Saturday, October 25, 2008

Prosecutors widen Chicago police torture probe

Prosecutors widen Chicago police torture probe


CHICAGO — The investigation of decades-old claims that Chicago police tortured suspects with beatings, electric shocks and games of Russian roulette won’t stop with last week’s federal indictment of a controversial homicide commander.

Dozens of former detectives and other officers can expect to be called before a federal grand jury as the panel digs deeper into a scandal that has haunted Chicago for more than 20 years. Prosecutors hint that fresh charges could be on the way.

“Torture and abuse have no place in a Chicago police station,” U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said last week in unveiling charges against Jon Burge, the 60-year-old former commander of the South Side’s Area 2 violent crimes unit.

Burge, whose name is now synonymous with the scandal, is due before U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow on Monday to be arraigned on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury. Prosecutors claim that Burge, who was fired by the police department in 1993, lied under oath five years ago in written answers for a civil rights lawsuit.

Civil rights lawyers who have long pressed for a federal investigation of the torture allegations praised the indictment but said it was a long time in coming.

Two court-appointed special prosecutors found two years ago that scores of black suspects had been seriously abused at Area 2 in the 1970s and 1980s to force them to confess, but determined that the abuse had occurred so long ago that criminal charges are no longer possible.

Similarly, Burge never was charged for actual torture and the statute of limitations has run out, meaning he can’t be charged with such crimes. Prosecutors have said charging him with lying about the alleged torture is better than nothing at all.

Burge was charged with lying in the civil rights lawsuit when he said he and detectives never engaged in activities such as “bagging” — covering a suspect’s head with a typewriter cover until he couldn’t breathe.

But he is far from the only former officer to deny under oath any knowledge of abuses described by some suspects who passed through Area 2.

Former Death Row prisoner Darrell Cannon — freed when a review board found evidence against him was tainted — also is suing Burge and detectives who served under him.

Cannon says police pretended to load a shotgun, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger to terrify him into confessing to a murder that he didn’t commit. He says they also shocked him below the belt with an electric cattle prod.

Several of the detectives accused by Cannon have given written answers under oath to questions in Cannon’s lawsuit and denied knowledge of torture or taking part in it.

Cannon attorney Locke Bowman, of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University, says those answers mirror those cited in the Burge indictment. “A number of other detectives who worked under Jon Burge and engaged in abuse at Area 2 should be charged,” Bowman said.

James Sotos, an attorney for three former detectives charged in the suit, wouldn’t comment on the possibility of charges other than to say: “I can’t get into the heads of federal prosecutors and speculate on anything like that.”

Richard Sikes, an attorney who previously represented two of the officers, noted that “they have all denied these allegations and nothing has been proven.”

But G. Flint Taylor, another one of Cannon’s attorneys, says the evidence seems to warrant indictments of “Burge’s trusted associates on the midnight crew.”

“I think it’s mandatory that it happen,” Taylor said.

Chicago recently agreed to pay $20 million to settle lawsuits filed by four former inmates who say they were the victims of torture.

Two years ago, Mayor Richard M. Daley offered to “apologize to anyone” for Burge’s alleged misdeeds. Daley was Cook County state’s attorney when Burge was boss of the homicide detectives at Area 2 and his cases were moving through the courts.

But last week, Daley dismissed any notion that he was somehow to blame. “I was very proud of my role as prosecutor,” he told reporters. “I was not the mayor. I was not the police chief. I did not promote this man in the 1980s.”

Fitzgerald brushed aside speculation about whether county officials in the Burge era might be held to blame if the investigation widens to include them.

But while the federal prosecutor didn’t identify any police officers by name, he left no doubt that sworn statements made by former detectives in the civil rights lawsuits will be scrutinized. And he warned those called before the grand jury that they could dig themselves in even deeper if they try to lie.

“If their lifeline is to hang onto a perceived code of silence, they may be hanging on air,” Fitzgerald said.

He added: “This is the beginning of the prosecution of Jon Burge — it is not the end of the investigation of torture and abuse.”

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