CHICAGO – CHICAGO (AP) — They're murderers, burglars, gang members and heroin addicts. They've spent more of their lives inside prison than out. Some couldn't go more than a few months without being arrested again.
They are, in other words, not the most sympathetic figures.
But they are the witnesses who federal prosecutors must rely on to try to bring down a decorated Chicago police officer accused of lying about the torture of suspects.
Prosecutors have alleged that former police Lt. Jon Burge and other white officers under his command shocked, beat and suffocated black suspects in the 1970s and 1980s in order to elicit murder confessions.
Those suspects were no angels, and some years, Chicago police were working to solve nearly twice as many homicides as the city has now. Police in many neighborhoods were fighting an uphill battle against ever-growing numbers of guns, drugs and gangs. The challenge for prosecutors is to convince jurors that no matter what crimes the men may have committed, Burge and other officers knowingly crossed the line between aggressive police work and illegal torture.
"If jurors see the victims not as victims but as criminals ... they're more likely to turn a blind eye to their abuse," said University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, who has studied and written about police abuse. "It's a real challenge for prosecutors trying to help jurors see the humanity of ... and identify with the torture victims."
Burge is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly lying in a civil suit when he said he'd never seen or participated in the abuse of suspects.
So far, prosecutors have presented testimony from four men — Anthony Holmes, Melvin Jones, Andrew Wilson and Gregory Banks — who claim Burge or his men put plastic bags over their heads until they passed out, stuck guns in their mouths or shocked them with electric currents generated by an ominous-looking black box.
Holmes, Jones and Banks were admitted gang members, and Wilson was convicted of killing two Chicago police officers. Burge's defense attorneys have sought to use the men's criminal backgrounds against them, telling jurors at opening statements, "You're not going to like these people," saying they'd been wreaking havoc on the streets for years.
Attorney Flint Taylor, who has represented Wilson and several other alleged Burge victims, predicted before the trial that defense attorneys would attack the men's credibility to play up the notion that "these are just black suspects, so it was OK to torture them."
"We can't underestimate, at bottom, the racism involved in all of this," Taylor said. "The fact that it's about black victims and it's such blatantly racist conduct, I think, is a major aspect of why it hasn't gotten the attention it deserves."
Many men have alleged that Burge and his men used racial slurs as they abused them. Banks, a convicted burglar and former heroin addict, said one detective used the N-word when he told him officers had "something special" for black men just before he pulled a plastic bag over his head.
Ultimately, prosecutors must remind jurors that the men's guilt or innocence is irrelevant and that torture is the central issue, Futterman said.
The message must be "we don't torture, that's just not who we are in the United States of America," Futterman said. "That's unforgivable, and it doesn't matter to whom."