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Burge was found guilty last June 28 of obstruction of justice and perjury. These charges were surrogates: the statute of limitations prevented Burge from being directly charged with torture, though dozens of former suspects have alleged that they were abused by Burge and/or officers under his command, most of them while he commanded Area Two police detectives in the 1980s. Many were falsely convicted and eventually released from prison.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said when Burge was convicted, "These sorts of things that happened in 1982, 1985, being punished 25, 28 years later, that's not a full measure of justice. On the other hand, the sense that finally there's a verdict ... that a jury found beyond a reasonable doubt, all 12 of them, that this happened should be some measure of justice to recognize and reckon with history that we need to have it on the record that this happened."
The accusations of torture that suspects who came through Area Two were making against Burge came to widespread attention in January 1990 when the Reader published John Conroy's "House of Screams." Two reports by investigators of the Office of Professional Standards submitted to the superintendent of police in November 1990 but suppressed until February 1992 supported accusations that Burge had tortured. One concluded, "The preponderance of the evidence is that abuse did occur [at Area 2] 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." Burge and two officers he'd commanded were suspended in November 1991, there was a Police Board hearing in 1992, and in February 2003 the Police Board threw Burge off the force. He retired, with pension, to his boat in Florida, and no further action against him appeared possible until Fitzgerald saw an opportunity to indict him for lying under oath when asked in a deposition in 2003 whether he’d ever tortured criminal suspects or knew of such torture by police.
The chairman of a $20-a-ticket benefit dinner held in 1992 for Burge and other two officers who were also subjects of the Police Board hearing refused to speak to us then. "That was a bit of poor journalism," he said about Conroy's article. "I have nothing further ever to say to you." Another cop, someone who didn't know Burge or the other two officers, said nevertheless that they were getting "a raw deal." He explained, "Lots of those murders are statement cases. There's very little corroboration." Unless police get a confession the guilty walk, and this cop warned police would back off if they feared one day the suspect would claim the confession was beaten out of him and his claim would be taken seriously.
This cop said, "I don't condone brutality, but I'll tell you one thing. If they want policemen to bring people in and sit them down and treat them like the most legitimate people in the world and send them back out, in the long run the ones who are going to suffer are the ones out in the neighborhoods. All they're going to do is intimidate policemen from really doing their job."
That was 19 years ago, and cops continue to do their job. After watching Burge testify at his trial last year, gauging the impression I thought he was making on the jurors as a tough, unvarished watchman of the city's mean streets, I expected a hung jury at best. Conroy told me he was "frankly stunned" by the guilty verdict. He said,"It wasn't that I didn't think the evidence was there. But it was a jury with only one African-American on it, and defense attorneys tell me you need two. One person can't withstand the pressure of the 11 others. I thought this jury was pretty distant from the streets of the south side, where all this took place. Yet there seemed to be no hesitation."
Guilty, the jurors concluded, though prior to the current sentencing hearing, two of them would write Judge Lefkow letters on Burge's behalf.
Conroy wrote about police torture in Chicago for 20 years. In "House of Screams" he allowed that "I find Jon Burge a likable man. He's irreverent, he's modest about his accomplishments, and he tells a good story. He was concerned that I would put words in his mouth and had asked another policeman to sit in on the interview as a witness, but as I was taping the interview and promised to send him a copy of the tape, he dismissed his recruited monitor and answered my questions."
When he published the book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture (University of Califormia Press) in 2000, Conroy described torturers as people like you and me. They do what they do at the office then come home to the wife and kids (though Burge never married). Conroy often wondered what made Burge a torturer, and after the trial he reflected, ""I think Burge is a guy who was failed by his supervisors. I think that if the first time Burge as a detective pulled somebody in and roughed him up in some way, if his lieutenant said to him, 'Burge, you do that one more time and I'll have you guarding the parking lot at 11th and State,' I don't think it would've happened again. He was a good enough cop without it. He could've gone just as far without the torture. It just required some supervision, somebody to say, 'We don't do that here,' and there's no Jon Burge—Jon Burge is not notorious, he's a well-regarded cop and serves his career and retires to Florida and all's well with the world.
"I think everybody wants Burge to be a monster, and he's not. He's a creature of our own devising, in a way. He's a product of the Chicago police system at the time—and now, too—which does its best to protect errant cops unless they're caught red-handed. . . . If the state's attorney's office were prosecuting people for engaging in misconduct of this kind, you and I would never know who Jon Burge is, or we'd know him as an officer who'd brought in some notorious criminals, or as an officer who did something heroic. He wouldn't be a notorious torturer."
These reflections were cited by Judge Lefkow Friday as she announced her verdict. Conroy, in the courtroom, says "the reaction among the victims was that no time would have been enough," but that they recognized the judge's hands were tied by the minor charges Burge had actually been convicted of. A row of policemen in the courtroom received the sentence in stone silence.
In Judge Lefkow's courtroom, Burge was both a hero and the embodiment of evil — it depended on who did the talking. Once upon a time he was neither. The pictures here show Burge as he was as a teenager close to graduation from Bowen High School in South Chicago, an ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood where some kids grew up to be doctors, others cops. These pictures of Burge are taken from the 1964 Bowenite, the school yearbook. Someone from Bowen High who remembers Burge then recalls a “rather upstanding, quiet, by-the-book kind of guy” active in the ROTC program. “When there was an assembly or something he would be carrying the flag. He seemed like somebody who followed the rules.”