Our Fragile Legacies, Pt 1

How far is too far?

At what point does the pursuit of justice itself pervert justice?

Is any crime so heinous to justify casting aside the rules of criminal procedure designed to protect the rights of the accused and ensure the Constitutional integrity of an investigation?

Keep these questions in mind as you read this article. The events and people described are real and, despite the fact the horrific murder of two police officers that lit the fuse occurred 28 years ago, remain very current. So, keep the above questions in mind but realize they are not the main point of this article, or the series it is a part of, but serve only as rhetorical touchstones.

This is a series about our LEGACY as law enforcers; about its enduring impact on the individuals and communities we come into contact with everyday; and about realizing legacy is fragile and needs to be safeguarded from the lapses and miscues, large or small, which can define it in ways you never envisioned and never wanted.

Surely the old commander had no idea it would end this way when he was sworn in 40 years before. Had anyone else the prescience to know his legacy come 2010, surely someone would have intervened. In March 1970, no one could possibly know the young police officer, fresh from a distinguished and decorated tour as an Army MP in Vietnam - where he earned a Purple Heart, a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, a Bronze Star, and commendation medals for valor - would see his police career end in infamy.

If he was a good soldier, he was potentially an even better cop. He made detective in just over two years, and sergeant in five more. By 1981 he had been elevated, briefly, to a field lieutenant slot in Chicago's 12th District before assuming command of the Area 2 Violent Crimes Unit. Although Jon Burge would eventually serve stints as commander of the CPD Bomb & Arson Unit and Area 3 Detectives before being relieved of duty - and ultimately fired - the genesis of his notoriety were in those five years in Area 2.

In February 1982, two Chicago police officers - gang crimes officers Richard O'Brien and William Fahey, who had curbed a vehicle occupied by a pair of burglary suspects - were shot and killed when Fahey was disarmed by one of the suspects, a recent parolee named Andrew Wilson. They were the fourth and fifth law enforcement officers shot on Chicago's South Side in little over one month into a very violent New Year. The killings occurred in Area 2 and responsibility for their investigation fell upon Burge and his detectives; a task they, along with an influx of detectives assisting from other sections of Area 2 (and other Areas) Investigations, embraced with passion.

While the zeal to find and capture the shooter and his accomplice was justifiable, some of the methods allegedly used sparked outrage among the community, Operation Push, some local media, and even other officers. Allegations of detectives holding guns to the heads of minor children while demanding information, shooting pets, arresting and detaining people for hours without cause in order to question them, and generally laying siege to the area were reported. One detective who worked the case recalled, years later and anonymously, in a Chicago Reader interview, "It was a reign of terror. I don't know what kristallnacht was like, but this was probably close."

Early in the morning of Valentine’s Day, five days after the shooting, Burge led an arrest team in the apprehension of Andrew Wilson. His younger brother, Jackie Wilson, was arrested a few hours later. Information on the Wilson brothers' involvement and where they could be found originated with tips from the community that tied the Wilson brothers to the crime and let police know their whereabouts. By the end of the day the crime had been solved, the cop killer and his accomplice were in custody, and Andrew Wilson had provided the confession that confirmed what investigators already knew from the evidence and tips. Andrew Wilson had gunned down O'Brien and Fahey in cold blood.

If Wilson's arrest, interrogation, and confession were the beginning of the end for one of the CPD's darkest and saddest times that began with the murders of the two gang crimes officers, they also touched off a much longer era of accusation and suspicion, and in some cases, confirmation, of official misconduct and torture carried out in the name of justice. The consequences of the tumbling dominoes tipped that one February day in 1982 would prove vast for the city and its police force, the state of criminal justice in Illinois, and for Jon Burge.

Andrew Wilson had emerged from interrogation in far different health than he went in. So differently, in fact, he wound up in an emergency room where more than a dozen fresh injuries, including burns to his thigh and chest, burns and puncture wounds on his ears and nose, allegedly caused by alligator clips attached to them and used to deliver electric shocks, and numerous injuries consistent with having been severely beaten were documented. Wilson told his public defender the next day, and repeated the story many times after as he sought to expose his claims of torture, of electric shocks to his face and genitals and receiving repeated punches and kicks to his head and body from a number of detectives throughout the day, of near-suffocation from a plastic bag placed over his head, and of being tied to a searing hot radiator causing the severe burns to his chest.

Wilson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in 1986 and, represented by attorneys from the People's Law Office, took the case to trial in 1989 (there were three separate civil trials held, with the first ending in a mistrial and the second that, curiously, found Wilson's rights had been violated but that he had not been exposed to excessive force in his interrogation. After appealing the verdict of the second, he won the third trial in 1996). Although Wilson had been convicted of the murders and sentenced to death, the Illinois Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1987 based upon the evidence of abuse and coerced confession. He was convicted in his second criminal trial, even with the confession suppressed, and given a life sentence. It was during the first civil trial in 1989 that the snowball really began to roll. His attorneys began receiving anonymous letters from someone within the Chicago Police Department identifying "Burge's asskickers" and indicating there were additional torture victims.

One tip, apparently from within the CPD ranks, led to an inmate named Melvin Jones who, in turn, provided the information that would eventually direct investigators to over 100 possible recipients of torturous interrogation techniques by, or under the command of, Jon Burge. Allegations and evidence of systemic and carefully planned torture surfaced. The use of electrical shocks, beatings, mock executions, cigarette burns, and near suffocation with plastic bags was detailed. In 1990 the CPD Office of Professional Standards opened an investigation into Burge, two investigators under him, and the allegations of abuse at Area 2. The Chicago Police Board subsequently initiated hearings aimed at dismissing Burge and the two investigators based upon the abuse of Wilson, and in early 1992 concluded its investigation. In February 1993 he was found guilty of physically abusing Wilson eleven years earlier and fired. The other two detectives were given long suspensions but eventually reinstated.

Burge's firing was far from the end of his troubles. During the police board hearings a long-suppressed internal document surfaced that acknowledged a long history of physical abuse of suspects at Area 2 headquarters, and that it was no secret to the brass and others. Several suspects previously interrogated under Burge testified against him and, amidst the revelations of torture, new lawsuits were being filed against him, the police department, and the City of Chicago. It was testimony given by Burge during one of these lawsuits that would lead to his ultimate fate; one no cop ever expects to face.

Burge had never been charged criminally as a result of the allegations of torture and, in 2008, the statute of limitations for torturing criminal suspects was long expired, but keeping a secret - protecting a lie - is very hard to do. Written testimony, provided by Burge under oath during a 2003 federal civil lawsuit filed by Madison Hobley, was determined by United States Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to have been false and provided with the intent to impede court proceedings. Fitzgerald determined to pursue Burge and indicted him on two counts obstruction of justice and one of perjury.

On June 28, 2010, almost 38 years after the case that set his downfall in motion began; the old commander was convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury in federal court. He faces up to 45 years; a long time to ponder a soiled personal legacy.