As Burge prepares to appear in court, ex-inmates hope 'some justice will come out'

 One of the city's most persistent and troubling scandals reaches federal court Thursday when jury selection begins in the trial of Jon Burge, the former Chicago police detective accused of overseeing the torture of suspects.

For nearly two decades, Burge and his detectives allegedly sent dozens of men to prison on the basis of coerced confessions, deepening bitterness between police and minorities and helping inspire former Gov. George Ryan to reject capital punishment and empty the state's death row.

But Burge, now 62, living on a police pension and reportedly in poor health, will not be tried for any act of torture. While federal prosecutors say they will prove that he and his detectives abused suspects, the statute of limitations expired long ago. Instead, Burge stands accused of perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly lying in 2003 when he denied under oath he knew of or participated in abuse of suspects.


The fact that Burge is facing any kind of criminal charge is seen by some as a long-overdue opportunity for vindication.

    "Jon Burge standing trial means a lot to the African-American community, and it means a lot to me, that finally some justice will come out of this ordeal of torture," said Mark Clements, 45, an alleged victim of Burge's officers who was released from prison in August after 28 years behind bars.

But Ronald Kitchen, 51, another alleged victim who was freed in July after 21 years in prison, isn't satisfied.


"Who wouldn't want to see him put in the same cage he put us in?" Kitchen said. "But unless he gets up on the stand and admits what he did, there's no justice in it for me."

Burge is expected to attend Thursday's session in Judge Joan Lefkow's courtroom, where potential jurors will be given a questionnaire. On May 24, they will return for the completion of jury selection.

Burge's attorney, Richard Beuke, declined to allow his client to be interviewed by the Tribune but said the former detective will "vehemently deny all these allegations."

"He is looking forward to an opportunity to finally face these people in court with a jury that will hopefully understand the law and the evidence and do their best to give him a fair trial in light of all the negative publicity that plaintiff's lawyers and politicians have feasted upon at his expense," Beuke said. "We want to make sure that this trial is tried in the courtroom."

The allegations against Burge have been raised in many courtrooms already -- in suspects' criminal trials and in their later civil trials seeking compensation for alleged torture. The city has paid out millions in legal fees and settlements.

Burge, however, had avoided any criminal charges until he was arrested at his Florida home in October 2008 on perjury and obstruction charges related to a 2003 lawsuit by Madison Hobley.

Hobley was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for a 1987 arson that killed his wife, son and five other people. Amid allegations that officers under Burge's command tortured Hobley, planted evidence and lied at his trial, Gov. Ryan pardoned him and Hobley filed a federal lawsuit. Burge, in a written response to questions in the case, denied that he knew of or participated in any abuse or torture -- statements that federal prosecutors say were lies and are the basis for the new charges.

The Chicago City Council approved settlements totaling as much as $19.8 million for Hobley and three other men who said they were tortured by Burge and his detectives.


The allegations against Burge and the detectives -- including beatings, electric shock, Russian roulette and near-suffocation -- have been costly to Chicago's international reputation as well as its treasury.

In 2006, an investigation by a special Cook County prosecutor concluded that Burge and his officers obtained dozens of confessions through torture, but found that prosecutors had no recourse because of the statute of limitations. A coalition of human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, lambasted the special prosecutor's findings, saying the investigation glossed over the alleged abuse and protected the police and prosecutors who did nothing about it.

Mayor Richard Daley was state's attorney when allegations against Burge began to surface, and has for years fended off accusations by defense lawyers and activists that he knew of the abuse but did nothing.

The city finally moved to fire Burge in 1993 over the alleged torture of convicted cop killer Andrew Wilson. Soon after, the Fraternal Order of Police -- the union that represents Chicago police officers -- was denied permission to enter a float in the South Side Irish Parade titled "Travesties of Justice" to honor Burge and several other officers accused of mistreating blacks.

Some say the image of Chicago police officers has been another casualty of the Burge scandal.

"When you undermine the essential credibility of a police officer, you create a very damaging and very negative impact," said Mark Rotert, a former state and federal prosecutor now in private practice.


"It's important for the police and for everybody in the criminal justice system to sort of operate on the belief that there are lines that a sworn police officer will not cross. If there's credible reason to suppose that one or more policemen routinely crossed those lines, every cop is hurt by that.

"We need to be a society that solves its crimes without resorting to torture," Rotert said.