Federal Appeals Court Upholds Burge Conviction for Lying About “Horrific” Torture

By G. Flint Taylor

On April 1, 2013, a three judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the perjury and obstruction of justice conviction of notorious former Chicago police commander Jon Burge. Burge, who has now been linked to at least 120 documented cases of torture of African American suspects over a 20 year period, was convicted by a federal jury in June of 2010 and sentenced in January of 2011 to fifty-four months in federal prison. He is presently serving his sentence in Butner Federal Penitentiary alongside several other high profile federal prisoners, including Bernie Madoff.

The opinion was written by Judge Ann Williams, the only African American judge in the history of the Seventh Circuit. Introducing the 23 page decision, Judge Williams wrote:

Former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge presided over an interrogation regime where suspects were suffocated with plastic bags, electrocuted until they lost consciousness, held down against radiators, and had loaded guns pointed at their heads during rounds of Russian roulette. The use of this kind of torture was designed to inflict pain and instill fear while leaving minimal marks. When Burge was asked about these practices in civil interrogatories served on him years later, he lied and denied any knowledge of, or participation in, torture of suspects in police custody. But the jury heard overwhelming evidence to contradict that assertion and convicted Burge for obstruction of justice and perjury.

Judge Williams further discussed the history of Burge and his confederates’ pattern of torture:

For many years a cloud of suspicion loomed over the violent crimes section of the Area 2 precinct of the Chicago Police Department (CPD) located on Chicago’s south side. Jon Burge joined the CPD in 1970 and rose to commanding officer of the violent crimes section in the 1980s, but his career was marked by accusations from over one hundred individuals who claimed that he and officers under his command tortured suspects in order to obtain confessions throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Burge was fired in 1993 after the Office of Professional Standards investigated the allegations, but he was not criminally charged. Years later the Circuit Court of Cook County appointed special prosecutors to investigate the allegations of torture, but due to statutes of limitation, prosecutors never brought direct charges of police brutality against Burge. Eventually, the City of Chicago began to face a series of civil lawsuits from victims seeking damages for the abuse they endured.

It was in one of these lawsuits that Burge denied in sworn interrogatory answers that he had knowledge of, or participated in, any acts of torture or physical abuse, and these statements lead to his federal indictment and trial. In the Court’s decision, Judge Williams summarized the “horrific” evidence that the Government introduced against Burge at trial:

At trial, the government called multiple witnesses to testify about the methods of torture and abuse used by Burge and others at Area 2 in order to establish that Burge lied when he answered the interrogatories in the Hobley case…[T]he witnesses at trial detailed a record of decades of abuse that is unquestionably horrific. The witnesses described how they were suffocated with plastic bags, electrocuted with homemade devices attached to their genitals, beaten, and had guns forced into their mouths during questioning. Burge denied all allegations of abuse, but other witnesses stated that he bragged in the 1980s about how suspects were beaten in order to extract confessions. Another witness testified that Burge told her that he did not care if those tortured were innocent or guilty, because as he saw it, every suspect had surely committed some other offense anyway.

The Court then went on to dismiss Burge’s assertions of trial and sentencing errors, finding that the evidence that he lied was “overwhelming,” and summarized its decision as follows:

Burge raises several challenges to his convictions on appeal, which we do not find persuasive because the evidence shows that he lied when he answered the interrogatories, his false statements impeded an official proceeding, and they were material to the outcome of the civil case. Overall, we conclude that no errors were committed by the court and Burge received a fair trial.

This decision is another victory for the movement to obtain justice in the Chicago police torture cases. It bodes well for Darrell Cannon, a well known Burge torture victim whose case was recently argued before another Seventh Circuit panel. That panel included Judge Ilana Rovner, who also sat on the Burge appeal, and, during the Cannon argument, pointedly interrogated a City of Chicago lawyer about Burge’s systemic reign of terror. The decision will also be helpful in the continuing struggle to obtain new hearings for Burge victims who still remain behind bars on the basis of tortured confessions, to obtain fair compensation from the City of Chicago for a number of Burge torture victims, and to strip Burge of his police pension.

Visit the Chicago Police Torture section on our website to learn more about this issue.