Trial Begins for Ex-Chicago Police Lt. Accused of Torturing More than 100 Black Men
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.
AMY GOODMAN: Go back to 1971. Can you reconstruct what began then, Flint Taylor?
FLINT TAYLOR: Certainly. Burge was at a POW camp in Vietnam in the late '60s. Of course, in Vietnam, we now know, there was electric shock used on people in POW camps of Vietnamese prisoners. At that time, it appears that Burge learned the techniques that he brought back to Chicago. In 1972, he became a detective at a South Side police station, where they interrogated suspects, almost predominantly African American suspects. In 1973, we first hear of the first victim of torture. That man was tortured with electric shock with a bag over his head, beaten into a false confession. From that point forward, the cases started to stack up through the '70s, '80s and all the way to 1991.
At the same time, Burge had moved from detective to sergeant to lieutenant in charge of the violent crimes unit to a commander of an entire police area. And so, as the cases of torture increased, he continued to be promoted. And more and more people, not just detectives, but supervisors and subsequently, as I mentioned, prosecutors, the chief prosecutor, the superintendent of the police, successive superintendants, they all came to know what was going on, and their response to it was rather than to stop the scandal, stop the systematic torture, was to promote Burge.
And only when the evidence mounted too high -- there were two public trials -- and the community became so outraged and demanded that Burge be fired, that anything was done. But to this day, and until a two years ago, there were no charges. And, in fact, the special prosecutor that you mentioned in your piece actually issued a whitewash report and in fact said the statute of limitations barred prosecution, when, of course, the U.S. attorney found otherwise.
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, torture is an extremely serious charge. As you said, it violates national and international law. But I'm surprised that just for obstruction of justice and for perjury, he faces forty-five years in prison.
FLINT TAYLOR: Well, that's the statute of limitations problem and one of the many unaddressed issues in Chicago. We are very pleased that Burge is being prosecuted, but there is much left to do, and that includes dealing with federal and state statutes, legislation that would make torture a specific crime. And since it's a crime against humanity, there would be no statute of limitations, like there is no statute of limitations for genocide or murder. And in that instance, in the future, if there were another Burge or other torture -- another torture ring and it were covered up successfully for many years, then he could still or they could still be prosecuted for torture.
And that is a major issue that’s still being dealt with by the activists here in the city of Chicago, along with the fact that twenty or twenty-five men are not as "fortunate" -- and I put quotes around "fortunate" -- as Darrell has been to be out now. And those men are still behind bars so many decades later, because of tortured confessions. And we're fighting those cases one by one. But, in fact, all those men should be given new trials, and they should be new trials without the tortured evidence, obviously.
And the other aspect that we feel very strongly about, the men, the henchmen that worked under Burge, and that includes the two right-hand men of Burge, self-admittedly, who tortured Darrell at the remote torture site, those men have yet to be charged. Now, there's an ongoing investigation into their perjury and obstruction of justice, but to this point, they haven't been indicted for the scores of cases where men have said that they tortured them. So there's much unfinished business, as well as there's many, many victims and survivors of police torture here in the city of Chicago who have received no compensation because of a similar statute of limitations in civil cases.
AMY GOODMAN: We're going to come back to this discussion in a minute, Flint Taylor, an attorney with the People's Law Office in Chicago, has represented a number of men who say they were tortured by Jon Burge, the police commander who’s going on trial today. We'll also hear from Darrell Cannon, who is one of those victims. He served twenty years in prison.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to one of the people who says he was tortured. We're joined by Darrell Cannon. He says police tortured him in 1983 and forced him to confess to a murder he didn't commit. He spent more than two decades in prison. But after a hearing on his tortured confession, prosecutors dismissed his case in 2004. Now he's suing the city of Chicago for wrongful conviction.
We're also joined by Flint Taylor, an attorney who represents a number of the torture victims. But let's go to Darrell Cannon.
Darrell, tell us what happened to you. Talk about how you were picked up and what you admitted to and what happened to you in Burge's custody.
DARRELL CANNON: It was on November the 2nd, 1983, between the hours of 6:30, 7:00 in the morning. A group of all-white detectives invaded my apartment, where I stayed with my common-law wife and my son. They kicked open the door, and they cursed her out. They searched for me. They finally found me. They gave me my clothes. They ransacked the entire apartment, found nothing. They took me downstairs, placed me on my knees in front of the vestibule, until the rest of the detectives had searched other apartments. Then they came down, put me in a car. They drove around looking for another guy that they say was complicit in this particular crime. After they didn't find him, they took me to the police station. I stayed there for a short period of time.
They took me out of the police station. They took me to a restaurant that caters to truckers and police officers. They left me double-handcuffed in the back seat of a defective car while they went in and had breakfast. They came out from breakfast. They took me to a remote area, where they drove through a pipe, came out on the opposite end of an isolated area where there was nothing but water and railroad tracks around. They got me out the backseat of the car, and they proceeded to ask me some more questions about a homicide that had took place. I told them I had no knowledge about the homicide.
They then did a mock hanging, where I'm cuffed behind my back and one of the detectives would get on the bumper of the detective car, the other two detectives would lift me up to him, and he would grab my handcuffs from behind. They would let me go. That will cause my arms to go up backwards, almost wrenching the inside my shoulders. That method went on for -- I don't know how long. But eventually, it wasn't successful, because of the fact that there was a fine-mist rain out that morning, and John Byrne, which is the tallest detective, he kept slipping off the back of the bumper.
They did switch to a second torture treatment, which was the shotgun, where they got their shotgun, pump shotgun, out the back -- out the trunk of the car, and Peter Dignan, which is another one of the detectives, the most vicious one out of all of them, he proceeded to ask me some more questions about the murder and to tell me what they knew had already occurred and wanted me to fill in the gaps. I refused to do so. He took a shotgun shell, showed it to me, and his exact words were, "Listen, nigger" -- and that’s when he turned his back to me. I heard a clicking sound, which seemed like it was the shell being placed in the chamber. He turned back around to face me, I no longer seeing a shotgun shell. So they continued to ask me questions. I refused to answer. One of them said, "Go ahead, blow that nigger's head off." And that’s when Peter Dignan forced the shotgun in my mouth. And he said, "You're not going to tell me what I want to hear? You're not going to tell me?" I said, "No." And that's when he pulled the trigger. They did a mock execution three times. The third time they did it, when I heard the trigger pull, in my mind, I thought he was blowing the back of my head off, because the hair on the back of my head stood straight up when I heard that click.
By them not being successful in getting what they wanted out of me, they then did a third treatment, which was they put me in the backseat of a detective car. They unhandcuffed my cuffs from behind, put them in front. John Byrne had a gun to my head and told me, "Don't move," when they redid the handcuffs. They put me sideways in the backseat of a detective car and made me lay down across the seat. They pulled my pants and my shorts down, and that’s when Byrne took an electric cattle prod, turned it on, and proceeded to shock me on my testicles. They did this what seems like forever with me, but it wasn't that long. At one point, I was able to kick the cattle prod out of the detective’s hands, and that knocked the batteries out. He got the batteries, put them back in. One of them tried to take his feet and put it on top of one of my feet, the other one did the same thing, to stop me from kicking. Then this is when they started using the electric cattle prod on me again, while telling me that they knew that I wasn’t the one they wanted, but I had information that could lead them to the other person that they wanted. They continued to do this until finally I agreed to tell them anything they wanted to hear. Anything. It didn't matter to me. You know, if they said, "Did your mother do it?" "Yes, yes, yes." Because the diabolical treatment that I received was such that I had never in my life experienced anything like this. I didn't even know anything like this here existed in the United States.
You know, it wasn't until years later that I heard about torture in Chile and other places. This was after I was in the penitentiary. And it was amazing to me that these things had previously happened to me here in the United States, and the more we screamed about it, the less people cared to do anything about it. You know, and to this day, it is still amazing to me that there is a statute of limitation in the United States on torture, but there is not a statute dealing with arson and other things of this nature here. So, they should not be able to hide behind any kind of alleged statute. Wrong is wrong. Right is right. What these despicable detectives did could never be justified in the United States under any shape, form or fashion.
AMY GOODMAN: Darrell Cannon, what happened after they took you to this isolated area and tortured you in these various ways? Where did they then bring you?
DARRELL CANNON: What? The torture site?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes. Where did they --
DARRELL CANNON: Is that -- OK, the --
AMY GOODMAN: You were held in this car. They tortured you in various ways. Then what happened?
DARRELL CANNON: Yes, ma'am. From there, they took me back to the police station. Before we went to the police station, they drove around again, looking for another guy that they said participated in this. To me, it seemed like they wanted to keep me away from the police station all day. Keep in mind, they arrested me at a quarter to 7:00 in the morning. Their shift was over with at 7:00 a.m., but yet and still, they didn’t leave my presence until probably well after 3:00 that afternoon.
Why was that necessary? I was already in custody. They had other detectives involved in the case, anyway. It was just a thing where they had fun. They had fun torturing me, and they lost track of what time it was, as a process of this. And like I said, to keep me away from the police station was did intentionally, because I’m pretty sure that they knew that my common-law wife had called an attorney. An attorney probably had came down to the police station looking for me. But until they were finished doing what they wanted to do with me, they didn’t want any interference.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, did you tell your attorney what had happened then?
DARRELL CANNON: I agreed to everything they said. You know, in fact, they had already told me that they didn't deem me as a perpetrator, but they felt that I knew who the perpetrator was. And I kept telling them I didn't. As a result from having been tortured in the manner in which I was and them feeding me various information, it got to the point where I started speaking back to them what they had already spoke to me. And as a result of that, that evening, a state's attorney came in, along with the detectives that was involved in my torture, and spoke to me about the alleged crime. And afterwards, I repeated to that particular state’s attorney everything that the detectives had been told and everything that I had repeated back to the detectives.
AMY GOODMAN: But did you tell your --
DARRELL CANNON: As a result from that, I was charged with murder.
AMY GOODMAN: And did you tell your lawyer what the police, what the detectives, what Burge had done to you? Had you told your lawyer about the torture?
DARRELL CANNON: Yes, ma'am. I wasn't allowed to see my lawyer until the following day, on November 3rd. I went to court, and before I came out before the judge, my attorney came back to the bullpen. And at that time, I told him what had happened to me the day before. He instructed me not to talk about it or say anything else, that he would deal with it in court at a later date. Then he went on to tell me that the hearing that we was getting ready to go before the judge was just a preliminary hearing to read off the charges and to ask me how I pled. And I pled not guilty.
AMY GOODMAN: You were convicted, though, of murder?
DARRELL CANNON: Yes, ma'am.
AMY GOODMAN: And how long did you serve in prison?
DARRELL CANNON: I ended up doing twenty-three-and-a-half years in prison, with the last nine of those twenty-three-and-a-half years did in solitary confinement in an institution called Tamms Supermax.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you end up there?
DARRELL CANNON: The system felt like it was better to put me in a place to keep me quiet, because throughout the last twenty-some years, I've continuously raised the issue about having been tortured. I was having hearings. So Tamms was designed for, quote, "the worst of the worst" in the Illinois prison system, even though my record does not indicate that I am the worst of the worst. I’ve never harmed the staff or inmates, anything else. But that was the justification for putting me in Tamms. And in Tamms, reporters are not allowed to come and visit you. You weren’t allowed to have phone calls. So that was a way of probably trying to hush me up.
AMY GOODMAN: You got out in 2004, because prosecutors --
DARRELL CANNON: No, ma'am. No, ma'am. 2007.
AMY GOODMAN: But in 2004, the prosecutors dismissed the case based on these allegations of torture?
DARRELL CANNON: Yes, ma'am. But the parole board refused to release me. The parole board took the banner up and decided that I must have been complicity in some type of way in the alleged crime, so they considered me to be a parole violation, even though there was no evidence of such. So it took me additional few years fighting the parole board in federal court before I finally won. And that's how I got out in 2007.
AMY GOODMAN: Flint Taylor, can you put this in the context of the four men that were on death row that eventually led to what we’re seeing today and the moratorium on the death penalty that was eventually imposed in Illinois by the former governor, George Ryan?
FLINT TAYLOR: Well, there was a very significant victory for the convergence of two movements here in the city of Chicago -- the human rights movement, the movement against torture, and the movement against the death penalty. And what happened was that Ryan became convinced not only that men should not be given the death penalty and should not be on death row, but that there were innocent men among those on death row and that they were innocent partially because they had been tortured into giving false confessions. And that’s why he pardoned the four men that he pardoned, at the same time that he cleared death row and gave -- commuted the sentences of 164 men and women that were on death row at that time to life without parole. There have been many significant victories here, not the least of which is the indictment of Jon Burge and the fact that he’s actually going to trial.
But, Amy, it's important to understand this case in the context, as Darrell mentioned, not only internationally, but nationally. We sit here in Chicago actually prosecuting a torturer. That hasn't happened nationally. The administration hasn’t seen fit to even give serious investigation to people like Cheney and Rove and those who tortured across this world in our name. And in the same way that the conscience of this country cannot be cleansed without proper prosecutions of those who approved and participated in torture in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and places like that, the conscience of the city of Chicago cannot be cleansed until there’s a complete dealing with all of the issues of torture, starting with the mayor, on all the way down, and starting with the men behind bars and starting with all the men that need to be prosecuted. So there has to be an understanding that what we’re dealing with here is a microcosm of what’s going on and isn’t going on nationally, in terms of prosecutions, in terms of restorative justice, in terms of dealing with the victims and the survivors of torture, and compelling the court system and the powers that be to deal responsibly and thoroughly and in a just manner with the whole scope of torture as an issue, both nationally and locally.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Michael McDermott, explain who he is, one of the chief prosecution witnesses.
FLINT TAYLOR: Well, all these years, the first time that anyone who worked with Burge came forward in any form was in 1989. And they -- a detective anonymously wrote me and my partners, while we were on trial in a civil torture case, and told us about other victims of torture and told us that other men, including those who tortured Darrell, were participants in this ring of torture. That started our investigation, and it started us to unpeel the 110 victims of torture that we know about today. But no one -- that man or woman didn’t come forward publicly. It was an anonymous contact. It was anonymous letters. And we never knew who that person was.
It wasn’t until 2004, after the men were pardoned and we had lawsuits for them, that we were able to go out and talk to retired detectives who were black, and they told us, now that they had retired, that they knew certain things. They had seen the torture box. They knew it was an open secret. They heard screaming. But Burge kept them out of the loop, because he knew -- because they were African American, he didn't trust them with the secret of the torture.
However, when the government investigated the case recently, with the power of immunity, the grant of immunity, they were able to get this white detective, who had been involved in several cases of where torture was alleged, including one that -- of a victim who was going to testify for the government, and they gave him immunity, and apparently, although we haven’t seen the transcript, he reluctantly told what he knew about this incident of torture and perhaps others. Now, he is not a voluntary witness. He is not a happy witness. He is very scared. But we’re have hopeful that his testimony will be significant in terms of finally revealing at least one instance of torture from the inside and breaking the code of silence in that way. And if it is, and that’s what his testimony is, then it’s going to be obviously a significant crack in the conspiracy or code of silence.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. We will certainly follow this trial. It begins today, the trial of Jon Burge, not for torture, but for perjury and obstruction of justice. Flint Taylor, thanks for being us, attorney with the People’s Law Office in Chicago, and Darrell Cannon, who was one of the torture victims of Jon Burge’s whole group. Darrell Cannon served more than two decades in prison.