Jon Burge Trial: The man who isn’t there

Jon Burge Trial: The man who isn’t there

Although testimony from five victims has been presented in the government’s case against former police commander Jon Burge, Andrew Wilson’s stands most prominently among them. Wilson, who died in 2007, murdered two Chicago police officers on February 9, 1982, and contends he was given electric shock, suffocated, and burned against a radiator at Area 2 after his arrest five days later. Wilson’s case is the only one of the five in which the victim’s injuries were photographed. The photos are dramatic, depicting lacerations on his head and face, a huge burn on his thigh, linear marks on his chest that he testified were the results of being forced against a hot radiator, and patterned abrasions on his ears and nose that seem to support his story that alligator clips were put there by the commander in order to administer electric shock. The Burge defense team’s job is to convince the jury that those injuries either occurred before Wilson was arrested or after he was taken from Area 2. In this effort, they are aided by lacerations inflicted by the two transport officers who whacked Wilson between the time they picked him up at Area 2 and the time he was ultimately delivered to the police lockup at 11th and State. Wilson was very clear that the duo had hit him over the head with a gun and smashed his face into a wall. Both of those officers are now dead, and thus can become convenient culprits for marks on Wilson’s body. What can’t be blamed on them can perhaps be blamed on Wilson, who, it can be reasonably argued, had ample reason to self inflict given that he had confessed to capital murder. There is one man who could trip up this defense, a man who created some dramatic evidence that Wilson was coerced to confess inside the confines of Area 2, but the jury won’t hear from him. Lawrence (Larry) Hyman, the assistant state’s attorney who took Wilson’s confession, did something bizarre in taking Wilson’s statement. He failed to ask if it was being given voluntarily. Standard practice demands such a question, and often it is asked in more than one form. A question on the order of, “Are you giving this statement voluntarily, of your own free will?” is often followed by “Have you been well treated by the police?” If a suspect has visible injuries, as Wilson did, the assistant state’s attorney is also supposed to ask if he has been offered medical treatment for them, as denying that to a man or woman in pain can also cause a statement to be thrown out by a judge or discounted by a jury. People will confess to crimes simply to medical care that might alleviate their pain. (McDermott case here?) These questions are not as dangerous as they might seem to a torturing detective or a complicit state’s attorney. Suspects who have been abused routinely say that they have been well treated by the police. Anthony Holmes, the man whom Burge described as “the toughest guy in the penitentiary,” a suspect with a body-builder’s physique, opened Burge’s trial with testimony that the former commander had shocked and suffocated him. His confession, taken down as he gave it by a court-reporter, includes this passage: “And this statement is being given of your own free will?” “Yes.” “Have any threats or promises been made to you in order for you to give this statement?” “No.” The statement of Gregory Banks, another victim who testified at Burge’s trial, contains five voluntariness questions, and to read Banks’s replies you’d never know he’d been suffocated and beaten. Why do abused suspects say they were well treated? In a recent email, Locke Bowman, director of the MacArthur Justice Center and a prominent advocate for victims tortured by Burge and officers under his command, pointed out that suspects know that the state’s attorney’s office and the police work hand-in-hand. The prosecutor’s questioning takes place “at the police station, the site of the abuse,” and suspects “aren’t yet out of the coercive environment.” “The “Ëœright’ answer is clear (“Ëœthe police treated me fine’) and the consequences of a wrong answer are also obvious (the suspect “Ëœisn’t ready yet’—more abuse),” Bowman wrote. “Victims cling to the hope that they can explain everything in the confession document in court. Since it’s obvious to them what happened, they presume they’ll be believed—and that others will understand why they had to say they weren’t tortured.” In addition, the prosecutor taking the confession is not sitting there alone. He or she is typically joined by one of the abusers or his close comrade. In Holmes’s case, Burge and the late Detective John Yucaitis sat in (Yucaitis was later accused of administering electric shock to Andrew Wilson). In Banks’s case, the confession was taken with Detective Robert Dwyer looking on, another detective who figures prominently in the list of accused abusers under Burge’s command. So, given all that, why did Hyman not ask Wilson the voluntariness questions? Did he forget? Not likely. Hyman was no rookie — he was the supervisor of felony review, the group that takes confessions, and he taught others how to do it. This was the most important case of his career — the whole city had been following the hunt for the killers of the two officers. That manhunt included scores of complaints of police brutality administered by outraged officers, so there was all the more reason to ask questions that would protect the confession from being undermined by such accusations. Furthermore, on that day, Hyman took three statements. He took Jackie Wilson’s confession and did not ask the voluntariness questions, he took a witness’s statement and did ask them, and then he took Andrew’s statement and once again failed to inquire about coercion. Hyman also saw Wilson dabbing at his eye (he was suffering from a corneal abrasion, which he said was the result of a kick in the head by a police officer), didn’t ask the suspect if he’d been offered medicate treatment. (He hadn’t.) All of this is most peculiar. In 2003, I polled 14 criminal defense attorneys, a group with 213 years of criminal practice among them and experience in more than 950 murder cases, and none of them had ever heard of another murder statement that didn’t include the voluntariness questions. Wilson previously testified that when he met Hyman that morning, he said, “You want me to make a statement after they been torturing me?” According to Wilson, the prosecutor responded, “Get the jagoff out of here.” That confrontation may have played over in Hyman’s mind that evening, when he began taking the confession. If he asked the voluntariness question, would Andrew speak as frankly as he had before? If so, the story of his torture could end up being taken down by the court reporter, which would not only ruin the confession but would also spark demands for an investigation of Burge et al. But if Hyman didn’t ask the question, he’d produce a confession that would become notorious. He chose to become notorious. He left the office a few months afterwards. However, the former prosecutor won’t be telling the court what he saw or heard that day that told him not to inquire about coercion in Area 2. Hyman is standing on his Fifth Amendment rights, and the jury won’t even know that he took them. Witnesses who take the Fifth in a criminal case don’t do it in front of the jury. And the statement probably won’t come into the trial either, prevented by hearsay rules. Even if those rules could somehow be circumvented, it would be a double-edged sword for the government: it would help the case against Burge only by implication (a prosecutor could argue that something important was missing, but only Hyman can say why), but it would simultaneously hurt the case against Burge by providing details of the murders of the two officers. Those details are not relevant to what happened to Wilson on the second floor of Area 2, but they could offer jurors an excuse to say, “Well, he’d killed two cops, he deserved to be tortured. Let’s go with not guilty.” I called Hyman for comment on Friday and he connected me with his attorney, Ralph Meczyk, who appeared before Judge Joan Lefkow last month and successfully argued that the former prosecutor should be allowed to take the Fifth. “I am not going to let him say anything,” Meczyk told me. “Over my dead body, as the old saying goes.” There are larger questions here. Did Hyman make the decision to omit the voluntariness question or was he ordered to do so by a superior who knew the score? Certainly the strange document must have been talked about afterward at the highest levels in the county prosecutor’s office, which was then led by current mayor Richard Daley. Daley’s top assistants were Richard Devine (who served as State’s Attorney from 1996 to 2008) and William Kunkle (who prosecuted Wilson and is now a Cook County Judge). Such strange behavior by a felony review supervisor, coupled with Wilson’s obvious injuries, should have prompted an investigation. What does Hyman recall about his superiors’ inquiries or lack thereof? This jury will never know. Neither, it seems, will we.