CHICAGO (AP) — For some, the perjury conviction of a former Chicago police lieutenant accused of lying for years about the torture of suspects marks the end of a tragic chapter in the city’s history. Others, including federal prosecutors, suggest it could be just a start.
A federal jury found former Lt. Jon Burge guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice Monday after a five-week trial that pitted the decorated former officer against five convicted felons who said he and officers under his command shocked, suffocated and burned them into giving confessions in the 1970s and 1980s.
Prosecutors have alleged Burge didn’t act alone, and one witness said Burge didn’t touch him but looked in as other officers beat and suffocated him. For decades, dozens of suspects — almost all of them black men — claimed Burge and his officers tortured them into confessing to crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder.
Burge is the only officer to be criminally charged in relation to torture, but federal prosecutors have hinted he won’t be the last. Burge was charged with lying in a civil suit in 2003 when he denied ever witnessing or participating in torture. He wasn’t charged with the torture itself because the statute of limitations has run out.
Other officers also have denied any role in torture and no other perjury of obstruction of justice charges have been announced, but U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has said the investigation into the decades-long cover-up is ongoing.
Fitzgerald said after Monday’s verdict that “a message needs to go out that that conduct is unacceptable” and asked others who feel they have evidence of torture to come forward. He wouldn’t comment on specific cases.
Fitzgerald called it sad that it took until 2010 to prove in a courtroom that torture once occurred in Chicago police stations. More than 100 victims have said the torture started in the 1970s and persisted until the 1990s at police stations on the city’s south and west sides.
The lack of charges led to widespread outrage in Chicago’s black neighborhoods. The community anger intensified when Burge moved to Florida on his police pension — after being fired from the department in 1993 over the alleged mistreatment of a suspect — while his alleged victims remained in prison. It wasn’t immediately clear how Monday’s verdict would affect the pension.
Burge’s name became synonymous with police brutality and abuse of power in the country’s third-largest city. David Bates, who served 11 years in prison after he said officers under Burge’s command coerced him into confessing to murder, called Burge the tip of the iceberg.
“To tap him out was easy, he’s been marketed as the torture person,” said Bates, who did not testify at Burge’s trial. “But it goes so far beyond Jon Burge.”
Only one of Burge’s former officers testified at the trial, and he made clear he was only doing so because he was afraid of losing his police pension and his job with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office. The government gave Michael McDermott immunity from prosecution as long as he answered questions truthfully.
McDermott told jurors he saw his former boss scuffle with a suspect and point a gun in the suspect’s direction in the 1980s, an incident he called inappropriate but not abusive.
Other police officers clearly hoped the Burge verdict would shut the door on the issue of torture. The Fraternal Order of Police said “hopefully this brings closure to this long-standing dispute.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.