At times on the witness stand Thursday, Jon Burge came off as the classic cop straight out of central casting — matter-of-fact and wry. At other times, the former Chicago police commander was combative as he fended off questions from the prosecution. At other times still, he showed raw emotion as he recalled the arrest of a cop killer nearly three decades ago.
For nearly six hours, Burge testified about the allegations of torture and coerced confessions that have made his name infamous in Chicago for decades, led to his firing in 1993 and launched a flurry of civil lawsuits that cost the city millions of dollars.
Burge flatly denied he ever tortured criminal suspects or condoned its use, saying that he had never witnessed a cop abusing a suspect in his 30 years with the department.
The federal jury has heard the accounts of five suspects who alleged Burge and numerous detectives under his command used beatings, electric shock, Russian roulette and near-suffocation to force confessions to murders and other crimes.
One by one, Burge denied their accusations. "No, sir, I did not," he said repeatedly to the questions of torture. He denied he beat, shocked and pointed a gun at murder suspect Melvin Jones in 1982, denied that his detectives put a bag over the head of murder suspect Gregory Banks in 1983 and denied he played Russian roulette and smothered armed robbery suspect Shadeed Mu'min in 1985.
Asked about the claims of Russian roulette, Burge, his voice tinged with sarcasm, said, "I may not be a Mensa candidate, but I'm not that stupid, sir."
Burge also denied he beat, shocked and smothered gang member Anthony Holmes in 1973, saying the ex-con confessed to murder and ratted out other gang members when confronted with the evidence against him. "He knew what time it was," Burge said.
Burge is not on trial for any of the alleged abuse. The statute of limitations long ago expired for charges stemming from any actual violence. Instead, he is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly giving sworn, written answers in a 2003 civil suit in which he denied ever using or witnessing torture on suspects.
Much of Burge's testimony — and the trial as a whole — centered on Andrew Wilson, who was arrested on Feb. 14, 1982, for the murders of Chicago police Officers William Fahey and Richard O'Brien five days earlier.
Burge, then the lieutenant in charge of the Area 2 violent-crimes detective unit on the South Side, testified he didn't go home for five consecutive days, staying at the office to supervise the dozens of detectives trying to solve the murders.
As he recounted Wilson's arrest in a West Side apartment, Burge suddenly stopped talking and looked down at the witness stand, his face reddening. "Excuse me a second," he said.
His face grew increasingly flushed before he let out a small sob and wiped at his eyes to remove the tears. U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow handed him a tissue.
"This is an emotional topic?" asked Marc Martin, Burge's lawyer.
"Very much so," Burge said.
Wilson died in 2007 while serving a life sentence for the officers' murders, but prosecutors read to jurors his testimony from earlier proceedings. Wilson alleged he was first beaten by a group of detectives and slammed into a window. Burge then entered the room, Wilson said, and shocked him with two different electrical devices — one a box with wires attached to his ears, nose and fingers with alligator clips and the other a curling iron with a wire protruding from one end.
With the help of another detective, Burge pressed Wilson against a hot radiator as he was shocked until he spit up blood, Wilson alleged. Photographs taken at Cook County Jail later that day showed Wilson's face bandaged over his right eye and what he said were burns on his face, chest and right thigh.
But Burge testified that from the moment of the arrest, he ordered his detectives to treat Wilson with "kid gloves." Burge insisted he never even checked in on Wilson while he was interrogated but instead left it to two trusted detectives to obtain a confession.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Weisman scoffed at Burge's account, questioning why he would need to make clear that Wilson was to be treated gently if there was never any problem with abuse or torture at Area 2.
"I didn't have to tell anybody that," Burge said. "I said that to preclude anything from happening that might hurt our case."
Burge grew more defensive as he sparred with Weisman, particularly when the questioning turned to former detective Michael McDermott, who was forced to testify under a grant of immunity from prosecution. McDermott appeared to weaken his grand jury testimony from two years before but still said he saw Burge put a plastic bag on Mu'min's face and point a gun at him.
Choosing his words carefully, Burge said McDermott "appeared to be terribly distraught and under tremendous pressure" while testifying.
"And that's because there's a code of silence in the Chicago Police Department — you've heard of the code of silence?" Weisman asked.
"Yeah, I've heard it from a bottom-feeding lawyer," snapped Burge, prompting laughter from spectators in the packed courtroom.
"OK, I've been called worse," Weisman said as Burge tried to recover.
"I was not referring to you," he told the prosecutor. "I believe you're a very good attorney."
Burge testified he never saw any injuries to Wilson other than a cut to the forehead suffered, he said, when he and other detectives tackled Wilson during his arrest. Whatever other injuries Wilson had must have come after he left Area 2, he said.
He said he laughed when he learned a few weeks after the arrest that Wilson had alleged substantial injuries. He said he never asked his detectives about the injuries, saying that it was not his responsibility because another investigation was under way and it would violate his detectives' rights if he questioned them.
"You would never want to violate anybody's rights," Weisman said in a sarcastic tone.
"No, sir, I would not," Burge replied testily.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun