Class Action Suit Offers Opportunity to Bring Closure to Burge Torture Scandal
The scandal of confessions coerced by police torture "has tainted the administration of justice in Cook County for decades," but the system can lay the scandal to rest by giving each still-imprisoned torture victim a full and fair evidentiary hearing, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center and the People's Law Office argue in a memorandum in support of their petition seeking certification of a class of imprisoned victims.
"Addressing the still-incarcerated victims' rights on a class-wide basis is the only way that the Illinois and Cook County criminal justice system can finally bring closure to this long-running scandal," according to the memorandum. "Such closure is imperative if we are the heal the wounds of Burge's abuses and to cement public trust in the system."
Former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and some of the men under his command were responsible for tortured confessions of scores of African American suspects over two decades, and many of those suspects were convicted and remain in prison due to coerced confessions. An Illinois Supreme Court 2012 ruling in a Burge torture case (People v. Wrice) "unequivocally reaffirmed the time-honored principle that no conviction in this State can rest – in whole or in part – on a confession that was the product of torture or other physical coercion," the memorandum states.
The class action lawsuit was filed in October 2012, and the supporting memorandum and motion for class certification were filed in June 2013. The case is pending before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Paul P. Biebel, Jr.
The filings assert that the number of prisoners with credible claims of convictions tainted by torture is large enough to meet the court's criteria for class certification. A conservative estimate places the number at more than 40, and many cannot be identified with currently available information. Certification as a class would allow the attorneys to examine files from police headquarters where methods of torture are known to have been used during interrogations and match those suspects questioned in that timeframe with men now in state prisons.
If the petition is successful, individual hearings would be held in each case, and the court would evaluate whether an award of a new trial is appropriate.
In the years since those prisoners were sentenced in the mid-1990s and earlier, there has been "an avalanche" of new evidence leading to wide acknowledgement that torture and physical abuse were commonplace.
"The Burge scandal has tainted the administration of justice in Cook County for decades," the memorandum states. "In order for the Cook County justice system to purge itself of the stain of injustice from Burge's torture, relief must be afforded to each incarcerated individual who claims he was tortured or otherwise abused under Burge's command and supervision."
Updated - 09/05/2013
Class Action Suit Calls for New Hearings for Still-Incarcerated Burge Torture Victims
Attorneys from the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center and the People's Law Office filed a class action lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court calling for new hearings for all of the men who remain in prison despite credible claims that their convictions were tainted by torture committed by disgraced former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his subordinates.
"We are asking the Court to establish a process to ensure that every Burge victim still in prison is given a fair hearing to determine if his conviction rests on a tortured confession," said Locke Bowman ,director of the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center and attorney for the class. "For close to four decades, Chicago has struggled with the atrocities that occurred on Jon Burge's watch. The reputation of the Chicago Police is tarnished, and the taxpayers have shelled out millions of dollars. We cannot achieve closure and get to the bottom of this scandal until every person who suffered under Burge is granted a fair hearing."
Now that Burge stands convicted of crimes relating to the systematic torture of African-American men over more than two decades, the cases of each of his victims should be re-examined, according to the lawsuit. The suit notes that other jurisdictions faced with similar police scandals, including Los Angeles, New York City and West Virginia, have waived legal procedural barriers and vacated convictions to ensure no individual remain convicted on the basis of corrupt law enforcement actions.
An unknown number of men remain in prison because they confessed to crimes after being tortured by Burge and his men. Last year, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that imprisoned Burge victim Stanley Wrice was entitled to a new hearing based on evidence that he was tortured into fabricating a confession to rape he didn't commit. In the decision, the Court declared that "no conviction in the State of Illinois can rest in whole or in part on a confession that was the product of torture or other physical coercion." The class-action suit seeks to apply the same remedy to the plight of other Burge victims still in prison despite evidence that could invalidate their convictions.
Editorial: Tortured Justice, Chicago Sun-Times
More Potential Burge Victims Want Justice, Chicago Tonight (video)
Updated - 10/22/2012
MacArthur Justice Center Files Amicus Brief in Burge Torture Case Before the Illinois Supreme Court
The Roderick MacArthur Justice Center authored an amicus brief (pdf) to the Illinois Supreme Court signed by legal and political heavyweights including former U.S. Senator Adlai Stevenson and former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson urging immediate hearings for Stanley Wrice and other still-imprisoned victims of torture by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his men. The brief was filed in the case of Stanley Wrice, who was convicted of a brutal rape based in part on a confession he claims Burge detectives extracted by torture.
The brief points out that it has been 10 years since the Illinois high court last heard a case involving a Burge torture victim. Summarizing the overwhelming evidence that has emerged in that decade that Burge and his men systematically tortured African American suspects in their custody, the brief declares: "The Burge cases confront this Court with officially acknowledged systemic torture - an occurrence that is not only unique to this State, but a blatant violation of human rights. This extraordinary circumstance calls for this Court to employ the Illinois Constitution in the most forceful possible way, to the end that this kind of disgraceful police conduct will not be repeated in our State."
The MacArthur Justice Center brief urges the Illinois Supreme Court to order hearings for Wrice and 14 other men who allege their convictions hinge on confessions extracted by Burge-connected torture and who still remain behind bars.
The arguments in the brief were echoed this summer on the editorial pages of both major Chicago newspapers.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Wrice's case in the coming months.
Updated - 10/20/2011
Burge Sentenced to Four and One-half Years For Lying About Torture
The decades-long struggle to bring Jon Burge to justice ended in mid-January when a federal district judge sentenced the disgraced former Chicago Police Commander to four and one-half years in prison for lying under oath about multiple acts of torture he inflicted on men wrongfully convicted of crimes they didn't commit.
Roderick MacArthur Justice Center Legal Director Locke Bowman represented several Burge victims, including Darrel Cannon, Ronald Kitchen, Victor Safforld and Michael Tillman – all of whom were released from prison after their convictions were voided in court.
"When a confession is coerced ... the administration of justice is undermined irreparably," said U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow in issuing Burge's sentence. "How can one trust that justice will be served when the justice system has been so defiled?"
In a rebuke of police and prosecutors who failed to halt Burge's torture spree despite evidence of the abuse that surfaced as early 1982, Lefkow said: "How I wish there had not been such a dismal failure of leadership in the (police) department that it came to this. If others, such as the United States attorney and the (Cook County) state's attorney, had given heed long ago, so much pain could have been avoided."
During a tenure that spanned from the early 1970s until he was dismissed from the Chicago Police Department in the early 1990s, Burge and the "Midnight Crew" he supervised beat, burned, shocked and suffocated dozens of African-American suspects until they submitted false confessions to crimes they didn't commit.
Updated - 02/07/2011
Finally: Burge Found Guilty in Connection with Torture Spree
Culminating a two-decade long quest for justice, disgraced former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge was convicted in late June of perjury in connection with the torture he and and Chicago Police detectives working under his command systematically inflicted on African-American suspects during a 20-year period.
The conviction was welcomed by Darrell Cannon, Ronald Kitchen, Victor Safforld and Michael Tillman, torture victims represented by the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center. But the conviction starkly posed questions about the continuing failure of the Illinois criminal justice system to address the consequences of Burge's misconduct. Some twenty men who credibly claim that they were tortured or abused by Burge or his officers remain incarcerated in the Illinois prisons without ever had a full and fair hearing into their torture claims. The Roderick MacArthur Justice Center's Legal Director, Locke Bowman, calls this a "disgrace" and a "moral failure" of the Illinois criminal justice system. The jury verdict came nearly 30 years after credible evidence of the torture was first reported to Chicago Police and Cook County prosecutors, who collectively chose to ignore the charges, enabling the abuse to continue. Multiple investigations later reached the same conclusion: that Burge had committed repeated acts of torture.
The resulting epidemic of tainted convictions - including cases in which the torture victims were sentenced to death - was one of the factors that prompted former Illinois Governor George Ryan to institute a moratorium on the death penalty. Meanwhile, the city continues to incur massive legal fees to defend Burge and has already paid tens of millions in legal fees and settlements in lawsuits filed by his victims.
Burge was fired in 1993, but was never criminally charged by state prosecutors, including former Cook County State's Attorney and current Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who turned a blind eye to the ample evidence of his crimes. As a result, the statute of limitations on the acts of torture Burge committed expired. But federal prosecutors charged Burge with lying under oath in answers to questions he gave into one of the civil suits filed against him.
Burge was indicted in 2008 by a federal grand jury. He awaits sentencing.
Updated - 08/02/2010
MacArthur Justice Center, Human Rights Groups, Bar Associations and Others Seek International Probe into Cases of Police Torture Under Jon Burge
In a move that could impact Chicago authorities suspected of stalling their own investigation, international human rights monitors conducted a hearing on October 14 into well-documented allegations that Chicago Police systematically tortured 135 African-American criminal suspects during the 1970s and 80s, with total impunity.
The hearing by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) was granted at the request of a coalition of human rights organizations, bar associations, attorneys, and community activists that have long sought justice against former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and other officials responsible for the torture of African-Americans in an effort to coerce false confessions.
Updated - 10/14/2005