Ex-Chicago Police Officer On Trial For Torture
TONY COX, host:
Jury selection is wrapping up in the federal trial of a former Chicago policeman allegedly involved in the torture of more than 100 African-American men. Jon Burge is the ex-Chicago police commander changed with perjury and obstruction of justice. The torture was allegedly used to obtain confessions to crimes. And many of the alleged torture victims say those confessions led to wrongful convictions.
Joining us to talk about the Jon Burge trial is Kathy Chaney. She's been following this story for The Chicago Defender newspaper. Kathy, nice to have you.
Ms. KATHY CHANEY (Reporter, The Chicago Defender): Thanks for having me.
COX: Briefly explain to us a little bit about who Jon Burge is and why he's on trial to begin with.
Ms. CHANEY: He rose through the ranks of the Chicago Police Department. This alleged torture began in 1972 when he was a detective. And like you said earlier, a lot of victims came forward and said that, you know, him and his team just bullied them, basically into coerced confessions. Some were convicted, some had their convictions overturned. Ten were sentenced to death. Some still are on death row. Some have been granted pardons. And the statute of limitations on the alleged torture has expired.
However, in 2008, he was indicted on perjury and obstruction for justice for lying to the Office of Professional Standards about him not torturing anyone, him or his detectives.
COX: Now, what did he do? What was he alleged to have done specifically? What kind of torture are we talking about?
Ms. CHANEY: It was him and if it wasn't him it was some of the detectives under his command. And some of this happened while he was promoted to police commander as well. Some of the alleged victims said that he had, like, a makeshift electrical shock box. Some had plastic bags placed over their heads so they could suffocate them, or you know, kicked repeatedly. Anything that they could do to force them to confess.
COX: Not that the crimes that these offenders were accused of committing would make a difference, what kinds of criminal acts are we talking about for those who are now alleging that they are victims. Were they murderers, rapists, burglars, what were they?
Ms. CHANEY: Most of them were homicides, either by, you know, shooting or by arson or just by, you know, physical beating, but most of them were homicides.
COX: Now, were all of these people African-American?
Ms. CHANEY: A large portion were African-American, a very small amount were Hispanic, but largely African-American.
COX: And in addition to Officer Burge, were all of the officers who were alleged to have been involved in this, were they all white?
Ms. CHANEY: Yes. From my understanding, yes.
COX: Now, there has been support for him over the years from his fellow officers, as I understand it.
Ms. CHANEY: Correct.
COX: From Chicago. And then he moved down to Tampa, Florida. What are they saying, those who are coming to his defense?
Ms. CHANEY: Just saying that he never engaged in any such acts. He never went, you know, above what he was supposed to do. He did everything within the boundaries that he was supposed to do, that he's just completely innocent.
COX: Now, why is this in federal court and not in state court? Is it because of the statute of limitations issue?
Ms. CHANEY: Exactly. The statute of limitations had run out and a special prosecutor assigned to the case discovered that he allegedly lied during a written questionnaire from the then Office of Professional Standards. It's now called the Independent Police Review Authority. But they did an investigation in 2006, and they said that he lied on the written questionnaire saying that, you know, he never tortured anyone, so the special prosecutor indicted him.
COX: As we mentioned, the jury selection process is still underway in Chicago, Kathy. How is the upcoming trial playing out there in the media? Are people talking about this case quite a bit in Chicago?
Ms. CHANEY: Oh, absolutely. The trial began May 24th and on the very first day there was a protest outside of city hall, not at the federal building, but outside of city hall. Because as a lot of the demonstrators and some of the exonerated alleged victims said a lot of this happened under Mayor Richard M. Daley's watch when he was then the Cook County state's attorney's office.
So they're demanding that Mayor Daley go to the current Cook County state's attorney to have the 19 men that are still incarcerated, you know, alleged torture victims, at least grant them new hearings.
COX: Because there is a racial element to the case itself, the police officers were white, the alleged victims African-American, is there any reason or is there any indication that black and white Chicagoans are viewing the case differently?
Ms. CHANEY: Not at this point. I believe as the trial goes on there may be a little divisiveness. But right now people are just seeing that, number one, Chicago is in the national eye as always being corrupt and they're just saying, okay, yeah, I'm sure, you know, everything is true. So right now there is no racial divisiveness.
COX: Now, the court room, the federal court room, is it packed with people, observers? Is it that kind of trial?
Ms. CHANEY: Yeah, it's packed, but right now the jury selection is wrapping up. So you wouldn't see much of a crowd there. But later on this week I'm pretty sure. Even some of the alleged victims may be called as witnesses against him. So they're ready.
COX: A final thing, really briefly, is there any reason to suspect that any of this kind of alleged torture behavior is continuing in any way in Chicago with others?
Ms. CHANEY: Well, if you ask the public, they'll say they refuse to believe that it's not going on. And a lot have said that they believe that it started way before Jon Burge.
COX: Kathy, thank you very much. Kathy Chaney is a reporter for The Chicago Defender. She spoke to us from Chicago. Again, Kathy, we appreciate it.
Ms. CHANEY: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.