One of the city's most persistent and troubling scandals reaches federal court today when jury selection begins in the trial of Jon Burge, the former Chicago police detective accused of overseeing the torture of suspects.
For nearly two decades, Burge and his detectives allegedly sent dozens of men to prison on the basis of coerced confessions, deepening bitterness between police and minorities and helping inspire former Gov. George Ryan to reject capital punishment and empty the state's death row.But Burge, now 62, living on a police pension and reportedly in poor health, will not be tried for any act of torture. While federal prosecutors say they will prove that he and his detectives abused suspects, the statute of limitations expired long ago.
Burge isn't merely living in Florida but he's doing it on the city's pension. Despite being fired in 1993, Burge continues to receive his pension. Furthermore, while he faces criminal charges, he isn't charged directly with anything related to the torture. That's because the torture was finally brought to light just after, conveniently enough, the statute of limitations ran out. These charges relate to Burge's alleged false statements under oath about this abuse.
This entire case is wrapped up in Chicago's culture of corruption. Richard M. Daley was Cook County State's Attorney from 1981-1989. It was his prosecutors that systematically took confessions from people that claimed to have been tortured. Besides his name, Daley ran for mayor under his record of convictions which we now know was heavily inflated by systematic torture. Furthermore, it was Mayor Harold Washington that in the early 1980's promoted Burge to commander even as allegations were prevalent.
I've been speaking with one of Burge's victims, Mark Clements. He was charged with four counts of murder stemming from a fire to a two flat in the Southeast side of Chicago in 1981. Clements says he was beaten in the chest for the better part of twenty minutes by a Chicago Police officer named John McCann. McCann then proceeded to scream racial epithets at Clements and then squeezed his genitals until Clements finally agreed to confess. Clements then proceeded to tell Cook County Prosecutor Kevin Moore that he had been tortured when Moore came in to take his confession. Clements was then tortured again by McCann when McCann found out that Clements dared to accuse him of torture. Clements was 16 at the time of his arrest and was given four life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Clements was only released from prison in August of 2009, even though his case was the subject of media scrutiny throughout his incarceration. Clements credits Bernadine Dohrn, wife of former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, with providing the legal help that ultimately got him released. One reason was that Cook County refused to test evidence for DNA when those tests became available. For most of his incarceration, Clements was represented by legal aid which didn't have the resources to do it himself. It wasn't until Dohrn connected Clements to powerhouse law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, which spent several million dollars of its own resources that enough evidence was presented to allow his release.