CHICAGO (AP) — Decades after young black men in Chicago first began claiming that a white policeman shocked, burned and suffocated them to get confessions, former officer Jon Burge is headed to federal prison.
He goes to serve to 4½ years behind bars not as the decorated, tough detective who rose quickly in the department, but as a cancer patient with a drinking problem who is, by his own admission, broken. His name has become synonymous with out-of-control police in the country’s third-largest city.
U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow sentenced Burge on Friday, bringing an end to an ugly chapter in the city’s racially charged history after he was convicted last summer of lying about the torture of suspects.
Dozens of people — 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.
While Burge’s attorneys had asked for a lesser sentence, several victims and their supporters said Burge’s punishment wasn’t nearly harsh enough.
“It’s outrageous,” said Mark Clements, who claims Burge’s officers tortured him into giving a false confession in 1981 when he was 16. Tears ran down his face and his voice rose in anger. “It’s not justice.”
Burge’s victims say he is part of the reason they and others fear the police. It was decades before anyone in power in Chicago believed the stories that activists say were common knowledge in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, whose office prosecuted Burge, acknowledged that it took too long for him to be tried and convicted.
“Justice delayed isn’t justice completely denied,” Fitzgerald said.
But community activist Fred Hampton Jr. said the sentence was disproportionately low compared to what others receive for lesser crimes.
“People in our community get more time than this for fistfights,” said Hampton, whose father was a Black Panther leader killed by police before the Burge era.
Lefkow said the sentence reflected the seriousness of the allegations and, in making her decision, she wondered why an officer so admired by his department would resort to such violence.
“My best guess is ambition,” Lefkow said. “Perhaps the praise, the publicity and the commendations . . . were seductive and led you down this path.”
Burge has never faced criminal charges for abuse. He was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of perjury for lying when he testified in a civil lawsuit brought by Madison Hobley, who was sentenced to death for a 1987 fire that killed seven people, including his wife and son.
Then-Gov. George Ryan pardoned Hobley just before the governor emptied death row — and cited the Burge allegations for doubting some convictions.
Hobley claimed detectives put a plastic typewriter cover over his head to make it impossible for him to breathe. Burge denied knowing about the “bagging” or taking part in it. The indictment against Burge never said Hobley was tortured but accused Burge of lying about participating in or knowing about torture that took place under his watch.
Hobley’s sister broke down in tears Friday as she testified about the effect her brother’s case had on their family. Robin Hobley looked directly at Burge and, with her voice breaking, said: “You put us through 16 years of torment . . . of people believing my brother was a murderer, and he wasn’t. You have no idea what you did to our family.”
While Burge denied during his five-week trial that torture took place, Lefkow noted the jury hadn’t believed him. In considering a sentence, Lefkow told Burge she took into account his “unwillingness to acknowledge the truth in the face of all the evidence.”
Burge stood facing Lefkow as she read the sentence. Her offer to let him sit given his poor heath drew groans from the victims and courtroom observers, who otherwise sat rapt as the judge spoke. As Lefkow talked about victims’ testimony that she’d found particularly moving, Burge’s sister-in-law stormed out of the courtroom.
Earlier Friday, Burge told the judge he knew his case brought the police department into disrepute and “for that, I am deeply sorry.” He insisted he wasn’t the person who’s been “vilified” by the media but didn’t specifically address the allegations of torture and abuse.
“I’m 63 years old, and while I try to keep a proud face, in reality, I am a broken man,” he then said, his voice falling and seeming to crack with emotion.
Burge has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, congestive heart failure and a host of other maladies. His attorneys also disclosed in court Friday that he has a “drinking problem,” and they requested that alcohol treatment be part of his three-year supervised release after his sentence. Lefkow agreed, and also said she’d recommend that Burge be sentenced to a federal facility near his Florida home.
Burge does not have to report for prison until March 16. He did not speak to reporters after the hearing and was taken out an entrance not accessible to reporters or the general public for security reasons, said defense attorney Richard Beuke.
After court, Beuke said that his client, who was fired in 1993 for mistreating a suspect, didn’t mean to express remorse in his statement or suggest he did anything wrong. Beuke blamed what he called cop killers, murderers and rapists for the allegations that dogged Burge for years. He said Burge plans to appeal the sentence.
“I don’t think a day in jail for Jon Burge is just,” he attorney said.
Associated Press writer Michael Tarm contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.