Chicago Police Torture: Explained

Kelly Hayes

In our Explainer series, Justice Collaborative lawyers, journalists, and other legal experts help unpack some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines—like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine—so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail.

On Nov. 1, the FBI released a trove of previously undisclosed documents related to a decades-old investigation of police misconduct. In the 1990s, the agency investigated allegations of torture at the hands of Chicago police at the department’s Area 2 headquarters, where heinous acts of violence and psychological abuse were perpetrated against over 100 Black men and women under the supervision of then-commander Jon Burge.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx recently told county commissioners that her office is expanding its conviction integrity unit with the expectation of handling cases related to Burge torture. “He has opened the door that our office will be in fact having to re-review the Burge cases,” Foxx said. “The issue is that these cases are quite old … and so they will take a significant amount of time and resources to go through.”

In a city with a horrific history of police misconduct, Burge torture survivors and their supporters have a distinct legacy. But their story is far from over.

Who is Jon Burge?

In 1972, Chicago police officer Jon Burge, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, was promoted to detective and assigned to the Area 2 police headquarters. Torture committed by Burge or at his direction are alleged to have occurred there from 1972 to 1991. The brutal interrogation tactics deployed by Burge and his “Midnight Crew” of officers included mock executions, genital electrocution, and racialized psychological abuse.

To coerce confessions, Burge’s officers beat suspects with telephone books, flashlights, batons, and baseball bats. Some victims described being burned, either by their flesh pressed against hot radiators or by having cigarettes put out on their bare skin. Some were nearly suffocated with plastic typewriter covers. Other torture survivors reported having guns put to their head or in their mouth, and being struck with cattle prods.

Illustration by Hisashi Ohkawa.

Wilson cases expose torture

In 1982, Officers William Fahey and Richard O’Brien were gunned down in Burge’s district. Burge arrested Andrew Wilson, who was charged in the case along with his brother Jackie Wilson. Both were convicted in the deaths of the officers; Andrew was sentenced to death, while Jackie received a life sentence.

Andrew was later granted a second trial after the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that evidence his confession had been brutally coerced by Burge was credible. He was convicted at his second trial and sentenced to life. Andrew later died in prison, but his pursuit of a civil case against Burge yielded substantial evidence of Burge’s crimes.

In 1991, the city of Chicago acknowledged that Burge tortured Andrew. In 1993, the Chicago Police Board voted to terminate Burge. That same year, the local Fraternal Order of Police made plans to honor Burge and four other officers accused of torture and brutality with a parade float in city’s South Side Irish Parade. The theme of the float was cancelled in response to public outcry.

In 2010, Burge was convicted in federal court of obstruction of justice and perjury, charges related to a civil suit brought by Madison Hobley, another torture survivor. He was sentenced to nearly five years in prison. In October 2014, Burge was released to house arrest. In February 2015, he was released from house arrest. In 2018, just two days into the trial of former officer Jason Van Dyke for the killing of Laquan McDonald, Burge died at his Florida home at the age of 70.

In June 2018, Jackie Wilson was released after 36 years in prison after a judge ruled that his 1982 confession was involuntarily obtained.

Clearing out death row

Civil rights lawyer Joey Mogul became involved with the Burge cases in 1997 as an attorney with the People’s Law Office. Mogul represented Aaron Patterson, one of the “Death Row Ten,” a group of torture survivors advocating for one another with the support of the People’s Law Office and numerous community groups. The city’s admissions in the Andrew Wilson case should have made Mogul’s job easier, but Mogul told The Appeal that it was not. “The Cook County state’s attorney’s office fought the survivors at every turn claiming that they were not entitled to relief and they were not tortured.”

Prosecutors maintained that Burge survivors had no proof they were tortured because they had no evidence to corroborate physical injuries. But as Mogul noted, “being suffocated with a plastic bag, threatened with a gun, and electrically shocked leaves no marks.”

Prosecutors successfully prevented the Death Row 10 from getting relief in their cases until 2000, when the People’s Law Office won the right to evidentiary hearings on the torture allegations of Aaron Patterson and Derrick King. Patterson had been convicted of the 1986 murder of an elderly couple on Chicago’s South Side, while King had been convicted of the 1979 shooting of a candy store clerk.

In 2002, the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University and the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty led a campaign seeking the commutation of all death sentences in Illinois. The campaign united Burge survivors on death row, the families of torture survivors, and anti-death penalty and anti-torture organizers to work to, as Mogul put it, “clear out death row.”

In January 2003, Governor George Ryan commuted the sentence of every prisoner facing execution and granted pardons to four of the Burge torture survivors. The campaign also led to the appointment of special prosecutors to investigate Burge and his officers, after a judge ruled that Richard Devine, the state’s attorney at that time, had a conflict of interest with the Burge cases.

But not all of Burge’s victims were freed. “There are several ongoing cases where people are struggling to have their coerced confessions dismissed and have new trials,” said Mogul.

Prosecutor pursues troubled case 

One survivor is Gerald Reed, who remains incarcerated despite the fact that his conviction was overturned by Illinois Circuit Court Judge Thomas Gainer in December 2018. Reed has been incarcerated for 29 years and he is fighting the state’s efforts to retry him. Unmoved by Gainer’s ruling that Reed’s confession was coerced, special prosecutor Bob Milan has continued to pursue the case. 

Aislinn Pulley, a co-executive director of the Chicago Torture Justice Center, believes that financial incentives to prosecute Reed should be removed. “Taking away the financial incentive for private attorneys, like Bob Milan, will make the notorious delays that torture surviviors experience less of a factor,” Pulley told The Appeal

But Pulley also warns that upcoming elections could also derail efforts to free survivors like Reed. Foxx, who has instituted numerous progressive reforms during her tenure as Cook County state’s attorney, is up for re-election in 2020. Having raised the ire of Chicago police with her policies, Foxx is already facing multiple challengers and a smear campaign led by the city’s Fraternal Order of Police, which claims that Foxx’s reforms have fueled violent crime, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Pulley warns that the election of a “tough on crime” candidate, like Bill Conway, “would be catastrophic for so many, including torture survivors.”

A Foxx spokesperson told The Appeal that the state’s attorney’s office is approaching its review of Burge cases with an understanding of their tragic and complex history. “The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office has not had any role in the prosecution of these cases for nearly two decades,” the spokesperson wrote in an email statement to The Appeal “Due to the age and complexity of these cases, we will require additional personnel to handle the cases that are returned to the office by order of the court. Through the work of our Conviction Integrity Unit, we are committed to addressing the historic inequities in our criminal justice system, as we seek to restore public trust and right the wrongs of the past.”

Mogul says the recently released FBI documents “just demonstrate that people complained to governmental officials in the 1980s and early 1990s and federal, state, and local officials failed to take any action.”

Transformation and hope

After Burge’s 2010 conviction, Chicago activists turned their attention toward winning reparations for Burge torture survivors. In 2015, a sweeping ordinance was enacted that gave Chicago the distinction of being the first municipality in the nation to provide reparations for racially motivated police violence. The ordinance won some financial compensation for Burge’s victims as well as free tuition for survivors and their families at Chicago’s city colleges. The ordinance also called for the creation of a memorial honoring victims of police torture, the addition of the Burge cases to the Chicago Public Schools history curriculum, and the creation of Chicago Torture Justice Center, where victims of police torture can get access to care and support.

The torture justice center has become a crucial place of healing for the Burge torture survivors, as well as other survivors of police violence, offering support programs including art therapy counseling for torture surivivors. One survivor who receives services at the center, who spoke with The Appeal on the condition of anonymity, described it as “the heart of the community.” Another survivor told The Appeal that the center “has allowed me to breathe.” 

But the fate of the center is yet another unfinished chapter in the decades-long history of the Burge cases. Despite mandating the creation of the center, the city has not provided all of the funding it needs to remain open. The center and its supporters have had to launch a crowdfunding effort to sustain operations. Although the task of raising funds to keep the center open is daunting, the Burge cases and the resulting reparations ordinance illustrate the determination of the survivors and their supporters. “It took decades to get here,” said Pulley, “and we won’t go back.”

Chicago Police Torture: Explained