Ex-Chicago Cop Convicted Of Lying About Torture

In Chicago on Monday, a former police lieutenant was convicted on federal charges of lying about abusing suspects. Over decades, dozens of men claimed that John Burge, and police officers who reported to him, routinely beat and tortured suspects to pry out confessions. Michele Norris talks to Chicago Public Radio's Robert Wildeboer about the conviction.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

A federal jury in Chicago has found that a former police commander there tortured suspects in the 1970s and '80s. Too much time has passed to actually charge John Burge with abuse, but he was found guilty today of lying about it in a 2003 civil lawsuit.

Chicago Public Radio's Robert Wildeboer has been covering the trial, and he joins us now. Robert, what was Burge accused of doing?

ROBERT WILDEBOER: He was accused of beating suspects in the '70s and '80s and beating confessions out of them. He used electroshock. He suffocated them with typewriter covers. And this led to many confessions, some of which were true, but many of which were false.

NORRIS: How did the torture become public?

WILDEBOER: That has been a long, long process. There were civil lawsuits in the '80s in which victims alleged torture. There was a police investigation, and that eventually led to his firing in 1993.

In 2003, our former governor here, George Ryan, released a number of people from death row, and then cleared death row. And then in 2006, there was an investigation that wrapped up. It had been a four-year, multi-million-dollar investigation done by a specially appointed prosecutor. They said torture did occur, and we're talking about, like, more than 100 cases. And it did occur, but it was - too long had passed, and John Burge couldn't be charged with torturing suspects.

Then in 2008, finally, federal prosecutors stepped in and charged him with the perjury and obstruction of justice charges, which he was found guilty of today.

NORRIS: Tell us just a little bit more about these charges and the penalty.

WILDEBOER: The penalty is 45 years maximum, although, you know, that's usually not a good measure of how much time he'll do. But they were revolving around court papers in 2003 in a civil lawsuit in which he said he had never seen torture, in which he had never committed any torturous acts himself.

He testified in the case and said in his entire career working homicides in the 1970s and '80s in Chicago, he had never seen a single instance of police abuse, and that, apparently, was just more than the jury was willing to believe.

NORRIS: One of the interesting aspects of this case is that a member of his inner circle actually turned against him. Could anyone else be convicted?

WILDEBOER: There are a number of detectives who have been accused as being part of this kind of midnight crew, as it's been called here in Chicago, which was a group of detectives who were using these methods to get confessions from folks.

There - John Burge is the only one who's been convicted in a criminal case. This is the first criminal prosecution going back, you know, 37 years. The first allegation of torture is from 1973.

So there are other detectives that certainly could be on the hook here, and the U.S. attorney here, Patrick Fitzgerald, says the investigation is open and ongoing.

NORRIS: How old is John Burge?

WILDEBOER: John Burge is only 62 years old, although he looks a good 15, 20 years older than that.

NORRIS: How did John Burge react to the jury's finding?

WILDEBOER: He was completely still, didn't move a muscle. Afterwards, when the jury had given the verdict and left the room, he clasped his defense attorney's hand who had given the closing argument and gave him a comforting clasp, and also made a couple little jokes. But they weren't given with the same kind of joviality that he's made his jokes with throughout the trial.

NORRIS: Robert, thank you very much.

WILDEBOER: Thank you.

NORRIS: That's Robert Wildeboer, criminal justice reporter for Chicago Public Radio.

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