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Grading the Special Prosecutor's Report: Incomplete

They seem to have decided that if they couldn't indict, they shouldn't bother to accuse.

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Across the nation and beyond, the name of Chicago is now linked to police torture. "Probe: Black Chicago suspects tortured," said a headline in the Houston Chronicle. "Police tortured black suspects," said the Herald in Glasgow, Scotland. Perhaps a delegate to an Olympic site-selection committee will recall these stories and think, "Not on my watch."

There were headlines in Chicago too, but here police torture was old news. The scandal has rotted in the light since at least 1990, when John Conroy examined the 1982 torture of Andrew Wilson by Area Two detectives in the Reader article "House of Screams." In 1994 lawyers for the city who were trying to avoid having to compensate victims of Jon Burge after the police commander was kicked off the force called what he did "savage torture" far outside the line of duty. Five years ago a federal judge asserted, "It is now common knowledge that in the early to mid-1980s [Burge] and many officers working under him regularly engaged in the physical abuse and torture of prisoners to extract confessions."

Here the Report of the Special State's Attorney didn't so much make news last week as diminish it. Andrew Wilson was just one of many dozens of suspects who'd accused cops under Burge's command of torture. The state's attorney's office had shown no interest in their stories, so four years ago when chief criminal court judge Paul Biebel appointed special prosecutor Edward Egan and his chief deputy, Robert Boyle, hopes were high that they would take the scandal's measure. They looked at 148 cases where abuse was alleged. But when they were done the spotlight was back on Wilson alone.

The report has its villains. First and foremost is Richard Brzeczek, superintendent of police when Wilson was arrested for killing two policemen. We're told that when Brzeczek got a letter from the medical director of Cermak hospital telling him that Wilson apparently had been tortured in custody and demanding a "thorough investigation," his response was perfunctory: he forwarded the letter by regular mail to state's attorney Richard M. Daley and asked how to proceed, and he ordered an investigation by the Office of Professional Standards. But when no one in Daley's office got back to him he didn't follow up, and he neither rode herd on OPS (it produced nothing useful) nor personally inquired into Wilson's treatment at Area Two.

"Our judgment is that this investigation we have conducted would never have been necessary if Richard Brzeczek had done his sworn non-delegable duty on reception of Dr. Raba's letter," the report says. "At the very least he would have removed Jon Burge from any investigative command; and he would have conducted a complete shake-up at Detective Area 2." It's as if there would have been no other torture cases if Brzeczek had met the test with Wilson, so he must answer for them all--though torture was alleged before he became top cop in January 1980 and after he resigned in April 1983. "The evidence supports the conclusion that Superintendent Brzeczek was guilty of a 'dereliction of duty,'" says the report, with its typical caution.

The report also disapproves of Lawrence Hyman, the assistant state's attorney who took Wilson's confession and later denied in court that Wilson told him he'd been tortured. It calls this "false testimony." And it isn't happy with William Kunkle, the chief deputy state's attorney who prosecuted Wilson. Kunkle later represented Burge in civil trials and before the Police Board that fired him, and the report notes that Kunkle kept changing his theory of how the burn marks on Wilson's body got there.

The report is all about Wilson. "Although the Wilson case was the focus of our investigation," it admits, "it extended beyond the Wilson case until November, 1991, when Burge was suspended." Yet as the report reminds us in its introduction, Egan and Boyle were appointed by Biebel in 2002 "to investigate allegations of torture, perjury, obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and other offenses by police officers under the command of Jon Burge at Area 2 and Area 3 Headquarters in the city of Chicago during the period from 1973 to the present." The job wasn't to draw the curtain at 1991. It wasn't to examine the Wilson case from top to bottom and give everything else a once-over.

"There are numerous complaints of other acts of brutality which we suspect or believe occurred," Egan and Boyle write, but "we have not been able to uncover any proof that investigation and prosecution of any of those complaints was covered up by any police or prosecutive personnel." I'm guessing this garbled language means to say there's no proof the brutality itself was covered up, but maybe it's also saying there's no proof that investigators and prosecutors criminally failed to do their jobs. Certainly they failed. As Conroy wrote in a 2004 Reader article comparing Area Two to Abu Ghraib, "Felony review ASAs took confessions despite evidence that suspects had been 'softened.' Trial prosecutors pressed for execution on the basis of tainted confessions. Appeal prosecutors seemed to have raised not a whimper of dissent as they filed more than a hundred briefs that named the same set of detectives as perpetrators. Above it all reigned Richard Daley, Cecil Partee, Jack O'Malley, and Dick Devine, the county's successive chief prosecutors, none of them willing to investigate despite evidence that something was seriously wrong." (Conroy's torture articles are posted together at chicagoreader.com.)

The report makes it clear that after all these years the truth can be next to impossible to get at and that the statute of limitations rules out any indictments. I suppose "Don't condemn what you can't indict" is a useful prosecutorial rule of thumb. It would explain why the report worked up no anger at the various state's attorneys whose passivity made a special prosecutor necessary. It would explain why the report makes for such a bloodless read.

Some of the most quotable language from Egan and Boyle was teased out of them by reporters during their July 19 news conference. That's when Boyle said about half the cases they looked at probably involved police brutality, though the evidence would have been strong enough to support indictments--if the darned statute of limitations didn't stand in the way--only in the Wilson case and two others. That's when Boyle said he was comfortable with the word torture, which the report shies away from in favor of more delicate terms like mistreatment and abuse. He called Burge's legacy a "disgrace" and said a "midnight crew" of 8 to 12 cops under Burge's command was responsible for the abuse.

In 1990--16 years ago--investigator Michael Goldston of the Office of Professional Standards took six months to write a 25-page report on Burge and his officers that's more sharply focused and phrased than Egan and Boyle's, which runs 292 pages in printed form plus hundreds more pages on a CD. Goldston concluded that "the preponderance of the evidence is that abuse did occur and that it was systematic. The time span involved covers more than ten years. The type of abuse described was not limited to the usual beating, but went into such esoteric areas as psychological techniques and planned torture."

At the news conference Egan was asked if he thought the abuse was "systematic." Apparently that sort of sweeping conclusion is anathema to prosecutors. "We think we can prove there were three cases beyond a reasonable doubt," he repeated. "There are a considerable number of other cases where we may think so but doubt we could prove it."

The focus is always on the trees, not the forest. Consider what the report has to say about Jesse Winston and Madison Hobley. Winston, a murder suspect, died in custody in 1985. The investigator who reviewed the case for Egan and Boyle reported that the case couldn't be prosecuted because Winston had killed himself and the medical report and "other information supports the conclusion that his suicide was NOT the result of police action of any kind." He didn't elaborate. He concluded, "I recommend that the file be closed." And that was that, though there's no statute of limitations for murder and the Goldston report tells us that one of the two detectives interrogating Winston was the late John Yucaitis, one of Andrew Wilson's alleged tormenters.

Hobley was sentenced to death for setting a fire in 1987 in which his wife and son died. In 2003 outgoing governor George Ryan pardoned him on the grounds that he'd been tortured and was innocent. Egan and Boyle don't buy it. Their report takes a close, skeptical look at the Hobley case and concludes that he's not credible, whether insisting he was brutalized or insisting he didn't do it.

Hobley's innocence is beside the point--no one's claiming Andrew Wilson was innocent. But was he tortured? As it happens, one of the officers he claims brutalized him, Robert Dwyer, was the other detective who interrogated Jesse Winston. A second detective he accuses, James Lotito, shows up in the 1984 interrogation of attempted-murder suspect Phillip Adkins. The Adkins case is one of the three the report names in which the evidence is "sufficient to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." If it weren't for the statute of limitations, Egan and Boyle would have indicted Lotito for aggravated battery.

The report doesn't reflect on common threads. Cases are discussed in isolation--the same way they were originally tried. As Conroy wrote in "This Is a Magic Can," a 2000 Reader article about Hobley, the presiding judge at Hobley's trial refused to let convicted murderer Stanley Howard testify about his own treatment at the hands of Lotito, Dwyer, and other Area Two detectives, though Howard's story was remarkably similar to Hobley's. The state supreme court upheld the trial judge.

Conroy observed, "The judges of the state's highest court have yet to acknowledge that torture was common at Area Two, though they have repeatedly seen the same allegations against the same group of policemen in the same police station." Egan and Boyle seem no more troubled by the repeated allegations, though they do acknowledge the torture.

My exhibit A when it comes to the report's ungainly writing and lack of passion is this passage: "From all the interviews we have conducted and all the transcripts we have read, we feel dissatisfaction. There are unanswered many questions." The subject here was the state's attorney's office during the Wilson case. Pressed by reporters to say anything at all critical of Richard Daley, Boyle allowed that there was a "bit of a slide" in the state's attorney's office at the time and that "more hands-on judgment" was called for than Daley provided.

Conroy noted June 16 in the Reader that "more than 50 men alleged that they were tortured by Burge and his detectives" while Daley was state's attorney from 1981 to '89, and that Daley "was put on notice several times." So any comprehensive assessment of Daley's performance in rooting out torture would begin with Wilson but not end there. It wouldn't end with 1989 either, as he's had 17 years as mayor to get to the bottom of things. But the report doesn't go there. "Do you think I would sit by . . . that I would allow it?" Daley told reporters after it came out, when he had the luxury of defending himself against charges that hadn't been made.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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