The Dark Side of the Daley Legacy: Enabler of Torture

05/04/2011 01:28 pm ET | Updated Jul 04, 2011
  • Locke Bowman Director, The Roderick MacArthur Justice Center, Northwestern

As the clock ticks down on Richard M. Daley's 22-year tenure as mayor of Chicago, the airwaves and print media have been full of retrospectives -- most of them positive, some highly laudatory. The story on the front page of last Sunday's Tribune was typical: "As other Rust Belt cities imploded," the paper crowed, "Daley stabilized Chicago and cemented its reputation as a beautiful city by the lake."

Navy Pier. The lakefront museum campus. Millennium Park. All those flowerboxes. These are Daley's visible legacy. If you like greenery and live near the lake, it's hard not to applaud the mayor.

Mention has been made of the dark side of Daley's reign, of course. The hired truck scandal, with criminal fraud convictions of the mayor's ex-patronage chief and the former head of the Department of Streets and Sanitation, is impossible to ignore. The mayor's too-comfortable relationship with big business -- including, by way of example, the tens of millions in pinstripe patronage paid to politically connected law firms -- leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many.

Almost nothing has been said, though, about Mayor Daley's lamentable role as an enabler of torture by Chicago police officers under the command of convicted former Police Commander Jon Burge.

In February 1982, two Chicago police officers were senselessly gunned down. The City's law enforcement community was up in arms. Then-Mayor Jane Byrne personally oversaw the manhunt for the killers. A police lieutenant named Jon Burge was put in charge of the case. When Andrew Wilson was arrested for the murders and brought for questioning to Area 2 police headquarters on the City's far south side, top police brass and key deputies of the Cook County State's Attorney -- one Richard M. Daley at that time -- were at the stationhouse.

Throughout the day on February 14, Burge and his men tortured Wilson until he confessed. Daley received periodic updates from his subordinates as the day progressed. When Wilson arrived at the Cook County Jail, there were burn marks running in parallel lines on his back where he had been held against a hot radiator. The marks left by alligator clips (which had been used to run electric current through Wilson's body) were still visible on his ears and nipples.

The director of medical services at the Cook County Jail's hospital was alarmed enough by Wilson's injuries to write a letter to Richard Brzeczek, then Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, informing Brzeczek that Wilson appeared to have been abused. Brzeczek forwarded that letter to Daley with a cover letter asking for advice.

Daley did nothing. He never responded to Brzeczek's letter.

In 2006, a special prosecutor appointed by the chief judge of the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County roundly chastised Brzeczek for failing to discipline Burge and his men. If Brzeczek had acted decisively, the Special Prosecutor noted, the scores of African American men who were tortured into confessing in the years between the Wilson case and Burge's eventual firing in 1991 might have escaped their fate.

Strangely, though, the special prosecutor gave Daley a free pass. Few have ever cared to criticize the mayor.

For his part, Daley maintains that Burge was a police problem. It wasn't Daley's job to rein him in.

That is the lamest of excuses. Daley knew full well that, if Wilson had been physically abused as Brzeczek's letter suggested, the police involved had violated Illinois criminal laws that State's Attorney Daley was in charge of enforcing. Daley's own subordinates were also potentially criminally culpable: Wilson's tortured confession had been taken down by an assistant state's attorney who worked for Daley.

After Daley and Brzeczek turned their backs, Burge and his men continued their systematic abuse of African-American men in their custody. Daley knew it. Some of the assistant state's attorneys in Daley's office were co-participants with Burge's men in torture. (For example, one of Daley's prosecutors told a Burge detective that torture victim Leonard Kidd wasn't "ready yet," when Kidd refused to confess after an initial torture session. Detectives tortured Kidd again and secured his confession.)

In nine cases following the Wilson torture, Daley's office sought and obtained the death penalty against a Burge torture victim. Death penalty prosecutions required a file review by the state's attorney himself and Daley's personal sign off. There's no way Daley could have missed the fact that the defendants in nine death penalty prosecutions that he personally approved were claiming to have been tortured in ways that eerily paralleled Wilson's abuse.

Ronald Kitchen, Leroy Orange, Madison Hobley and Aaron Patterson all got the death penalty while Daley was State's Attorney. Burge or detectives who worked for Burge tortured each of those four men into confessing. Daley personally approved the death penalty for each man. Each spent years on death row, awaiting execution. The State of Illinois now recognizes that all four are innocent of the crimes that they confessed to under torture.

Daley has never come close to apologizing for enabling Burge and his men to continue the torture. When Daley became mayor, he scoffed at a 1990 police investigation documenting systematic abuse of African American suspects by Burge and his subordinates, terming the findings of torture in that investigation "rumor" and just "allegations."

In 1996, Daley authorized the promotion of a key Burge subordinate--an officer implicated in dozens of torture cases--to the rank of police lieutenant.

Daley has personally insisted that the City continue to pay millions in fees to high-priced outside counsel to defend Burge and his detectives in pending civil lawsuits (including several in which I am counsel for the plaintiff).

For Daley, the job of Mayor was about ensuring quality of life for the landed gentry near the lake shore. His culpable indifference to the depravity of Burge and his detectives toward poor, criminally accused African-American men is emblematic of just how limited Daley's vision of the City was.

Daley surely doesn't want to be remembered as an enabler of torture. But it ought not be forgotten that he was.