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Monday, October 27, 2008

Jon Burge and Chicago's Culture of Corruption

In my post on Jon Burge, I received this comment.

Good for Fitzgerald, but has anybody looked into why the US Attorney at the time did nothing? People are remembering that Daley didn't prosecute Burge when he was State's Attorney, but a police officer's torturing a confession out of a suspect is also a federal crime under 18 USC 242.

This is very little, very late, and people should understand that convicting Burge of perjury in this case will not help those who were wrongly convicted overturn their convictions. Because the law makes that virtually impossible, their only hope remains a pardon from the governor.

The observation this commentor makes is at the heart of this story. Jon Burge was both a police officer and eventually a police commander that, starting in 1972, began torturing confessions out of suspects. As a police commander, he made torture a standard operating procedure for the police under his command. He continued to do this until in 1993 he was finally removed from his position and forced into early retirement upon which he drew a police pension that continues today.

At the heart of this story is the simple questions of how and why. How does a police commander get away with systematic torture? Why did no one ever stop him?

It is both an open secret and a running joke that the politics of the city of Chicago is corrupt. After all, our fair city is NOT called the Windy City because it is windy, even though it is. It's called the Windy City because our politicians are corrupt. After all, the most apt saying to describe Chicago politics is

vote early and vote often

said famously by Richard J. Daley, who many credit with handing the White House to JFK with thousands of phantom ballots. Of course, Chicago political corruption is treated as a bit of a joke, but torture is no joking matter. In this case, it is the systemic corruption that explains the how and the why for the story of Jon Burge.

Why didn't the U.S. Attorney never prosecute Jon Burge prior? It's the same reason that Peter Fitzgerald lost his political career for naming Patrick Fitzgerald the current U.S. Attorney for the area covering Chicago. Before Patrick Fitzgerald, we could count on the U.S. Attorney here to be a political insider. That political insider had no reason to investigate or prosecute police corruption like torture. Our current mayor, Richard M. Daley, was the Cook County State's Attorney from 1981-1989 and he did absolutely nothing to investigate the corruption that lead to systematic torture. Now, Anita Alvarez, who has spent the last twenty plus years in the very Cook County State's Attorney's office that has done nothing, is the favorite to be the next Cook County State's Attorney. The corruption only begins there though. The entire hierarchy of the Chicago Police Department did absolutely nothing while all of this was going on. These weren't isolated incidents. This was systematic. Estimates have at least 200 prisoners currently in jail that got there through confessions that were a result of torture. Then, there is the Chicago area media. You'll find scant attention to this story for the nearly two decades that it went on. In fact, it was the artsy newspaper, the Chicago Reader, that lead the way in breaking this story. The establishment media in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune and Sun Times, didn't have much interest in systemic torture. The local news stations were also asleep while this went on.

So, it went. The entire Chicago political class either didn't care or something worse. The entire Chicago media class either didn't or worse. The systemic torture of Jon Burge got so bad that eventually George Ryan had to put a moratorium on the death penalty here because far too many of his cases were winding up on death row. So, for about twenty years Jon Burge continued his reign of terror. We'll never know just how many suspects wound up in jail as a result...several hundred or maybe even several thousand.

Even today, no one seems to care. No one is asking the tough questions. How did this happen? Who is responsible for covering it up and looking the other way? One person who is at the center is now mayor of the city. Most of the players around the torture have grown in stature and power. Some have retired or moved on. No one, though, absolutely no one, has been held to account including Jon Burge. Burge, after all, has now finally been charged but not with torture. Rather, he has been charged with perjury and obstruction of justice relating to testimonly from a civil suity. Presumably he lied about torturing people. Even now, the case continues to be swept under the rug by a corrupt Chicago political class that likely would rather not have the secrets that are most certainly associated with it see the light of day. An equally corrupt Chicago media is happy to oblige the corrupt Chicago political class in keeping all these secrets.

Sometimes corruption is something to snicker at and make jokes about, but most of the time, it leads to tragedy, like when a cop conducts systematic torture of suspects and no one does anything about it. Jon Burge, and everything that surrounds his case, is what the systematic corruption that infects Chicago politics has bred, and no one, still, seems to care at all.

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