CHICAGO – A former Chicago police official accused for decades of beating, shocking and otherwise abusing scores of black suspects was arrested Tuesday and charged with lying under oath when he denied that he participated in such torture.
Jon Burge, 60, was charged in a federal indictment with lying on written answers to a civil rights lawsuit when he said he and detectives under his command had never engaged in such activities as "bagging" — covering a suspect's head with a plastic typewriter cover until he couldn't breathe.
"He has shamed his uniform and shamed his badge," U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said in announcing the three-count indictment returned Tuesday in a case that has put a cloud over the police department for years.
Burge, fired by the police department in 1993, has long been the focus of allegations by civil rights attorneys that he and his detectives used beatings, electric shocks and death threats against homicide suspects to obtain confessions. The allegations contributed to then-Gov. George Ryan's dramatic decision in early 2003 to empty the state's death row.
A report by two special prosecutors appointed by the Cook County Circuit Court concluded two years ago that Chicago police tortured black suspects. But they said the actions were too old to warrant indictments.
Fitzgerald acknowledged that the statute of limitations had long since made it impossible to bring charges of actual torture, but said there was still time for charges that Burge lied about the alleged torture in a civil rights lawsuit. He said it was better to enforce the law against lying under oath than to do nothing.
"If Al Capone went down for taxes, it's better than him going down for nothing," Fitzgerald told a news conference. Capone ran the mob and much else in Chicago in the Prohibition Era but the most prosecutors could prove in court was that he cheated on his taxes.
Fitzgerald was clear that the torture investigation is ongoing and charges against other former officers could be forthcoming. He scoffed at any notion that those who may have participated in torture could benefit from police officers' unwillingness to testify against other officers.
"If their lifeline is to hang onto a perceived wall of silence they may be hanging on air," Fitzgerald said.
Burge was arrested before dawn at his home in Apollo Beach, Fla., after federal prosecutors in Chicago obtained a sealed indictment charging him with perjury and obstruction of justice for the statements he made in 2003 in response to the civil rights lawsuit filed by Madison Hobley.
Burge attorney James Sotos declined to comment when reached by The Associated Press.
According to the indictment, Burge was asked whether he knew anything about or had been involved in the torture of homicide suspect Hobley and others and said: "I have not observed nor do I have knowledge of any other examples of physical abuse and/or torture on the part of Chicago police officers at Area 2."
He repeatedly answered similar questions with flat denials.
The indictment against Burge, however, does not say Hobley was tortured, but that Burge lied with respect to participating in or knowing of any torture under his watch.
Hobley claims he was tortured in an effort to extract a confession to murder and arson in a January 1987 apartment house fire that killed his wife, infant son and five others. Hobley says he never did confess and that a confession introduced at his trial was fabricated by homicide detectives.
Hobley was one of four Death Row inmates pardoned by then-Gov. Ryan in January 2003 on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence they were guilty.
All had been convicted on evidence gathered by Burge and detectives under him and the city of Chicago earlier this year approved a $20 million settlement of lawsuits brought by the men.
The mother of one of the other men, Aaron Patterson, said Tuesday she may see some measure of justice for Burge.
"He can feel what it's like to be arrested and handcuffed and put in jail and have a mug shot taken," said Jo Ann Patterson, whose son is now serving a 30-year sentence after being convicted on weapons and drug charges. "He was laughing but I don't think he's laughing any more."
As he pardoned Hobley, Patterson and two others, Ryan commuted the sentence of every inmate on Death Row, citing a number of other cases of wrongful murder convictions. Ryan said there was too much uncertainty about the convictions and declared a moratorium on the death penalty that remains in place.
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley was Cook County state's attorney when many of the Burge-related cases were under investigation and in court. City Law Department spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyle said Tuesday that Daley had given a sworn statement to the special prosecutors before they issued their report in 2006. Daley hasn't been charged with any wrongdoing.
"I was very proud of my role as prosecutor, I was not the mayor, I was not the police chief, I did not promote this man in the 80s, so let's put everything into perspective," Daley said Tuesday.
An attorney who represents two men allegedly tortured by Burge's detectives called the arrest of "enormous symbolic importance" in Chicago, where the police department has long been dogged by allegations of misconduct.
"This has been a symbol of a pattern of racism and of police as an occupier in certain neighborhoods, and the federal government stepping in here just has enormous importance even if it only this one case," said Locke Bowman, of the MacArthur Justice Center at the Northwestern University School of Law.
The two obstruction counts against Burge each carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. The perjury count carries up to five years. Each count also provides for a $250,000 fine.
Burge was scheduled for a Tuesday afternoon court appearance in Tampa, Fla. and tentatively scheduled to be arraigned in Chicago Nov. 27.