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Trial Begins for Ex-Chicago Police Lt. Accused of Torturing More than 100 Black Men

Jon Burge oversaw a brutal interrogation program that sent countless innocent men to prison after they were tortured into confessing to crimes they didn't commit.

AMY GOODMAN: A former police commander accused of overseeing the torture of more than 100 African American men goes on trial today in Chicago. Former Lieutenant Jon Burge is accused of lying when he denied in a civil lawsuit that he and other detectives had tortured anyone. He faces a maximum of forty-five years in prison if convicted of all charges.

The accusations of torture date back forty years, but Burge has avoided prosecution until now. For nearly two decades, beginning in 1971, Burge was at the epicenter of what's been described as the systematic torture of dozens of black men to coerce confessions. In total, more than a hundred people in Chicago say they were subjected to abuse, including having guns forced into their mouths, suffocation with bags placed over their heads, and electric shocks inflicted on their genitals.

The police department fired Burge in 1993 for mistreatment of a suspect, but did not press charges. A decade later, then-Illinois-governor George Ryan released four men on death row he said Burge had extracted confessions from using torture. Public outcry eventually led Cook County to appoint two special prosecutors to look into the allegations. In 2006, prosecutors found there was evidence to show beyond a reasonable doubt that torture had occurred, but the statute of limitations had expired.

Two years ago, federal prosecutors finally brought charges against Burge, though not for torture. They say he lied in a civil suit about the torture, and they've charged him with perjury and obstruction of justice. The trial is expected to last six weeks.

We go now to Chicago, where we're joined by two guests. Darrell Cannon, one of dozens of men to come forward with allegations of abuse at the hands of the Chicago police -- Darrell says police tortured him in 1983 and forced him to confess to a murder he didn't commit. He spent more than twenty years in prison, but after a hearing on his tortured confession, prosecutors dismissed his case in 2004. Now he's suing Chicago for wrongful conviction. We're also joined by Flint Taylor, an attorney with the People's Law Office in Chicago. He has represented many of the torture victims and was directly involved in spearheading the special prosecutor's investigation.

Flint Taylor, let's begin with you. Just lay out the scope of what is about to happen today in a Chicago courtroom.

FLINT TAYLOR: Well, it's very significant what's finally happening, decades after it should have. This trial, although it will not deal with allegations of torture itself, will deal with obstruction of justice and perjury. The reason that it won't deal with the crime of torture itself is because the mayor of the city of Chicago, who at that time was the chief prosecutor, Richard Daley, back in 1982, when evidence was presented to him that definitively showed that there was police torture under Burge and by Burge, he chose not to prosecute Burge and not to move to have him released from the police department, but rather continued to prosecute men for many years after that who had been falsely accused of torture.

Darrell Cannon here, my client, was tortured in 1983. If Daley had moved in 1982 with the evidence he had to remove Burge from the police force and prosecute him for torture, we would not have Darrell Cannon spending twenty, twenty-five years behind bars and not having him tortured by electric shock. So, the real crime here started many years ago with the cover-up, a cover-up that was engineered by the mayor himself and his first assistant at that time, who went on to be the chief prosecutor, Richard Devine. That really is the background to why we are having this prosecution now only for obstruction of justice and perjury, rather than for the crime against humanity which is torture.