CHICAGO (AP) — Victims of a former Chicago police officer convicted of lying about the torture of suspects were among dozens of people who packed a federal courtroom on Thursday for the start of a sentencing hearing expected to include days of highly emotional testimony.
A seemingly calm Jon Burge, 63, sat at a defense table as nearly a hundred people crowded into spectator benches. U.S. marshals directed dozens of others who couldn’t find seats into an overflow room with an audio feed.
Burge’s name has become synonymous with police brutality in the nation’s third-largest city. Extra security, including a walk-through metal detector by the courtroom doors, were in place as the case, decades in the making, headed toward a climactic end.
Dozens of suspects — almost all of them black men — claimed for decades that Burge and his officers tortured them into confessing to crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder. Prosecutors presented testimony at trial from five men — Anthony Holmes, Melvin Jones, Andrew Wilson, Gregory Banks and Shadeed Mu’min — who claimed Burge or his men put plastic bags over their heads until they passed out, stuck guns in their mouths or shocked them with electric currents.
Prosecutors have argued that Burge’s perjury and obstruction of justice convictions add up to 30-plus years in federal prison. The defense has asked for less than two years. Burge has been free on bond since his five-week trial that ended in June.
Both sides were expected to call witnesses, and U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow would decide whether to also allow testimony from outside groups with an interest in a case that’s spanned nearly 40 years. The hearing was expected to last two days.
Burge was charged with lying about the alleged torture in a lawsuit filed by former death row inmate Madison Hobley, who was sentenced to death for a 1987 fire that killed seven people, including his wife and son. Hobley was later pardoned.
Hobley claimed detectives put a plastic typewriter cover over his head to make it impossible for him to breathe. Burge denied knowing anything about the “bagging” or taking part in it. The indictment against Burge never said Hobley was tortured, instead accusing Burge of lying with respect to participating in or knowing of any torture under his watch.
The allegations against Burge and his men even helped shape the state’s debate over the death penalty. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan released four condemned men from death row in 2003 after Ryan said Burge extracted confessions from them using torture. The allegations of torture and coerced confessions eventually led to a still-standing moratorium on Illinois’ death penalty. This month, legislators voted to abolish capital punishment in Illinois. The bill is awaiting the signature of Gov. Pat Quinn.
Motions filed since Burge’s trial offer a glimpse into how both sides will build their case. Prosecutors argue that the nature of the violent acts Burge was convicted of lying about should lengthen his sentence, as should the cost his conduct has had on the city, his fellow officers and his victims.
Defense lawyers countered that the sentence sought by prosecutors is “tantamount to life imprisonment” for Burge, who has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and has a host of other maladies, including congestive heart failure and chronic bronchitis. His lawyers also argue that the judge should take into account Burge’s military service and decades fighting crime.
More than 30 people, many of them police officers, have sent letters to Lefkow asking for leniency, with one calling Burge a “policeman’s policeman.” The same man added, “If my soul was on the way to heaven and Satan made one last attempt for my soul, Jon Burge would be the person I would want covering my back.”
But for the former defendants who say Burge tortured them into confessions, Burge was no savior.
“He was our al-Qaida, he was our (Osama) bin Laden in our neighborhood,” said Ronald Kitchen, who was freed from prison after 21 years after it was proven Burge and his men coerced him into falsely confessing to murder. Kitchen spent 13 years of his sentence on death row.
“I would love for him to do 21 years of hard time and to feel the loss that I felt and other people have felt,” said Kitchen, who did not testify at Burge’s trial.
Burge was fired in 1993 over the alleged mistreatment of Wilson, but he never was criminally charged in that case or any other, leading to widespread outrage in Chicago’s black neighborhoods. The anger intensified when Burge moved to Florida and his alleged victims remained in prison.
Associated Press writer Michael Tarm contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.