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City's Head Still in the Sand on Burge Torture Scandal

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Last month Jon Burge, the disgraced former Chicago Police Commander whose men tortured scores of African American suspects into confessing during a reign of terror that spanned nearly two decades (from the 1970s through the early 1990s), was finally sentenced to four and a half years in prison for denying under oath that he directed and participated in the torture.

Despite Burge's conviction, the harsh sentence, scores of court rulings and decades of public outcry, the City of Chicago and its agencies carry on as if nothing happened.

Shortly after the sentence, the Chicago police pension board ruled that Burge could continue receiving his Chicago Police pension, applying the contorted logic that Burge's conviction was for lying during a lawsuit, not for criminal conduct in the course of his duties as a police officer. Do they really think Burge's conviction and sentence aren't ultimately about the torture that Burge keeps on trying to cover up? The pension board ought to read the transcript of federal Judge Joan Lefkow's comments she imposed the prison sentence on Burge.

The City of Chicago's Corporation Counsel hasn't been paying attention either. Expensive, private lawyers are being paid by Chicago taxpayers to represent Burge (under her supervision) in still-pending lawsuits brought by innocent Burge victims who spent years in prison based on tortured confessions.

Shouldn't the City be thinking about paying up in these cases? (Full disclosure: I represent Ronald Kitchen, who is one of those suing.) Instead, Burge's City-funded lawyers last week submitted a document in Kitchen's case refusing to provide any documents related to Mr. Kitchen and claiming the Fifth Amendment privilege on behalf of Burge. That's smart lawyering. Burge isn't about to admit what he and his men did to Ronald Kitchen. And he's seen what can happen if he denies it under oath. So it's good advice to Jon Burge to clam up and take the Fifth.

But the taxpayers of Chicago shouldn't have to pay lawyers' fees so that Burge can avoid another criminal prosecution.

Perhaps the magnitude of Burge's prison sentence is lost on the City. When Judge Joan Lefkow handed Burge a prison sentence of four and half years, civil rights attorney Flint Taylor; who has doggedly pursued Burge in courtrooms, City of Chicago Council hearings and in press conferences since the mid 1980s; called the sentencing decision "courageous."

But in the lobby of the federal courthouse, victims of Burge and his men (like the folks my friend Flint Taylor and I represent) literally shed tears of frustration and complained that the sentence was a slap on the wrist, particularly in comparison to the countless years they and others spent in prison following convictions supported by confessions that Burge and his men extracted from them by torture.

Taylor hasn't gone soft. The sentence was a firm and emphatic denunciation of what United States District Court Judge Joan Lefkow termed "all the pain" that Burge's torture has inflicted on the Illinois criminal justice system and on his victims.

But the victims are right too. Burge's sentence was unseemly for being so disproportionate to that pain--including, to list just one example, the multiple decades of false imprisonment endured by those of Burge's victims who were actually innocent of the crimes they "confessed" to committing.

The sentence shows clearly how justice delayed is sometimes justice denied. Burge couldn't be prosecuted or sentenced for the actual torture he and his underlings committed because the Cook County State's Attorney and the United States Attorney's Office turned a blind eye for years to complaints about what Burge was doing. When the US Attorney woke up and indicted Burge in 2008, the statute of limitations for a torture prosecution had long passed (Burge had been fired in the early 1990s). Instead, Burge was prosecuted and convicted for lying about torture in a sworn, written answer he gave in 2005 in a civil lawsuit brought by one of his victims.

Lies are told every day in civil lawsuits all over Chicago and the rest of the country. Prosecutions for such perjury are almost nonexistent. A first-time offender in a garden variety case of perjury in a civil lawsuit could reasonably expect to get probation. Judge Lefkow--citing all the pain from the deeds that Burge had lied about--came down very hard indeed, doubling the maximum recommended sentence for perjury. She did all she could; she acted courageously. Prosecutors who'd kept their heads in the sand for decades deprived Judge Lefkow and the system of the opportunity to mete out a more just sentence. It is well past time for the City of Chicago to start doing what needs to be done to finally put this ugliness behind us. The City needs to get its head out of the sand.