Jon Burge, former Commander in the Chicago Police Department, is on trial in Chicago federal court, prosecuted for perjury by the U.S. Justice Department. The charge is perjury, but the bulk of the evidence pertains to Burge’s torturing suspects, the prosecution attempting to prove Burge lied to cover up his tortures.
Prosecution witness Gregory Banks served more than seven years in prison before he was released when his conviction was overturned because his confession was coerced. He described how Burge and two other detectives obtained that confession. First, they left him alone in a room, handcuffed to a wall. Burge came in with Sgt. John Byrne and detectives Peter Dignan and Charles Grunhard. Byrne put the barrel of a handgun in Banks’ mouth and demanded a confession. When Banks refused, Byrne hit him with a flashlight, knocking him down, and the police beat and kicked Banks, still handcuffed behind his back. Then Dignan put a bag over Banks’ head for a couple of minutes. When they took the bag off, Banks offered to say anything. But after Banks confessed orally, an assistant states’s attorney was called in to take his statement. When Banks refused to give the statement, a detective took him to another room and threatened to repeat the torture if he refused to give a statement. Banks gave the statement.
On cross-examination, Banks admitted being convicted of burglary and of being a member of the Black Gangster Disciple street gang for 20 years and of being addicted to heroin until four years ago. Burge’s criminal defense lawyer, William Gamboney made predictable hay with Banks’ statement, challenging it item by item, to which Banks responded either that he did not remember or that statement was a lie. Gamboney closed his cross-examination with the sarcastic proposition, of course, Banks was framed.
Banks was followed by fellow torture victims Melvin Jones and Anthony Holmes, who detailed their own experiences at the hands of Burge and his detectives. The prosecution presented five victims of torture at the hands of Borge or the detectives under him at Area Two police headquarters during the 1970’s and 1980s. The testimony of one of the victims, Andrew Wilson, was read to the jury in lieu of his live testimony, taking up much of two days. Wilson died in prison in 2007, serving a life sentence for killing two Chicago police officers. All five witnesses were gang members or convicted felons. All but one confessed to mainly murder charges, claiming they were in fear of death or continued torture if they did not confess.
Burge rose to the rank of Commander before he was fired by the Chicago Police Department in 1993. He is on trial for perjury in his testimony in a civil trial brought by one of the torture victims, in which Burge denied torturing and knowing about the torture of the victims.
Shadeed Mu’min was the last major prosecution witness to testify. He described how he was interrogated 25 years ago by then-Lt. Jon Burge about an armed robbery, for which Mu’min was under arrest. Burge pulled out a .44 Magnum pistol and emptied all but one round. He then pointed it at the middle of Mu’min’s forehead. After Burge carefully pulled the trigger three times, Mu’min still refused to talk, so Burge tried to put a plastic cover over Burge’s head. When Mu’min passed out, Burge revived him and smothered Mu’min’s again, causing him to lose consciousness again. On Burge’s third try, Mu’min offered to tell him what ever he wanted to hear.
On cross-examination, Mu’min admitted that weeks after his arrest he called Burge for help in getting his impounded car. He also admitted he waited a year before he told his own lawyer about this alleged torture. Mu’min admitted committing the armed robbery for which he was arrested and that his confession was true. He admitted he discussed his claims of torture with other inmates in the Cook County Jail, where the other alleged victims of Burge’s torture were housed. But Mu’min refused to meet with an investigator from the Office of Professional Standards, which investigated complaints against police, to identify a police officer who laughed at him when he was being tortured. He said he wanted to put the past behind him.
Dana Panos, a family lawyer, was called to the witness stand by the government. She testified about a conversation she had with the defendant, Jon Burge, in the late 1980s. She was a law student at the time and was introduced to Burge by a date in a South Side Chicago bar. They talked for about 45 minutes, during which time Burge ridiculed her belief that criminals had any rights and admitted he had beaten an accused cop killer to get a confession. Burge told her he was involved in the Wilson investigation. She claimed Burge told her that if a suspect confessed to a crime which he did not commit, it was not an injustice because it would balance out; since the subject had probably committed some other crime for which he was not convicted but should have been convicted. He told her criminal defense lawyers were useless and they interfered with the administration of justice. Obviously that would mean a system in which the police act as judge, jury and executioner-so simple that way. That way police get to inflict their own personal beliefs which some of them believe are more important than anyone else’s.
Before and during the prosecution’s case, the defense lawyers complained to U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow that a number of witnesses the defense wanted to call were clamming up. The defense claimed that the government’s case was having a chilling effect on Burge’s former colleagues, that they were afraid their testifying positively for Burge might buy them federal charges of their own. Ultimately, the judge ruled eight potential defense witnesses would be allowed to take the Fifth Amendment if called to the witness stand by the defense.
A much anticipated government witness proved to be letdown for the prosecution. A 30-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, former detective Michael McDermott testified under a grant of immunity. In his testimony before the grand jury two years ago, he had incriminated Burge, but most of his testimony before the trial jury (the petit jury)- after he had “more time to reflect” – consisted of backpedaling, qualifying and denying his grand jury testimony. He witnessed the interrogation of Shadeed Mu’min, he admitted. When the prosecutor confronted McDermott with the grand jury transcript of his testimony, McDermott had to admit Burge put a plastic bag over Mu’min’s head. McDermitt told the grand jury he saw Burge point a gun at Mu’min and was abusive, but at trial he wasn’t sure Burge held a gun and said his behavior was not abusive but only “inappropriate.” McDermitt testified under immunity, but Burge’s defense attorney painted McDermitt as inclined to give the government what they wanted in fear of losing his police pension or his salary from the Cook County state attorney’s office as an investigator, where he is now employed.
Dr. John Raba was a prosecution witness who testified to his findings after examining Andrew Wilson after Wilson’s police interrogation. It was Wilson, who died in 2007, whose testimony was read to the jury describing his torture at the hands of Burge, including pressing his chest, face and right leg against a radiator. Raba was the medical director of the Cook County jail in 1982, when he saw Wilson’s wounds after his encounter with defendant Burge. Dr. Raba was so shocked by his observations that he wrote a letter to Chicago Police Superintendent Richard Bizcezek, telling him Wilson had been beaten and electrocuted by Area Two detectives, noting Wilson had blistered burns on his chest, face and right leg, open wounds on his forehead, a split lip and gash in the back of the head that required stitches. Bizcezek never answered the letter.
But there was a response. Dr. Raba got a telephone call from Cook County Board President George Dunne, a powerful politician. Dunne asked why Raba was getting involved in such matters. Raba’s testimony furthered the government’s theory that many people knew or suspected that torture was being used by Burge and detectives under his command. Although Burge’s lawyers claimed Wilson’s injuries did not match his descriptions of torture, Raba testified that after meeting twice with Wilson, he concluded the injuries he found on Wilson did match Wilson’s description of his torture. Raba said the injuries were extremely unlikely to have been self-inflicted, as Burge’s lawyers suggested.
After the prosecution rested its case of about two weeks of evidence, Jon Burge took the witness stand in his own defense. He denied torturing Anthony Holmes and denied he backhanded Melvin Jones in the face, shocked his genitals, struck him with a stapler or pointed a gun at him. Burge admitted only going into the interview room and telling Jones, who was accused of murdering a state’s witness, how little Burge thought of him. Burge said he assigned two detectives to question Wilson and never saw half a dozen police in the room, as Wilson had claimed, nor did he hear any unusual screams. Of course he denied pressing Wilson against a radiator. Burge also denied telling Holmes’ attorney, a government witness, Sandra Watson, that a black box in detective Area Two “leaves no marks,” referring to a device to shock suspects.
The trial continues, and the result, as always with a jury, is uncertain. One thing that is certain is that Jon Burge does not believe criminal defense lawyers are useless in the criminal justice system, as he puts his life in their hands every day he goes to court.