CHICAGO — A man imprisoned for decades after being tortured into giving a false confession told a judge on Thursday he still has nightmares about the abuse he suffered at the hands of a former Chicago police officer who has been convicted of lying about the mistreatment of suspects.
Anthony Holmes testified for prosecutors at the sentencing hearing for Jon Burge, saying he also was haunted by the fact that for years, no one believed him about what had happened.
Burge's name has become synonymous with police brutality in the nation's third-largest city, with allegations stretching back nearly 40 years and the case even affecting the state's debate over the death penalty. Dozens of suspects – almost all of them black men – claimed Burge and his officers tortured them into confessing to crimes from robbery to murder.
"He tried to kill me," Holmes read in a halting voice from a prepared statement. "It leaves a gnawing hurting feeling, I can't ever shake it. I still have nightmares. . . . I wake up in a cold sweat. I still fear that I am going back to jail for this again. I see myself falling in a deep hole and no one helping me to get out."
Burge, 63, listened at a defense table looking sometimes intent, sometimes bored. He was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in June after a five-week trial.
Nearly a hundred people crowded into spectator benches for the hearing, and U.S. marshals directed dozens who couldn't find seats into an overflow room with an audio feed. Extra security was in place, including a walk-through metal detector by the courtroom doors.
Prosecutors say Burge's convictions add up to 30-plus years in federal prison. The defense has asked for less than two years. Burge has been free on bond.
During the trial, prosecutors presented testimony from five men – Holmes, Melvin Jones, Andrew Wilson, Gregory Banks and Shadeed Mu'min – who claimed Burge or his men put plastic bags over their heads until they passed out, stuck guns in their mouths or shocked them with electric currents.
Holmes testified at the trial that after being tortured by Burge he agreed to sign a confession to a murder to get the abuse to stop. He was later convicted and served 30 years in prison.
"He did what he did," Holmes said of Burge, saying that unlike the innocent men Burge tortured into confessing, the former officer actually committed the crimes he was charged with.
Prosecutors argue that the nature of the violent acts Burge was convicted of lying about should lengthen his sentence, as should the cost his conduct has had on the city, his fellow officers and his victims.
"This case puts the entire justice system on trial," said Howard Saffold, a former Chicago police officer who never met Burge. "This is a cancer. You can't put a cancer on probation. You have to treat it. . . . You've got to restore some confidence here."
A black officer who worked under Burge's command said he was often asked about rumors of abuse under Burge, though he never witnessed any himself.
"I believe when certain things are going on . . . the community is more apprehensive and afraid of the Chicago Police Department" and less likely to believe they can get a fair trial, said former officer Sam Lacey.
Prosecutors are expected to call one last witness Friday before Burge's defense presents its case. U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow will decide whether to allow testimony from outside groups with an interest in the case.
Burge was fired in 1993 over the alleged mistreatment of Wilson, but was not criminally charged in that case or any other, leading to widespread outrage in Chicago's black neighborhoods. The anger intensified when Burge moved to Florida and his alleged victims remained in prison.
But he was charged with lying about the alleged torture in a lawsuit filed by former inmate Madison Hobley, who was sentenced to death for a 1987 fire that killed seven people, including his wife and son. Hobley was later pardoned.
Hobley claimed detectives put a plastic typewriter cover over his head to make it impossible for him to breathe. Burge denied knowing anything about the "bagging" or taking part in it. The indictment against Burge never said Hobley was tortured, instead accusing Burge of lying with respect to participating in or knowing of any torture under his watch.
Lefkow agreed with prosecutors before the hearing began Thursday that Burge is eligible for extra time because he lied on the stand at trial when he repeatedly denied ever abusing or witnessing any abuse of suspects.
Defense lawyers countered that the sentence sought by prosecutors is "tantamount to life imprisonment" for Burge, who has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and has a host of other maladies, including congestive heart failure and chronic bronchitis. His lawyers also argue that the judge should take into account Burge's military service and decades fighting crime.
More than 30 people, many of them police officers, have sent letters to Lefkow asking for leniency, with one calling Burge a "policeman's policeman." The same man added, "If my soul was on the way to heaven and Satan made one last attempt for my soul, Jon Burge would be the person I would want covering my back."
On the other side, the Illinois Coalition Against Torture has given Lefkow a petition signed by more than 1,000 people that asks for a sentence that takes into account "the devastating harm Burge wrought" on defendants and their families and his lack of remorse for his crimes.
"He was our al-Qaida, he was our (Osama) bin Laden in our neighborhood," said Ronald Kitchen, who was freed from prison after 21 years after it was proven Burge and his men coerced him into falsely confessing to murder. Kitchen spent 13 years of his sentence on death row.
"I would love for him to do 21 years of hard time and to feel the loss that I felt and other people have felt," said Kitchen, who did not testify at Burge's trial.
In 2003, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan released four condemned men from death row after Ryan said Burge extracted confessions from them using torture. The allegations of torture and coerced confessions eventually led to a still-standing moratorium on Illinois' death penalty. A bill to abolish capital punishment in the state is awaiting the signature of Gov. Pat Quinn.
Associated Press writer Michael Tarm contributed to this report.