Demanding Justice for the Still-Imprisoned Burge Victims

Chicago's political establishment must shudder each time Jon Burge garners another headline. This past week was a bad one for politicians who would like to forget that Burge ever commanded an elite unit of Chicago Police detectives; that beneath the cops' cop veneer, Burge was a sadistic racist who systematically tortured African-American suspects; that for decades the city's official line was a deceitful "no, it never happened"; that the city is still pouring millions into defending Burge in lawsuits filed by men Burge sent to prison for crimes they didn't commit.

The whole ugly mess was front page news again last week. Federal judge Rebecca Pallmeyer ruled former Mayor Richard Daley was potentially liable for helping to cover up the Burge scandal. Civil rights stalwart Flint Taylor announced on the 10 o'clock news that he would soon be taking Daley's deposition. The current mayor went so far as to intimate that the lawsuits should be settled, telling a reporter, "It's time we end" the defense of these indefensible cases.

Further down the page, attentive readers might have noticed a related news item about the 15 men, still in prison, who say Burge's detectives tortured them into confessing but who haven't yet had full and fair hearings on those claims. Talk about the desire to forget. It's been nearly impossible during the past decade to get anybody to remember the plight of these men. The Burge scandal comes into and out of public focus. The years go by and the still-incarcerated Burge victims languish in prison. The public hasn't noticed.

For years, advocates for the men (I'm in that number) have implored prosecutors -- Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Special Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Stuart Nudelman -- to do the right thing: identify every case in which an Illinois prisoner has a credible claim that Burge or his detectives tortured him into confessing to the crime for which he's locked up; agree to evidentiary hearings in every one of those cases; and acknowledge that there must be a new trial in every case where the evidence at the hearing shows it's more likely than not the prisoner was tortured or abused. Madigan and Nudelman have confessed error in a few individual cases. Ronald Kitchen and Michael Tillman are each free today because prosecutors bravely acknowledged they'd been tortured into confessing to crimes they didn't commit.

But prosecutors haven't wanted to acknowledge the larger truth: it is morally and legally repugnant for even one person to be imprisoned following a trial in which a confession obtained by torture was admitted into evidence against him.

Last week, the incarcerated Burge victims got a boost from an unlikely source. A group of over 60 legal and political heavyweights -- a former Illinois Governor, a former U.S. Senator, four former United States Attorneys for the Northern District of Illinois, a former Illinois Attorney General, Congressmen, current and former members of the Chicago City Council, members of the Cook County Board, a number of former state and federal judges and other prominent lawyers and activists -- joined a brief to the Illinois Supreme Court asking the Court to do what the prosecutors wouldn't.

The brief states the obvious: it is "intolerable" to allow the 15 men to remain in prison without a hearing. The brief describes the profound injury that torture inflicts not just upon the victims in the interrogation rooms but upon the entire criminal justice system. "We believe that Burge's torture is so profoundly antithetical to our notions of justice and fair play that it cannot be permitted to taint any conviction, no matter the imagined strength of the other evidence against the defendant," the brief says.

The political and legal leaders call upon the Illinois Supreme Court to shoulder responsibility for putting closure on the Burge scandal: "This Court has a responsibility to help heal the wounds that the Burge torture has inflicted on the African American men who were abused, on the African American community as a whole, on the City of Chicago and on the Illinois criminal justice system."

It is a well-known fact that the State Supreme Court has supervisory authority over the Illinois system of justice. According to the signers of the brief, the Court must exercise that authority. Prosecutors have failed to act systemically to ensure that every Burge victim gets the hearing that is his due. The Illinois Supreme Court must therefore, in the words of the political and legal leaders, "acknowledge and address the likelihood that our State's prisons currently house at least 15 men who were convicted based, in whole or in part, on confessions extracted by torture." Those leaders call upon the court to set up a procedure to ensure that hearings take place for each of these men.

Now it is up to the Supreme Court to answer the call of justice.