Torture victims must finally get justice

November 14, 2012

Activists will gather at the Cook County Courthouse November 14 for a hearing on a petition asking for justice for the men still behind bars who were victims of police torture by Jon Burge and his officers. Mark Clements, a staff member with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, who served 28 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit because he was tortured by Burge, provides the background to thisstage in the struggle for justice for police torture victims.

FOR MORE than 20 years, torture took place in the city of Chicago, committed and permitted by former police Commander Jon Burge. Burge oversaw a ring of detectives who carried out his orders and beat and tortured confessions from criminal suspects at Area Two and Area Three Violent Crime Units.

The scandal has tarnished the reputation of the city and the Chicago Police Department for over 40 years, cost city and county taxpayers more then $40 million and shaken public confidence in the criminal justice system.

The tortures started in the 1970s and continued until 1990, when allegations that Burge and his detectives beat and tortured African American and Latino criminal suspects first emerged. After a hearing in 1993, a Chicago Police Department disciplinary board ruled that Burge and two other detectives used torture. Burge was fired from the department while the two detectives were placed on suspension. Though he lost his job, Burge got his full pension, against the opposition of many community and high-profile activists.

Convicted police torturer Jon Burge
Convicted police torturer Jon Burge

In 2002, the chief judge of the Cook County criminal courts division, Paul Biebel, permitted a motion filed by the People's Law Office and MacArthur Justice Center for the appointment of a "special prosecutor." Edward Egan and Robert Boyle were assigned the responsibility of determining if Burge and subordinates beat and tortured suspects at Area Two and Area Three.

They took more then four years to investigate, and when the report was released in July 2006, it revealed that systematic torture had occurred under Burge's command. Egan told Chicago media that the tortures were a "widespread problem under Burge's command." The special prosecutors recommended that Burge and as many as six additional police officers be indicted. However, neither Burge nor the officers could be tried under criminal charges for their crimes because the statute of limitations had expired.

Burge's victims, their family and friends, and activists and lawyers were outraged that neither Burge nor his subordinates would be tried. Virginia Clements, an activist with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and my mother, who fought for my freedom while I was behind bars, said the report left a "sour taste" in our mouths. "How could a system say someone was tortured, but there's no penalty that can be imposed on them?" she said to me repeatedly in 2006.

IN 2007, attorneys for some of the torture victims who remained in prison filed what they called a "shadow report" with the U.S. District Attorney for the district, Patrick Fitzgerald, arguing for a federal prosecution. In October 2008, Fitzgerald announced that Burge had been taken into custody in the early morning hours and charged under a federal indictment with perjury and obstruction of justice."

Virginia Clements, who was suffering from the cancer that would take her life in 2011, woke up to the news of Burge's arrest delivered to her by family and other activists. She celebrated with a loud cheer, also knowing that her son had been assigned to a large law firm to represent his case, through the aid of Bernadine Dohrn, a professor at the Northwestern University Law School.

Many family, friends, activists and attorneys couldn't believe that this day had finally come--that Burge was indicted in connection to the acts of torture in police interrogation rooms.

In 2010, Burge went on trial, where he maintained his innocence, claiming to know nothing about tortures committed by himself or any detective who worked under his command. Court documents showed that he was guilty--and that he worked with police officers and prosecutors, including Chicago's mayor at the time, Richard Daley, to cover up the torture ring.

After a jury trial that lasted more than three weeks, Burge was found guilty on all charges of lying about the torture and obstruction of justice to cover them up. However, he was allowed to walk out of the courtroom on bond--while some of his victims remained caged in closet-size prison cells and left to endure deteriorating conditions under the management of the Illinois Department of Corrections.

By then, I had been released after 28 years spent in unjustly imprisoned because of Burge. When Virginia Clements was contacted, she said "Good, now I can son is home! Burge got what he deserved, the judge needs to throw the book at him. Tell my friends I miss them and good work!"

Burge's sentencing was delayed for nearly seven months as he cited suffering from cancer as a reason for delay. Many of his victims echoed disbelief that Burge was seeking leniency based on the fact of he had cancer when many torture victims had lost a loved one to cancer or, like me, were dealing with a family member suffering from the disease.

In January 2011, Burge was finally sentenced to four-and-a-half years in a federal prison--he did not have to report to prison until March 2011. Burge continued to claim that he didn't about the torture, Judge Joan Lefkow emphatically disagreed, sentencing Burge to 25 months in prison and enhancing the sentence with an additional 25 months based on the seriousness of the crime.

Less then one month later the Chicago Police Pension Board made the decision to allow Burge to keep his pension, citing that the acts for which Burge was convicted of did not occur while he was a Chicago police employee. Technically, this is true--Burge was indicted for lying in federal documents in 2003--but he was lying about what he did as a Chicago police commander! Today, though Burge is a federal prisoner in North Carolina, he receives his nearly $3,800 a month pension.

LAST MONTH, the People's Law Office and MacArthur Justice Center filed a state post-conviction petition arguing that more then 100 men are currently incarcerated as the result of incriminating confessions coerced from them by torture that occurred under Burge or the detectives he commanded.

Attorneys say the men were denied hearings into their claims of torture, and that after the decision in torture victim Stanley Wrice's case--he was released from prison in February 2012 because of his claims--no conviction should rest in whole or in part on a confession that was the product of torture or physical coercion.

The Wrice case highlights the fact that Burge torture victims are struggling for their claims to be heard by the courts. Wrice was fortunate enough to be granted the right to supplement his petition and be appointed counsel. But torture cases have mostly dragged on silently in the court system for decades. Now though, some are hopeful that the men will finally be heard--as Chicago three major newspapers, the Tribune, Sun-Times and Defender have all urged in editorials during the past several years.

The new petition calling for evidentiary hearings will be heard before Judge Paul Biebel on November 14, and Chicago justice activists plan to demonstrate with a rally in support of the men and to attend the hearing to show their support. The Campaign to End Police Torture, Campaign to End the Death Penalty and Chicago Alliance against Racist and Political Repression among the organizations calling on Biebel to do what is right and honorable.

One person who will be at the rally is Amanda Shackelford, the mother of Gerald Reed, who last June was granted a hearing on his torture claim by the Illinois Torture Inquiry Relief Commission. As she said at a press conference: "This has went on too long. My son is suffering as a result of the injuries he sustained in 1990 when he was tortured by Burge subordinates, and he cannot receive the medical treatment warranted because prison officials are claiming that it costs too much." Shackelford went on to say: "Let him out, let him go, and he will be able to get treatment in society."

One of the imprisoned men in the class petition before Biebel is Johnny Plummer, who was just 15 years old when taken to Area Three Violent Crimes Unit and tortured until he confessed. A similar assault was committed against Marcus Wiggins, who was taken to Area Three. Wiggins testified that Area Three detectives placed an electrical device on his hands and shocked him until he felt like he was going to die.

One of the detectives involved in the interrogation in both cases, according to the men, is James O'Brien, who is employed to this day by the Chicago Police Department, despite having much as many as 36 different torture complaints against him.

On November 14, activists against police torture in Chicago are everyone who can to get up and come out to participate in the rally and news conference, before walking inside the courthouse and entering Room 101 for this hearing. If this torture scandal does not outrage the community, then what will?

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