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The Legacy of a Torturer

Former Chicago police officer Jon Burge tortured black men and got away with it for almost two decades. But his atrocities also spurred a movement — one that scored a major victory against the racist criminal justice system.

Former Chicago police commander Jon Burge, who died last week at the age of seventy. The News USA / Flickr

Former Chicago police commander and torturer Jon Burge is dead. For over two decades, Burge operated a chamber of horrors with a ring of veteran detectives on Chicago’s south side, railroading a dozen mostly African-American men to death row and hundreds more to long prison sentences on the basis of confessions extracted under torture. Rising through the ranks —from detective to sergeant to commander — Burge relentlessly pursued confessions from people so horrified and dazed that they would have said anything to stop the torture.

One of Burge’s victims, Darrell Cannon, said in court in 2015 that Burge and other officers seemed to enjoy torturing people. Here was a man who so undervalued black lives that the words “it’s fun time” would spew from his sneering lips before he chained people to steaming hot radiators, attached charged wire electrodes to sensitive body parts, played Russian roulette with a loaded gun, suffocated men with typewriter covers, and beat others senseless.

The scars of his crimes run deep. Consider the pain of Ronald Kitchen, whose mother, Llouva Ball, a fearless champion in his fight for freedom, was so sick at the end of her life that she could no longer recognize her son after a DNA test finally freed him from death row. Burge should be remembered for these stolen lives and the deep emotional pain he inflicted on so many mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers. As the coordinator of a campaign led by prisoners and activists on the outside, I had the opportunity to work first-hand with these family members and share in both their legal setbacks and political victories.

Aside from being remembered as a poster boy for police brutality, Burge will go down in history as an exemplar of the lengths state officials will go to sacrifice justice in the interest of protecting their own.

Burge’s torture ring operated as an open secret among the offices of the states attorney and mayor’s office from the early 1970s until 1991, when Burge was put on leave. Former mayor Richard M. Daley was states attorney and former states attorney Dick Devine was assistant states attorney during much of Burge’s reign. It was their job to meet with the defendants to sign off on confessions at the precincts. Both of them heard countless complaints of torture. Some judges were complicit in the torture ring too. These so-called “heater” judges, well known for being favorable to the prosecution, repeatedly denied defendants’ requests to drop the coerced confessions.

Even after Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office blew the lid off of the torture conspiracy, Daley and his underlings protected Burge. It took protests at City Hall and in Daley’s neighborhood, as well as highly publicized hearings organized by the People’s Law Office, to force Burge’s resignation in 1993.

And still there was little accountability: although Taylor had proven a pattern and practice of police misconduct and a conspiracy to cover up torture, there were no indictments, none of the other detectives were fired, all of the victims remained in prison, and Burge retired to a waterfront home in Apollo Beach, Florida with a $4,000-a-month police pension.

Some years later, after a group of men calling themselves the Death Row 10 reached out to the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, some cracks in the system finally began to form. Through a series of protest rallies and press conferences targeting Daley and Devine — and Live from Death Row events that featured call-ins from members of the Death Row 10 — we became the fuel for a growing movement around wrongful convictions that exposed the racist underpinnings of Illinois’ criminal justice system.

Cracks In the System

On January 9, 2003, in a press conference televised around the world, Illinois governor George Ryan detailed the horrors that Burge had inflicted, before pardoning four of the Death Row 10. Ryan spoke about Madison Hobley, who falsely confessed after the police “wrapped a plastic bag over his head, struck his chest, kicked his shins, and pushed their thumbs against his throat” so he could not breathe. He told the story of Leroy Orange, who falsely confessed after the police “electro-shocked him, squeezed his scrotum, and put an airtight bag over his head.” He mentioned Aaron Patterson, who wrote on the underside of a table in the interrogation room: “4/30 I lie about murders. Police threaten me with violence. Slapped and suffocated me with plastic. No lawyer or dad. No phone. Signed false statement to murders.” He talked about Stanley Howard, who falsely confessed after the police kicked him, punched him, held him incommunicado in an interrogation room for forty-three hours, and put a plastic typewriter cover over his head.

Finally, the world knew what had happened at the hands of Jon Burge and his veteran detectives.

The next day, moments before his historic move to commute all of Illinois’ death sentences to life without parole, Ryan again mentioned the Death Row 10 and other wrongful conviction cases, decried the system as racist, and asked, “How many more cases of wrongful conviction have to occur before we can all agree that the system is broken?”

After the pardons, a coalition of organizations kept up the pressure and eventually won a civil judgment that forced the City of Chicago to pay out $5.5 million in reparations to fifty-seven people tortured by Chicago police. In total, the city shelled out over $120 million in lawsuit settlements, legal fees, and reparations.

With pressure mounting, Burge was finally brought back to Chicago to face his accusers. In 2010, he was convicted of perjury and sentenced to a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence by United States district judge Joan Lefkow, who cited his “unwillingness to acknowledge the truth in the face of all the evidence.” Although the sentence was as much of a farce as Al Capone going to prison for tax evasion, it was a moment of disgrace for Burge. He told the judge, “While I try to keep a proud face, in reality I am a broken man.”

But to be clear, he was not broken like Saint Augustine, lying prostrate in full confession mode. He remained to his dying breath the same racist he was when in full command. In 2015, released from prison and finishing out his sentence under home confinement, Burge told an interviewer that lawyers for the pardoned inmates acted as “vultures” and said how hard he found it “to believe that the city’s political leadership could even contemplate giving ‘reparations’ to human vermin.”

Those in Burge’s corner have remained behind him. Last Wednesday, upon hearing of Burge’s death, the Fraternal Order of Police posted this statement on its Facebook page:

The Fraternal Order of Police does not believe the full story about the Burge cases has ever been told, particularly the case that led to his sole conviction, the exoneration of Madison Hobley for an arson that killed seven people. Hopefully, that story will be told in the coming years. We offer our condolences to the Burge family.

Madison Hobley, it should be noted, was the golden guy of the Death Row 10 campaign. With no prior convictions and not a speck of evidence connecting him to the crime, his innocence claim spoke volumes as we marched his poster out in front of our rallies.

If any of Burge’s other cronies are shedding tears right now, it’s more likely tears of joy that they didn’t end up like Burge. I doubt any one of them — not Daley, not Devine, not his murderous detectives — will come out from the shadows to offer up a eulogy.

How to Remember Burge

The same racist attitudes that allowed a torture ring to operate for two decades remain a vile part not just of Chicago’s criminal justice system but a larger carceral state that has locked up millions (particularly black and brown people) and led to the police killings of thousands more. Young men like Laquan McDonald would be alive today if not for the deep-seated racism of police who put no more value on black life than Burge did when he first cranked the “Black Box” Tucker telephone, a communication device used to torture captives during his enlistment in Vietnam, and attached electrodes to men’s testicles and ear lobes ­— sending hundred of volts of electricity into his handcuffed hostages.

Burge could operate with impunity because he chose victims who already had records, many plucked from neighborhoods that were under virtual police occupation. These men were so thoroughly demonized as second-class citizens that Burge could do virtually anything he wanted to them.

With Burge now gone, some may want to spit on his grave rather than dance on it. He lived a horrific life. He was a sadistic police commander who destroyed lives and was backed up by political cronies who sacrificed justice to protect him. Many of his victims still languish in prison.

At the same time, Burge’s victims turned into his worst nightmare. The Death Row 10 stood up against the most vicious kind of police repression, and their family members marched day after day. They inspired a movement that would ultimately topple Illinois’ death penalty and allow death row prisoners to walk out of the prison gates, free at last.

Burge’s personal legacy is undoubtedly an atrocious one. But it is also about a group of activists, both inside and outside the prison walls, who struggled and won a clear victory against one of the most horrific representatives of America’s racist criminal justice system.