A final judgment in notorious police abuse scandal

CHICAGO (AP) — The anonymous letters to attorney G. Flint Taylor arrived in police department envelopes, and so the mysterious author was dubbed “Deep Badge.”

It was 1989 and Taylor was representing a notorious killer — Andrew Wilson, who had shot two police officers and was behind bars for life. He’d originally been sentenced to death but won a new trial after the Illinois Supreme Court ruled his confession had been coerced.

Wilson was now in federal court, claiming that during questioning in the police killings he’d been beaten, tortured with electric shocks, forced onto a hot radiator and smothered with a plastic bag. Among those he was suing: Chicago police commander Jon Burge, a decorated Vietnam veteran.

Taylor was no stranger to unpopular causes. Through the years, his firm — the People’s Law Office — has represented the Black Panthers, anti-war activists and members of the FALN, the militant Puerto Rican independence group. So taking on the police wasn’t a stretch.

But if Deep Badge was to be believed, this case was different. A ring of cops, the anonymous letter writer said, was torturing criminal suspects.

The letters launched Taylor on a 22-year odyssey from the streets to the courts to death row and into the heart of a scandal that would stain Chicago for decades.

Abuse claims like Andrew Wilson’s would multiply. At first, there were a few. Then dozens. Eventually, more than 100 black men claimed Burge or his colleagues beat or tortured them to extract confessions or information on everything from robbery to murder.

Like Wilson, many of the accusers already were on the police radar: They had mug shots, rap sheets and prison records. They included gang members, robbers, drug abusers — and convicted killers.

But in this topsy-turvy scandal, they claimed to be the victims. The police, they said, were the villains.

———

The first letter was postmarked Feb. 2, 1989.

The author appeared be an insider at Area 2, the South Side headquarters where Burge headed the violent crimes unit for several years. The letter contained tantalizing tidbits, including a claim that officers had used “torture machines” and that one such device had been tossed off Burge’s boat. (The boat’s name? The Vigilante.)

Talk with other police officers, the letter said, because, “some of them were disgusted and will tell all. The torture was not necessary.”

If Taylor wanted to know more, he was told to place a personal ad in a local newspaper.

He did, then waited more than a month.

“I have learned something that will blow the lid off of your case,” the second letter said.

It urged Taylor to look for other cases where the machine was used. It also listed officers’ names, dividing them between Burge allies and “weak links” who had strained relations with him.

More than a week later, while Taylor was cross-examining Burge as part of Wilson’s civil case, he received a third letter and a phone message with the same tip: Talk with Melvin Jones in Cook County Jail.

That visit turned out to be a revelation. The case was much bigger than one man.

Jones, an admitted gang member with a lengthy criminal record, told a story later corroborated in city legal documents: After refusing to confess to murder, Jones was shocked in the genitals, foot and thigh by Burge with a hand-cranked electric device. Burge, he said, also pointed a gun to his head.

The methods Jones described became part of a pattern of abuse claims. The electric box was the most sensational. Others included kicking, beatings with phone books (to avoid leaving bruises), mock Russian roulette, smothering suspects with plastic or typewriter covers (it was called bagging) and using a cattle prod-like device.

In June 1989, Deep Badge (the name was a nod to “Deep Throat,” the informant in the Watergate scandal) wrote again, claiming Burge was the leader and officers involved “were either weak and easily led or sadists.”

The letter also warned about false allegations.

“Alot of people have to do the rest of their lives in jail so check and make sure they are telling the truth,” the writer said.

It was the last letter Flint Taylor received.

But his work — along with that of many other lawyers and investigators — was just beginning.

“All of a sudden, the case was getting notoriety,” he says. “We’d be talking to public defenders and they’d say, ’I had a case back in the ’80s and my client said he was tortured.’ We started getting letters from prison. We were able to put together lists, interview people and find transcripts.”

“It was just like peeling an onion.”

———

Francine Sanders had embarked on her own search for truth.

In 1990, she was a civilian investigator for what was then the police department’s Office of Professional Standards, assigned to the Wilson case. Since eight years had passed since his arrest and some key people were dead, Sanders focused mostly on tens of thousands of pages of police reports, medical records and court transcripts.

Her 66-page report substantiated Wilson’s abuse story. “I looked at all the evidence,” she recalls, “and there was no other possible explanation for someone in police custody coming in looking one way, leaving looking another way.”

The work, she says, was grim duty. First, there were the details of a cold-blooded murder of two police officers by Wilson and his brother, Jackie (he also was convicted), a crime that had triggered a massive manhunt in the city. Then there was the brutality Andrew Wilson described.

“You’re looking at the darkest, ugliest part of human beings,” she says. “While you’re satisfied you’ve gotten to the truth, the truth is horrific.”

As Sanders reviewed records, another investigator for the same agency was trying to determine if this was an isolated episode.

His report, released in 1992, was damning: It said “the preponderance of the evidence” showed abuse in Area 2 was “systematic” over more than a decade and included “planned torture.” It also concluded some in the police command “perpetuated it either by actively participating in same or failing to take any action to bring it to an end.”

The next year, Burge was fired because of the Wilson case. Another officer was suspended for 15 months.

Flint Taylor kept chipping away. So did others. They were all heading into another direction: the death house.

———

In the 1990s, a group of prisoners called the Death Row 10 emerged.

They claimed they’d been beaten or tortured by Burge or his associates, mostly resulting in false confessions. But proving that was something else. It was part of a larger hurdle in this case — getting authorities to believe the accusers and see them as victims.

“I think it’s likely that Burge and his men rationalize the misconduct by saying ... these guys are lowlifes, they’re heinous criminals, it doesn’t matter, they deserve what they get,” says Locke Bowman, legal director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University and lawyer for some alleged Burge victims.

“The system tacitly or otherwise was prepared to go along with that rationale,” he adds. “What starts to upend that is when you look at cases ... where the Burge crew got it wrong and the guys were innocent. The problem with vigilante justice is at the end of the day, you can’t sort the guilty from the innocent.”

Taylor agrees.

“What proves the lie to anyone who says it’s OK to torture the cop killer, but it’s not OK to torture the innocent people is how do you know which is which?” he asks.

He points to a 13-year-old questioned in a killing who claimed detectives under Burge’s command shocked him until he felt he was going to die. (A judge threw out his confession.)

Taylor began representing Aaron Patterson, one of the Death Row 10 who’d been convicted of a double murder but had used a paper clip to crudely scratch a message on a police station bench, recanting: “Aaron I lie about murders, police threaten me with violence ....”

As Patterson’s case was being appealed, then-Gov. George Ryan, days from leaving office, upended the state’s criminal justice system by commuting the sentences of everyone on death row. He’d already halted executions when 13 inmates were found to have been wrongly convicted.

Ryan also pardoned four of the Death Row 10 — including Patterson — and said a “manifest injustice” had occurred because police tortured them into false confessions. He placed blame on “the brutal police work” of Burge. (Years later, the four would reach a $20 million settlement with the city.)

By this time, a special prosecutor was digging into allegations against Burge and others. Investigators soon ran into a wall of resistance: Thirty former detectives and supervisors in two South Side areas — Burge was among them — took the Fifth Amendment when asked about allegations of torture and abuse of dozens of suspects.

But small cracks began to surface.

Taylor took statements from a handful of retired black detectives who maintained that white officers got better assignments under Burge. (In depositions, white officers acknowledged they and Burge sometimes used racial epithets for black suspects.)

There was more.

The retired black officers said there long were rumors of abuse swirling about Area 2. One also recalled a chilling scene: He’d barged into an interrogation room after hearing “an inhuman-type cry,” saw a panicked young black man on the floor, his pants down, chained to a steaming radiator. Burge, surprised to see him, turned “red as a beet,” as another officer tried to hide something.

If the case against Burge seemed to be gaining momentum, it stalled in 2006.

After reviewing 148 allegations, the special prosecution team concluded Burge and others, including some of the detective’s “midnight crew,” had abused suspects but there would be no action either because the evidence was too weak, or because it was too late: The statute of limitations had expired. Some cases dated back to the 1970s and 1980s.

The investigation — which had taken four years and $7 million — absolved Mayor Richard M. Daley, the county prosecutor when much of the alleged abuse happened. Daley has never been charged with any wrongdoing and has repeatedly defended his tenure as state’s attorney.

But Taylor notes the police superintendent at the time of the Wilson case had written Daley alerting him to the abuse claims. “Daley had every power to investigate and indict Burge,” the lawyer says. “If he had done what he should have done, this never would have happened.”

Many were dissatisfied with the report and the lack of punishment — especially the black community, where the long-running scandal had already intensified a mistrust of the police.

Taylor and others wrote a critique of the special prosecutors’ report and presented it to the U.S. attorney’s office. Nearly two decades earlier, he’d tried to pique the interest of federal officials. Nothing came of it.

This time, he got a polite thank you, and that was that.

In October 2008, Taylor was surprised when he received a courtesy call from the U.S. attorney’s office with the news that Jon Burge was being arrested at his home in Florida.

The feds had found a way to deal with the statute-of-limitations roadblock.

Burge was not charged with abuse; he was charged with lying about it. The allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice were based on written answers he provided in a civil lawsuit filed by a freed death row inmate when Burge denied he and other detectives had tortured anyone.

That day, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announced the indictment.

“If Al Capone went down for taxes,” he said, “it’s better than him going down for nothing.”

Fitzgerald also put former detectives on notice, saying they’d be wise to tell the truth.

“If their lifeline is to hang onto a perceived code of silence,” he said, “they may be hanging on air.”

“This is the beginning of the prosecution of Jon Burge,” he said, “it is not the end of the investigation of torture and abuse.”

———

Last summer, more than 20 years after the first accusations against Burge became public, he was brought to trial.

Prosecutors presented witnesses who told now familiar stories of abuse and torture.

The defense called the accusers thugs and liars who were maligning an honorable man, a war hero, no less, a Bronze Star recipient who’d served in Korea and Vietnam.

The trial had been delayed so Burge could be treated for prostate cancer. Now he took the stand and broke his long silence, confidently and repeatedly denying he had tortured anyone.

The jury disagreed. It found Burge guilty of perjury.

At sentencing this month, two vastly different portraits of Jon Burge were presented to the court.

There was the villainous former lieutenant who was so cruel, one alleged victim claimed, that Burge laughed while he tortured him. In one letter to the judge, Ronald Kitchen — who claimed he was beaten until he confessed to murder — said Burge was so feared, he was the “(Osama) bin Laden in our neighborhood.”

On the other hand, there was the valiant police officer, the loyal brother, the public servant who dedicated his life to keeping the streets safe.

Then there was Burge himself, now 63, his hair white, his bloated face ruddy, his burly frame stuffed into a suit, who told U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow that “while I try keep a proud face, in reality, I am a broken man.”

He said he was not a racist or the person the media had portrayed him to be and he was “deeply sorry” for the disrepute his case had brought on the police department. But he offered no apologies for his actions.

On Jan. 21, Lefkow cited Burge’s “unwillingness to acknowledge the truth in the face of all the evidence” and sentenced him to 4 1/2 years in prison — double what had been recommended by the probation department.

Afterward, Richard Beuke continued to defend his client. “I don’t think a day in jail for Jon Burge is just,” he said.

Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney who’d filed the charges, had a different conclusion.

“Justice delayed,” he said, “isn’t justice completely denied.”

———

In sentencing, the judge addressed an issue that long dogged this scandal: How did this misconduct go unchecked for decades? Lefkow said it showed a “dismal failure of leadership” by the police department and added that if local or federal prosecutors had stepped in much sooner, it could have saved “so much pain.”

John Conroy, who has written extensively about Burge and police brutality, agrees. “This is not a one-man show,” he says.

“Not only were there other police, but state’s attorneys and judges who looked the other way and ignored these obvious truths of what people were saying,” adds Conroy, now a senior investigator at the Better Government Association.

“The fact this happened to more than 100 men, that some were nearly put to death, the fact that some were separated from families for many years and lost the best years of their lives ... and only one man has been indicted and charged ... no, justice has not been served by any means.”

One of those men is Kitchen, who says he was tortured into confessing to the murder of five people. He was exonerated in 2009 and freed after spending 21 years behind bars.

“This is not going to make up for what was taken from me,” he says. “I did 13 years on death row, then eight (more) years. I missed my kids growing up. My daughter doesn’t know me. My (two) sons, they’re hurting. And I’m hurting.”

“The things we were fighting for” — torture charges — “we didn’t get,” Kitchen adds. But he finds some solace in Burge going to prison. “Something,” he says, “is better than nothing.”

Flint Taylor, who never discovered the identity of Deep Badge, holds out hope for more prosecutions and sees the Burge sentencing as a victory — albeit a partial one.

“I would have to characterize it as incomplete, late and insufficient,” he says.

“But it’s a start.”

———

Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer for The Associated Press, can be reached at features@ap.org.

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