For years, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has condemned the torture carried out under Jon Burge, the late police commander.
In 2016, she led a city panel that concluded Burge and detectives he supervised “tortured and abused at least 100 African Americans on the South and West sides in attempts to coerce confessions.”
During her mayoral campaign, Lightfoot blamed Burge for “so many lives shattered” and a “dark legacy” that left a “horrible stain on the legitimacy of policing that resonates today.”
As mayor, Lightfoot has kept talking about Burge, calling the commander “notorious” and saying a prison sentence he received stemmed from “torturing murder suspects for years.”
But the city’s Law Department under Lightfoot has continued a decades-old city practice in federal court. A WBEZ review of Burge-related wrongful-conviction lawsuits found five in which the Lightfoot administration has addressed whether there was a torture pattern during the Burge era. In all five cases, the city has refused to admit it.
A 2019 suit brought by James Gibson, whose double-murder conviction was thrown out after he spent nearly three decades behind bars, included a claim that it was “well documented” that officers under Burge “regularly engaged” in torture while interrogating suspects.
Lightfoot’s administration denied that claim.
“After I went through all these appeals, exonerated, dismissal of charges, certificate of innocence,” Gibson said, “the city lawyers come and say, ‘No, this didn’t happen.’ ”
Gibson said it felt like “the knife had gotten pulled out of my back and was stuck in my heart.”
Lightfoot’s administration had to deal with the torture pattern again in a lawsuit brought by Stanley Wrice, who spent 31 years behind bars after alleged abuse by Burge-supervised detectives.
At the suit’s trial last year, Wrice’s attorneys put four other alleged victims of those detectives on the witness stand. All four had received settlements from the city, three of them under a 2015 “reparations” ordinance that restricted payouts to people with a “credible claim of torture or physical abuse.”
During the trial’s closing arguments, nevertheless, an attorney for the city said the testimony of these witnesses amounted to “fairy tales.”
Lighfoot’s approach is “two-faced,” Chicago-based civil rights attorney G. Flint Taylor said.
“On the one hand, the mayor has spoken out about police torture and the pattern and practice of police torture under Burge and condemned it publicly,” said Taylor, who has spent much of his career exposing the abuse by bringing lawsuits against the city.
“On the other hand, when it comes to cases in court, her administration has denied it and continued to pay millions and millions of dollars to private attorneys [for] meritless defenses,” Taylor said. “Someone has to say to her, ‘Stop.’ ”
Duty to be truthful
The top attorney for the city, Celia Meza, did not answer written questions from WBEZ about the Lightfoot administration’s positions on the torture pattern. Neither did the mayor.
A spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department sent a statement that said “the city does not comment on ongoing litigation.”
Former Chicago Ald. Dick Simpson, a Lightfoot political supporter who helped lead her transition into office, said the administration is refusing to admit the torture pattern in court for a simple reason: to keep a lid on judgment and settlement amounts.
“It’s an attempt by the attorneys to carry out their fiduciary responsibility — their responsibility to protect the money of the taxpayers,” Simpson said. “The victims of that torture — who served 20 or 30 years in prison, often — the people do deserve compensation.”
The dispute, he said, often boils down to how much compensation.
Simpson, who has studied police misconduct as a University of Illinois at Chicago political scientist, said it can also be hard to distinguish the real torture victims from people just trying to get out of prison or win a big settlement.
“Anyone who was convicted in that era could claim, if one of the detectives or police were from the Burge squads, that they were tortured — whether they were or not,” Simpson said.
If attorneys for the Lightfoot administration can prove a Burge torture claim is bogus, they owe it to the city to fight the claim “tooth and nail,” said Judson H. Miner, the city’s corporation counsel under mayors Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer.
But Miner said attorneys also have a duty to be truthful: “Lawyers never have the right to either lie or let a witness lie on the stand about whether or not there was a pattern of torture — if, in fact, there’s a well-documented history and pattern of torture.”
A well-documented pattern is what led to the reparations ordinance, under which the city paid $100,000 to 57 people who had not already settled with the city for at least that amount.
Under a resolution passed with the ordinance, Chicago Public Schools includes Burge units in the history curriculum for middle and high school students. That curriculum describes the abuse by the commander and his crew as a “systemic pattern of torture” and “CPD’s pattern and practice of torture.”
Beating and confession
If Lightfoot’s administration started admitting the pattern, Gibson would have a stronger case for the compensation he says he has demanded: $65 million. The city’s two largest Burge-related settlements to date, according to Taylor, were both for $10.2 million.
Gibson, 54, admits he was in a gang during his teen years but says he straightened out and went to college in Texas.
In 1989, he was home for Christmas when insurance agent Lloyd Benjamin and his client Hunter Wash were fatally shot at Wash’s auto-garage in the Englewood neighborhood.
The police picked up Gibson, who was 23, and held him without charges for three days.
“They started to smack on me, punch on me, kick on me and eventually crack my ribs and [hurt] my testicles, and they burnt the tattoo off my arm,” Gibson said.
Gibson eventually gave the detectives a statement that put him at the garage during the shooting. That confession became the key evidence in his 1991 murder conviction, which led to a sentence of life in prison without parole.
But Gibson insisted his confession was false — that he gave it to stop the abuse. He embarked on a decades-long legal effort to get the conviction thrown out. That effort gained traction in 2013, when his claim arrived at an Illinois commission set up to review Burge cases.
“I might have sold drugs when I was a little kid,” Gibson said. “But that doesn’t [justify] the fact that they violated my rights and falsely imprisoned me and locked me up.”
Gibson was behind bars for more than 29 years. Beyond compensation for that time, he says he wants Lightfoot’s administration to tell the truth in court — to admit the torture pattern.