More than a decade ago, a special prosecutor undertook an investigation that revealed a longtime Chicago Police Department detective and commander had routinely tortured black men to coerce them into confessions or false testimony. Some of the convictions were reversed. A few others were pardoned by then-Governor Ryan. And Jon Graham Burge was convicted on related perjury charges and sent to jail.
But Burge’s misconduct is still taking its toll on many of the 148 people who claimed abuse. Just this week, a man who spent more than 30 years in jail was released after Judge Richard Walsh found that officers had lied about beating Stanley Wrice with a flashlight and a 20-inch piece of rubber, and about imposing similar treatment on a witness in Wrice’s case to elicit false testimony against him.
Wrice was sentenced to 100 years for a sexual assault he says he falsely confessed to after police beatings. Others with similar claims remain behind bars, hoping to seize on precedent from Wrice’s case to expedite their appeals. Lawyers will argue next week that these inmate should be certified as a class so they can argue together that they should be granted new trials.
Burge was fired from the Chicago Police Department in 1993, after an internal investigation found that his abuse was “systematic” over more than a decade. More than 148 individuals — mostly black men — came forward to report that Burge had smothered them, imposed electric shock, and forced them into a hot radiator. Burge’s misconduct led to the state’s death penalty moratorium in 2000. But it took another decade before a special prosecutor embarked on an extensive investigation of Burge’s behavior. It found foul play, but said it would not pursue action against Burge, in part because the statutes of limitations had expired in the cases. Then in 2008, prosecutors developed another way to snag Burge in a civil trial. They charged him with perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about his actions at trial, and in 2011, he was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison.
At sentencing, U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow lamented, “How can one trust that justice will be served when the justice system has been so defiled?” She added, “Perhaps the praise, publicity and commendations you received for solving these awful crimes was seductive and may have led you down this path. On your behalf how I wish that there had not been such a dismal failure of leadership in the (police) department that it came to this.”
While Burge’s case is extreme, this reward system exists in any of a number of police departments and law enforcement agencies, accompanied by rare punishment for wrongdoing. False confessions alone account for about 25 of wrongful convictions exposed by DNA, and many others derive from testimony by witnesses who are coerced through both poor treatment and incentives.