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Confirmation of Chicago Tortures Falls Short

by Kari Lydersen

Aug. 4, 2006 – Anti-police-brutality activists and socially-conscious lawyers hoped it could be a watershed moment in law-enforcement accountability, finally bringing closure to a high-profile case involving Chicago police and systemic torture of criminal suspects.

But last month’s release of a special prosecutor’s report following an investigation into alleged torture of suspects by Commander Jon Burge and other Chicago police officers in the 1970s and ’80s turned out to be a disappointment for those who had lobbied hard for the probe.

The 290-page report by federal special prosecutors Edward Egan and Robert Boyle was the result of four years’ work and about $7 million in taxpayer money. Egan and Boyle did acknowledge clear proof that torture took place at Area Two, a 60-square-mile police district on the city’s south side.

But the prosecutors decided that the statute of limitations precludes any charges against officers, and that many complaints of torture could not be proven. Many activists were also disappointed at the prosecutors’ softball questioning of Mayor Richard Daley, who was the state’s attorney while much of the alleged torture occurred.

"It’s really an embarrassing job, it’s a great disappointment," said Locke Bowman, legal director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University, who had lobbied for the appointment of a special prosecutor. "I think it’s very clear there was a lack of prosecutorial zeal. As a professor, if one of my students had turned in a work product like this I’d be very disappointed."

The prosecutors decided that the statute of limitations precludes any charges against officers, and that many complaints of torture could not be proven

Significantly, the report lacked any mention of the racial component which some critics saw as the most important facet of the case. Almost all the 60-plus men who claimed to have been tortured by Burge and other officers are black; the officers were all white. Alleged widespread racism on the part of officers was just part of an overall racist justice system; in the 1970s Chicago prosecutors were known to compete in a game called "niggers by the pound" to see who could convict the most black defendants.

"One of the over-arching realities is that the detectives accused of perpetrating the torture were universally white, and the victims were universally dark-skinned, almost entirely African-American," Bowman noted. "Yet the report doesn’t mention that or the racism underlying what happened. That’s glaring."

The report stated that the torture of three men – Andrew Wilson, Alfonzo Pinex and Phillip Adkins – was proven. Furthermore, investigators wrote, "there are many other cases which lead us to believe or suspect that the claimants were abused, but proof beyond a reasonable doubt is absent."

The prosecutors added: "It is our judgment that the commander of the Violent Crimes section of Detective Areas 2 and 3, Jon Burge, was guilty of such abuse. It necessarily follows that a number of those serving under his command recognized that, if their commander could abuse persons with impunity, so could they."

The report lacked any mention of the racial component which some critics saw as the most important facet of the case. Almost all the 60-plus men who claimed to have been tortured are black; the officers were all white.

The report found "no evidence" of obstruction of justice by any police personnel, except Superintendent Richard Brzeczek, who oversaw Burge and was accused by the prosecutors of "dereliction of duty" for not investigating the torture claims of Andrew Wilson.

Critics say they believe that Brzeczek, who sent a letter about torture allegations to Daley, actually made some effort to expose the torture. Rather than making Brzeczek the "fall guy," in activist Mary Powers’ words, many say Daley and other higher-ups should have taken more blame.

As previously reported by The NewStandard, Burge was fired in 1993 after the police department’s internal review board found he was guilty of overseeing the torture of suspects.

Common torture methods included electric shock with alligator clips, burns from a radiator and mock executions. In May, the Burge torture cases were highlighted by the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

One of the main purposes of the special prosecutors’ investigation was to see if criminal charges should be filed against officers. Legal advocates for the torture survivors had argued that even though the statute of limitations is expired for the alleged criminal acts involving abuse, officers could still be charged with an ongoing cover-up under racketeering or similar laws.

But the special prosecutors disagreed. "We have considered every possible legal theory that would permit us to avoid the statute of limitations on any prosecution," they said. "Regrettably, we have concluded that the statute of limitations would bar any prosecution of any offenses our investigation has disclosed."

After the report was released, Amnesty International issued a statement calling on state legislators to amend the law to abolish the statute of limitations in torture cases.

Long-time anti-police-brutality activist Mary Powers, with the group Citizens Alert, said activists were disheartened and devastated by the report. "Everybody’s kind of in shock," she said. "Even though it may have been naïve, we were hoping they’d follow through."

She referred to the prosecutors’ questioning of Daley as "not just softball questions, but 16-inch softball questions," an allusion to the over-sized balls used in typical Chicago softball games. Daley was asked mostly yes-or-no questions, and answered many of them by saying he didn’t know about, or didn’t recall, the allegations of torture.

Meanwhile, black Chicago aldermen are pushing a resolution that would stop city payments of the $3,400 a month pension and legal fees of Burge, who currently lives in Florida, and force him to repay the tens of thousands of dollars already spent on his defense. The city has responded that under state law, a pension can only be revoked if one is convicted of a job-related felony.

Though indictments won’t result from the special prosecutors’ investigation, the findings could be used as evidence in civil suits brought by people claiming to have been abused. Although the US Attorney in Chicago, Patrick Fitzgerald, has requested a copy of the report, it is not clear how his office might pursue the matter.

Powers said disenchantment with the investigation could now spur Chicagoans to revive their former push for an independent citizen’s review board of the police department. Currently the department’s own Office of Professional Standards reviews and rules on complaints of police misconduct.

"We’re all pretty jaded," Powers said. "But where there’s life, there’s hope. We’re going to do what we can."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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This News Article originally appeared in the August 4, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Kari Lydersen is a contributing journalist.

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