I Would if I Could but I Can't So I Won't | Letters | Chicago Reader

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I Would if I Could but I Can't So I Won't

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Dear editor:

A Lexis-Nexis search for the first story written in the mainstream press about allegations of police torture at Area Two dating back to 1985 show it was written in the Tribune by--me. Sitting next to me in the courtroom of Judge Brian Barnett Duff in 1989 was John Conroy. We all listened to convicted cop killer Andrew Wilson detail in this civil trial how he was abused by Jon Burge and three other Chicago police officers. After that inconclusive trial, I went on to write numerous stories about corruption, murders, rapes, fires, and municipal government.

Then in June 2000 I began working for State's Attorney Dick Devine. Before long, I got my first call from John Conroy. About allegations of torture by Jon Burge. By Conroy's account, the abuse began in 1973 and ended in 1991.

I explained to John that the office's position had been and continued to be that, whatever the reality was of what happened at Area Two under Jon Burge, the three-year statute of limitations had long since run before Devine took office in December 1996.

But John Conroy wrote a long story anyway about events that took place more than a decade ago.

Now in his lengthy August 1 diatribe ["Deaf to the Screams"] he has written yet another account about how no one has ever been charged by any prosecutor.

In reading Conroy's article, one would come away with the sense that these allegations have never seen the light of day. On the contrary, these allegations have been dealt with on a case-by-case basis by numerous judges, both state and federal, and by the appellate courts. Conroy does not mention Republican Bernie Carey, the state's attorney when the beatings allegedly began, but he went after former state's attorneys Richard Daley, Cecil Partee, Jack O'Malley, and Devine. In a sidebar to the lengthy article [Hot Type], Michael Miner quotes Rob Warden, of Northwestern, aptly pointing out that the U.S. attorney's office--some 14 floors below Duff's courtroom--also never charged Burge or any other police officer in connection with allegations of torture.

This is the same U.S. attorney's office--under such hard-driving and exemplary prosecutors as Jim Thompson, Tom Sullivan, Dan Webb, Scott Lassar, and now Pat Fitzgerald--that had no trouble charging cops in the 18th, the 15th (twice), and the 10th districts. They also charged judges, ex-governors, legislators, and countless other public officials. Former assistant U.S. attorney Andrea Zopp is quoted explaining that the five-year federal statute of limitations had also run on any charges against Burge or anyone else at Area Two. That presumably took place in the early 1990s, but the story does not date the conversation. Anyone who follows local law enforcement knows that historically it has been the U.S. attorney's office that has been the prosecutor's office that goes after Illinois officials--police or otherwise.

The state's attorney's office has historically gone after criminals who commit violent crimes in our community, those who murder, rape, rob, and burglarize. But State's Attorney Devine has recently charged a police officer with shaking down gay men in the forest preserves; he has charged Chicago police with perjury, rape, and other felonies. He charged sheriff's police with murder in the killing of a man at the Bridgeview lockup. He has prosecuted Chicago police officer Gregory Becker for killing a homeless man.

In short, when the evidence is there, Devine has shown no hesitancy to charge someone who wears a badge.

The problem that Conroy has is that he wants Devine and his predecessors to disregard the statute of limitations and charge anyway. He is supported in this by some defense attorneys. One can only imagine how outraged these same attorneys would be if the law were ignored to charge their clients. Conroy's article also ignores the evidentiary problems in these cases.

Whatever happened in the interview rooms at Area Two was between the suspects and the police in a windowless room with no other witnesses. In addition, as played out in the Wilson brothers' criminal trials, others had contact with the defendants and could have been the cause of their injuries.

Convicted cop killers like Andrew Wilson don't make great witnesses. That's why his civil suit, where I first met Conroy, went nowhere. And while I cannot speak for others, the lack of evidence (and in later years, the statute of limitations) is undoubtedly why none of the other honorable and dedicated state and federal prosecutors before Devine ever filed charges either.

Even though Wilson's confession was ultimately thrown out, his conviction has been upheld in countless reviews by state and federal courts.

This office's most recent position with regard to the statute of limitations was to ask Judge Paul Biebel to appoint a "special master," or expert outside attorney, to opine on the statute of limitations issue. Biebel did not address this request, but chose instead to appoint Edward Egan as special prosecutor in the matter, ruling that Devine had a conflict of interest because his firm in private practice represented Burge et al.

While the police have a difficult and dangerous job to do, they are not above the law. Those who break the law should be charged, but not, as Conroy would have it, at the expense of trampling on the laws designed to protect the rights of all citizens, including police officers.

John Gorman

Communications director

Cook County State's Attorney's office

John Conroy replies:

When Devine took office in 1996, there was ample evidence that the police at Area Two had engaged in torture. Even if he believed that the police could not be prosecuted, he was nonetheless obligated to investigate whether he was using tainted evidence to uphold convictions. He chose not to investigate and to instead press for the execution of men whose confessions and convictions were highly suspect.

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