Monday, November 17, 2008

Jon Burge and the Theater of Corruption

by Libby Hellmann

Studs Terkel once said Chicago is not the most corrupt American city… it’s the most theatrically corrupt.”

If that’s so, turn on the stage lights and cue the actors. The dénouement of one of the Chicago’s longest running police scandals is about to unfold. The villain is former Police Commander Jon Burge; the hero is U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald; and a supporting role will be played by Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow. If past is indeed prologue, we’re in for high drama next spring.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with the scandal, Jon Burge was a police commander in Area Two on the South Side of Chicago. For over 20 years, mostly during the ‘70s and ‘80s, he and his men allegedly tortured over 200 suspects into confessions for crimes they may or may not have committed. We’re not talking about your run of the mill police pressure, interrogations, or threats. We’re talking cattle prods. Alligator clips attached to body parts. Electric shocks. Suffocation. Radiator burns. Mock executions. And, of course, beatings, as described in the following trailer of a 2007 documentary:




Never before has there been such an extraordinary pattern of police abuse and brutality. Once the rumors and reports about the behavior surfaced, a series of complaints, investigations, and lawsuits followed. Burge was tried for police brutality in 1989 -- he was acquitted – and then tried again for civil rights violations. But he was never convicted of a felony, and after he was fired in 1993, he moved to Florida where he’s lived – unrepentant and free and collecting his police pension -- for 15 years. To date over 30 million dollars has been spent by the city and CPD in settlements and legal fees. Many believe Illinois’ stay on death row executions by former Governor George Ryan was prompted by Burge’s behavior.

Enter US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. On October 21 Fitzgerald finally arrested Burge in Florida and charged him -- not with torturing his victims-- but with lying. Fitzgerald, an aggressive, rising legal -- and probably one day political-- star is best known for his work on dramatic cases like the first World Trade Center bombing, the Valerie Plame scandal, and sending George Ryan to prison after the licenses for bribes scandal. (In Illinois you truly can be a hero one day, a felon the next. In fact, the story of Ryan’s career would make for great theater too… but I digress.)

Fitzgerald’s charges are themselves interesting. Because the statute of limitations on the actual torture ran out, the prosecutor used Burge’s denial of the torture in a 2003 federal civil rights case as fodder for charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. In his announcement, he compared Burge’s arrest to that of Al Capone who was arrested for tax evasion, rather than his mob and prohibition-related crimes.

It turns out Friend-of-the-Outfit (ours, not Capone’s) and best-selling author Jonathan Eig is writing a book about Capone and the man who nailed him (It wasn’t Elliot Ness). Eig says while the practice of using one crime to pay for another started with Capone, it wasn’t a slam dunk. Indeed, there was high drama there, as well.

They weren't crazy about the idea and they weren't sure it would work. Even the tax charge against AC was fairly weak. In the end, it worked, of course. My book will show that Capone actually got screwed during the trial. If he had a better lawyer he might have beaten the rap… It doesn't have to be tax evasion. Barry Bonds was indicted with the Capone method; instead of nailing him for steroids they (the IRS again) are after him for perjury. Countless terrorism suspects have been arrested for visa violations and locked up for long stretches on the assumption that they're probably dangerous. Burge fits the pattern perfectly.



When he's not pleading the 5th, Burge has – of course - said he's not guilty. The trial is set for May 1st and the judge is none other than US District court judge Joan Lefkow, whose husband and mother were tragically murdered three years ago by a disgruntled plaintiff. High drama there, too.

So, the pieces are in place. The characters’ back stories are fascinating; the issues are fraught with conflict, tragedy, and not at all pre-ordained. Stay tuned. This is going to be some show.

What about you? What corruption cases would make great theater in your neck of the wood?

22 comments:

Dana King said...

We have one of our own just now going through gestation in Prince George's County MD. Not as systemic and prolonged as the Burge case, but Chicago kind of onws the franchise for those.

A 19 year-old drug suspect allegedly ran over one of the cops trying to arrest him; the cop died. The kid was taken to the PG County jail, when he should have been transferred to another county because of the law enforcement death. Next morning the kid's dead of strangulation. The guards swear he hanged himself with a bed sheet found near the body when they came in; the coroner says (after almost three months) it was homicide, as the injuries to the hyoid bone could not likely have been self-inflicted.

The jail guards have stonewalled the investigation, refusing to talk at all until the coroner's decision was final. Last week it came out that the video camera used to document the guards' entry into the cell (as required by local law) "malfunctioned" for six minutes as they were opening the door, so there is no record of the condition of the body and cell. All of the guards have eerily similar descriptions of the malfunction.

This doesn't have the wide-ranging implications of the Burge case, but it has potential to make things pretty interesting here for a couple of years.

Picks By Pat said...

This year in Wilkes-Barre, PA, a Juvenile Court judge has been under a lot of pressure to resign from the local paper. Why? Because it was discovered that he and some of his family members owned stock in the company that ran the local juvenile facility where many of the defendants he sentenced were sent.

Incredibly, the judge doesn't see this as a conflict of interest.

Sara Paretsky said...

Libby, this is such an important story, and infuriating that the city has protected Burge. I did a program on Sunday with Andy Austin (Rule 53), who was in court the day after the torture of the Wilson brothers, when various people, including the pathologist, Dr Bob Kirschner, testified to no avail--Andy said it was horrific, unbearable, to see them in court with their injuries, and then to have their injuries treated as non-existent.

Anonymous said...

theres more corruption coming...stay tuned

Chicago Laser Hair Removal said...

Wow! That was quite the story telling! Im quite amazed at all the things you've done! No wonder your soo happy! Well I hope you had your fun and excitement. In the mean while, as winters kicking in right now, we might be expecting some change! A change in weather hopefully to the better, it either has to rain or not! Mother nature is playing games with us :}
-Much LoVe

Rob Deters said...

Jon Burge was a bad, bad man, no doubt about it...but every day in my former criminal practice I heard the same stories of abuse, corruption and lying. This is not a problem isolated to a few bad apples, this is a systematic tolerance of getting the job done by any means necessary. I'm not old enough to know the first round of Burge trials, but I will be eagerly watching this one. Justice is coming.

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