The Sentencing of Jon Burge

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Judge Lefkow
  • Judge Lefkow
Federal court, January 21

Judge Joan Lefkow: Good afternoon, Mr. Burge, counsel. Mr. Burge, I typically have the defendant stand in front of me, but if you don’t feel up to it, you can stay where you are.

Jon Burge: At the podium, your honor?

Lefkow: Yes. Because I think it is important that I speak to you, not to other people.

Burge: Yes, your honor.

Lefkow: But if at any time you feel you want to sit down, feel free.

You’re here today — I’m going to do what some of the witnesses did, I’m pretty much going to read what I have to say because it is somewhat more lengthy than I usually give in sentencings, and I want my reasons to be clear.

You’re here today having been convicted by a jury of two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of perjury in connection with making false statements in a lawsuit, in interrogatories served on you in a lawsuit filed against you in this court. That lawsuit made allegations that individuals under your supervision or command had tortured the plaintiff to confess into confessing a crime he claims he did not commit.

You denied any knowledge of torture of the plaintiff or of any other torture or abuse having occurred under your direction or command. You denied it in answers to the interrogatories, and you maintained that denial under oath in this courtroom where you testified in your own defense. Unfortunately for you the jury did not believe you, and I must agree that I did not either.

My responsibility today is to impose a sentence that is sufficient but not greater than necessary to comply with the purposes of sentencing. The sentence is to be measured by the need to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense or offenses.

Another purpose is to deter you and others like you from criminal conduct. A third purpose is what we might call rehabilitation, preparing you for reentry into society, including training, medical care, and the like, which in this case is not particularly applicable, other than the issue of medical care.

All of this is to be considered in light of the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant.

I’ll start with the nature and circumstances of the offense. There are many in the community of which the witnesses spoke yesterday, the African American community, and others who support that community by speaking on their behalf, that in light of the circumstances of the offense a sentence within the guideline range of 21 to 27 months in custody would be a mere slap on the wrist.

I have read letters and statements from many individuals who were not called to testify at trial but wanted to be heard. Those statements, and they have all been made available to you, of course, those statements describe brutality at your hands or those under your supervision or command, some even more appalling than the torture the witnesses here have testified about.

One remarkable thing about the statements was how many came from outside the Chicago area. These people say they had to leave Chicago because they were terrified that the police would do this to them again.

One statement from a prisoner, however, will probably haunt me the longest. This man reports that he has been in prison for 30 years. He stated he was 17 when he was arrested while walking down the street and brutally tortured until he confessed to a murder. He said, I had the body of a man but I was a child inside.

He remains in prison for a crime he insists he did not commit, being abandoned by family and friends who trusted that the police would not have charged him had he not done the crime.

The grandmother, who stood by him, died while he was in prison, a graying, middle-aged adult. Imagine the loss.
I also point out the statement Mr. [Anthony] Holms made yesterday as particularly moving. He said, I remember looking around the room at the other officers, and I thought one of them would say, “that’s enough,” but they didn’t.

Now when I hear your attorney implying that if someone did the crime, no harm, no foul, they deserved it, I am frankly shocked. Even if counsel only means to say that none of these people can be believed because they are criminals, the mountain of evidence to the contrary completely belies that position.

So what does all of this have to do with the crimes of conviction, you ask? It demonstrates at the very least a serious lack of respect for the due process of law and your unwillingness to acknowledge the truth in the face of all of this evidence.

The freedom that we treasure most of all in this country is the right to live free of governmental abuse of power. Those who represent the government and hold power over other citizens are the embodiment of the principle that we live by — the rule of law. The rule of law holds us together as we live out our great social experiment known as the United States of America.

For that reason, those of us who are entrusted with governmental power take an oath upon entering office that we will uphold the law. For the police it means to protect the safety of the people so they may go about their lives peaceably and productively as they see fit, and to use their abilities and resources to identify those who commit crimes that threaten their safety. It is obvious that officers who do this important work must operate within the bounds of the law.

When a confession is coerced, the truth of the confession is called into question. When this becomes widespread, as one can infer from the accounts that have been presented here in this court, the administration of justice is undermined irreparably. How can one trust that justice will be served when the justice system has been so defiled? This is why the crimes of obstructing justice and perjury, and even more so when it is about matters relating to the duties of one’s office, are serious offenses.

Your attorney — one of your attorney’s other themes seems to be that it is OK to lie under oath as long as the victim got a $7.5 million settlement. Apart from the wrongheadedness of that argument on several levels, I have also asked myself in practical terms why you would not have asserted your privilege against self-incrimination as you did in the same time frame before the special investigator?

I infer that you must have reckoned that doing so would result in an adverse inference against you in the civil suit, bringing the house of cards of denial down around you, further damaging your reputation as a decorated police officer and commander, exposing your long history of misconduct, and undermining your long history of denial that these events occurred. As such, there is a basis for what we used to call departures under the guidelines on the basis that these offenses were committed in order to conceal the commission of other offenses.

Let me turn from the seriousness of the offense to the issue of deterrence. As you know, I am no stranger to violent crime. I am deeply indebted to the valiant police officers who, like you did on so many occasions, dedicated themselves to apprehending the persons responsible. I fully trusted, and I was not disappointed, that the Chicago Police Department and other law enforcement agencies would apprehend the perpetrator of the crime that affected me. Respect is hardly a sufficient word for how I feel about the talent and dedication of the people who helped me and my family in a time of crisis.

Yet too many times I have seen officers sit in the witness box to my right and give implausible testimony to defend themselves or a fellow officer against accusations of wrongdoing. Each time I see it, I feel pain because the office they hold has been diminished.

Thus, I think it is very important that when an officer, in this case retired, of course, is convicted of lying about what he did or saw or knew, that consequences follow to demonstrate to others that testifying falsely, including in response to discovery, is risky and wrong.

Now let’s talk about you. I agree with your sister-in-law that the Jon Burge who sat in this courtroom and who has lived an exemplary life as a public servant is not the Jon Burge who stands convicted by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
The letters about you are something you should always treasure, as you have many devoted friends, family members, and former colleagues and citizens who are thankful to you for your work on their behalf.

One man wrote that if he were on his way to heaven and Satan was trying a final time to take his soul, he would want Jon Burge watching his back.

The story your lawyer recited earlier about the woman whose home was fire-bombed after she moved into an all-white neighborhood demonstrates that you had integrity. You acted heroically on many occasions.

As for implications of racism, I hear you, and I know that those hurt you. I do not believe that anyone in this courtroom believes you are the cause of the racial divisions that plague our community — nor should you. I kept evidence of racism out of the trial because I believe everyone must be judged by their conduct, not their feelings or beliefs.

There are those who believe you are deeply racist, and there are those who believe you could not possibly have tortured suspects. I doubt that my opinion or what happens here will change anyone’s views. You are the person you are, neither all good nor all evil, just like the rest of us.

So, like Mr. Weisman, I have asked many times what motivated you. My best guess is ambition. Euripides was quoted as saying long ago, ambition drove many men to become false, to have one thought locked in the breast, another ready on the tongue.

Perhaps the praise, publicity, and commendations you received for solving these awful crimes was seductive and may have led you down this path. On your behalf, how I wish that there had not been such a dismal failure of leadership in the department that it came to this.

As one commentator wrote, if the first time — I’m paraphrasing — if the first time this happened your commander had said, “you do that again and you’ll be guarding the parking lot at 35th and State,” then you might have enjoyed your retirement without this prosecution over your head, without the reality that you will be going to prison in your declining years when your health is compromised as it is.

If others, such as the United States attorney and the state’s attorney, had given heed long ago, so much pain could have been avoided.

But here we are today, and I charged with the unhappy duty of imposing a sentence. The sentencing guidelines counsel that a sentence of 21 to 27 months is a starting point for me. And although not presumptively reasonable, one that must be seriously considered, as I have done.

I have also considered the so-called 3553 factors, your personal circumstances, the availability of medical care within the Bureau of Prisons. And so I am now prepared to impose a sentence.

Pursuant to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, it is the judgment of this court that the defendant Jon Burge is hereby committed to the custody of the Bureau of Prisons to be imprisoned for a term of 54 months on counts 1, 2, and 3, all terms to run concurrently.

You must then immediately report upon your release to the probation office in the district to which you are released.
While you’re on supervised release, you must not commit any other federal, state, or local crimes, and comply with the standard conditions of release that have been adopted by the court, as well as the following additional conditions:

You must refrain from any unlawful use of a controlled substance and submit to drug testing as required by the probation department.

You must cooperate in the collection of a DNA sample at the direction of the probation officer. You may not possess a firearm or destructive device.

You shall also comply with the following special conditions:

You shall participate in an alcohol aftercare treatment program, which may include urine testing at the discretion of the probation officer.

You shall pay any financial penalty that is imposed by this judgment./ Actually, the only financial penalty I’m imposing is $100 on each count. There will be no fine.

You shall pay a mandatory special assessment of $300, which is what I just mentioned.

Based on the other elements of the sentencing, I will waive the costs associated with supervision and the interest on the fine.

I’m reading from a document. Let me amend that. I will waive the costs association with supervision.

I will also recommend a facility that is equipped to handle your illnesses.

And with that, I can only say that I’m sure you are glad it is over, as we all are here.

Burge: Thank you, your honor.

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