By Bethel Habte
Medill News Service
He’ll tell you about his sweet tooth. He’ll tell you about the black dachshund named Tiny he’s adopted. And if you ask, Darrell Cannon will tell you about the time he was tortured by Chicago police officers.
In 1983, Cannon was a suspect in a murder case. After his arrest, Cannon said former Sergeant John Byrne and former Detective Peter Dignan coerced a confession from him, chipping his teeth, splitting his lip, playing Russian Roulette on him with a shot gun, and sticking electric cattle prods to his mouth and genitals in the process.
“Nothing can undo what has been done to me,” Cannon said in an interview. Cannon pled innocent but was convicted, based on his confession, and given a life sentence. During the course of a lengthy legal battle, Cannon’s lawyers unearthed 28 other similar claims of abuse and he was released from prison in 2007. He used this evidence to demonstrate that his confession was coerced. His murder conviction was dismissed.
Cannon is one of more than 110, mostly African American, victims who have said they were tortured into false confessions by police under the authority of former Area 2 police commander Jon Burge between 1972 and 1991.
Anthony Holmes’ testimony contributed to Burge’s eventual conviction. At Burge’s trial, Holmes said Burge and former Detective John Yucaitis slurred racial epithets while using a black, electric shock box and suffocating him with a plastic bag to coerce a confession.
“I only had a couple bruises on my arm and a busted lip. But the rest of the injuries were internal from the electricity shot through me with the black box and Burge choking me with the plastic bag,” Holmes said during his testimony. “He tried to kill me. It leaves a gnawing, hurting feeling. I can’t ever shake it.”
Holmes was a gang leader “convicted of participating in a murder” and “his confession the only evidence against him,” according to WBEZ. Paroled in 1983, he was arrested a few months later for selling drugs and paroled in 2004, WBEZ reported in 2010.
The City Council voted Wednesday to approve a package that will award $5.5 million torture victims. The package also provides for counseling for victims and their families, the inclusion of the history of the torture to be taught in Chicago Public Schools, and free college tuition at City Colleges for children and grandchildren of victims.
Burge was fired in 1993 after an internal investigation. In 2006, Cook County prosecutors found evidence of systemic abuse under Burge’s tenure. In 2011, Burge was sentenced to four and a half years in federal prison and house arrest for three counts of perjury and obstruction of justice. He was released on Feb. 13, 2015. A statute of limitations prevented any further legal action. He pled not-guilty in his case, maintains his innocence to this day and collects $4,000 per month in pension.
In a verified interview with Chicago-based blogger Martin Preib last month, Burge launched his condemnation of the reparations effort and the people involved.
“I find it hard to believe that the City’s political leadership could even contemplate giving ‘Reparations’ to human vermin like them,” Burge stated. “I believe I and all the outstanding men and women I had the privilege of working with, as well as the Chicago Police Department itself, will be vindicated.”
Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow presided over Burge’s 2011 case. Before sentencing Burge, Lefkow described the effects of coerced confessions on the legal system.
“When a confession is coerced, the truth of the confession is called into question. When this becomes widespread, as one can infer from the accounts that have been presented here in this court, the administration of justice is undermined irreparably. How can one trust that justice will be served when the justice system has been so defiled?“
Years of legal action and activism have led the city to make amends to the victims.
Who is Jon Burge?
Jon Burge was born in 1947 and grew up in South Deering, which at the time was a mostly white, working class community on the South Side of Chicago.
In his early 20s, Burge served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam as an investigator on a large military base called Dong Tam.
“It’s a sexy part of the narrative that Burge went to Vietnam, and ‘learned’ the tools of torture and brought it back,” said Andrew Baer, Ph.D. candidate in history at Northwestern University and a doctoral fellow at the American Bar Association. “I think it’s slightly misleading.”
Baer’s dissertation focuses on Burge, who he’s been researching since 2009. Burge, Baer said, may have heard rumors of electric shock treatment in Vietnam, but mainly dealt with American troops and says there is no evidence to support those rumors. While Baer condemns Burge and his actions, he sees Burge as a reflection of widespread discrimination in northern states.
“It’s not just a story of a rogue cop or a bad apple,” he said. “The Burge torture cases are representative of a larger post-war race and policing story.”
While Baer said Jim Crow was a form of racial discrimination in the American South, it wasn’t exclusive to parts of the former confederacy.
“Racism still flourished in the north,” he said. “One way it manifested was in policing.”
With the exception of a few Latinos, all the claimants in the torture cases are black. In multiple accounts, victims reported that officers used racial epithets, including the n-word, against them.
“There were some personal motivations and driving factors why a man like Jon Burge might torture African American suspects – call it racism, call it prejudice,” Baer said. “But there were also institutional and structural motivations that would encourage certain types of misconduct.”
Baer explained that police, prosecutors and politicians were under pressure to appear tough on crime. While Chicago’s homicide rate was 245 in 2014, it was far higher in the 70s. The city saw 970 homicides in 1974, nearly 75 percent more than today.
Pressure especially built in high profile, or “heater” cases.
“These were cases where there was intense pressure to close them,” Baer said. “Not just to find a suspect and arrest him, but to guarantee conviction.”
Confessions are the surest way to get there.
How were these cases brought to light?
Under Burge’s watch, Andrew Wilson was arrested for the murder of two police officers on Valentine’s Day in 1982. After an interrogation, police brought Wilson to Cermak Health Service, a Cook County prison medical center.
After examining and treating Wilson on Feb. 15 and 16, Dr. John M. Raba wrote a letter to Richard J. Brzeczek, superintendent of police at the time.
“Andrew Wilson had several blisters on his right thigh, right cheek and anterior chest which were consistent with radiator burns. He stated that he had been cuffed to a radiator and pushed into it,” Raba stated in the letter. “He also stated that electric shocks had been administered to his gums, lips, and genitals.”
Raba closes the letter by saying Brzeczek should initiate a “thorough investigation of this alleged brutality.”
Brzeczek initiated an internal investigation. He then wrote a letter to then Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley, with Raba’s letter attached.
“Because the person in question is one of the defendants in a matter presently pending before the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, I am seeking your direction as to how the department should proceed in the investigation of these allegations,” Brzeczek stated, continuing that he doesn’t want to “jeopardize the prosecution’s case in any way.”
Wilson was convicted. The Illinois Supreme Court threw out the conviction in 1987, suspicious of the integrity of the confession. Then Wilson was convicted without the confession and sentenced to life in prison, where he died.
Flint Taylor, partner at the People’s Law Office, found out about the Burge case when his firm began to represent Wilson, Taylor said in a interview with Medill Reports.
It was during the 1989 civil rights suit against the city that the People’s Law Office received an anonymous letter saying that Wilson wasn’t the only one who was tortured in Area 2.
Many of the torture victims filed “motions to suppress” shortly after they were charged. These were legal attempts to retract their tainted confessions from their records.
Those documents, their testimony, police reports and the testimony of family members are among the pieces of evidence victims will use to back up their claims against the state, said Joey Mogul, partner at the People’s Law Office and cofounder of the organization the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials.
“We have findings and admissions made by the city that acknowledged that Burge not only engaged in torture, but that he and his men engaged in this pattern of torture,” Mogul said. “That is how we were able to get this reparations package, because the city could not deny with any credibility whatsoever that this didn’t happen.”
It didn’t come without a fight.
Activist groups including Project NIA, We Charge Genocide, and Amnesty International have put pressure on City Hall to pass the ordinance.
“Pairing with Amnesty International was a really an important way to spread the word,” said Shubra Ohri, attorney at the People’s Law Office and member of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials. “They’ve incorporated the Burge torture survivors as a part of their national campaign.”
Activists also brought the case to the international stage.
In November 2014, We Charge Genocide brought the Burge case before the U.N. Committee Against Torture in Geneva. The committee called for prompt review of allegations of police torture, try those accused, and provide rehabilitation to survivors. The committee also expressly supported the original reparations ordinance.
“While noting that several victims were ultimately exonerated of the underlying crimes, the vast majority of those tortured – most of them African Americans –, have received no compensation for the extensive injuries suffered,” the committee stated.
Taylor said it was rewarding to see how the movement grew.
“We often felt from time to time over this 30 or so years that sometimes it was a bit of a crying in the wilderness,” he said, citing early trials of survivors that received very little media attention. “But this really got traction.”
The torture survivors’ lawyers and the city will jointly decide what claims of torture are eligible for financial compensation. If they cannot come to an agreement, the ordinance says an independent arbiter will have the final say. Any withheld money will be returned to the city.
Victims are eligible to receive up to $100,000, though some will decide to independently litigate their cases, Mogul said. Those who have filed previous settlements for smaller sums will have that amount deducted from the $100,000 total.
Ayanna Harris, 36, a reparations supporter present at the April 14 hearing announcing the reparations said she believes financial compensation was the best course of action for a dark chapter in Chicago’s history.
“It is long overdue for Chicago to not only acknowledge what they’ve done but to make amends in whatever fashion that they can,” she said.
During the April 14 hearing at City Hall, Mogul emphasized that the reparations funds won’t go toward payment for the People’s Law Offices’ pro bono work. While they were hoping the city would award more money for victims, Mogul said they had to consider the financial constraints the city’s facing.
“This was the best that we could do,” Mogul said in an interview. “We’re hopeful that this still provides meaningful redress for the torture survivors.”