by Ted Pearson
So Jon Burge has been sentenced to 54 months in prison by U. S. District Court Judge Joan H. Lefkow. That’s four and a half years. That’s twice the sentence suggested in the federal guidelines for perjury. In sentencing Burge Judge Lefkow noted the total lack of remorse by Burge for his crimes and his continued denial that he did anything wrong. She expressed shock that Burge’s attorneys justified what Burge did because the people he tortured were members of gangs and had been convicted of crimes, even though many were wrongfully convicted. She excoriated the City of Chicago and Cook County for what she called a failure of leadership, observing that had Burge’s supervisors and the Cook County State’s Attorney taken steps to stop Burge early in the saga of his crimes, “we would not have come to this point.” The State’s Attorney at the time was Chicago’s outgoing Mayor of 22 years, Richard M. Daley. Lefkow’s statement in issuing the sentence against Burge was an indictment of the city’s leadership.
But let’s keep some perspective on this. Burge’s 54 month sentence equates to 1643 days in prison. That’s 15 days for each man Burge and his detectives tortured.
Twenty four of these men are still in prison. The average prison sentence meted out to his victims is difficult to calculate, since 12 were sentenced to death (saved only by former Gov. George Ryan), or to life in prison without parole. Sixteen of his victims have been exonerated. The average, to date, of the number of years spent behind bars by his victims, is on the order of 25. Burge’s sentence is about fourteen hours for each year his victims have spent so far in prison. One year in prison for a Black or Latino man equals fourteen hours in prison for the white detective, Jon Burge. Such is the nature of our criminal justice system.
Not included, however, are the hundreds of men, all Black or Latino, who were tortured by Burge’s detectives AFTER he was removed from his position in 1991. These men have said at their trials that they falsely confessed and were convicted of crimes they did not commit. Many others make credible claims that they were framed by corrupt police simply to “clear their books,” to settle old scores, or in plea bargains with other criminals. The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression has received scores of letters from such men.
There will be much discussion about the degree to which Burge’s sentence and Judge Lefkow’s statement were victories over police torture. Victims of his tortures who have been exonerated or released, and who were present in the courtroom when the sentence was delivered, were near unanimous in voicing their anger that he received such a light sentence, when so many of them have suffered decades of false imprisonment. U. S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said that “the investigation continues” into police torture in Chicago, but he did not say whether indictments against any of Burge’s partners in crime would be sought. Fitzgerald did not even hint that the U. S. Justice Department would take any steps to intervene on behalf of Burge’s victims who remain incarcerated. He did not suggest any effort to seek compensation for the victims of Burge’s crew, some of who are now homeless and living on the streets.
But lest it be lost in the discussion let’s remember this one simple fact: dozens of Black and Latino men who have alleged from the beginning that they gave false confessions under physical duress at the hands of police remain in prison, or face continued unemployment and ostracism because of false felony records. No matter how many years Jon Burge is in prison, his imprisonment will not free a single person. No matter how many of the police torturers may ultimately be brought before the bar of justice, it will not compensate a single torture victim for the loss of their freedom, the disruption and stress on their families, the psychological torment, or the physical damage to their persons.
Each of these torture survivors has lost part of their human potential, their ability to support their families. This, along with other everyday acts of racism and injustice, serves to as a constant reminder that the lives, hopes and dreams of people who are neither white nor rich, are expendable. Yet, the torture survivors have not lost their dignity due to this racist, inhumane treatment. They bravely share their stories, courageously testify, march, protest and keep fighting for justice. They inspire all who care about humanity, especially their attorneys, to step up and do the same, if not more to eliminate structural inequality, especially in the criminal justice system.
These men are imprisoned, or carry serious felony records, as a result of police crimes. They are crime victims in every sense of the word, and victims of crimes committed under color of law. Chicagoans who believe that all men and women are endowed with the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can not rest until these men are all free and have been compensated for the suffering they and their families have endured. The jailing of Jon Burge and the prosecution of his gang of torturers will not satisfy this demand. Only the restoration of these men to freedom and full citizenship can accomplish that.
In post-apartheid South Africa the Rev. Desmond Tutu led a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at which the torturers of Black African freedom fighters faced their victims and accepted responsibility for their crimes. In Illinois there needs to be such a process. There is no legal precedent for it in the U. S. that I know of, but a first step would be for U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to immediately create special units to investigate these claims of wrongful conviction and torture, and take steps to have the victims set free and compensated when the evidence supports their claims. Dallas County Texas District Attorney Craig Watkins has taken such an initiative utilizing DNA evidence, and 25 men in Dallas County have been freed in four years. We in Cook County can do no less.