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Revisiting John Conroy's journalistic odyssey into police torture

Twenty-one years ago, 'House of Screams' launched a decade of stories that ended with the imprisonment of police lieutenant Jon Burge



John Conroy "did more than anyone else in all of journalism to expose police torture in Chicago," Don Terry wrote last year in the Columbia Journalism Review. "Conroy and the Reader kept the story alive for years until reinforcements arrived."

That coverage began with Conroy's "House of Screams," which ran on the Reader's cover in January 1990—the story of torture within the brick walls of Area 2 headquarters, then at 91st and Cottage Grove.

A year earlier, a friend of Conroy's, a writer for the monthly Chicago Lawyer, had told him of a murder convict who was suing the city of Chicago, its police department, and four detectives, alleging that detectives had used electroshock to extract a confession from him in 1982. The principal defendant among the police officers was a lieutenant named Jon Burge, who'd been the commanding officer of violent crimes at Area 2. The plaintiff, Andrew Wilson, had confessed to killing two cops, slayings he had, in fact, committed. His suit alleged that his treatment at Area 2 wasn't unique—that police customarily abused persons suspected of killing police officers, with supervisors either participating or looking the other way.

Conroy was in the courtroom when the trial of the lawsuit began, on February 13, 1989, in the Dirksen Federal Building—but he had doubts that there was a story in it for him. The claims made in the lawsuit sounded too bizarre. "But Wilson was the first witness—after opening statements, boom, there he was," Conroy recalls. Wilson said detectives had clamped wires to his ears—wires connected to a black box a detective began cranking. "It hurts, but it stays in your head, OK?" Wilson told the jury. "It stays in your head and it grinds your teeth. . . . It grinds, constantly grinds."

Conroy stayed for the whole trial. He was there every day, all six weeks, while other reporters came and went. The jury was deadlocked, and a mistrial was declared. Reporters virtually ignored the retrial—except for Conroy, who sat through most of those eight weeks as well. Burge and his comrades were cleared of all charges. "The country wins," one of the defendant detectives said after the verdict.

To the other reporters, the story was over—the cops had been cleared. It wasn't over to Conroy. The verdict had been odd: the jury had also found that the city indeed had a de facto policy allowing police to abuse suspected cop killers. And Conroy himself had concluded that Andrew Wilson and many other suspects at Area 2—not just suspects in cop killings—had really been tortured.

"House of Screams" weighed in at 19,915 words—quite long, even by Reader standards of that era. You'll have to do a little scrolling to read the whole thing on your phone.

Conroy scrupulously recounted the evidence of torture—including evidence that the jury never heard because of dubious rulings by the trial judge, who was poorly regarded in the Dirksen building. "House of Screams" was damning, and also artfully constructed and vividly told. Readers found themselves in the gallery with Conroy. William Kunkle, the lawyer defending the four accused policemen, was "quite theatrical" in his cross-examination, Conroy wrote. "When he tore open an envelope, you could hear the rip from one end of the courtroom to the other." Conroy captured the tone of the trial in a way that only a steadfast and perceptive observer could. "It often seemed there were two cultures in conflict in the courtroom," he wrote. "One was black, poor, given to violence, and often in trouble with the law. The other was white, respectable, given to violence, and in charge of enforcing the law."

Conroy is still grateful for the patience his editors showed in allowing him to spend nearly a year on a single article. "The story would not exist without the latitude the Reader gave its writers," he says. "It couldn't be written properly unless you were there every day. Maybe the New Yorker allowed its writers to do that, and maybe the Atlantic—but I don't know anyone else who did."

"House of Screams" inspired a grand total of four brief letters from readers in the three months after it ran. One said Wilson and his ilk "have had this city by the balls for years," and the police "were only returning the favor." Another suggested that if cop killers were being tortured, it was progress—they used to be executed on their way to the station, the writer maintained. Only two readers expressed disgust over the police methods Conroy had described.

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