Activists Win Torture Probe
By: Joan Parkin
This page has been reserved in recent issues for profiles of the cases of The Death Row 10 — a group of men who were beaten and tortured by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his detectives and sent to death row in Illinois.
The New Abolitionist’s regular feature highlighting each member of the Death Row 10 will return in our next issue.
In the summer of 1998, the Death Row 10 decided to become a group and asked the Campaign to End the Death Penalty to help them organize.
Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine would like nothing better than to keep the issue of torture covered up. But organizing around the issue has produced growing local and national attention for the Death Row 10, who have been featured in stories in the Chicago Tribune and on the television news program 60 Minutes II.
In April, activists won an important victory with the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the claims of torture by the Death Row 10 and others.
Activists scored an important victory in April, when Cook County Judge Paul Biebel appointed a special prosecutor to investigate charges of torture committed by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his detectives.
Burge and company are accused of torturing more than 60 African American men at Areas 2 and 3 Headquarters on the South Side of Chicago. The Death Row 10, who continue to suffer the excruciating isolation of Illinois death row, are among Burge’s victims.
Electric shock. Suffocation. Russian roulette. These were the tactics used by Burge to force African American men to “confess” to crimes, whether or not they committed them.
In 1993, the Chicago Police Department fired Burge under increasing pressure by activists. Yet, he was allowed to retire to Florida with a full pension. He roams free, enjoying sunny days on his boat, the Vigilante, while his victims remain behind bars. Neither Burge nor any of his sadistic ring of detectives ever faced prosecution.
But activists continued to fight to win justice for his victims. In recent years, the issue of police torture in Chicago has gained increasing attention in response to pressure organized by activists, attorneys, and family members of torture victims, as well as members of the Death Row 10.
In its recently released report, the Governor’s Commission on Capital Punishment states that the cases of the Death Row 10 should be “closely scrutinized by the courts, and, if necessary, the Governor, to insure that a just result is reached.”
Finally, officials are beginning to pay attention — after activists refused to let the criminal justice system ignore the allegations of police torture, as it has done for two decades.
In Biebel’s ruling, he found that State’s Attorney Dick Devine had a conflict of interest in the case against Burge. Activists have made this claim since Devine’s election to office.
As a private attorney working for the law firm of Phelan, Pope and John, Devine defended Burge in a civil lawsuit accusing him of torturing suspects. Moreover, Devine was a top prosecutor when the torture happened.
Along with Mayor Richard Daley, who was the state’s attorney when many of Burge’s victims were convicted, Devine and other city officials have long ignored the allegations against Burge. Clearly, they had a vested interest in sweeping the issue of police torture under the rug.But now, they’re on the hot seat, and Chicago activists are celebrating the appointment of a special prosecutor.
“This is an incredible victory that we’ve been fighting for a long time,” says Death Row 10 member Stanley Howard. “We have a dirty system and politicians and judges have dirty hands. That’s why we need to make sure that we keep up the pressure to make sure that the special prosecutor does his job.”
The appointment of a special prosecutor is the first investigation of its kind. “The decision will prove to be very significant in trying to convict Burge and defend his victims because it gives us the tools to conduct a full investigation,” said Frank Ralph, an attorney who helped to initiate the Campaign to Prosecute Police Torture.
The truth is that Burge and his underlings should be prosecuted. They deserve to be behind bars.
“The time has come to find out how this cancerous sore on our criminal justice system got to be there,” says attorney and petitioner on the motion for a special prosecutor, Locke Bowman, of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago Law School.
We know these crooks deserve to be behind bars. More than that, we know that the members of the Death Row 10 deserve new trials and the death penalty must be abolished. But knowing isn’t enough. To win justice, we must publicize and build the grassroots movement that has gotten us this far.