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Charges in Police Torture Saga

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Lawyer/activists say they'll keep pushing to bring justice to people who were tortured by Chicago Police officers in the 1970s and 80s. They've already kept the pressure up for more than two decades. Yesterday (tuesday) they reached a major milestone when federal prosecutors indicted a former police commander in connection with the torture.

In announcing the charges yesterday, U-S attorney Patrick Fitzgerald left little doubt as to why they've gone after Jon Burge.

FITZGERALD: Former commander Burge, while working in area two as a detective, later a seargeant and then a lieutenant, participated in and witnessed the abuse of people in police custody.

But Burge isn't actually being charged with those crimes because too much time has passed under the statute of limitations.

FITZGERALD: There's no one in the world who could bring a charge for that torture and abuse. That's over. Turn that page.

Instead prosecutors are charging Burge with obstruction of justice and perjury.

FITZGERALD: If people commit multiple crimes and you can't prosecute them for one, there's nothing wrong with prosecuting them for another. If Al Capone went down for taxes, that was better than him going down for nothing.

Prosecutors say Burge lied in court documents in 2003 when he said he never verbally or physically coerced any suspects during detention or interrogation. And they say he lied again in the same court papers when he said he never witnessed any other officers using verbal or physical coercion.

WILLIS: All you gotta do is prove that it happened and that he had to know about it because he was there.

Standish Willis is a local attorney who's represented several alleged torture victims. He's sounds surprisingly confident given that this torture saga has been drawn out for more than two decades. Prosecutors are saying that Burge lied about the torture, but that of course presupposes that the torture actually occurred. To prove that, Willis expects they'll call torture victims, all of whom are African American. Their testimony will be corroborated by black detectives who weren't in the room when torture took place but had a pretty good idea about what was going on. They've come forward and stated under oath that they heard suspects screaming in interrogation rooms and saw the so called black box which victims say was used to give them electrical shocks, sometimes on the genitals. Willis says the last piece of the puzzle will be a couple of the white cops who actually engaged in torture with Burge.

WILLIS: There's no loyalty now, cause these guys are not police now.

Willis thinks former police officers will flip under the threat of prosecution.
 
WILLIS: Police going to prison is in some ways a little more taxing than the rest of us. You're going to get one or two or more that will be glad to testify to yeah, I was in there with Jon Burge and I saw him you know torturing somebody or I saw him with the black box, or he told me. That's all it takes and Jon Burge is history and then we go after the rest of them.

TAYLOR: When you do it for this long and you fight this hard and against such odds, you never get too high or you get too low.

That's Flint Taylor, another attorney whose spent the last twenty years on this issue. Yesterday's indictment is the first criminal prosecution that's been brought as a result of the torture allegations so it's a major milestone but Taylor, like Willis didn't really stop to enjoy the victory. Taylor says there are still people in Illinois prisons who were tortured into confessing. He says they deserve new trials. And then there are other torture victims who deserve some sort of reparations from the city. And then there are the other officers involved and the people who were in power at the time. Taylor points the finger at Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine. Daley was the State's Attorney and Devine the first assistant in the early eighties when torture allegations first surfaced.

TAYLOR: They chose not to prosecute at that time and they then became part of the cover-up at that time.

Yesterday a spokesman said Devine had meetings all afternoon and didn't have time to talk. Daley told reporters he's proud of his record as prosecutor.

DALEY: The police department cleared him and they promoted him in the eighties. I wasn't the mayor then. I was not the mayor then.

Federal prosecutors stress that their investigation into police torture and abuse is ongoing. Burge says he will plead not guilty.

I'm Robert Wildeboer, Chicago Public Radio.

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