January 11, 2003: Chicago Police Torture Results in 167 Death Sentences Commuted

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A Brief History

On January 11. 2003, Governor George Ryan took the extraordinary step of commuting the sentences of 167 Illinois Death Row inmates to life in prison due to the scandal that had rocked the Chicago Police Department, in which Detective Jon Burge was accused of torturing confessions out of over 200 arrestees.  Burge was convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury, later serving 3 years in jail for his crimes.

Digging Deeper

Burge, a Vietnam War veteran, had earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart while in combat.  After leaving the Army, he had joined the Chicago Police Department in 1970 and from 1972 to 1991 worked as a detective (becoming a supervisor in 1977) the time frame in which he was accused of beating and torturing confessions out of suspects.  Accusations of brutality and coerced confessions had followed Burge starting early in his police career, including the men under his command once he became a supervisor.  In 1989 Burge was indicted and put on trial in conjunction with a brutality complaint, but was let off by a hung jury.  He was suspended in 1991 and finally fired in 1993.

Burge was accused of using a cattle prod against suspects.

Starting in 2002, a Special Prosecutor was assigned to investigate the claims against Burge and his men, an investigation that lasted 4 years and cost taxpayers over $17 million.  The police found to have violated the law were not prosecuted due to the expiration of the Statute of Limitations in Illinois, but Governor Ryan was convinced of the need to clear all death penalty sentences, with several pardons and the 167 commutations mentioned above.  A separate study of the use of the death penalty in Illinois revealed numerous cases of wrongful conviction and questionable police/prosecutor tactics.  By 2007 inmates complaining of police brutality had won a civil settlement of almost $20 million, with other lawsuits continuing.

In 2008, Burge was arrested under Federal statutes for Obstruction of Justice (2 counts) and Perjury, and was eventually convicted of those crimes in 2010, and sentenced to 4 ½ years in prison.  He was released after serving 3 ½ years.  He was not charged with torturing prisoners.  Scores of other complaints against Burge and the Chicago Police Department resulted in another $57 million in settlements, and a $5.5 million fund was set aside to deal with other lawsuits, reparations and claims.  Chicago also spent $50 million in legal fees defending the accused officers and the city against such complaints, the entire fall out of the Burge Scandal as it is known costing the City of Chicago way over $100 million.

Chicago skyline at dusk, from North Avenue Beach looking south

The 70-year-old Burge lives in Florida with his full police pension (50% of what he was making when he retired, unknown if this has been compounded by annual cost of living allowances).  Burge and other officers are still facing further lawsuits stemming from cases going back prior to 1991.  Police reforms including the videotaping/recording of interrogations/interviews have been put in place by the Police Department and by Illinois law.

Were the Chicago Police and Jon Burge loyal civil servants doing their best to keep the good people of Chicago safe, or were they criminals themselves out for their own ambitions?  Were they merely misguided, and did wrong for the right reasons?  Clearly, civil and criminal laws make it abundantly manifest that the actions of Burge and his men were wrong, and in fact criminal.  You would be hard pressed to find any police executives that would state support for such tactics as employed by Burge et al.  If these former officers thought they were doing something good, they are sorely mistaken, and should know that by the results of their actions and the tremendous monetary and public confidence cost to the Chicago Police Department.

As a retired police officer myself, I never witnessed such misconduct by police in interrogations or interviews, but then I worked in a suburb and not the central city.  Apparently bad things do happen, but I firmly believe the percentage of bad apples in the blue uniforms is much smaller than almost any other profession or occupation.  Feel free to make your own observations in the comments.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Conroy, John. “House of Screams: Torture by Electroshock: Could it happen in a Chicago police station? Did it happen at Area 2?”  Chicago Reader.  https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/house-of-screams/Content?oid=875107 (accessed 10 January 2018).



About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.