CHICAGO (AP) — A federal judge in Chicago handed down a 4 ½-year prison sentence today to former Chicago Police officer Jon Burge for lying about the torture of suspects.
Dozens of suspects — almost all of them black men — maintain that Burge and officers under his command subjected them to beatings, electrical shocks and suffocation until they confessed to crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder.
In announcing the sentence, U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow said she considered the seriousness of the allegations against Burge. She also said she wondered why a decorated and respected officer would resort to such violence against suspects.
Prosecutors have argued that Burge's perjury and obstruction of justice convictions add up to 30-plus years in federal prison. The defense had asked for less than two years. Burge had been free on bond since his five-week trial that ended in June.
Anthony Holmes and Melvin Jones both testified Thursday that they still have nightmares about the abuse they suffered at the hands of Burge and his men decades ago. They said they're haunted by the fear that they could be victimized by the police again.
"(Burge) 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."
Holmes said he's glad Burge was convicted and that unlike the innocent men Burge tortured into falsely confessing, the former officer actually committed the crimes he was charged with, saying "he did what he did."
Prosecutors also called a former black police officer who never met Burge who talked about the negative effect the abuse allegations have had on police and their relationship with the black community over time.
"This case puts the entire justice system on trial," said Howard Saffold. "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."
Burge 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.
The allegations against Burge and his men even helped shape the state's debate over the death penalty. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan released four condemned men from death row in 2003 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. This month, legislators voted to abolish capital punishment in Illinois. The bill is awaiting the signature of Gov. Pat Quinn.
Motions filed since Burge's trial offered a glimpse into both sides' positions. 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.
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."
But for the former defendants who say Burge tortured them into confessions, he was no savior.
"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.
The Illinois Coalition Against Torture has also 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.
Burge was fired in 1993 over the alleged mistreatment of Wilson, but he never was 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.