The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Former Prisoners Challenge the Legacy of Torture in Chicago Jails

by Kari Lydersen

Aaron Patterson, one of four former prisoners suing Chicago police for torture committed in the '70s and '80s, suspects he knows what inspires the humiliation and physical abuse tactics employed by US troops in Iraq.

Chicago; July 28, 2004 – The Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal brought back a lot of memories for Aaron Patterson.

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The methods used to humiliate and extract information from Iraqi prisoners sounded chillingly like the methods of torture experienced by Patterson and over 60 other African-American men in Chicago, Illinois.

According to an internal investigation by the Chicago Police Department, a police commander and his officers tortured Patterson and the others during the 1970s and 1980s in the south side district known as Area Two.

Electric shocks to the genitals, beatings designed not to leave marks, and infliction of psychological terror, including games of Russian roulette, were all tactics former Chicago police commander Jon Burge and the officers under his command used to extract confessions from subjects, whether they were guilty or not, the investigation found.

Patterson was convicted and sentenced to death for a 1986 double murder on Chicago's south side based largely on an unsigned apparent confession Patterson says detectives made up while torturing him for hours. He even scratched a message with a paperclip into a bench in the holding cell describing the torture.

Given his experience, the stories of torture committed by US jailers in Iraq didn’t surprise Patterson at all. "That’s homegrown torture," he said. "They've been practicing that for years."

This spring, Eileen Pryweller, the 60 year-old sister of one of the detectives charged with torture, made a video-taped sworn statement describing a 1987 conversation with her brother Robert Dwyer and Burge where they bragged about torture and used racial slurs.

Patterson was released from Death Row on January 10, 2003, one of four men granted clemency by then-Governor George Ryan, who also commuted all Illinois death sentences to life in prison based on evidence of torture and other issues including prosecutorial misconduct, the use of jailhouse snitches and race and class inequities between sentences imposed for violent crimes.

Burge was fired from the police force in 1993 after the internal investigation on grounds that he tortured a suspect named Andrew Wilson. Burge currently lives in Florida, where it has been reported he runs a charter boat operation.

After the investigation, two other officers found to be involved in the torture received fifteen-month suspensions and demotions, but the demotions were later overturned after lobbying by the Fraternal Order of Police. At least ten other officers alleged to have been involved in the torture of prisoners received no punishment.

Now, four civil lawsuits filed by Patterson and three other men wrongfully convicted and eventually released -- Leroy Orange, Stanley Howard and Madison Hobley -- charge Burge and fourteen other detectives with engaging in torture and then covering it up. Patterson’s lawsuit asks for $30 million in compensatory damages.

"There isn’t a check big enough for the punitive damages he should have to pay," said Patterson.

Recently, Burge and the other detectives invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to answer 25 written questions from the People’s Law Office, representing the plaintiffs. They took the Fifth because a federal special prosecutor is conducting an ongoing investigation into torture at Area Two, and statements they make in the civil case could be used to press criminal charges against them. The People’s Law Office is a firm known for taking on politically charged cases such as the defense of militant Puerto Rican independence activists and victims of police brutality, often representing them pro bono or at low cost. They represented Patterson and various other victims of police torture earlier on in their cases.

"The statute of limitations has likely long since expired [on the alleged torture incidents], but there’s a theory out there that if our clients were to say anything that could be taken as evidence of an ongoing conspiracy, that could restart the statute," said Richard Sikes, the attorney representing the detectives. "We basically want a trial on the merits of the [civil] case, but because of the special prosecutor we don’t want to put ourselves at risk of criminal charges which otherwise wouldn’t be filed."

The detectives’ taking the Fifth is seen as a victory for the plaintiffs, since a jury can be informed of the move when the suits go to trial.

"This is good for us," said Patterson. "They didn’t want to have to lie or tell all so they took the Fifth. There is still a massive conspiracy and cover-up going on."

This spring, Eileen Pryweller, the 60 year-old sister of one of the detectives charged with torture, made a video-taped sworn statement describing a 1987 conversation with her brother Robert Dwyer and Burge where they bragged about torture and used racial slurs.

"He said to me laughingly, ‘I can make anybody confess,’" Pryweller told journalist Carol Marin of NBC.

According to NBC, Pryweller said in her sworn statement, "They began to boast about power and about what really happens in a police station." She described Dwyer talking about a wrongfully convicted man named Madison Hobley.

"It was my brother describing torturing him," she said.

Pryweller came forward after her brother warned her that the special prosecutor was investigating. Dwyer is named in at least six reports of abuse compiled by the torture victims’ lawyers and the city of Chicago. In one of those cases, the city settled with torture survivors for $95,000.

The detectives are being represented by attorneys provided by the city because of city and state laws mandating legal representation for matters relating to their employment.

"This is costing a lot of taxpayer money," noted Patterson.

City law department spokesperson Jennifer Hoyle said the detectives’ defense has cost about $885,000 so far, and the four cases are just in the early discovery phase. Three of the suits were filed in 2003 and one in 2004. The city had initially considered filing a suit against the detectives to recover costs, but Hoyle said they decided that was not feasible.

Sikes, in defense of his clients, maintains that Patterson was not tortured or beaten.

But Patterson points out that he has been talking about his torture for years, since even before it was known that Burge and his detectives had tortured scores of other inmates, all African-American, in similar ways.

"I had a plastic bag tied around my head," said Patterson in an interview last spring. "The police told me that if I didn’t cooperate with them, they would keep on suffocating me with a plastic bag and beating me. So to keep them from doing that, I agreed to go along with whatever they was telling me to say. They wrote up a confession, [but] when they brought it to me to sign it, I refused to sign it. So then I was threatened by Burge with a gun. He told me if I didn’t sign it, what I got earlier would be a ‘snack’ compared to what would happen to me if I didn’t cooperate."

But in fact Patterson felt so strongly about his campaign to prove his innocence and bring justice to those who had tortured him and others that, according to an October 2001 story by the Chicago Tribune, he turned down a remarkable plea offer presented by State's Attorney Dick Devine. The deal would have allowed Patterson to go free if he admitted to guilt in the murders and stopped talking about torture.

"They're wagging a key in front of my face," said Patterson [to me] in October 2001, by phone from Pontiac Correctional Center. "But I never even gave it a second thought. I'd rather spend fifteen more years in prison than admit to something I didn't do."

When he made that decision, Patterson didn't know how soon he would actually be out. Since his release he has been fighting tirelessly to gain accountability from Burge and his detectives as well as from Devine, whom he says was complicit in covering up the torture. Patterson also says responsibility lies with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who was state's attorney at the time the torture took place.

Patterson even ran for State Representative in the Democratic primaries in 2004, garnering relatively few votes but gaining another platform to speak out about police abuses.

Despite all the publicity and public outcry over Burge's regime, Patterson says things haven't changed all that much since Burge was fired. He also contends that the passage of death penalty and criminal justice system reforms proposed by an advisory panel to Governor Ryan, as well as the filing of the civil lawsuits, have not resulted in substantive changes.

"It's still all around," Patterson said. "People are getting shot on the street bogusly, people are getting tortured in the police station, they're not able to get medication they need. We're just trying to let people know what's going on. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Kari Lydersen is a contributing journalist.

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