Thursday, December 20, 2007

Torture, American style

A 19th-century image shows federal troops employing several forms of torture. One man stood on a barrel for several hours; another carried a large log, his leg weighted with a ball and chain; a third was bound to a tree with his arms raised above his head; a fourth sat on the ground, tied. (Corbis)

By Darius Rejali
December 16, 2007

NEARLY EVERY MONTH, it seems, news reports carry disturbing revelations about torture by American soldiers, intelligence officers, or allies. Just by reading the news we learn things we never wanted to know about waterboarding, forced standing for hours, and sleep deprivation; most recently the CIA has destroyed videotapes showing a suspected terrorist being interrogated with techniques that an agent called torture.

more stories like thisBehind these disclosures, as they reach our ears, runs a powerful current of disbelief and shock: it is hard to imagine that such things would be done by Americans.

We think torture is mainly the province of dictators and juntas - the kind of thing that happens behind the iron doors of repressive regimes. In a democracy, with open courts and a free press, torture should be a relic. In the words of an American World War II poster, torture is "the method of the enemy."

But a closer look at the modern history of torture suggests that exactly the opposite is true. Torture isn't an alien force invading our democracy from the benighted realms of dictatorships. In fact, it is the democracies that have been the real innovators in 20th-century torture. Britain, France, and the United States were perfecting new forms of torture long before the CIA even existed. It might make Americans uncomfortable, but the modern repertoire of torture is mainly a democratic innovation.

In one instance after another, democracies developed new torture techniques, refined them, and then exported them to more authoritarian regimes. Americans didn't just develop electric power; they invented the first electrotorture devices and used them in police stations from Arkansas to Seattle. Magneto torture, a technique favored by the Nazis involving a portable generator, was actually developed and spread by the French. Waterboarding and forced standing owe their wide use to the Americans and British.

None of this is to say that democracies have a worse record of torture than authoritarian states: dictators deserve their reputation for violence and cruelty. But the role of democracies is central. Painful as it is to confront, knowing how - and why - democracies have played such an important role in torture also has a hopeful side: it suggests that democracies can also halt torture. In fact, they have a special responsibility to do so.

. . .

The word "torture" still evokes medieval images - the rack, the iron maiden, thumbscrews. Authoritarian states historically chose torture techniques that were as painful as possible, and torturers often scarred their victims deliberately, using their damaged bodies as a deterrent and an advertisement of state power. Kings used torture to demonstrate that they could take lives or show mercy as they willed.

For centuries, the whip was the preferred tool of state torture, and some were nastier than others. The Great Russian Knout, for example, had a hook on the end of it that tore out chunks of flesh with each blow. Even the Nazis, well into the era of modern torture, favored whips, as they scarred their way across thousands of victims in prisons and concentration camps during World War II.

In recent times states have outlawed open spectacles of torture, and torture has ceased to be an exhibit of kingly power. But its basic uses remain the same: extracting information, forcing false confessions, and keeping prisoners docile and compliant.

So torture hasn't really disappeared in the modern age. What have disappeared are forms of torture that leave marks. The police, military investigators, and governments in democratic societies can count on the press and people watching. They know that if a prisoner can't show any marks of torture, people are far less likely to believe his or her story. So as societies have become more open, the art of torture has crept underground and evolved into the chilling new forms - often undetectable - that define torture today.

Take electrotorture. In the early days of electric power, most authorities avoided using electricity for torture because it was too dangerous: it tended to kill its victims, and dead subjects yield no information. But in 1899, two research teams, one American and one Swiss, correctly identified the biological processes that caused electrical death. This knowledge proved to be critical: A proper torture device, it appeared, had to deliver painful high voltages with low amperage.

The earliest recorded electortorture device was an American machine called the "hummingbird" (1908), likely nicknamed because it hummed with electrical current as it was applied to the body. We know little about it; it appears in the writings of the anarchist philosopher Emma Goldman, who received letters from prisoners describing its use.

Early 20th-century America was a breeding ground for new ideas in electric torture, many documented by American Bar Association investigators in their 1931 Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement. Between 1922 and 1926, the Seattle police chief got his confessions from a cell with a wall-to-wall electrified carpet. "The prisoner leaps, screaming in agony, into the air....It is not fatal, its effects are not lasting, and it leaves no marks," remarked the ABA report. And until 1929, the police in Helena, Ark., used an improvised electrical chair to extract confessions. At the time, the sheriff testified that the chair came with other office furniture, and he had inherited it from "a long line of former county sheriffs."

Still, these devices were rather crude compared with what electrotorture would become. The most famous electrotorture device was adjustable, portable, and based on the magneto, a simple generator that produces a high-voltage spark. The idea of using a magneto generator for torture came to be closely associated with the Nazis, who employed it ruthlessly in France and Belgium during World War II. But it wasn't the Germans who developed it: It was the French colonial police, the Sûreté, who pioneered the technique and used it throughout the 1930s fighting Vietnamese nationalists. The Nazis learned about the technology from a Vichy police officer, Inspector Marty of Toulouse, in 1942.

Although the Gestapo carried magneto torture to Paris and Belgium, the key distributors of magneto torture after the war were the United States and France. The French resumed magneto torture in Vietnam as early as 1947, passing it to the South Vietnamese, who passed the technique to American military interrogators during the Vietnam War. The Americans introduced magneto torture into Brazil in the late 1960s, and - just as the French had - the Americans eventually brought it home. Chicago police used magneto torture in the 1970s and 1980s to extract confessions. Most alleged incidents implicated Commander Jon Burge, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, and the detectives he supervised.

Electrotorture is only one example of how torture spreads via democracies. "Forced standing" is a technique used in the Soviet Union and made famous by the hooded men of Abu Ghraib: They were forced to stand for hours, balanced on a box with the threat of electric torture if they collapsed. It is not nearly as harmless as it sounds: Humans are not designed to stand utterly immobile, and accounts of the practice from Soviet-era victims and psychologists hired by the CIA describe immense pain.

Though forced standing is often associated with the interrogations of Stalin's secret police, the British had already refined the use of forced standing to intimidate and coerce prisoners. From 1910 to 1930, the practice was well known in Irish prisons and in British Indian penal colonies in the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. The British colonial police also used it in Mandatory Palestine, where they were especially concerned about keeping torture "clean": They knew scarred victims would create a scandal at home, and they knew the Nazi publicity machine would use evidence of torture for German advantage in the Middle East. Forced standing was also known in French contexts, and, in the United States, was a standard slave punishment that by the 1920s became part of American police interrogations and prison punishments. Before the 1930s, then, forced standing was the special province of democratic, not authoritarian states. W.G. Krivitsky, an Soviet secret police agent who defected, described Soviet interrogation techniques in 1939 as "improved by Stalin on the model of the latest American methods."

Some techniques date to well before the 20th century, but still owe their modern forms to the innovations of democratic states. The use of water in torture, for example, is quite old, but most historical autocrats liked to boil their prisoners. The modern use of waterboarding can be traced back to the Philippines, where in 1902 American troops were fighting the insurgency. Returning soldiers brought water torture back to their civilian jobs as policemen in the 1910s, and it soon appeared in military prisons and police stations in large cities and small towns, especially in the American South.

By the 1920s, one can find the full encyclopedia of modern water torture already written up in American newspaper accounts and trial transcripts. One technique involved choking the victim, either with full body immersion, by covering the face with a handkerchief, or simply ladling water on the face of a prisoner as he is tilted head downward. This is the basis of modern waterboarding, and it would subsequently appear worldwide.

When we examine the history of modern torture technique by technique - and there are dozens of examples - we find that newer, "cleaner" tortures first appear in conditions of public monitoring, usually in democratic states. It is only afterward that we find authoritarian states adopting them.

If the spread of torture techniques suggests a blurry line between "us" and "them," it also teaches that there's no real boundary between "there" and "here." It would be ignoring history to assume that what happens in an American-run prison in Iraq will stay in Iraq. Soldiers who learn torture techniques abroad get jobs as police when they return, and the new developments in torture you read about today could yet be employed in a neighborhood near you.

In Chicago, in the decade after Vietnam, the use of magnetos and other clean tortures left a disaster: At least 11 men were sentenced to death and many others given long-term prison sentences based on confessions extracted by torture, and in 2003, Governor George Ryan of Illinois commuted the death sentences of all 167 death row inmates. Earlier this month the City of Chicago agreed to pay nearly $20 million to settle lawsuits filed by four former death row inmates who claimed they were tortured and wrongly convicted.

Everything torture represents - intimidation, abuse of public trust, extraction of false confessions, the blind eye of officials - is antithetical to the way democratic societies are supposed to work. But "clean" torture, leaving few marks and practiced behind closed doors, permits a kind of public silence or amnesia. The facts of Abu Ghraib were already known through testimony, but there was no public outcry until the scandalous photographs made it impossible to ignore. Even after Abu Ghraib, lawyers for Guantánamo detainees doubted allegations of torture until FBI e-mails confirmed them. Today, American authorities still shy away from the T-word, preferring terms such as "abuse" and "enhanced interrogation."

The disturbing political implication of clean torture is that we are less likely to complain about violence if it is committed by stealth. Indeed, we are less likely even to have the opportunity to complain. This is not because we are indifferent (thought it is certainly possible), but because we are often uncertain whether violence occurred at all. We are, in effect, illiterate in stealth torture, and this has political consequences. When people can't speak intelligently about cruelty, they aren't likely to be able to protect themselves against tyranny at home.

Still, history shows that the cycle of torture can be broken. Americans put an end to most domestic torture between 1930 and 1950. We did this, in part, by exposing torture. The American Bar Association's 1931 report transformed American law and policing. The document was cited in court decisions; newspapers and true crime books drew on the group's investigations to educate the public as to what the modern face of torture was. And police chiefs instituted more checks on police behavior, including clear punishments for violations of the law and regular medical inspections for detainees.

Many European states now have reasonably good records on torture precisely because they call torture techniques by their proper names, give them histories, and institute strong domestic and international monitoring of police, prisons, and asylums. The French have a far better human rights record now than they did in the 1960s, even if it is by no means perfect. There is no reason why America cannot restore its own reputation.

The biggest surprise, perhaps, is that torturers care what the public thinks. For more than a century torturers have voted with their hands: Governments that continue to use torture have moved to techniques that leave little trace. The same public pressure - built on unequivocal disapproval - should eventually be able to bring an end to this sorry history. Strange as it may seem, torturers and their apologists really do care.

Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College, is the author of "Torture and Democracy," out this month.

UN Assembly calls for death penalty ban

New York (dpa) - The UN General Assembly on Tuesday voted 104-54 to adopt a
moratorium on the death penalty, defeating vocal opposition from countries
that maintain the practice does not violate human rights.

Countries that favour ending the death penalty are a uniformed bloc, arguing
the practice "undermines human dignity" and that a moratorium "contributes
to the enhancement and progressive development of human rights."

"There is no conclusive evidence of the death penalty's deterrence value and
that any miscarriage or failure of justice in the death penalty's
implementation is irreversible and irreparable," the proponents said in the
resolution adopted by the 192-nation assembly. There were 29 abstentions.

The resolution submitted by more than 90 countries, including most Europeans
nations, voiced concern about the continued use of the death penalty and
demanded that the UN "establish a moratorium on executions with a view to
abolishing the death penalty."

It called on countries that still apply the death penalty to respect
international standards that provide safeguards guaranteeing the rights of
sentenced prisoners and to "progressively restrict the use of the death
penalty and reduce the number of offences for which it may be imposed."

Countries that opposed the moratorium renewed their criticism before the
vote, a replay of the debate last month in the human rights committee of the
assembly. Opponents included the block of 13 Caribbean nations and others
like Singapore, which accused Europeans of imposing their values on other
sovereign nations.

There are 134 countries that have abolished the death penalty.

But countries that continue to use it, like the United States and China,
have remained mostly silent during the whole debate.

Despite Washington's official stance on maintaining the death penalty, New
Jersey on Monday became the first US state to abolish the sentence in more
than 40 years, as Governor Jon Corzine signed into law a measure eliminating

New Jersey joined 13 other US states that do not allow executions.

"Today New Jersey evolves," Corzine, a Democrat, said in a statement. "This
is a day of progress for us and for the millions of people across our nation
and around the globe who reject the death penalty as a moral or practical
response to the grievous, even heinous, crime of murder."

Before the final vote in the UN General Assembly Tuesday, the human rights
committee voted 99-52, with 33 abstentions, last month to approve the
moratorium, and sent the draft to the 192-nation assembly for a final vote.

The issue split the committee into two camps, with the Europeans, led by
Italy, on one side against mostly small countries in the Caribbean, Africa
and the Middle East that said the death penalty is not a human rights issue.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Chicago Deal to Pay $20 Million in Police Torture Case Hits Roadblock

The City of Chicago’s landmark decision to pay nearly $20 million dollars to four former death row prisoners tortured by Chicago police has hit a roadblock. The four men—all African American—sued former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and more than twenty officers who worked with him, alleging that they were coerced into falsely confessing to murder in the 1980s. We speak with John Conroy, the investigative reporter who brought the story to the fore eighteen years ago. He was recently laid off from the Chicago Reader. [includes rush transcript]


John Conroy, investigative journalist and author. He brought the torture story to light eighteen years ago and has covered it since for the Chicago Reader. He was laid off five days ago. He is also the author of “Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: The City of Chicago’s landmark decision to pay nearly $20 million to four former death row prisoners tortured by Chicago police has hit a roadblock. The four men are all African American. They sued former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and more than twenty officers who worked with him, alleging that they were coerced into falsely confessing to murder. The City had agreed to a $19.8 million settlement on Friday. But on Wednesday, last-minute legal complications arose in settlements with Stanley Howard and Aaron Patterson, two of the former prisoners involved in the lawsuit. Initial reports suggest this could cause a lengthy delay in all four cases.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2006, special prosecutors released a long-awaited report stating there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Burge and four other former officers abused suspects to extract confessions in the ’80s. Charges have never been filed against Jon Burge, who oversaw the torture.

John Conroy was the investigative reporter who brought the story to the fore eighteen years ago. He has consistently covered it ever since. However, Conroy was among four reporters at the Chicago Reader dismissed last week in a cost-saving measure by the paper’s parent company, Creative Loafing.

John Conroy joins us now from Chicago. Welcome to Democracy Now!, John.

JOHN CONROY: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance first? We’ll talk about the roadblock to the agreement in a minute, but the $20 million, how was it arrived at? Who does it go to? What happened to them?

JOHN CONROY: Well, it went to—it’s supposed to go to four survivors of the torture, all of whom had served time on death row for crimes they hadn’t committed. And the roadblock, I don’t think, is terribly significant in the grand scheme of things. This case has been—these cases were filed in 2003. And I don’t think that a month or two in the grand scheme of things is going to matter a great deal.

However, one complicating factor is that one of the former prisoners, who is now back in prison, Aaron Patterson, had signed a loan agreement based on—there are companies out there who make loans to people, highly speculative loans, high-risk loans, you might say, at verified interest rates, and Patterson took out one of these loans early on. I don’t recall the exact figure, but it might have been $50,000, and it’s now way up in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps nearing a million or more. So the longer there is a delay in settling Patterson, the higher the price tag could go. So that is one thing adding pressure on the Patterson people to settle and on the city to wrap it up.

I think it’s another month, and it will be wrapped up. The things that are blocking it right now weren’t that significant.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, John Conroy, for those of our viewers and listeners who may not be familiar with the specifics of these four cases, could you talk a little bit about how the cases developed and the nature of the torture that they were subjected to?

JOHN CONROY: Yes. These four cases, they’re four men who were pardoned by Governor Ryan in 2003, but they are just the tip of the iceberg, really. There were more than a hundred men who were tortured using electric shock with either a cattle prod, a hand-cranked device much like an Army field phone, or a third device which I believe was a now-extinct medical device called a violet ray machine, which was once a cure-all. Hundreds of thousands of them were manufactured here in Chicago. And in addition to that, some men were suffocated. Some were hung by handcuffs. Mock executions were conducted on others. Some were subjected to severe beatings.

And these four were able to file civil suits now, many years after the torture. The last man who was tortured, of the four, was tortured in 1987, so twenty years ago. And he’s only able to file, because of the pardoning by Governor Ryan. There are many men who served time and are out now who are not able to file, because of the time that has passed, and there are twenty-five men, approximately, who are still inside, whom nobody is paying much attention to, who are there on the basis of suspect confessions.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And there’s been no effort to reopen some of these convictions, based on the nature of the confessions that were obtained under torture?

JOHN CONROY: No. This is remarkable to me, but it’s Chicago, and there is a consistent pattern, same officers appearing in different cases, telling the same story that they didn’t do this thing that they’re accused of, men telling stories about having been tortured with these strange machines, one of which they cannot name, they cannot describe. They can describe it, rather, but they can’t name it, and—which gives the men a credibility, when they’re describing a machine that nobody—few people know it exists. And they’ve described it, but can’t name it.

Anyway, they have—there’s a lot of consistency to the reports, no effort to reopen their investigations—the investigations into their crimes. Now, some of these men are guilty. Many of the men who were tortured were guilty. Nonetheless, this isn’t a country where we have that standard of human rights, where we torture people into confessing to crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: The numbers, John Conroy, some—more than 135 people saying they had bags placed over their heads, guns forced into their mouths, electric shocks applied to their genitals. What has happened to Jon Burge since then, the police commander in charge?

JOHN CONROY: Well, in 1992, police board hearings began in the single case of Andrew Wilson, who had shot dead two police officers and emerged from the police station with very distinct marks on his ears and nose from alligator clips. And it was really an employment hearing; it was not a criminal hearing. And the police board decided, in a very vaguely worded decision, that Burge should no longer be on the force. At that point, he was fired, and he retired to Florida, where he lives today and collects his pension. Other than that, there has never been any criminal proceeding—

AMY GOODMAN: Collects his police pension?

JOHN CONROY: Yes. There has never been any criminal proceeding against any of the officers. And now, there is a glimmer of hope among those who had hoped to see something like that. Patrick Fitzgerald has announced that he—our US attorney here in the Northern District of Illinois—has announced that he is investigating the possible obstruction of justice and perjury committed not in the torture cases themselves, but in these civil suits. These officers testified that no torture had taken place, they didn’t know about any torture, they never heard about any torture. And it’s possible that they can be indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice now. But we have to wait and see.

The deadline for Fitzgerald is really November of this coming year. That’s the latest date by which he could possibly indict Jon Burge, because Burge took the Fifth Amendment for everything, except some written answers he gave in November of 2003 in the Madison Hobley civil suit, which is now trying to be settled.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you’ve been covering this story for eighteen years. What was the initial reaction to your stories when you first started writing about this, and especially by the other commercial press in Chicago? And how does it feel, that long on a story, to get these kinds of results so long afterward?

JOHN CONROY: Well, the initial reaction was dead silence, really, on the part of the mainstream media, but the—interestingly, the internal investigative arm of the Police Department, the Office of Professional Standards, used this story to—as a starting point for their reopening of the investigation. And it was that—there were actually two investigators assigned, and each—one was assigned to review the Wilson case, and one was assigned to review the big picture at Area Two. And they concluded, separately, that torture had taken place, one, in the Wilson case and, two, that it was a pattern at Area Two and that the command officers had known about it.

So, many years—well, actually, in 1993 then, and as a result of those reports, there were police board hearings, which resulted in Burge being fired, but strangely, that was treated sort of as a one-day story: Burge was fired over torture. But nobody said, “Well, what about the victims?” And so, the next piece I did in 1996 pointed out that—it was called “Town Without Pity,” and it was really about the lack of public reaction to the fact that there were men on death row who were going to die if something wasn’t done about their cases.

So, fast-forward to today, four of the cases may wrap up with some kind of financial reward for these men, but it’s, you know, a drop in the bucket compared to what could have been paid and should be paid, really, in remuneration for the damage done to these men’s lives, not just those four men, but the more-than-hundred men who were tortured.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, John, you’ve been laid off?

JOHN CONROY: I was laid off last week. Four writers from the Reader were given the boot. We don’t fit into the future plans of the company which purchased the Chicago Reader last summer. The company is based in Florida.

AMY GOODMAN: What will you do now?

JOHN CONROY: I’m not sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, John Conroy, investigative journalist and author. He is author of the book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Dear Friends

Fifty-nine years ago today the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The opening sentence of the Preamble of that document speaks a fundamental truth and timeless aspiration:

"(R)ecognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."

We are getting closer to the day when the world recognizes that a state execution, the ritual killing of a human being by agents of a government, is a human rights violation, not a criminal sanction. I look forward to the time when International Human Rights Day is celebrated in a world where nations and people live without executions.

Below is the International Human Rights Day posting from "For Victims, Against the Death Penalty," MVFHR's blog. MVFHR's staff, board and members honor all who work daily for human dignity and for human rights, and to end capital punishment. And are grateful to all who, today and every day, support the work of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights.

In solidarity,

Renny Cushing
Renny Cushing, Executive Director
Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights
2161 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02140
617 491 9600 Office
617 930 5196 Mobile
For Victims, Against the Death Penalty
The web log of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights

Monday, December 10, 2007
Happy Human Rights Day and Happy Birthday MVFHR
Today is International Human Rights Day and the third anniversary of the founding of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. I'm remembering the ceremony at the United Nations Church Plaza on December 10, 2004, when several victims’ family members spoke powerfully and movingly about their reasons for working against the death penalty and several allies and friends saluted the new organization. All who were present signed a document pledging their commitment to working to end the death penalty.

It’s been a full and busy three years, during which we've been moved and energized and enraged and determined and so many other feelings that this work engenders. Now we're full of plans and hopes for the next three years, but today is a day to pause and thank everyone who makes MVFHR the powerful voice for victims and against the death penalty that it is. If we haven't heard from you in a while (or even if we have!), take a moment to drop us a line and let us know how you are and what you've been up to. (You can send email to

In celebration of Human Rights Day, here is an excerpt from Sister Helen Prejean’s book The Death of Innocents:

It was to be expected when Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was debated back in the 1940s that such a declaration, which granted everyone the right to life without qualification, would provoke debate, and one of the first proposed amendments was that an exception ought to be made in the case of criminals lawfully sentenced to death. Eleanor Roosevelt urged the committee to resist this amendment, arguing that their task was to draw up a truly universal charter of human rights toward which societies could strive. She foresaw a day when no government could kill its citizens for any reason.

And here is the U.S. Human Rights Network’s inspiring statement about the importance of focusing on human rights work in the United States:

Underlying all human rights work in the United States is a commitment to challenge the pernicious belief that the United States is inherently superior to other countries of the world, and that neither the U.S. government nor the U.S. rights movements have anything to gain from the domestic application of human rights. Rather, in the view of a growing number of U.S. activists, the U.S. government should no longer be allowed to shield itself from accountability to human rights norms.

Finally, here is a snippet of what Renny Cushing wrote in the first issue of MVFHR’s newsletter, Article 3:

In the human rights community, there is talk about how to integrate respect for universal human rights with recognition of the harm suffered by victims. There is talk of the need to hold accountable those who violate the human rights of others. How do we hold nations - or individuals - accountable? How do we respond to one violation of human rights without involving ourselves in another such violation? How can we apply an ethic of respect for people’s humanity consistently to those who have committed crimes and to those who have been victimized?
These questions drive our work at Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and they will inform the stories we publish in Article 3. We decided to name this newsletter Article 3 knowing that a lot of people might at first wonder about its meaning. But this name - like our work in general - is an act of faith that people can be invited to look closer, to consider more deeply, to ente r into new ways of thinking. We believe people can come to see that the death penalty is a violation of basic human rights and that it is time for nations across the world to abolish it.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

City to settle Burge case

Jon Burge

4 alleged victims to get share of up to $19.8 million under tentative plan

By Gary Washburn and Jeff Coen Tribune staff reporters
December 8, 2007

Closing one major chapter in the long-running saga of disgraced former police Cmdr. Jon Burge, the city tentatively has agreed to pay as much as $19.8 million to settle the cases of four African-American men who allegedly were tortured into confessions while in his custody.

The total settlement, which is expected to be considered by the City Council next week, could exceed the $18 million paid to the family of LaTanya Haggerty, whom police mistakenly shot to death in 1999.In typical City Hall fashion, news of the big payout came late Friday afternoon, while Mayor Richard Daley was out of town and unavailable for comment. The mayor's in Italy, but the Daley administration insisted the timing was coincidental.

Aldermen who for months have been pressuring Daley to settle the torture cases welcomed the news.

"I am euphoric," said Ald. Ed Smith (28th). "We have been pushing for a long time."

Now, Smith said, officials must find a way to bring criminal charges against Burge and strip him of his city pension.

"These [victims] will have to live with what this man did to them for the rest of their lives, and he is living off the fat of the land."

Burge, who was fired by the city in 1993 and now lives in Florida, long has denied any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, in a deposition videotaped in 2004, he repeatedly invoked his 5th Amendment right against self incrimination.

The settlement would cover the high-profile cases of four men convicted of murder after allegedly being subjected to electric shocks, beatings and other brutality by Burge and officers in his command. Leroy Orange, Stanley Howard, Madison Hobley and Aaron Patterson all were pardoned and released from Death Row by then-Gov. George Ryan.

Plaintiffs' lawyers contended the city agreed to a $14.8 million settlement with Orange, Howard and Hobley last year and then backed out. But Daley insisted he never signed off on such a deal.

In September, Corporation Counsel Mara Georges disclosed why not: Hobley is under federal investigation for events surrounding the fatal 1987 fire that had led to his conviction.

Under a settlement very different from the others, Hobley is to receive an initial $1 million. Another $6.5 million will be paid only if he is not indicted and convicted for the alleged arson, which killed seven people.

Orange is to get $5.5 million, Patterson $5 million. Both will be responsible for paying their attorneys. Howard will get $800,000 from the city, his lawyers $1 million.

"I think it has reflected very badly on the city of Chicago not only that this took place but that it has been almost 20 years since we have known about it and we finally are moving to settle," said Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th). "It is possible that people who were tortured were guilty, but that is irrelevant. They shouldn't have been tortured."

Accuser back in prison

Four years after his release from prison, Patterson was convicted earlier this year of trading in guns and drugs. He was sentenced to 30 years and is serving time in a high-security federal prison in Kentucky, according to federal prison records.

But attorney Frank Avila Jr., who represented him in his suit against the city, said it is difficult to compute what Patterson is owed for the years spent behind bars unjustly after his abuse.

"How do you compensate a man who is imprisoned for 17 years for something he didn't do, and for 15 years on Death Row?" Avila said. "Money is the only analogous system, but how do you do it? Per day? Per week? Per hour? How do you compensate a man for being tortured?"

Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd), a lawyer who won $9 million from the city for a client in an earlier wrongful conviction case, said the big money also is justified to help the men adjust to life outside prison.

"They are so downtrodden, they can't lift themselves up," Fioretti said.

The city's legal tab for outside attorneys in the four cases to date totals $6.6 million, said Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for the city's Law Department. And police wrongdoing judgments and settlements cost the city a total of about $26.4 million last year; $20.6 million in 2005; $31.3 million in 2004; and $26.7 million in 2003.

In a still unresolved Burge-related case, convicted murderer Darrell Cannon is seeking to add to the $3,000 settlement he agreed to when he represented himself in a case against the city in 1986.

The city is "worried about the precedent it's going to set [to pay more now]," said G. Flint Taylor, the attorney who now represents Cannon. "Well, what kind of precedent is it going to set if they go to trial?"
Taylor contended the city faces $3 million in legal costs to fight the case. Hoyle disputed that amount, saying taxpayers have paid about $520,000 in legal fees thus far.

City defends timing

As for the timing of the announcement -- with Daley abroad -- Hoyle said the four settlements are "something we have been finalizing over the last few weeks" and finished only on Friday, in time for presentation to the council's Finance Committee on Monday.

On another police-related front, city officials are seeking the right to conduct drug and alcohol testing after all shootings involving officers as part of contract negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police.

The Tribune reported this week that the Police Department in some cases has administered tests hours after shooting incidents in which there are indications of impairment and, in other cases, not at all.

After an eight-month investigation of police shootings, the newspaper highlighted the questionable fatal shooting of a would-be car thief by Officer Phyllis Clinkscales. Records and interviews indicated that no test was administered, though the off-duty Clinkscales was returning at 3 a.m. from a wedding reception held at a tavern.

An FOP official declined to comment on the city's contract proposal.

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Legal costs

$7.2 million

Estimated amount that the City of Chicago and Cook County have spent on investigations and settlements related to the cases of Jon Burge and his associates.


Cost (included in the total $7.2 million) for outside counsel for proceedings to fire Burge from the department.

$6.2 million

Cost to Cook County taxpayers for the special prosecutor's investigation and 292-page report.

City of Chicago, Special Prosecutor's Office