victim alleged attacks on their genitals, by shocking, kicking, or striking with an object, while on 6 occasions, the victim was choked or gagged. On four occasions the victim alleged burning, on 3 occasions, the victim was subjected to ear cupping or thumb pressure"¦.On two occasions, the victim was suspended by his handcuffs"¦.and on one occasion, had his head placed in a toilet bowl. Sleep, food, and bathroom deprivation was also a common complaint." One man, Jesse Winston, died in an interrogation room at Area 2 in March, 1985. The police department concluded that he'd hung himself, and the medical examiner did not contradict them. Suicides in lockups, jails, and prisons occur with some frequency, but suicides in interrogation rooms are extremely rare. Three other men have alleged that they were threatened with hanging by detectives under Burge's command, and others said they had been choked or suffocated or hung by their handcuffs. Prosecutors who indicted Burge could of course not present evidence on 110 cases -- such a trial could take more than a year. It's not clear exactly how they chose the five they presented, but in response to my question over the weekend, Taylor made an educated guess at the possible logic: The Anthony Holmes case was chosen, Taylor thought, because it was the first, establishing the beginning of the torture in 1973, and because he had some corroboration in terms of immediate outcry (witnesses, including Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who would say Holmes told them exactly what happened very soon after the torture occurred). The 1982 case of Melvin Jones was chosen because of its proximity to Wilson's (Wilson was tortured 9 days after Jones was), because Jones's attorney Cassandra Watson could back him up and testify to having talked with Burge about the "black box" torture device, and because Jones had been tested under fierce cross examination before, having testified at the Police Board hearing that resulted in Burge's firing in 1993. Wilson's case made the cut, Taylor thought, because it has the best medical evidence and because the photographs of his injuries are so compelling. Gregory Banks did not accuse Burge of being one of his torturers, but as it happened on the commander's watch and as he had also participated in Bank's arrest, the case offered a chance to show Burge's involvement as a supervisor. Banks's case had two other benefits as well: the Appellate Court had found that the confession had been coerced and medical evidence disputed the police account of how he had sustained his injuries. Shadeed Mumin's case, Taylor speculated, had one particularly outstanding virtue -- Mumin claimed he'd been suffocated with a clear plastic typewriter cover, and retired Detective Michael McDermott, testifying under a grant of immunity, told the grand jury that he'd seen Burge cover Mumin's face with plastic. The jury continues its deliberations on Monday. In order to return a verdict of guilty, they need to conclude that torture occurred in only one of the five cases presented.