To Catch a Torturer: One Attorney’s Pursuit of Jon Burge

To Catch A Torturer: One Attorney’s 28-year Pursuit of Racist Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge
By Flint Taylor of People’s Law Office
Originally published at In These Times

On February 13, 2015, former Chicago Police Commander Jon G. Burge was released from Federal custody, having served a little less than four years of his four-and-a-half year sentence for lying under oath about whether he tortured scores of African-American men during his time as commander. Less than a week before, I sat across from him in a small room in Tampa, Florida, questioning him, pursuant to a court order, yet again about his role in a torture case—this time, the case of Alonzo Smith, who was repeatedly suffocated with a plastic bag and beaten with a rubber nightstick in the basement of the Area 2 police station by two of Burge’s most violent henchmen after Burge informed him that they “would get him to talk, one way or another.”

Reading from a prepared script, the 67-year-old Burge, weakened by several physical ailments but nonetheless exhibiting a hostility that has marked our many encounters over the years, responded to my first question by once again invoking his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. He then stood up, informed me that he would not respond to any further questions, and started to leave the room.

After I told him that he would be in violation of the judge’s order if he left before I had finished my questioning, he reluctantly returned, and asserted the Fifth Amendment to each and every subsequent question, including to the most damning one: Was the torture of Smith part of a pattern and practice of systemic and racist torture and abuse against African-American men which he orchestrated? After a contentious concluding exchange between us, a look of smug self-satisfaction came across his face as he answered my final question by stating, “I exercise my Fifth Amendment rights—even though I would like to say you are a liar.”

Of course the answer to that question of the systemic and racist nature of Burge’s torture is now well established by a mountain of evidence that has been assembled over nearly three decades in the teeth of an unremitting official cover-up that has implicated a series of police superintendents, numerous prosecutors, more than 30 police detectives and supervisors, and, most notably, Richard M. Daley, first as the State’s Attorney of Cook County, then as Chicago’s long-serving Mayor, in a police torture scandal that had spanned the more than 40 years that I had been a lawyer at the People’s Law Office.

A torturer in blue

My law partners, Jeffrey Haas and John Stainthorp, and I first became aware of Jon Burge and his connection to police torture in 1987 when Andrew Wilson, a convicted cop killer, called us from death row and asked us to represent him in the pro se lawsuit that he had filed against Burge and several of his associates at Area 2 Detective headquarters. Wilson’s allegations were chilling: suffocation with a bag, burns from a cigarette, beatings, and, most frightening, repeated electric shocks from a black shock box to his genitals, ears and fingers that caused him to be badly burned on a steam radiator across which he was handcuffed at the time he was shocked. With some trepidation, we took the case, and I was soon sitting across from Burge in a small conference room confronting him about his torture of Wilson.

At that time, Burge was at the height of his powers, having recently been promoted from Lieutenant to Commander, completing a meteoric rise in rank in the Chicago Police Department. Burly, red-faced and supremely arrogant, Burge had used his clout with the city to retain, at taxpayer’s expense, a former Deputy to then-State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley to represent him. Posturing as a hero for capturing Wilson and obtaining his confession, Burge vehemently denied any wrongdoing and scoffed at my persistent attempts to expose his lies.

In the winter of 1989, the Wilson civil case went to trial before a Judge, Brian Duff, who referred to Wilson in an off-the-record comment as the “scum of the earth.” Burge took the stand and I was once again thrust into the role of his interrogator.

After the first day of my cross examination, we received a voicemail at our office from an anonymous source. This source, whom we later dubbed “Deep Badge,” worked with Burge at Area 2 and supplied us with information which began the process of blowing the lid off the cover-up. Deep Badge informed us of another Burge electric shock victim, Melvin Jones; the names of Burge’s co-conspirators; and claimed that State’s Attorney Daley and Mayor Jane Byrne were aware of Wilson’s torture.

We sought to confront Burge before the jury with this newly discovered evidence, but the judge, while recognizing that this evidence was “explosive,” would not let me do so. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury, unaware of the unravelling cover-up, hung, necessitating a second trial.

While we awaited the re-trial, we pursued the leads given to us by “Deep Badge” and found a number of other torture victims who were serving time based on confessions tortured from them by Burge and his confederates. One of them was Anthony Holmes, who was tortured with electric shock by Burge just after he became a detective in 1973. Armed with this information, I again deposed Burge, who brazenly denied any misconduct in each and every one of the newly discovered cases. At the re-trial, Judge Duff denied us the right to confront Burge with these newly discovered cases, and when I tried to do so, the judge, egged on by Burge’s lawyer, repeatedly held me and my co-counsel in contempt.

As a result of the judge’s unremitting bias in favor of Burge and his lawyers, after an eight-week second trial, the all-white jury absolved Burge. We appealed the decision, and the evidence that we had uncovered compelled the Chicago Police Department to reopen its investigation into the Wilson case and to pursue the question of whether the torture was systemic.

The investigation produced two determinations: that Burge should be fired for his torture of Wilson, and that the torture at Area 2 was “systematic” and implicated command personnel. The Department moved to fire Burge—while suppressing the findings of systematic torture.

Targeted by Burge

During this period, the reality of personal risk became more apparent. Burge publicly called me an “idiot” in response to my testimony before the Chicago City Council, and his defense committee and the Fraternal Order of Police repeatedly mounted personal attacks against me and my law partners. A friendly police employee told us of an alleged threat that Burge had made to “blow us away.”

I spoke with another unnamed Burge associate on the phone who asserted that Burge had tortured innocent suspects and women, and an African-American former detective who worked in Area 2 clandestinely came to our office and told me about a Burge torture scene he had witnessed in 1973. Unknown to us at the time, Burge had enlisted one of his former associates to comb the Area 2 files in an attempt to discover the identity of Deep Badge. (I also learned from a neighbor that Burge had a boat. The neighbor had seen Burge cruising in Chicago’s Monroe Street Harbor; the boat was aptly named “The Vigilante.”)

Burge was brought to trial before the Chicago Police Board in the winter of 1992, amid a local furor that was occasioned by our successfully obtaining the public release of the CPD’s finding of systematic torture, a rally for Burge which attracted 3,000 cops and prosecutors and a boisterous counter rally that the Task Force to Confront Police Violence organized. Jeff Haas, who was a moving force in the Task Force, and I often attended the six-week Police Board hearing, at which Wilson, Jones and a third Burge victim all testified.

Burge took the stand and denied that he tortured these men, and we suffered Burge’s wrath when we publicly commented on the evidence. Nearly a year later, the Police Board issued its decision to fire Burge, and I was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times as saying that “the person in charge of the systematic torture had been fired,” and that the department should “implement” the findings of systematic torture by “clean[ing] house.”

On the heels of the Police Board decision, the Fraternal Order of Police unsuccessfully attempted to honor Burge with a float in the St. Patrick Day’s Parade; a few weeks later, the Federal Appeals Court, citing Judge Duff’s refusal to permit the questioning of Burge before the jury about the other cases of torture, granted us a new trial in the Wilson case.

Burge relocated to Florida, the City of Chicago quietly permitting him to resign after his firing became final. As a result, in 1997, he began to collect his police pension. That same year, after a second appeal, we obtained a $1.1 million dollar settlement in the Wilson case.

Justice reform beyond police torture

At about this time, the struggle against police torture joined with the movement against the death penalty that was spearheaded by a group of death row prisoners who had been tortured by Burge and his men. These men, who called themselves the Death Row Ten, joined with lawyers, activists, and other foes of the death penalty and police torture in a unified effort that resulted in a death penalty moratorium, the appointment of a Cook County Special Prosecutor to investigate Burge’s crimes and, in 2003, Illinois Governor George Ryan’s commutation of all Illinois death sentences and pardon of four of the Death Row Ten—Leroy Orange, Madison Hobley, Aaron Patterson and Stanley Howard—on the basis of innocence.

The innocence pardons permitted the four men to file law suits, and my law partner Joey Mogul and I became lead lawyers for two of them. This gave us an avenue to further investigate Burge and his confederates’ crimes. I journeyed to Florida, Arizona, Tennessee and several Illinois prisons to track down and to record the statements of numerous Burge torture survivors.

Accompanied by an investigator and a court reporter, I also convinced several retired African American Area 2 detectives to give sworn statements. In these statements, the detectives, who were excluded from the actual torture sessions, told of seeing Burge’s electric shock box, hearing the torture victims’ screams and participating in discussions about the torture which was sometimes referred to as the “Vietnam treatment.” They also recounted how Burge’s threats of violence and their fear of retribution—the police code of silence at work—kept them from coming forward until they had retired.

In the early stages of these four lawsuits, a still-arrogant Burge, with the blessing of a new generation of taxpayer funded private lawyers, answered under oath a series of written questions by again denying that he participated in, witnessed, or otherwise had knowledge of any acts of torture. Shortly thereafter, in the summer of 2004, I travelled to Tampa with an investigator (who also served as a de facto bodyguard) to obtain an order from a Florida judge (whose nickname, I soon learned, was “Dirty Harry”) to compel Burge to appear at torture survivor Darrell Cannon’s parole revocation hearing.

Outside of the courtroom, Burge, referencing the $1.1 million dollar Andrew Wilson settlement, which we had earned many times over after 10 years of intense legal struggle, told a Chicago Tribune reporter who had journeyed from Chicago that “you would think Taylor would retire after getting a million from the city,” implying that the principal aim of the cases exposing decades’ worth of racist torture by the police department of the third largest city in America was for some human rights attorneys to get rich.

After the court session, we traveled south to Apollo Beach in search of Burge’s house and a picture of The Vigilante. Our efforts alerted the local St. Petersburg newspaper to run a feature article about the alleged police torturer living quietly in their midst under the cloud of “accusations [that] are like something out of a wartime prison: electric shock and cattle prods; near suffocation with a typewriter bag; mock executions with a pistol.”

“Not unlike a Nazi war criminal”

On September 1, 2004, Burge appeared in Chicago to answer questions in a consolidated deposition in the four lawsuits and Cannon’s parole revocation hearing. The videotaped deposition was held in a mock courtroom in his lawyers’ downtown offices, and they smuggled Burge in through a back entrance to avoid an angry demonstration, the media and three process servers who were attempting to subpoena Burge to testify before the Special Prosecutors’ grand jury.

I questioned Burge for nearly four hours. Having received some prudently revised legal advice, he repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment to each and every question. After the tense interrogation concluded, I was quoted in the Sun-Times as saying, “We feel that we have finally in some way brought to the stand and brought to public questioning a police criminal, a criminal we felt we had to hunt down, not unlike a Nazi war criminal.”

Four years later, on October 21, 2008, I received an early morning phone call from the Assistant U.S. Attorney who was heading up the investigation into allegations that Burge committed perjury and obstructed justice when he denied under oath five years earlier that he had committed torture. He told me that Federal Agents had a warrant for Burge’s arrest on those charges and he would be arrested later that morning in Florida. After 20 years of pursuit, our efforts had finally hit paydirt.

Burge’s arrest was the culmination of decades of work that had intensified since Burge’s 2004 deposition. In 2005, Joey Mogul had journeyed to Geneva to present our case to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT), and, in May 2006, the CAT issued findings that called for U.S. prosecutions of Burge and his men. In summer 2006, the Special Prosecutor had refused to bring state charges of perjury and conspiracy against Burge and had instead issued what many considered to be a cover-up report. In response, 250 organizations and individuals signed a shadow report that exposed the whitewash and renewed the call for criminal charges.

In summer 2007, hearings were held before the Chicago City Council and the Cook County Board of Commissioners at which torture survivors testified and the deposition videotape of Burge taking the Fifth Amendment was played. In the aftermath of the hearings, both bodies called for Federal prosecutions. Early in 2008, the City paid a $19.8 million settlement to the four torture survivors whom Governor Ryan had pardoned in 2003.

In 2009, while Burge awaited trial on the perjury and obstruction charges, I found myself again in Dirty Harry’s Tampa courtroom, face-to-face with Burge, seeking his return to testify in a post-conviction case where it was alleged that he supervised the torture of a murder suspect. Burge, after telling the judge that he was heavily medicated for a back problem and intended to take the Fifth Amendment if returned to Chicago to testify, stated, “Your Honor, Mr. Taylor has been suing me and members of the Chicago Police Department, for over thirty (30) years. My personal feeling is this is strictly for harassment.”

After the court session concluded with the judge opining that he would not require Burge to return to Chicago, I packed up my briefcase and opened one of the heavy wooden double doors to leave the empty courtroom. At that instant, Burge, coming back into the courtroom, opened the other door, our eyes met. He said nothing, but I felt a chill run up my spine before he pushed past me.

A torturer, finally, in jail

In May and June 2010, Burge went on trial in Federal Judge Joan Lefkow’s Chicago courtroom. The prosecution presented evidence that included testimony from Anthony Holmes, Melvin Jones and Andrew Wilson, from a reluctant white detective who testified, under a grant of immunity, about witnessing one of Burge’s torture sessions, and from two of the black detectives who had first told their stories to me.

Other prosecution witnesses included several to whom Burge had bragged about his racially motivated torture, including a woman lawyer who had previously revealed to me her troubling tale that Burge, while drinking at a local bar, had articulated an utter disdain for criminal defendants’ constitutional rights while making sexually explicit comments to her and admitting to abusing Andrew Wilson. Burge took the stand and broke his silence to deny each and every allegation of torture, and in another chance encounter after closing arguments concluded, he cursed me out.

Burge then retired to a bar across the street from the courthouse to await the jury’s verdict. According to a former prosecutor who had made Burge’s acquaintance while attending the six week trial, Burge called him over and asked him whether he thought that the jury would “believe that bunch of niggers,” referring to the African-American torture survivors who had testified against him.

The jury did believe the survivors and found Burge guilty. In January 2011, Burge was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison, and in March, he began to serve his sentence at the Federal Correctional Center in Butner, North Carolina, alongside other high profile white-collar criminals including Bernie Madoff.

Since Burge’s indictment, several of Burge’s victims had been exonerated, including Michael Tillman and Ronald Kitchen, for whom we filed civil suits. After obtaining a court order in Tillman’s case Joey Mogul and I travelled to North Carolina to again depose Burge in May of 2011.

While it was not unusual for us to enter prisons to talk to clients, this passage through the metal detectors with Burge’s lawyers was decidedly different. Burge, dressed in brown prison garb, complained of the food and medical care, then proceeded to assert his Fifth Amendment right to all questions that I posed. The deposition was videotaped, and his “testimony” was featured in videos that we made to recount Tillman and Kitchen’s horrific stories of torture and wrongful convictions.

Bearing witness to Burge’s imprisonment, albeit not for his systemic torture, and capturing it on videotape, was an important event, one which I have often cited when speaking about police torture in Chicago. Burge was behind bars, while victims like Tillman and Kitchen and the torture survivors who courageously testified against Burge were all free.

But this victory, while both symbolic and real, and grounded on decades of struggle by an anti-racist movement, did not end the battle to bring a modicum of final justice to the survivors of police torture and healing to the African American community. That struggle continues to this day, seeking reparations for the survivors and new hearings for the men still imprisoned as a result of confessions tortured from them.

Meanwhile, a broken but still unrepentant Jon G. Burge wears the well-deserved mantle of former Chicago Police commander and notorious torturer.

Why Chuy Garcia Needs to Condemn Police Torture Site

Why Chuy Garcia Needs to Condemn Rahm Emanuel’s Police Torture Site
By Flint Taylor
Originally appeared at In These Times

Guardian (U.K.) investigative reporter Spencer Ackerman has sparked a firestorm with a series of reports exposing a “secret” site, in the heart of Chicago’s predominantly African-American West Side, at which police have conducted off-the-books interrogations for more than 15 years.

Ackerman reports that black and brown suspects and witnesses, as well as white activists, have been taken by police to the abandoned Sears and Roebuck complex, known as Homan Square, and subjected to abuse. The victims describe, variously, being denied contact with lawyers or family for up to three days, being shackled hand and foot, and being subjected to starvation, sweltering heat, sensory deprivation and beatings. On at least one occasion, a detainee—John Hubbard, 44—died in an interview room. (After the Guardian article appeared, Cook County said the death was due to heroin intoxication.)

The initial Guardian exposé prompted calls for an investigation from two former high-level Justice Department officials, William Yeomans and Sam Bagenstos, and several progressive Chicago politicians (including one, Luis Gutierrez, who has been a conspicuous supporter of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel). The city attempted to give the growing scandal the back of the hand: Emanuel stated that the allegations were “not true. We follow the rules.” The police department issued a statement claiming that the site was not secret, that lawyers had access to their clients (the lawyers disagree) and that the charges of brutality were “offensive.” The local press, beaten on the story—by a UK paper no less—and having lost many of its award-winning investigative journalists years ago, turned to the Chicago Sun-Times’ veteran police reporter, Frank Main, who has long embedded with the CPD, to attack the Guardian reports. Main said that he had been to Homan Square 20 to 30 times to be shown drugs seized in raids. This, however, exhibits only the strange hidden-in-plain-sight nature of Homan Square: Press and lawyers were sometimes allowed in, but the interrogations and brutality were never reported. Nonetheless, a local NPR reporter, relying on Main’s assertion and doggedly focusing on the Guardian’s use of the term “black site” to draw a parallel with the CIA’s secret interrogation sites in the Middle East, attempted to dismiss the reports as “exaggerated.”

The Guardian countered with yet another story, which detailed four more cases of secret physical abuse in “kennel-like” cells at Homan Square. The young African-American men describe being grilled about gun and gangs for days. This time, the alleged practices included handcuffing both wrists in a way that, according to the victim, felt like being “crucified,” and stomping on another victim’s groin.

The textbook definition

So how should we view Homan Square? The U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which has been adopted, with reservations, by the United States, defines torture as follows:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

Given this, the emerging evidence of abuses at Homan Square once again places the question of systemic, racially and politically motivated torture squarely at the doorstep of the political powers that be in Chicago.

The similarities to the Burge torture era of the 1970s and 1980s are hard to miss. While the coercive tactics that have so far been documented at Homan Square are not as extreme as those practiced by then-Police Commander Jon Burge and his men (which included electric shock, simulating suffocation with a bag and mock-executions), they still intentionally inflict ”severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental” as forbidden by the CAT. During the Burge era, lawyers and family members would call the police looking for an African-American client or loved one who had been taken into custody, only to be told that he or she was not there. When the person was finally located, Burge and his confederates had finished their torture and abuse, and in most cases, obtained a confession. Similar to Homan Square, numerous black men, including Darrell Cannon, Michael Tillman, and Alonzo Smith, were taken offsite to remote locations or to the basement of the police station to be interrogated under torture. And, as in Homan, at least one person died under highly suspicious circumstances on Burge’s watch.

Homan Square itself has a direct tie to other brutal chapters of Chicago police history: The site is geographically located in the notorious Fillmore Police District, near the former Area 4 detective headquarters. In the 1980s and 1990s, a team of well-known Area 4 detectives interrogated suspects with a viciousness that was second only to that of Burge and his men. Decades earlier, in the 1960s, Fillmore District Officer James “Gloves” Davis, and his partner, Nedrick Miller, patrolled the streets with a brutality so extreme that they are remembered by residents to this day. (Davis has another claim to infamy: When the Chicago police were enlisted by Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan and F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover’s Cointelpro program to execute the deadly West Side raid on the apartment of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, Davis was one of the leaders of the raid, and bullets from his carbine were found in the bodies of both of the slain leaders.)

More to unearth?

The first case of Burge related torture came to light in 1982, but it was more than two decades before the larger scope of his unit’s systemic torture on the South and West Sides of Chicago—120 victims and still counting—was unearthed. So it is little wonder that the stories emerging from the sprawling brick edifice chill those who have experienced similar terrorizing brutality at the hands of the Chicago police. At a rally in front of Emanuel’s City Hall on March 2, torture victim Darrell Cannon linked Homan Square to Burge’s racist torture, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr.: “Justice denied to one is justice denied to all.” Angry young activists of color at the rally suggested that the revelations to date are just the tip of an iceberg and described everyday occurrences of brutal interrogations in their communities. Since the Guardian stories hit, lawyers have come forward and complained that holding clients incommunicado is a citywide problem.

That it is, without doubt, and it is much too early to call the story “exaggerated” or to conclude that there has been transparency with regard to what goes on in those kennel-like cells. One veteran and well-respected African American activist, Prexy Nesbitt, who has lived in the shadow of that complex of buildings and had tasted the lawlessness of the Fillmore cops back in the day, has asserted, with a straight face, that Homan Square is “where the bodies are buried.” Unfortunately, in Chicago that statement can be taken literally, as well as figuratively.

On the Saturday after the first Homan Square article broke, a group of hardy protesters, led by Black Lives Matter, gathered before the fortified entrance of the main building. A spokesperson posed questions to the silent row of police guards: “How many people are you holding there?” “What are you doing to them?”

Those questions deserve answers, along with many others. Foremost among them: Given Chicago lawyers’ reports that officers feel free to practice these kinds of abuses throughout the city, what is the purpose of taking people off the books to interrogate them at Homan Square? And who, among the thousands that may be taken into custody by the Chicago police on a given week, are brought there?

The CPD isn’t telling. But an answer may be pieced together from what the police, the embedded reporter and the Guardian’s exposé have so far revealed. Here’s what we know: First, the CPD’s undercover operations and intelligence and anti-gang units are based at Homan Square. Second, selected political activists are brought there, along with youth of color. The former are questioned about “terrorist” and other political activities, and the latter are grilled about gang activities, drugs and guns. Third, detainees are secreted away from their lawyers and families for as long as possible, sometimes days. Fourth, in many instances they are not charged with a crime. Fifth, one of Homan Square’s main functions  is, by the CPD’s own admission, to “disrupt” gang activity, in a chilling echo of how the FBI’s Cointelpro program characterized an illegal set of tactics, which were also practiced by the CPD’s notorious Red Squad and Gang Intelligence Unit to trample on the rights of political activists and people of color in the 1960s and 1970s.

All of this indicates that Homan Square houses a centralized police intelligence gathering and disruption operation—secret, lawless, and out of control. Since the tactics at least sometimes include human rights violations forbidden by the United Nations Convention Against Torture, it seems depressingly appropriate to liken Homan Square to Burge’s House of Screams, to Guantanamo Bay, and yes, to the CIA’s secret black sites.

The politics at play

Two final overarching questions also must be posed: How, if at all, will the Obama Justice Department respond? And will these related human rights issues impact the mayoral runoff between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and progressive challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia on April 7?

With regard to the Justice Department, local activists remember all too well that Barack Obama, when a state senator, steered a wide berth around the Burge torture issue. That, coupled with his staunch support for his former chief of staff in the mayoral primary, make the chances of a meaningful federal investigation, at least in the short term, next to zero.

As for the race, Garcia, for his part, took a position in the primary elections that, to many progressives, appeared to be to the right of Emanuel on the issue of policing. He called for 1,000 more cops on the street in his one and only TV advertisement, a position that hardly resonated with those people of color and progressives who suffer the slings and arrows of overly aggressive, racially motivated policing. He does support the ordinance for reparations for Burge torture survivors, but came to it late in the campaign, with an ill-informed written statement. He thereby missed a golden opportunity to seize upon an issue that would have further separated himself from Emanuel—who has refused to commit to the ordinance despite its support by a majority of the City’s aldermen—while appealing to the African-American community.

The Homan Square scandal offers Garcia yet another chance to show progressives and people of color that he is committed to reform a corrupt and brutal police department. With a broad-based attack on his opponent for failing to support torture reparations or to halt Homan Square, Garcia would be taking a page from his mentor, the late and great Mayor Harold Washington. Harold’s campaign caught fire in 1983 when he heeded the advice of one of his progressive advisors and seized on the issue of rampant police brutality to attack the incumbent, Jane Byrne. His base was galvanized, and the rest is history. Unfortunately, to date, Garcia has ignored that successful example and remained silent on Homan Square. Time is running short, but to paraphrase the late Congressman Ralph Metcalfe, it is never too late to be right.

Darren Wilson Wasn’t the First: A Short History of Killer Cops Let Off The Hook

HowardThe U.S. has a long history of allowing police to walk free after vicious racist violence

By Flint Taylor of People’s Law Office, originally appeared in In These Times

The pre-ordained failure of a biased local prosecutor to obtain an indictment against Darren Wilson should not surprise us. But the movement for justice for Michael Brown has brought widespread attention to the nationwide problem of systemic and racist police violence and highlighted the movement that has come together to battle against it.

The Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of African-American teenager Michael Brown is heartless but unsurprising. But it is important to place the case in context with the history of police violence investigations and prosecutions in high profile cases—and the systemic and racist police brutality that continues to plague the nation. In doing so, there are lessons for the movement for justice in the Michael Brown case, as well as for those who are engaged in the broader struggle against law enforcement violence.

What follows, then, is a brief history of similar high profile cases where public outrage compelled the justice system to confront acts of racially motivated police violence—with, to say the least, less than satisfactory results.


Over the past 45 years, Chicago has been a prime example of official indifference and cover-up when it comes to prosecuting the police for wanton brutality and torture.

On December 4, 1969, Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were slain in a police raid that implicated the Cook County State’s Attorney and the FBI’s Cointelpro program. A public outcry led to a Federal Civil Rights investigation. Despite finding that the raiding police fired more than 90 shots to one by the Panthers, the Grand Jury in 1970 did not indict, but rather issued a report that equally blamed the police perpetrators and the Panther victims.

Outrage at this decision led to the appointment of a Special Prosecutor who, in the face of extreme official resistance, obtained an indictment against the police and the State’s Attorneys who planned and executed the raid—not for murder and attempted murder, but rather for obstruction of justice.

The case came to trial in front of a politically connected judge who dismissed the case without even requiring that the charged officials put on a defense. Again, the outrage, particularly in the African-American community was so extreme that the chief prosecutor, Edward V. Hanrahan, was voted out of office a week after the verdict was rendered in 1972.

The Jon Burge police torture scandal provides another stark example. Evidence that had been unearthed over the years demonstrated that a crew of predominately white Chicago police detectives, led by Jon Burge, tortured at least 120 African-American men from 1972 to 1991.

Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley was tendered powerful evidence of this torture as early as 1982, but did not investigate or prosecute Burge and his men. Daley’s office continued to use confessions tortured from the victims to send scores of them to prison—10 of whom went to death row, though they were later saved by a death penalty moratorium in 2000 and by a grant of clemency in 2003 by then-Governor George Ryan—during the next seven years.

In 1989, the local U.S. Attorneys’ office declined to prosecute, as did the Department of Justice in 1996 and Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine for the five years directly thereafter. In 2001, due to continuing public pressure, a politically connected Special Prosecutor was appointed to investigate the torture. But after a four year, $7 million investigation, he too refused to indict, instead issuing what is widely considered to be a whitewash report that absolved Daley, Devine, and numerous high Chicago police officials.

Finally, in 2008 the U.S. Attorney indicted Burge for perjury and obstruction of justice, and he was convicted in 2010, and sentenced to 4 ½ years in prison. However, the U.S. Attorney has subsequently declined to prosecute Burge’s confederates for similar offenses.

New Orleans

Chicago is by no means an isolated example of how difficult it is to obtain justice for wanton police violence through the judicial system. In New Orleans, a crew of white detectives responded to the killing of a white police officer in 1980 by terrorizing the black community of Algiers, killing four innocent people and torturing numerous others by “booking and bagging” them: beating suspects with telephone books and suffocating them with bags over their heads.

Seven officers were indicted by the Department of Justice for civil rights violations arising from the torture of one of the victims and three were convicted.  No officers were charged for the four killings or for the other acts of torture.

In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, an NOPD officer fatally shot an unarmed black man named Henry Glover, then several of his fellow officers burned his body to cover-up their crime. NOPD officers also shot and killed two unarmed black men on the Danziger Bridge.

After state authorities botched their investigation, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department indicted the officers involved in the two cases and obtained convictions of some of the main police actors. However, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned the verdict in the Glover case, and the trial judge, citing government misconduct, took the extraordinary step of granting the convicted officers a new trial in the Danziger case.

New York

In 1997, an NYPD officer sexually assaulted a Haitian-American man named Abner Louima in a precinct station bathroom by shoving a broken broomstick up his rectum. Louima’s attacker was subsequently charged with federal civil rights violations, while three of his police accomplices were charged with covering up the crimes.

After Louima’s attacker pleaded guilty, his accomplices were convicted, but the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned their convictions on the grounds that the lawyers who represented the officers had a conflict of interest. After they were convicted a second time, the Appeals Court again overturned their convictions—this time on the basis that there was insufficient evidence of intent.

In 1999, four officers from the NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant who was reaching for his wallet, hitting him 19 times. The officers were indicted for second degree murder and the case was moved to upstate New York, where a jury acquitted the officers.

In July of this year, NYPD officers arrested an African-American man named Eric Garner, allegedly for selling untaxed cigarettes. They put a prohibited chokehold on him, forced him to the ground face first with his hands behind his back, and shoved his face into the pavement, where he died a few minutes later of a heart attack. The deadly assault, which was captured on videotape, is now under investigation by a Special Grand Jury empaneled by the District Attorney’s Office.

Los Angeles

Among the most notorious cases was the brutal 1991 beating of Rodney King by five LAPD officers. A videotape captured most of the brutality and also showed several other officers standing by and doing nothing to stop the pummeling of a defenseless black man.

Four officers were charged at the state level with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force. The trial was moved to a predominantly white suburban county, and three of the officers were acquitted of all charges, while the fourth was acquitted of assault with a deadly weapon and other lesser charges. But the jury failed to reach a verdict on his use of excessive force.

After an angry uprising in the African-American community of Los Angeles that left 53 dead and around 2,000 injured, the U.S. Justice Department indicted the four officers, and a federal jury convicted two of them, while acquitting the other two.

This past August, LAPD officers fatally shot an unarmed mentally ill African-American man named Ezell Ford, who witnesses said was shot in the back while lying on the ground. Despite massive protests, there has been no grand jury investigation to date, the autopsy report is yet to be released, and the LAPD has not completed its investigation.


In Oakland, California in the late 1990s, a unit of police officers dubbed the “Rough Riders” systematically beat, framed and planted narcotics on African Americans whom they claimed were dealing drugs. Four of the “Riders” were indicted by the District Attorney’s Office, and the trial was moved to a suburban county. The ringleader fled the country, and was tried in absentia.

After a year-long trial before a bitterly divided jury on which there were no blacks, the officers were acquitted of eight charges, and the jury was hung on the remaining 27 counts. At the urging of then-Mayor Jerry Brown, the officers were not re-tried.

Also in Oakland, in the early morning hours of New Years Day, 2009, a BART officer shot and killed a young black man named Oscar Grant, who was lying face down, unarmed,  in a busy transit station. The shooting was videotaped, and led to militant protests in Oakland.

Another jury with no black members rejected the charge of murder and instead found the officer guilty of involuntary manslaughter. As a result, Oscar Grant’s killer spent less than a year behind bars. The Department of Justice subsequently opened a civil rights investigation, but no charges were brought.


From 2007-2012 in Milwaukee, a unit of white police officers, spurred on by the Department’s CompStat program of aggressive policing, stopped and illegally body cavity searched more than 70 African-American men whom they claimed to be investigating for drug dealing. In conducting these searches, most commonly performed on the street, the searching officer reached inside the men’s underwear, and probed their anuses and genitals.

After this highly illegal practice came to light, the unit’s ringleader, Michael Vagnini, was indicted by the Milwaukee County District Attorney on numerous counts of sexual assault, illegal searches, and official misconduct, while three of the other unit officers were also charged for participating in two of the searches. The unit’s sergeant and several other members of the unit, all of whom were present for many of the searches, were not charged.

The charged officers were permitted to plead guilty to the lesser included offenses of official misconduct and illegal strip searches, with Vagnini receiving a 36-month sentence while the other three received sentences that totaled, collectively, less than a month in jail. By pleading guilty, they also received promises that they would not be charged with federal civil rights violations.

Pattern and Practice Investigations

These high profile cases represent only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cases where racist police violence has not been subjected to equal justice under the law.

Recently, the Justice Department declined to prosecute Little Rock, Arkansas, officers who shot and killed Eugene Ellison, an elderly African American man who was walking out of his home with a cane in his hand, while there have been documented reports of unarmed black men recently being shot down by the police in Chicago; Houston; San Antonio; Beaver Creek, Ohio; and Sarasota, Florida.

In 1994, the United States Congress, recognizing that police misconduct and violence was systemic in many parts of the country, passed 42 U.S. Code Section 14141, which empowered the Justice Department to file suit against police departments alleging patterns and practices of unconstitutional conduct, and to obtain wide ranging court orders, consent decrees, and independent monitors in order to implement reforms to those practices.

Although understaffed, the Pattern and Practice Unit of the Justice Department has attacked systemic and discriminatory deficiencies in police hiring, supervision, and monitoring in numerous police departments over the past 20 years.  A particularly egregious act or series of acts of police violence often prompts the Unit to initiate an investigation, and its lawyers have obtained consent decrees or court orders in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Steubenville, Ohio, New Orleans, Puerto Rico, Oakland, and Miami.

Last month, lawyers handling the Little Rock cases requested that the DOJ do a pattern and investigation of the LRPD, and the Unit is reportedly now investigating the practices of the Ferguson Police Department. While these investigations are not a panacea, they offer a mechanism for exposing and reforming blatantly unconstitutional police practices, and have also demonstrated how pervasive the problem systemic police violence continues to be.

In light of this history, the pre-ordained failure of a biased local prosecutor to obtain an indictment against Darren Wilson should not surprise us. But the movement for justice for Michael Brown has brought widespread attention to the nationwide problem of systemic and racist police violence and highlighted the movement that has come together to battle against it.

Just two weeks ago, the Brown case, along with the Burge torture cases, was presented to the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva. The movement should now turn its attention to the Department of Justice, demanding a federal civil rights indictment against Wilson, a full scale pattern and practice investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, and, more broadly, an end to systemic and racist police violence.

As the history of the battle against racist police violence so pointedly teaches, the public outcry and agitation must continue not only in Ferguson but across the nation. Because as Frederick Douglas rightly stated many years ago, power concedes nothing without a demand.

Federal Appeals Court Rejects Case of Torture Survivor

Federal Appeals Court Rejects Torture Survivor’s Case

BY G. Flint Taylor 
Published June 26, 2014 in recognition of International Day of Support for Victims of Torture
This article originally appeared at In These Times

‘[G]iven all the things you know now and all the corruption that came to light … don’t you think that it’s a thin reed on which you’re attempting to hang your resolution to say, given all of that, $3,000 is a fair settlement?’

As declared by the United Nations in 1997, June 26 is International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Unfortunately, the U.S. Court of Appeals may have set an alarming precedent for torture survivors around the country with its decision in victim Darrell Cannon’s case late last month.

On May 27, the court shocked Cannon and his supporters by opting to deny him full compensation for the brutal treatment he incurred at the hands of the Chicago Police Department starting in 1983. Led by the notorious Commander Jon Burge, who was fired from his position in 1993 and convicted of perjury in 2010, the Chicago Police victimized at least 120 African-American suspects over the course of two decades, including Cannon, who was tortured before being imprisoned unjustly for 24 years. Despite a number of other survivors receiving millions of dollars from the city of Chicago, Cannon was left with almost nothing—suggesting that the U.S. legal system is all too willing to abandon survivors behind a smokescreen of denial and victim-blaming.

Cannon’s lawyers argued his case in front of the three-judge federal appeals court in January of 2013. (Full disclosure: the author represented Cannon in the U.S. Court of Appeals.) After sympathizing with Cannon’s situation at oral arguments, the court withheld its decision for 16 months. Then, in a stunning reversal of form, it rejected his appeal in a lengthy opinion written by the very judge who had most strongly backed Cannon’s position during the arguments.

Cannon’s criminal case

Darrell Cannon’s 31-year quest for justice began in November 1983, when he was arrested for the murder of a drug dealer by a contingent of midnight-shift detectives who worked for Jon Burge. They allegedly dragged him to a police car, where Cannon says Detective Peter Dignan told him that they had a “scientific way of questioning n*ggers. When Cannon refused to talk, he says Sergeant John Byrne, who was Burge’s self-admitted “right hand man,” and Dignan took him to a remote site on the far southeast side of Chicago, where they enacted a mock execution. After pretending to put a shell in his shotgun, Cannon recounts that Dignan forced the barrel of the gun into his mouth and pulled the trigger. Dignan allegedly repeated this action two more times. On the third, Cannon says he believed that the back of his head had been blown off.

When Cannon still refused to confess to the murder, he says, Byrne and Dignan threw him into the backseat of their car, pulled down his pants, and repeatedly shocked him on the genitals with a cattle prod. Racked with pain, Cannon agreed to cooperate; after the torture stopped, he withdrew his agreement. Cannon alleges that Byrne and Dignan then administered another round of electric shocks, this time shoving the cattle prod into his mouth. Cannon then relented and gave a false confession that implicated himself in the murder.

During his trial in 1984, Cannon moved to suppress his confession because it was given under torture, but the motion was denied by Cook County Circuit Judge Thomas Maloney. (Maloney would later go to federal prison for taking bribes.) Later that year, Cannon was convicted, but his conviction was reversed on appeal, due to racial discrimination during jury selection. Cannon was then held in prison for a decade on murder charges; finally, in 1994, he was re-tried, only to be re-convicted after Maloney’s successor, John Morrissey, denied him the right to introduce newly uncovered evidence that included 28 cases of Chicago Police torture, including 16 in which Byrne and Dignan were accused of abusing other African-American suspects. On appeal in 1997, the Illinois Appellate Court ordered the trial court to conduct a new hearing on Cannon’s motion to suppress his confession, at which time he could introduce the newly uncovered torture evidence. In doing so, the Court strongly condemned the prosecutors’ arguments, saying, “In a civilized society, torture by police officers is an unacceptable means of obtaining confessions from suspects.”

Back in Cook County Criminal Court, Cannon’s lawyers presented evidence of other acts of torture by Byrne and Dignan. They also produced a 1990 Chicago Police Department Report that officially found that there was “systematic” torture and abuse under Burge. The same report noted that Byrne and Dignan were “players” in Burge’s pattern and practice of barbaric cruelty. Cannon’s lawyers also offered a previously suppressed 1994 CPD report that specifically found Cannon had been tortured by Byrne and Dignan, as well as expert psychological evidence that further corroborated Cannon’s claims of torture.

In 2004, the prosecution dismissed Cannon’s case altogether, likely on the unstated grounds that Cannon’s confession had indeed been made under torture. However, the Illinois Prisoner Review Board refused to release him because of a parole hold from a prior conviction. Finally, in 2007, after two parole hearings and an order from a Cook County Judge, Cannon was released from prison after serving 24 years—nine of which he served in Tamms supermax prison.

Cannon’s civil case

After his criminal case was dismissed in 2004, Cannon filed a torture and wrongful conviction lawsuit in federal court. But he faced a significant hurdle. In 1986, while in a rural southern Illinois prison, Cannon had filed a handwritten damages complaint alleging that he was tortured by Byrne and Dignan. In response two years later, the city of Chicago offered him a nuisance value settlement amounting to $3,000. Cannon’s court-appointed attorney—a general practice lawyer who had never worked on a civil rights case, let alone one about torture—advised him to take the deal. Cannon received $1,247 of his settlement; his lawyer took the rest. And as part of the deal, he signed a broadly worded release that included all claims related to his torture that might arise in the future.

When Cannon filed his second damages suit after being released from prison, the city and police defendants attempted to dismiss it. They argued that Cannon’s paltry 1988 settlement agreement prevented him from seeking more compensation against city officials on all of his claims. Meanwhile, starting in 1989, evidence began to surface that the city of Chicago had engaged in a widespread campaign throughout the last decade to conceal Burge’s sadistic practices. In 2006, Judge Amy St. Eve held that this cover-up constituted a fraud by the police defendants and the city—thereby nullifying Cannon’s 1988 settlement. In other words, had Chicago not engaged in concealing the reign of torture by Burge and his cronies, Cannon might have found it much easier to argue that he, too, had been included in the string of victims, and to demand more compensation as a result.

In July 2007, the Chicago City Council held hearings on the Burge torture scandal. There, several Council members, along with U.S. Member of Congress Danny Davis, publicly urged Mayor Richard M. Daley to settle all of the outstanding torture cases, including Cannon’s. Within months, the city had settled four of the five cases for a total of $19.8 million—and offered Cannon nothing. Instead of settling, the city poured extensive legal fees into further contesting Cannon’s case.

Then, in 2011, Judge St. Eve reversed her prior ruling. This time, she sided with the city, deeming the cover-up irrelevant to the issue of fraud. Cannon knew he had been tortured, she said; therefore, he had not been deceived and was not entitled to anything more than his scant original $1,247.

Cannon appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and in January 2013, a three-judge panel of that court heard oral arguments in the case. Led by Judge Ilana Rovner, the court repeatedly upbraided the city’s attorney. Rovner herself passionately rebutted the lawyer’s assertion that the police defendants simply denied that they tortured Cannon, stating that “they didn’t just ‘deny’—they lied, they cheated, they committed fraud, they committed cover-ups.”

“Here are the facts,” she continued. “These officers take a man with a prior murder conviction. Then they lie, then they torture him into making a statement that leads to a second murder conviction, then they lie about it, then they destroy evidence, then they engage in this incredibly lengthy cover-up with other city officials. You’ve got to help me. [On] [w]hat planet does he have a [fair hearing] in the courts under those circumstances?”

As the beleaguered city lawyer concluded his argument, Judge Sarah Barker, a former U.S. attorney from Indiana, focused on the insufficient settlement given to Cannon in 1988:  “[G]iven all the things you know now and all the corruption that came to light … don’t you think that it’s a thin reed on which you’re attempting to hang your resolution to say, given all of that, $3,000 is a fair settlement?”

The Federal Court of Appeals decision

On May 27, 2014, the Appeals Court, in a lengthy opinion authored by the same Judge Rovner, upheld the District Judge’s decision. In its opening paragraph, the court set the tone for its decision:

This appeal casts a harsh light on some of the darkest corners of life in Chicago. The plaintiff, at the time of the events giving rise to this suit, was a general in the El Rukn street gang, out on parole for a murder conviction, when he became embroiled in a second murder. Among the defendants are several disgraced police officers, including the infamous Jon Burge, a man whose name evokes shame and disgust in the city of Chicago.

After reciting a version of the facts that highlighted the details of Cannon’s criminal case while forgoing any recitation of the voluminous record of cover-up that supported his claim, the court proceeded to reject, one by one, all of the arguments that Judge Rovner and her fellow panel members had previously embraced.

The court held that Cannon was bound by the provisions of his 1988 release, and he had thereby forfeited his wrongful conviction claim. Moreover, it refused to acknowledge that this settlement was the product of fraud. In doing so, the panel ruled that although Cannon “knew that Byrne and Dignan were lying” when he signed the release, and that these officers “surely would have lied about torturing others,” Cannon and his court-appointed lawyer purportedly could have “pursued other avenues” to obtain evidence that there was a pattern and practice of torture by the officers who tortured him. Obviously, Cannon and his lawyer would have been working against a wide-ranging campaign to cover up Byrne and Dignan’s torture—but the court, after emphasizing this fact during oral arguments, refused to acknowledge its determinative significance in its written decision.

Furthermore, the panel went so far as to erroneously assert, in the face of a strong evidentiary record to the contrary, that all of the city’s efforts to cover up the evidence of torture came after Cannon settled his case. In doing so, it also minimized the breadth and depth of the cover-up and the role of high-ranking officials in it, essentially reducing the decades of perjury by Cannon’s torturers in numerous cases to a “he said, they said” controversy.

The court then highlighted Cannon’s criminal history, noting that he was a gang leader and a “convicted murderer out on parole” at the time of his arrest.

“It is difficult to conceive of a just outcome given the appalling actions by almost everyone associated with these events,” wrote the panel.

In conclusion, the court rightly asserted that the case “casts a pall of shame over the city of Chicago,” singling out “the police officers who abused the position of power entrusted to them” and the “city officials who turned a blind eye to (and in some instances actively concealed) the claims of scores of African-American men that they were being bizarrely and horrifically abused.” Even so, however, it refused to find that Cannon’s $1,267 net settlement was unfair.

“What the officers did to Cannon was unconscionable,” the court now argued. “The settlement was not.”

The pall of shame darkens

Even as the court acknowledged the systematic torture of African-American Chicagoans, however, its emphasis on Cannon’s criminal history implied that his gang membership and prior murder conviction somehow negated his treatment at the hands of city police. In doing so, it effectively blamed Cannon for his own ordeal. Considering that Cannon has now devoted his life to quelling gang violence as a CEASEfire supervisor—and that Byrne and Dignan narrowly escaped perjury conviction alongside Burge—such justification seems particularly ill-founded. On June 9, Cannon’s lawyers asked the full court to reconsider the three-judge panel’s decision, a request that is very seldom granted.

The U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision, though gut-wrenching, is unfortunately not unheard of, particularly with regard to Chicago’s torture history. Over the past 40 years, state and federal courts as well as prosecutors have very seldom been open to providing fair justice to the African-American survivors of Burge-related police torture.  More than 100 were sent to prison—a dozen to death row—on confessions tortured from them. At least 20 remain there, some 25 to 30 years later. While relatively few have been fairly compensated for their torture and wrongful convictions, many more, like Darrell Cannon, have received either nothing or a mere pittance.

In Cannon’s case, had the highest federal court in the Midwest ruled in his favor, it would have been unequivocally declaring that the Chicago police torture cover-up reached up to the highest levels of the local power structure and had lasted for more than three decades. And just as importantly, it would have likely aided others who were put behind bars by Burge, Byrne and Dignan and sent a message to the city that it should fairly compensate all Burge torture victims. But in an all-too-familiar display of failing judicial courage, Judge Rovner and her colleagues chose to retreat instead. Their failure to do the right thing leaves us, once again, to contemplate the words of comedian and people’s philosopher Lenny Bruce, who once famously said, “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.”



People’s Law Office Files Civil Suit for Wrongfully Convicted Man


July 5, 2013

On the eve of the one year anniversary of obtaining his freedom, Andre Davis, who spent more than 31 years in prison for a 1980 rape and murder in Rantoul Illinois that he did not commit, has today filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Champaign, Illinois.

Davis, who received a certificate of innocence from the Champaign County Court on May 8, 2013, was fully exonerated after DNA tests established that two other men committed the crimes. His exoneration was accomplished by the tireless work of attorney Jane Raley and the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions.

The lawsuit charges a federal civil rights and state law conspiracy among the Rantoul Chief of Police, several Rantoul police officers, an Illinois Department of Law Enforcement officer, and a doctor from Burnham City Hospital to maliciously prosecute and wrongfully convict Mr. Davis by fabricating, coercing and suggesting false evidence against him, causing him to spend more than half of his life behind bars. The suit also joins the Village of Rantoul as a defendant for its “deliberately indifferent” policies and practices of fabricating and coercing evidence, of covering up official wrongdoing as part of a pervasive code of silence, and of failing to properly train, supervise and discipline its officers, all of which directly resulted in Mr. Davis’ wrongful conviction and more than three decades of wrongful imprisonment.

Upon filing the suit, Mr. Davis made the following statement:

While I am happy to be free with my innocence established by the Courts, I feel that those who are responsible for robbing me of the best years of my life should be held legally responsible for doing me so terribly wrong. This is my main goal in filing this lawsuit.

According to Flint Taylor, one of Mr. Davis’ lawyers:

Once again, another wrongfully convicted Illinois prisoner must file a lawsuit in order to obtain just compensation for the terrible injustice done to him by law enforcement officers. While Mr. Davis cannot recover his lost freedom by pursuing this lawsuit, he can establish that the Village of Rantoul and the individual named conspirators are responsible for his suffering.

For more information:
Man Sues Over Wrongful Conviction in The News-Gazette

Read the filed complaint here.

To learn more about our work representing those wrongfully incarcerated, visit the Wrongful Convictions page and see some of our past victories here.

Déjà vu all Over Again: Former Mayor Richie Daley Seeks to Duck Questioning about Police Torture Scandal

By G. Flint Taylor

                On Friday March 3, 2013, former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley filed his opposition to Chicago police torture survivor Ronald Kitchen’s motion for a court order compelling him to sit for a sworn, videotaped deposition. This is the latest skirmish in a nine year long legal battle to force Daley to answer about his central role in the police torture scandal and its cover-up. This involvement began with his refusal, while the elected State’s Attorney of Cook County, to prosecute Jon Burge, the mastermind of a now notorious police torture ring, when damning evidence of Burge’s sadistic brutality was first presented to him in 1982; continued on his watch as scores of African American torture survivors were subsequently prosecuted and wrongfully convicted on the basis of tortured confessions; and culminated with his role in the cover-up of the scandal after he became Mayor.

Richard Daley relationship to civil rights cases for Chicago Police Torture When public attention was drawn to Daley’s involvement in the torture scandal in 2006, he gave a short statement to the Special Prosecutor who was in the final stages of investigating Burge and his confederates. Not surprisingly, the questioning by the Special Prosecutor, who was a political disciple of Daley’s father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, consisted of a series of “softballs” interspersed with apologies for having the temerity to question such an important politician. The following year a federal judge ordered Daley to submit to a deposition in a case brought by torture survivor Madison Hobley, but the case was settled before the deposition occurred. In 2010, torture survivor Michael Tillman successfully joined Daley as a defendant in the racially motivated conspiracy that led to Tillman’s torture and wrongful conviction, but despite the court’s groundbreaking decision, Daley nonetheless resisted sitting for a deposition. Once again, the case settled before Daley had to face the music.

Now the lawyers for Ronald Kitchen, another Burge torture victim, seek to depose Daley. Kitchen, who gave a false written confession to one of Daley’s prosecutors, would not have been tortured and wrongfully convicted if Daley had acted six years earlier by prosecuting Burge. In one of his last acts before switching hats to become Chicago’s Mayor in 1989, Daley personally approved his prosecutors’ request to seek the death penalty in Kitchen’s case. Convicted on the basis of his coerced confession, Kitchen joined nine other Burge torture victims who were sent to death row with Daley’s approval. Twenty-one years later, Kitchen was exonerated and awarded a certificate of innocence by the Cook County courts.

After Daley was subpoenaed for deposition, his lawyers stalled for several months, requesting conferences with Kitchen’s lawyers at which the reasons for the deposition were further debated.  Daley’s private lawyers, who are handsomely paid with taxpayer funds, argued that his testimony was not relevant to the case and articulated Daley’s fear that the deposition video would be made public.  Finally, they conceded that which was apparent from the beginning — that they would not voluntarily present him, no matter what compromises Kitchen’s lawyers were willing to make. Thus Kitchen’s lawyers were forced to file a motion to compel Daley’s testimony, which set forth the basis for the deposition and the areas of questioning. Daley, the master of media manipulation, arranged to file his opposition late on Friday afternoon, no doubt so that the major news outlets, which have shown substantial interest in this issue in the past, would not pick up on it.

Daley’s opposition, which relied heavily on his longtime position as Mayor, attacked Kitchen’s lawyers, who have been instrumental in developing the evidence of Daley’s alleged complicity in the torture conspiracy, asserting that: Somewhat predictably, plaintiff [Kitchen’s] counsel has once again rekindled a longstanding personal campaign to subject former States Attorney/former Mayor Richard M. Daley, a nonparty, to a deposition. This ongoing quest at best is tantamount to a fishing expedition. More ominously, it suggests an unsubtle attempt to orchestrate media attention and generate pre-trial publicity rather than seek legitimate discovery. Not only are plaintiff’s proposed reasons for seeking the deposition suspect, he has not demonstrated a compelling need for the deposition

Ignoring Daley’s documented role in the racially motivated torture conspiracy, his lawyers highlighted the fact that there exists on You Tube a “one sided” video that features Kitchen describing his torture and shows Burge taking the Fifth Amendment and his fellow abuser, Michael Kill, proclaiming that he has used the “n-word” more than a million times.  Rather than a deposition, where he would be subjected to rigorous cross examination, Daley’s lawyers have again proposed in their opposition that he answer, no doubt with his lawyer’s skilled assistance, a limited set of written questions, a proposal that Kitchen’s lawyers have repeatedly rejected.

It is truly ironic that the once all powerful Mayor of the City of Chicago, who previously exerted near total control of the Chicago media, now so fears an under oath accounting of his 30 year involvement in the police torture scandal that his lawyers have filed his opposition in what amounts to the dead of night. Moreover, the question so frequently heard, particularly in the African American community — why are the taxpayers paying his high priced lawyers to continue to orchestrate this duck and dodge routine — has once again raised its ugly head.  As Daley continues to hide from a robust interrogation of his role, his well-deserved legacy from the torture scandal and its continuing cover-up continues to darken.

Racism, Torture and Impunity in Chicago

By G. Flint Taylor

This article appeared in the March 11-18, 2013 edition of The Nation.

In Chicago, Black History Month is a time when some of us reflect on one of our poorest kept secrets, an ongoing injustice born of brutal, systemic racism, which has spread over a generation and whose stain is deeply embedded in the fabric of the city.

Forty years ago, a rookie Chicago police detective named Jon Burge tortured Anthony Holmes using electric shock and suffocation, causing him to crawl on the floor in pain. Lacing this torture with racial epithets, Burge initiated a pattern of dehumanizing abuse that would terrorize at least 120 African American men, their families, and the black community for the next 20 years. This pattern was marked not only by its uniquely brutal tactics, but also by its overtly racist motivation. Burge referred to his notorious electric shock device as the “nigger box,” routinely used the term “nigger” as part of his torture routine, and also used the term to describe his victims in boasting conversations with friends and even casual acquaintances. One day, when asked by an acquaintance about his work investigating homicides, he remarked that he had been “dealing with dead niggers all day.” His “right hand men,” Sgt. John Byrne and Detective Peter Dignan, also repeatedly used the term, including during interrogations, introducing the plastic cover used for suffocation by saying that they “had something special for niggers,” and threatening to hang another suspect by pointing to a noose hanging from the basement ceiling and saying they “hang niggers around here all the time.” Burge and his confederates often focused their torture and brutality on the genitals of their victims.

This blatant racism is highlighted by two pending civil rights damages lawsuits brought under the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, in which two wrongfully convicted torture survivors allege that their torture was the result of a racially motivated police conspiracy. In Darrell Cannon’s case, Byrne and Dignan informed him that they had “a scientific way to interrogate niggers,” then proceeded to take him to a remote area, and repeatedly electric shocked him on the genitals while using the racial slur so frequently that Cannon recalls thinking “that was my name.” In Ronald Kitchen’s case, Burge and detective Michael Kill beat him and kicked him in the genitals while racially taunting him. When later asked, under oath, how often he used the “n-word,” Kill proudly replied “more than a million times.”

Local historians, including African American history professor Adam Green at the University of Chicago, have linked this racially based torture to the brutality of slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow. The parallels in the nature and focus of the brutality are undeniable. So too the selection of African American commanders chosen for their subservience who looked the other way when they heard the anguished screams of the torture victims, and actively participated in the cover-up. African American detectives were kept in line by strict enforcement of the police code of silence, and when they complained of Burge’s racism to their Commander, Burge threatened them with retaliation. Several of these detectives heard rumors that Burge was a Ku Klux Klan member in Indiana. So black detectives under Burge remained silent, coming forward to acknowledge the “open secret” only when they retired decades later.

The CookCountyprosecutor’s office not only countenanced and facilitated the racist pattern of torture; it also aggressively used the confessions so produced to wrongfully convict scores of African American men, sending a dozen to death row.  Some of these prosecutors kept a scorecard of their “accomplishments,” comparing the weights of their convicted defendants in a competition called “nigger by the pound.”

Richard M Daley’s long term involvement in the torture scandal is now well known. As Mayor he scorned all opportunities to apologize, and paid millions of public dollars to continue to defend against this undeniable record of racism. In 2006, special prosecutors given $7 million in public monies to investigate Burge and his men, somehow managed never to mention the racist nature of the torture in their 192 page report. And when Burge was finally put on trial in 2010 — not for the torture itself but for lying about it — his lawyers successfully kept any mention of racism out of the record. While waiting for the jury to return a verdict, Burge asked a courtroom observer whether the jury would really “believe that bunch of niggers,” apparently referring to the courageous men who had testified against him. One of those men was  Melvin Jones, to whom Burge rhetorically posed a similar question while torturing him with electric shocks 30 years earlier.

Last summer the Chicago City Council and Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed off on a settlement for another torture survivor, Michael Tillman, who was exonerated in 2010.  It was the perfect chance for the mayor to apologize on behalf of the city to the African American community that helped elect him. He chose not to do so. Instead, picking up where the Daley administration left off, the mayor has continued to fund Burge’s defense, paying private lawyers a total of $3.8 million to date in the Cannon and Kitchen cases alone. Incredibly, in the Kitchen case, the lawyers the Emanuel Administration has chosen to represent Burge are the very same lawyers a federal judge has found to have practiced “deliberate,” “purposeful,” and “invidious” “racially based” discrimination during jury selection in another wrongful conviction case.

Burge is now serving a four-and-a-half-year sentence in federal prison, where he continues to receive his pension on the taxpayers’ dime. None of his co-conspirators have been held accountable. At the same time, scores of torture survivors remain locked behind bars, serving significantly longer sentences for crimes to which they confessed while being brutalized. If Black History Month is to mean anything in a city like Chicago, our leaders must finally own up to this racist legacy—or they, too, will be remembered for covering it up.

Motion to Compel the Deposition of Richard M. Daley

On January 31, 2013 People’s Law office and MacArthur Justice Center lawyers filed a motion in Federal Court on behalf of police torture survivor  Ronald Kitchen that seeks a  Court order compelling former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley to give a sworn deposition Richard Daley relationship to civil rights cases for Chicago Police Torturein Kitchen’s case. This motion emphasizes Daley’s central role in the Burge torture scandal, and documents Daley’s long running attempt, at taxpayer’s expense, to avoid questioning about his involvement in the decades long, racially motivated conspiracy.

Federal Appeals Court Hears Arguments in Historic Chicago Police Torture Case

By G. Flint Taylor

                On January 22, 2013, a three judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the Chicago police torture case of Darrell Cannon versus the City of Chicago, Jon Burge et al. Cannon, who was tortured into giving a false murder confession in 1983 and served 24 years in prison as a result, had settled his civil rights brutality case in 1988 for the paltry sum of $3000. Over the next 20 years, the massive cover-up of the police torture scandal was dismantled, piece by piece, Cannon’s criminal case was dismissed in 2004, and he brought a new suit, alleging that the original settlement was void due to the police defendants’ fraud and conspiracy to cover-up. The suit was based on a 1984 Seventh Circuit decision, Bell v. Milwaukee, a police killing case in which the Court voided another unconscionably small settlement after an extensive police cover up was exposed by the partner of the police shooter 20 years after the shooting.

                 The City of Chicago aggressively contested Cannon’s suit, pouring more than $1.8 million into Burge and his confederates’ defense. After several years of pretrial discovery, the trial judge, in 2011, granted judgment for Burge, his police co-conspirators, and the City, holding that Cannon had not sufficiently proven fraud to overcome the prior settlement. Cannon appealed, briefs were filed, and the historic argument followed.

Cannon’s lawyer, G. Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office, set the stage for the argument with his opening remarks, asserting that, almost 30 years after deciding Bell, the Court was again presented with an “extraordinary” police violence case where the victim had been deprived of a “meaningful” and “effective” day in court by a “massive,” “racially motivated” police conspiracy to fraudulently cover-up. He then proceeded to lay out the compelling proof that supported Cannon’s claims of conspiracy and cover-up and explained how his case was therefore clearly controlled by the Bell decision. The Court appeared receptive, but, led by Judge Ilana Rovner, its tenor quickly changed as soon as the City’s lawyer began to argue in opposition:

Judge Rovner: Before you introduce yourself, it seems to me that the City has misread Bell. In   both Bell and this case, the determinative fact is not what the Plaintiff knew but what he could not prove because of the cover-up. In each case the extensive cover-ups prevented them from proving it.

After the City’s lawyer offered a response, Judge Rovner continued her pointed inquiry:

Look, if a defendant destroys evidence of wrongdoing and the Plaintiff knows it, does that mean that the more you lie, you cheat, you commit fraud in litigation, the greater your reward for forcing a small settlement?

Judge Rovner then rebutted the City lawyer’s assertion that the police defendants simply denied that they tortured Cannon, stating with an interspersed sigh that “they didn’t just deny, they lied, they cheated, they committed fraud, they committed cover-ups and they did it together, they did it as a group.”

Calling the City’s argument of “no fraud” as “unavailing, to be kind,” Judge Rovner  summarized the facts in the record:

They take a man with a prior murder conviction, then they lie, then they torture him into making a statement that leads to a second murder conviction, then they lie about it, then they destroy evidence, then they engage in this incredibly lengthy cover-up with other city officials. . . On what planet does he have meaningful redress in the courts under those circumstances? I mean, of course he was forced to settle unfavorably because the officers and perhaps the City have made it virtually impossible for him to prove his case. You would have us force a settlement procured by defendants that rigged the deck [so] that no Plaintiff could have proven a legitimate claim?

Judge Rovner then dismantled the City’s argument that Cannon was required to ask the defendants during his initial case if they had tortured other suspects:

That astonishes me, that argument [that] he was supposed to ask in discovery “by the way, have these officers tortured anyone else? Is the City helping these officers cover-up other criminal acts?” Was he obliged to ask if they were committing other criminal acts? How do you suppose they would have answered – — “yes, yes we’re criminals?”

Answer (by Counsel for the City): I don’t know . . .

Judge Rovner: Of course you know.

Judge Sarah Barker then suggested that it was not a “question of impossibility” but rather of “complete” “futility” because “police corruption” “basically . . . deprived [Cannon] of access to the courts.” Judge Rovner, then returned to the City’s argument that Cannon should have further questioned the police conspirators:

So why is Burge in prison now, bottom line, why do you think he is in prison now? What was it that put him in prison?

Answer (by Counsel for the City): He was convicted of committing perjury for denying   acts of   torture, yes.

Judge Rovner: Exactly.

Judge Rovner then addressed the question of the settlement’s unconscionability:

Look, at the time he settled, there was no way for him to begin to prove his case for torture,   much less prove the cover-up. He was in prison for murder, based on the confession he . . . has alleged from the beginning was the result of torture, his bargaining position was absolutely non-   existent under the circumstances.

Judge Rovner then returned to the symmetry between Cannon’s case and Bell decision:

Under Bell [Cannon], it seems to me, has shown exactly what he needs to show and any other result would mean that defendants could engage in a decade long cover-up with impunity. [Cannon] might “know” . . . that the police are lying but that is a great distance from being able to prove that that’s the case. . . I’m one of three, but it seems to me that if the defendants successfully suppress the truth in an effort to force an unfavorable settlement, they should not be rewarded for the success of their scheme when the truth eventually comes out. . . [N]o matter what the Plaintiffs knew in each of the cases, there were extensive criminal cover-ups that made it virtually impossible for them to prove their cases. . . . I think it’s a miracle that it was ever proved, a miracle.

Perhaps reflecting on the multi-million dollar settlements that a number of Burge victims have recently obtained from the City, Judge Barker returned to the paltry settlement given to Cannon in 1988:

Don’t you think, given all the things you know now and all the corruption that came to light . . . don’t you think it’s a thin reed on which you’re attempting to hang resolution to say, given all of that, $3000 is a fair settlement – — don’t you think that’s sort of a thin reed?

After the City’s lawyer attempted to minimize the value of Cannon’s case, Judge Barker capped the City lawyer’s 20 minute ordeal with this wry commentary:

Judge Barker: So you think there’s a chance he might settle for $3000 again?

Counsel for the City: (Stammering a response)

Judge Barker: Rhetorical. Rhetorical.

The Court took the case under advisement and is expected to issue a written decision within the next few months.

Taylor is one of Darrell Cannon’s lawyers and argued the case on his behalf in the Seventh Circuit. He is a founding partner of the People’s Law Office, which is a Chicago civil rights law firm, whose attorneys have been fighting for victims of police torture, brutality, wrongful convictions, false arrest and other government abuses for over 40 years.  For more information on police torture and other topics, visit


On January 22nd, a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals panel comprised of Judge Ilana Rovner, Senior Judge Kenneth Ripple, and District Court Judge Sarah Barker heard arguments on the Darrell Cannon police torture case. In essence, the issue presented was whether Cannon was bound by a 1988 settlement of $3000 or, under the principles enunciated almost 30 years ago by the Seventh Circuit in the case of Bell v. Milwaukee, he could void the settlement and proceed with his torture and wrongful conviction claims. At the heart of the argument was the massive, racially based conspiracy to torture and cover-up that only came to light, piece by piece, after Cannon settled. The Court was quite receptive to Cannon’s arguments, which were presented by People’s Law Office attorney Flint Taylor, and asked some very pointed questions of the City concerning the Burge torture scandal, its cover-up, and the City’s role in it. The argument can be heard here. A fuller description of the case can be read here, a video of Darrell Cannon describing his torture can be viewed below, and Cannon’s appellate brief can be found here