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Ex-officer accused of torture faces trial

Jon Burge, a former Chicago police lieutenant, is charged with obstruction of justice and perjury. His trial begins today. Jon Burge, a former Chicago police lieutenant, is charged with obstruction of justice and perjury. His trial begins today. (Steve Nesius/ Associated Press/ File 2008)
Associated Press / May 24, 2010

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CHICAGO — For decades, black men across Chicago described torture at the hands of former police lieutenant Jon Burge and his officers, and for decades no one listened.

Suspects landed in jail and even on death row for crimes they say they didn’t commit after Burge and his men coerced confessions using terrifying methods including suffocation, a form of waterboarding, and electric shocks.

Finally those complaints from the 1970s and 1980s are being taken seriously.

Jury selection begins today in Burge’s trial on federal obstruction of justice and perjury charges. He is accused of lying when he denied in a civil lawsuit that he and other detectives had tortured anyone. He faces a maximum of 45 years in prison if convicted of all charges.

Burge has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is free on bond.

Authorities have, to a degree, acknowledged that Burge may have committed these acts, but he does not face torture-related charges because the statute of limitations has run out. The police department fired him in 1993 for mistreatment of a suspect, but did not press charges.

A decade later, Governor George Ryan released four condemned men he said Burge had extracted confessions from using torture. Ryan, a Republican, later cleared all on death row, saying the torture of innocent men at the hands of Chicago police had tainted the state’s entire death penalty system.

The allegations of torture and coerced confessions eventually led to a moratorium on the state’s death penalty and the emptying of death row — moves credited with reigniting the global fight against capital punishment. But they also earned Chicago a reputation as a haven for rogue cops, a place where police could abuse suspects without notice or punishment.

Prosecutors are expected to call former police officers and at least a half-dozen men who say they were tortured by Burge or those under his command. The more than 100 victims say the torture started in the 1970s and persisted until the 1990s on the city’s South and West sides.

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