Chicago Sun-Times

Torture: Media Gets Some of the Blame

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October 25, 2008


On Monday morning, Jon Burge will walk the long lobby of the federal courthouse in Chicago to the elevators that will take him to his arraignment.

A media horde will greet him.

Reporters, producers and a crush of cameras will lock on Burge as makes his way past marshals and metal detectors.

The white-haired former Chicago police commander whose name became synonymous with the torture of African-American suspects does not walk briskly anymore. At 60, he has knee problems. After his indictment on federal perjury and obstruction charges last week, Burge winced as he came down the steps of the Tampa courthouse.

"I'm old. I'm hurting," he told Sun-Times reporter Natasha Korecki, who broke the story of his indictment. "Please leave me alone."

To our discredit, too many of us left Burge alone for years. And, though the feds are finally prosecuting him, they don't get a complete pass either.

This business of accountability can make us testy.

Mayor Daley, for instance, late last week was sick of questions about whether he, as the Cook County state's attorney, along with his first assistant, Dick Devine, the current state's attorney, should have investigated Burge 26 years ago. In 1982, police killer Andrew Wilson's face looked normal going into an interrogation room, but resembled ground beef hours later. In 1982, then-Police Supt. Richard Brzeczek said he wrote a letter bringing that to the attention of Daley and Devine.

If that was a tragically missed opportunity to stop the torture of black men on the city's South and West sides, there were many other opportunities that we in media and those in power took a pass on.

A few years after the Wilson revelations, the then-head of the Office of Professional Standards, the watchdog over police misconduct, raised serious questions about the electro-shocking of suspects.

When told, the Chicago Police Department did nothing.

In 1990, OPS investigator Michael Goldston catalogued 50 cases of alleged police torture. The department suppressed his report and made Goldston's life a living hell. Thanks to a court order, the report was finally made public in 1992.

It was front-page news for a minute. But nobody, including the mainstream press, law enforcement, state or federal prosecutors or the judiciary did much of anything to demand answers. There were exceptions, of course. John Conroy of the Reader relentlessly reported on police torture. And civil rights attorneys suh as Flint Taylor of the People's Law Office fought constantly to get someone to listen.

That includes the U.S. attorney's office. Taylor had meetings in 1989 with federal prosecutors in Chicago and with then-Attorney General Janet Reno back in the '90s. A delegation that included U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and Judge R. Eugene Pincham went to Washington to talk to her.

"We told her about torture," Taylor said last week. "She was very attentive but noncommittal." She was hardly alone, he said. "Everybody since Reagan passed on it."

Though the county's head of the criminal courts, Judge Paul Biebel, did a courageous thing in 2002 by appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Burge and his band of brothers, the result was a four-year, $7 million exercise in maintaining the status quo.

How ironic that former Gov. George Ryan, who sits in federal prison today, brought international attention to the tortured confessions of men on Death Row when so few others in powerful places had the will to act.

What accounts for our collective failure?

"My instinct is that racism, pro-police bias and bias in terms of poor black suspects, made it something that the press and prosecutors didn't want to deal with," Taylor said.

Finally, there will be a prosecution of what's left of this case given the statute of limitations. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald will lead it.

And we in the mainstream media will follow it.

It's the least we can do.

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This page contains a single entry by Carol Marin published on October 25, 2008 3:23 PM.

Outrage Lies at Heart of Burge Charges was the previous entry in this blog.

Torture cases ignored too long :: CHICAGO SUN-TIMES :: Carol Marin is the next entry in this blog.

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