CHICAGO — For decades, black men across Chicago described torture at the hands of former police Lt. Jon Burge and his officers, and for decades no one listened.
Suspects landed in jail and even on death row for crimes they say they didn't commit after Burge and his men coerced confessions using terrifying methods including suffocation, a form of waterboarding and electric shocks.
Finally those complaints from the 1970s and '80s are being taken seriously — and it could be Burge's own words that send him to prison.
Jury selection begins today in Burge's trial on federal obstruction of justice and perjury charges. He's accused of lying when he denied in a civil lawsuit that he and other detectives had tortured anyone. He faces a maximum of 45 years in prison if convicted of all charges.
Burge has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is free on bond.
Authorities have, to a degree, acknowledged that Burge may have committed these horrifying acts, but he does not face torture-related charges because the statute of limitations has run out. The police department fired him in 1993 for mistreatment of a suspect, but did not press charges. A decade later, then-Gov. George Ryan released four condemned men he said Burge had extracted confessions by using torture.
The allegations of torture and coerced confessions eventually led to a still-standing moratorium on Illinois' death penalty and the emptying of death row — moves credited with re-igniting the global fight against capital punishment. But they also earned Chicago a reputation as a haven for rogue cops, a place where police could abuse suspects without notice or punishment.
The scandal has extended to the highest levels of city and county government, and the trial's witness lists include Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who was Cook County state's attorney during Burge's tenure, fellow former State's Attorney Dick Devine, and Daley's predecessor in the mayor's office, Jane Byrne.
Prosecutors are expected to call former police officers and at least a half dozen men who say they were tortured by Burge or those under his command. The more than 100 victims say the torture started in the 1970s and persisted until the '90s at police stations on the city's South and West sides.
Burge is the first Chicago officer accused of torture to be criminally charged in the case.
"I'm just glad it came to trial in my lifetime, because it looked like it wasn't going to happen," said Jo Ann Patterson, whose son Aaron Patterson was one of the four whom Ryan freed from death row because he believed he had been tortured.
Some alleged victims are just glad it's finally happening. David Bates, who says he was tortured by men under Burge's command, called the trial a "win-win."