On June 28, 2010 a jury convicted Jon Burge. It's been a long time coming. Decades, in fact. Commander Jon Burge, who had a group of followers -- other detectives referred to as the "midnight crew" from Area 2 Violent Crimes Division -- tortured criminal suspects with impunity for years and years on Chicago's South Side. Everyone knew it, but turned a blind eye. Despite the similarity of the charges made against these officers -- by people separated by years and with no connection to each other, nothing was done. There were studies -- a special prosecutor was appointed by the presiding judge of Chicago's criminal division of the courts -- but millions of dollars later, they concluded there was torture -- although they eschewed the word, but it happened too long ago to do anything about. Nearly 200 victims, some guilty, many innocent, all black, many with criminal records and nearly all poor. So very few cared, few wanted to believe. Except for some of us.
By us, I mean some private attorneys like G. Flint Taylor who worked on these cases as a civil rights matter for decades alone (joined as time went on by others), and a brave journalist named John Conroy who wrote the first comprehensive story for the Chicago Reader, "House of Screams" in 1990.
But by "us" I also mean those of us who represented their victims, members of the Cook County Public Defender's office, which I was a part of for fourteen years. I was a member of the Homicide Task force for eleven of those years -- and we were assigned to pick up our homicide cases from a branch court where the accused would first come to court for preliminary matters which was known as Branch 66. If it was my assignment day, I would go to Branch 66, walk into the lockup with a list of homicide cases and perhaps another member or two of Task Force and call out names to see who needed the public defender. If I saw someone bleeding, bruised, or bandaged, I didn't have to ask who arrested him. I knew.
For example, one client I represented -- who I will call Edward Miller -- was arrested at the 18th police district, and then taken to Area 2 by someone (no one would admit taking him and no one would admit bringing him back either). Some 12 hours later he had signed a confession to a brutal rape murder. The police has suspected him because he had discovered the body and alerted the victims family who lived in his neighborhood. When he got back to the lockup he told the lockup keeper that "they beat me and forced me to confess" and that honest man called the Office of Professional Standards (the internal affairs division at the time who did precisely nothing ultimately about this and most other complaints). Photos of his injuries were taken and he was treated for the fractured ribs he had sustained. When I get to this part of the facts when I discuss this with my students in class, they will often say something like "well the judge threw out the confession, right? It was the product of coercion". No, he didn't. Judges run for election, and its politically wiser to risk being reversed on appeal some years later than to throw out a confession to a brutal crime and infuriate the fraternal order of police, not to mention the public. When I filed the motion to suppress the statement because of the coercion the police testified that my client fell as he was running away from them, somehow sustaining truncheon bruises and fractured ribs in the process. It was a lie, everyone in the courtroom knew it, but it carried the day.
And here is the thing -- that confession may have been true -- many of the tortured confession were, but it just as likely may be false. Jurors, none of whom come from the mean streets like my clients, have trouble crediting the idea that a police officer would do something like this and even if they did, some jurors might reason -- it was for the greater good anyway. They think they wouldn't confess to something they hadn't done so the confession must be true, no matter how it was obtained. In most jurors' world experience, they wouldn't be at the mercy of someone like Mr. Burge or his crew -- they aren't poor, they don't have criminal records and they aren't black. This is another part of the story -- all of these officers are white, and the combination of that fact and their status made it virtually impossible for a defendant to make his case to a jury. They knew it too -- some of these detectives actually told another client of mine "who are they going to believe, a decorated officer like me or a n***** like you?"
I was asked once why this happens, why someone who takes on the important task of being a police officer would be brutal like this to someone in custody and would lie. First, I don't think that most officers would. Second, I think it happens in the officer's mind for the greater good. This is a "bad guy" -- perhaps a gang member or some other despised person. Someone is dead, and the officer believes he has the right guy. So putting a plastic cover over the suspect's head and cutting off his air until he passes out over and over again (a favorite of the Burge crew -- they used old typewriter covers for the most part) is utterly terrifying, usually leaves no marks and will break the will of almost anyone and was justified. Isolating the suspect from any kind of help -- lying about his location to his family, hours and hours of interrogation with no sleep, beatings and attaching alligator clips to the suspects ears and genitals and shocking them, or tying them to a hot radiator -- all of these techniques were used by men who believed they were above the law, because the ends justify the means.
These officers made and continue to make good officers look terrible. They cause distrust among the citizenry, and this behavior which went unchecked for a long time, and still occurs, helped give rise to the terrible "don't snitch" problem in our city. Innocent men, like my client Madison Hobley (whose civil rights suit is what made it possible to finally prosecute Mr. Burge) spend years on death row for crimes they didn't commit, and the guilty party goes free. The cost of this violent arrogance is difficult to overstate.
And here is what I know. The ends do not justify the means. The means become the ends.
© 2010 Andrea D. Lyon, author of Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer
Andrea D. Lyon, author of Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer, is Clinical Professor of Law, Director of the Center for Justice in Capital Cases, and Associate Dean for Clinical Programs at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago. She began her career at the cook County Public Defender's Office, working her way up to Chief of the Homicide Task Force, a 22-lawyer unit that represents people accused of homicide. Lyon has tried more than 130 homicide cases, both within the public defender's office and elsewhere. She has defended more than 20 potential capital cases at the trial level. Of these, she has taken 19 through the penalty phase, and won them all. She lives in Flossmoor, Illinois.
For more information please visit www.andrealyon.com.