The torture was intentionally inflicted to extract confessions, and techniques included electrically shocking men’s genitals, ears and lips with cattle prod or an electric shock box, anally raping men with cattle prods, suffocating individuals with plastic bags, mock executions, and beatings with telephone books and rubber hoses, as well as routinely depriving the victims of bathroom facilities, sleep and nourishment.
The description above does not detail torture meted out by a despotic regime or in the dark recesses of Abu-Ghraib. Rather, these actions, which are summarized in a 2007 United Nations report, were committed at the hands of the Chicago Police Department.
Last week, a jury convicted former Chicago police commander Jon Burge of lying about his role in the torture of police suspects from the 1970s to the early 1990s. The statute of limitations narrowed federal prosecutors’ scope to testimony Burge gave during a victim’s civil suit. Estimates put the number of victims at more than 100, four of whom were freed from death row when it was determined their confessions were obtained under duress. Meanwhile, 22 alleged victims remain imprisoned.
The most consistent coverage of the case can be attributed to John Conroy who, while working for the alternative weekly Chicago Reader, wrote 22 stories about Burge and torture in the Chicago Police Department from 1990 to 2007, when he was laid off. Conroy had recently been providing daily coverage of the Burge trial for Chicago Public Radio. Need to Know’s James Edwards talked to Conroy about the verdict.
James Edwards: What was your reaction to the Burge verdict?
John Conroy: I was stunned. I was prepared for a hung jury. I was thinking not guilty, not because the evidence wasn’t there, but because the jury was required to discount the words of policeman and take the words of armed robbers, former drug addicts, guys who’ve been convicted of murder; and the defense attorney had raised a lot of emotion in the room about the officers [torture victim] Andrew Wilson had killed years ago in 1982. I thought it was going to be hard for a jury that only had one African-American on it to rise above that.
Edwards: What’s your take on some jurors and people like Francine Sanders, who wrote one of the reports that led to Burge’s firing in 1993, who fall on the side of a more lenient punishment for Burge?
Conroy: I think if I were doing a story about sentences right now I wouldn’t be talking to the jurors and the investigator. I would be talking to the victims and see what sentences they’d want. Not that that’s always a fair way to impose a sentence.
I was speaking with one of the victims last night who talked about when he was arrested, he had six kids. He was the primary breadwinner. The oldest was 12. He says all of them are doing well, but none of them went to college. He says, “You know, they could have, if I had been around. If I had been around even a little bit. If I had been around and able to support them. They could’ve been a senator, a governor or something like that.” He said to me you couldn’t give Burge enough years to compensate for what he has taken from people.
Edwards: What was your experience interviewing Burge?
Conroy: I like Jon Burge. I found him…affable. He was self-deprecating. I think, at the heart of it, he was a brave guy. I think that if he hadn’t tortured anybody, he might have been superintendent.
Edwards: Is there a common misconception about people, like Burge, who commit torture, that they are these evil, unlikable people?
Conroy: I think it’s very comfortable for the public to see torturers as monsters. One, we don’t want them to be like us. Two, it becomes harder to believe that people whom you might know and like are torturing suspects. Now that he’s been convicted, it’s much easier for people to demonize him: “He is the guy who is responsible for torture in Chicago.” There are a whole lot of people responsible for torture in Chicago. I think that…the enablers were the people who occupied the office of the Cook County State’s Attorney, one of whom is now the mayor.
Edwards: Have we learned our lesson? Is it possible that this can happen again?
Conroy: I don’t know. I think that remains to be seen. It would be nice to think that the message has gone that says, “Look, you might think you can get away with this, but it can come back and bite you, 20, 30 years down the road.” But I’m not sure that’s the message, because people have been talking about Jon Burge now for 20 years and the level of brutality complaints, the level of excessive force complaints has not gone down.
Edwards: How much of a factor has race played into this case?
Conroy: The vast majority of the victims were African-American. While, there is a racial aspect to it, on the other hand, Burge was stationed in an African American neighborhood, so his pool of potential victims was going to be mostly African American. There were African-American detectives who were involved in this. There were African-American supervisors who looked the other way. They had other motivations for doing that, protecting their jobs.
Edwards: In your reporting, did you see similar silence in parts of the African-American community?
Conroy: Sure. That amazed me. For the first 10 years of this or more, there was no significant response from the African-American community.
Edwards: Was this from ignorance of the case, or just an unwillingness to talk about it?
Conroy: I don’t think it was ignorance. By 1993, Burge got fired. He was on the front page of both the Tribune and [Chicago] Sun-Times. It said, “Burge fired over torture charges.” So from 1993 onward, if you lived in the city, you knew it was likely that torture occurred at Area 2. But there was no significant response from any section of the public, or the press. Nobody in the press said, “Wait a minute. If he’s guilty of torture, what about the people who were victims? Where are they? Are there men on death row who might be executed, but innocent?” None of that was going on. It wasn’t just an African-American thing.
Edwards: What’s the next step, after the Burge trial?
Conroy: I would like to think that the U.S. Attorney is going to now indict other officers. They had a grand jury investigating other officers. Other officers also testified in civil suits, testified falsely, so I would expect that there would be additional indictments, on the federal side. But the federal side can’t do anything about these  men [still in prison].
Edwards: Your book on the conflict in Northern Ireland mentions a “willing blindness” on the part of the British public to not know the full extent of what was happening, including instances of torture. Was there a similar “blindness” in Chicago?
Conroy: I think that this is the case in almost every society. There’s a torturable class. There’s a group of people beyond the pale of our compassion. We don’t really care what happens to them. In the U.K., the Northern Irish Catholics, you could do whatever you to them and the British public wouldn’t mind very much. In Chicago, it was African-American males with criminal records. Nobody particularly cared.
Edwards: Has our attitude towards torture progressed, or regressed, since you started writing about the Burge case?
Conroy: I think it’s regressed. When my book [on torture] came out in 2000, most of America was against torture. I didn’t feel the need, in that book, to explain why torture is a bad thing. I traced the history of torture and how civilizations had turned against it. But I never felt I had to explain to an American audience that torture was something a nation like ours doesn’t do. Lo and behold, we embrace torture after 9/11. That was surprising to me.
Edwards: Did you expect to be writing about this case for as long as you have?
Conroy: When we started this, I thought it was going to be one story, and that’s what the editors thought. We put it out there. We went out on a limb. Who would think that torture, electric shock happened in Chicago? But we thought that the evidence was there. We put it out there, and we were confident that it was finished. Somebody else from the Tribune or Sun-Times was going to pick this up and run with it. There’s no way we could keep up. Those guys – in those days, fully staffed – could do more in a week than we could do in six. Then nothing happened. Nobody else picked it up.
Did I think I would be writing about this, 20 years on? No. In fact, I tried not to. There were times when editors of the Reader would say, “We can’t keep saying the same thing. You lose readers that way.” We tried to come at it from different angles.
There were times when I went off to write about other things, or find other things to write about, and I kept coming back because I couldn’t find anything as compelling. There were 12 men [on death row] who were going to die if we do nothing.
Edwards: What kind of toll has this case taken on you, personally and professionally?
Conroy: It’s kind of hard to say today if it’s taken much of a toll. I spent last night talking to two guys who spent 21 years in prison. They got released and have been given certificates of innocence from the state. What they went through compared to what I went though, I shouldn’t say a word. I should not say one word.
I’d like to continue writing about it – that’s a nutty thing – because there’s so much more to say. But I’ve got two kids who’ve got to go to college. I’ve got a mortgage, and every month I’m wondering how I’m going to make it.
Edwards: What keeps you coming back to it?
Conroy: One, I know more about it than anybody else. Two, I don’t see anybody else picking it up.
I’m a citizen of society, as well, and feel morally responsible for what we do. If I can have some small input into changing people’s minds, or changing the direction of how things are going, maybe contributing to somebody’s pardon, that’s a worthy thing to do.