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To Catch a Torturer: My 28-Year Pursuit of Racist Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge

A human rights attorney looks back at his nearly three decades going after Chicago’s notorious torturer of African-American men.

A broken but still unrepentant Jon G. Burge wears the well-deserved mantle of former Chicago Police commander and notorious torturer. (Photo: Keith Levit /

On February 13, 2015, former Chicago Police Commander Jon G. Burge was released from federal custody, having served a little less than four years of his four-and-a-half year sentence for lying under oath about whether he tortured scores of African-American men during his time as commander. Less than a week before, I sat across from him in a small room in Tampa, Florida, questioning him, pursuant to a court order, yet again about his role in a torture case—this time, the case of Alonzo Smith, who was repeatedly suffocated with a plastic bag and beaten with a rubber nightstick in the basement of the Area 2 police station by two of Burge’s most violent henchmen after Burge informed him that they “would get him to talk, one way or another.”

Reading from a prepared script, the 67-year-old Burge, weakened by several physical ailments but nonetheless exhibiting a hostility that has marked our many encounters over the years, responded to my first question by once again invoking his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. He then stood up, informed me that he would not respond to any further questions, and started to leave the room.

After I told him that he would be in violation of the judge’s order if he left before I had finished my questioning, he reluctantly returned, and asserted the Fifth Amendment to each and every subsequent question, including to the most damning one: Was the torture of Smith part of a pattern and practice of systemic and racist torture and abuse against African-American men which he orchestrated? After a contentious concluding exchange between us, a look of smug self-satisfaction came across his face as he answered my final question by stating, “I exercise my Fifth Amendment rights—even though I would like to say you are a liar.”

Of course the answer to that question of the systemic and racist nature of Burge’s torture is now well established by a mountain of evidence that has been assembled over nearly three decades in the teeth of an unremitting official cover-up that has implicated a series of police superintendents, numerous prosecutors, more than 30 police detectives and supervisors, and, most notably, Richard M. Daley, first as the State’s Attorney of Cook County, then as Chicago’s long-serving Mayor, in a police torture scandal that had spanned the more than 40 years that I had been a lawyer at the People’s Law Office.

A torturer in blue

My law partners, Jeffrey Haas and John Stainthorp, and I first became aware of Jon Burge and his connection to police torture in 1987 when Andrew Wilson, a convicted cop killer, called us from death row and asked us to represent him in the pro se lawsuit that he had filed against Burge and several of his associates at Area 2 Detective headquarters. Wilson’s allegations were chilling: suffocation with a bag, burns from a cigarette, beatings, and, most frightening, repeated electric shocks from a black shock box to his genitals, ears and fingers that caused him to be badly burned on a steam radiator across which he was handcuffed at the time he was shocked. With some trepidation, we took the case, and I was soon sitting across from Burge in a small conference room confronting him about his torture of Wilson.

At that time, Burge was at the height of his powers, having recently been promoted from Lieutenant to Commander, completing a meteoric rise in rank in the Chicago Police Department. Burly, red-faced and supremely arrogant, Burge had used his clout with the city to retain, at taxpayer’s expense, a former Deputy to then-State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley to represent him. Posturing as a hero for capturing Wilson and obtaining his confession, Burge vehemently denied any wrongdoing and scoffed at my persistent attempts to expose his lies.

In the winter of 1989, the Wilson civil case went to trial before a Judge, Brian Duff, who referred to Wilson in an off-the-record comment as the “scum of the earth.” Burge took the stand and I was once again thrust into the role of his interrogator.

After the first day of my cross examination, we received a voicemail at our office from an anonymous source. This source, whom we later dubbed “Deep Badge,” worked with Burge at Area 2 and supplied us with information which began the process of blowing the lid off the cover-up. Deep Badge informed us of another Burge electric shock victim, Melvin Jones; the names of Burge’s co-conspirators; and claimed that State’s Attorney Daley and Mayor Jane Byrne were aware of Wilson’s torture.

We sought to confront Burge before the jury with this newly discovered evidence, but the judge, while recognizing that this evidence was “explosive,” would not let me do so. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury, unaware of the unravelling cover-up, hung, necessitating a second trial.

While we awaited the re-trial, we pursued the leads given to us by “Deep Badge” and found a number of other torture victims who were serving time based on confessions tortured from them by Burge and his confederates. One of them was Anthony Holmes, who was tortured with electric shock by Burge just after he became a detective in 1973. Armed with this information, I again deposed Burge, who brazenly denied any misconduct in each and every one of the newly discovered cases. At the re-trial, Judge Duff denied us the right to confront Burge with these newly discovered cases, and when I tried to do so, the judge, egged on by Burge’s lawyer, repeatedly held me and my co-counsel in contempt.

As a result of the judge’s unremitting bias in favor of Burge and his lawyers, after an eight-week second trial, the all-white jury absolved Burge. We appealed the decision, and the evidence that we had uncovered compelled the Chicago Police Department to reopen its investigation into the Wilson case and to pursue the question of whether the torture was systemic.

The investigation produced two determinations: that Burge should be fired for his torture of Wilson, and that the torture at Area 2 was “systematic” and implicated command personnel. The Department moved to fire Burge—while suppressing the findings of systematic torture.

Targeted by Burge

During this period, the reality of personal risk became more apparent. Burge publicly called me an “idiot” in response to my testimony before the Chicago City Council, and his defense committee and the Fraternal Order of Police repeatedly mounted personal attacks against me and my law partners. A friendly police employee told us of an alleged threat that Burge had made to “blow us away.”

I spoke with another unnamed Burge associate on the phone who asserted that Burge had tortured innocent suspects and women, and an African-American former detective who worked in Area 2 clandestinely came to our office and told me about a Burge torture scene he had witnessed in 1973. Unknown to us at the time, Burge had enlisted one of his former associates to comb the Area 2 files in an attempt to discover the identity of Deep Badge. (I also learned from a neighbor that Burge had a boat. The neighbor had seen Burge cruising in Chicago’s Monroe Street Harbor; the boat was aptly named “The Vigilante.”)

Burge was brought to trial before the Chicago Police Board in the winter of 1992, amid a local furor that was occasioned by our successfully obtaining the public release of the CPD’s finding of systematic torture, a rally for Burge which attracted 3,000 cops and prosecutors and a boisterous counter rally that the Task Force to Confront Police Violence organized. Jeff Haas, who was a moving force in the Task Force, and I often attended the six-week Police Board hearing, at which Wilson, Jones and a third Burge victim all testified.

Burge took the stand and denied that he tortured these men, and we suffered Burge’s wrath when we publicly commented on the evidence. Nearly a year later, the Police Board issued its decision to fire Burge, and I was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times as saying that “the person in charge of the systematic torture had been fired,” and that the department should “implement” the findings of systematic torture by “clean[ing] house.”

On the heels of the Police Board decision, the Fraternal Order of Police unsuccessfully attempted to honor Burge with a float in the St. Patrick Day’s Parade; a few weeks later, the Federal Appeals Court, citing Judge Duff’s refusal to permit the questioning of Burge before the jury about the other cases of torture, granted us a new trial in the Wilson case.

Burge relocated to Florida, the City of Chicago quietly permitting him to resign after his firing became final. As a result, in 1997, he began to collect his police pension. That same year, after a second appeal, we obtained a $1.1 million dollar settlement in the Wilson case.

Justice reform beyond police torture

At about this time, the struggle against police torture joined with the movement against the death penalty that was spearheaded by a group of death row prisoners who had been tortured by Burge and his men. These men, who called themselves the Death Row Ten, joined with lawyers, activists, and other foes of the death penalty and police torture in a unified effort that resulted in a death penalty moratorium, the appointment of a Cook County Special Prosecutor to investigate Burge’s crimes and, in 2003, Illinois Governor George Ryan’s commutation of all Illinois death sentences and pardon of four of the Death Row Ten—Leroy Orange, Madison Hobley, Aaron Patterson and Stanley Howard—on the basis of innocence.

The innocence pardons permitted the four men to file law suits, and my law partner Joey Mogul and I became lead lawyers for two of them. This gave us an avenue to further investigate Burge and his confederates’ crimes. I journeyed to Florida, Arizona, Tennessee and several Illinois prisons to track down and to record the statements of numerous Burge torture survivors.

Accompanied by an investigator and a court reporter, I also convinced several retired African American Area 2 detectives to give sworn statements. In these statements, the detectives, who were excluded from the actual torture sessions, told of seeing Burge’s electric shock box, hearing the torture victims’ screams and participating in discussions about the torture which was sometimes referred to as the “Vietnam treatment.” They also recounted how Burge’s threats of violence and their fear of retribution—the police code of silence at work—kept them from coming forward until they had retired.

In the early stages of these four lawsuits, a still-arrogant Burge, with the blessing of a new generation of taxpayer funded private lawyers, answered under oath a series of written questions by again denying that he participated in, witnessed, or otherwise had knowledge of any acts of torture. Shortly thereafter, in the summer of 2004, I travelled to Tampa with an investigator (who also served as a de facto bodyguard) to obtain an order from a Florida judge (whose nickname, I soon learned, was “Dirty Harry”) to compel Burge to appear at torture survivor Darrell Cannon’s parole revocation hearing.

Outside of the courtroom, Burge, referencing the $1.1 million dollar Andrew Wilson settlement, which we had earned many times over after 10 years of intense legal struggle, told a Chicago Tribune reporter who had journeyed from Chicago that “you would think Taylor would retire after getting a million from the city,” implying that the principal aim of the cases exposing decades’ worth of racist torture by the police department of the third largest city in America was for some human rights attorneys to get rich.

After the court session, we traveled south to Apollo Beach in search of Burge’s house and a picture of The Vigilante. Our efforts alerted the local St. Petersburg newspaper to run a feature article about the alleged police torturer living quietly in their midst under the cloud of “accusations [that] are like something out of a wartime prison: electric shock and cattle prods; near suffocation with a typewriter bag; mock executions with a pistol.”

“Not unlike a Nazi war criminal”

On September 1, 2004, Burge appeared in Chicago to answer questions in a consolidated deposition in the four lawsuits and Cannon’s parole revocation hearing. The videotaped deposition was held in a mock courtroom in his lawyers’ downtown offices, and they smuggled Burge in through a back entrance to avoid an angry demonstration, the media and three process servers who were attempting to subpoena Burge to testify before the Special Prosecutors’ grand jury.

I questioned Burge for nearly four hours. Having received some prudently revised legal advice, he repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment to each and every question. After the tense interrogation concluded, I was quoted in the Sun-Times as saying, “We feel that we have finally in some way brought to the stand and brought to public questioning a police criminal, a criminal we felt we had to hunt down, not unlike a Nazi war criminal.”

Four years later, on October 21, 2008, I received an early morning phone call from the Assistant U.S. Attorney who was heading up the investigation into allegations that Burge committed perjury and obstructed justice when he denied under oath five years earlier that he had committed torture. He told me that Federal Agents had a warrant for Burge’s arrest on those charges and he would be arrested later that morning in Florida. After 20 years of pursuit, our efforts had finally hit paydirt.

Burge’s arrest was the culmination of decades of work that had intensified since Burge’s 2004 deposition. In 2005, Joey Mogul had journeyed to Geneva to present our case to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT), and, in May 2006, the CAT issued findings that called for U.S. prosecutions of Burge and his men. In summer 2006, the Special Prosecutor had refused to bring state charges of perjury and conspiracy against Burge and had instead issued what many considered to be a cover-up report. In response, 250 organizations and individuals signed a shadow report that exposed the whitewash and renewed the call for criminal charges.

In summer 2007, hearings were held before the Chicago City Council and the Cook County Board of Commissioners at which torture survivors testified and the deposition videotape of Burge taking the Fifth Amendment was played. In the aftermath of the hearings, both bodies called for Federal prosecutions. Early in 2008, the City paid a $19.8 million settlement to the four torture survivors whom Governor Ryan had pardoned in 2003.

In 2009, while Burge awaited trial on the perjury and obstruction charges, I found myself again in Dirty Harry’s Tampa courtroom, face-to-face with Burge, seeking his return to testify in a post-conviction case where it was alleged that he supervised the torture of a murder suspect. Burge, after telling the judge that he was heavily medicated for a back problem and intended to take the Fifth Amendment if returned to Chicago to testify, stated, “Your Honor, Mr. Taylor has been suing me and members of the Chicago Police Department, for over thirty (30) years. My personal feeling is this is strictly for harassment.”

After the court session concluded with the judge opining that he would not require Burge to return to Chicago, I packed up my briefcase and opened one of the heavy wooden double doors to leave the empty courtroom. At that instant, Burge, coming back into the courtroom, opened the other door, our eyes met. He said nothing, but I felt a chill run up my spine before he pushed past me.

A torturer, finally, in jail

In May and June 2010, Burge went on trial in Federal Judge Joan Lefkow’s Chicago courtroom. The prosecution presented evidence that included testimony from Anthony Holmes, Melvin Jones and Andrew Wilson, from a reluctant white detective who testified, under a grant of immunity, about witnessing one of Burge’s torture sessions, and from two of the black detectives who had first told their stories to me.

Other prosecution witnesses included several to whom Burge had bragged about his racially motivated torture, including a woman lawyer who had previously revealed to me her troubling tale that Burge, while drinking at a local bar, had articulated an utter disdain for criminal defendants’ constitutional rights while making sexually explicit comments to her and admitting to abusing Andrew Wilson. Burge took the stand and broke his silence to deny each and every allegation of torture, and in another chance encounter after closing arguments concluded, he cursed me out.

Burge then retired to a bar across the street from the courthouse to await the jury’s verdict. According to a former prosecutor who had made Burge’s acquaintance while attending the six week trial, Burge called him over and asked him whether he thought that the jury would “believe that bunch of niggers,” referring to the African-American torture survivors who had testified against him.

The jury did believe the survivors and found Burge guilty. In January 2011, Burge was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison, and in March, he began to serve his sentence at the Federal Correctional Center in Butner, North Carolina, alongside other high profile white-collar criminals including Bernie Madoff.

Since Burge’s indictment, several of Burge’s victims had been exonerated, including Michael Tillman and Ronald Kitchen, for whom we filed civil suits. After obtaining a court order in Tillman’s case Joey Mogul and I travelled to North Carolina to again depose Burge in May of 2011.

While it was not unusual for us to enter prisons to talk to clients, this passage through the metal detectors with Burge’s lawyers was decidedly different. Burge, dressed in brown prison garb, complained of the food and medical care, then proceeded to assert his Fifth Amendment right to all questions that I posed. The deposition was videotaped, and his “testimony” was featured in videos that we made to recount Tillman and Kitchen’s horrific stories of torture and wrongful convictions.

Bearing witness to Burge’s imprisonment, albeit not for his systemic torture, and capturing it on videotape, was an important event, one which I have often cited when speaking about police torture in Chicago. Burge was behind bars, while victims like Tillman and Kitchen and the torture survivors who courageously testified against Burge were all free.

But this victory, while both symbolic and real, and grounded on decades of struggle by an anti-racist movement, did not end the battle to bring a modicum of final justice to the survivors of police torture and healing to the African American community. That struggle continues to this day, seeking reparations for the survivors and new hearings for the men still imprisoned as a result of confessions tortured from them.

Meanwhile, a broken but still unrepentant Jon G. Burge wears the well-deserved mantle of former Chicago Police commander and notorious torturer.