Alleged system of torture faces its days in court

By Patrick Smith

In the coming months, two different court cases, one civil and the other criminal, will bring to trial former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge, and those under his command, for 19 years of alleged abuse of suspected criminals and of the justice system itself.

Burge was fired by the Chicago Police Department in 1993 because of the alleged torture of suspects while he was commander of the police department’s areas 2 and 3. Although the statute of limitations had previously barred him from facing criminal charges, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, Patrick Fitzgerald, brought charges of perjury and obstruction of justice against Burge for his testimony in a 2003 civil lawsuit. Burge is due in court on May 24 to begin that trial.

A civil suit was filed on March 30 by Chicagoan Marvin Reeves. Reeves was wrongfully imprisoned for 21 years after police officers John Byrne, Michael Kill, Tom Ptak, John Smith and Thomas Byron, under Burge’s command, allegedly tortured Reeves’ co-defendant Ronald Kitchen. According to the complaint, the torture forced Kitchen to falsely confess that he and Reeves had started a fire that killed two women and three children on the city’s South Side. Burge and the city of Chicago have faced several other lawsuits stemming from an alleged system of torture, which led to dozens of false convictions and forced then-Gov. George Ryan to suspend the death penalty in 2000.

One of those civil cases, involving four men who were wrongfully convicted, cost the city $19.8 million to settle out of court in December 2007.

Reeves was released from prison in October 2009 after the Illinois Attorney General’s office reviewed his case and found the prosecutor had acted improperly.

Reeves’ case is unique because along with Burge and 12 other police officers, the suit names Assistant State’s Attorneys Mark Lukanich and John Eannace as culpable in the torture. The suit contends Lukanich was in the room during the torture of Kitchen and participated in his abuse, which included beating him with a blackjack and a telephone, something that has not been claimed of any other prosecutor.

The lawsuit goes beyond the already reported torture under Burge’s watch. It also claims Eannace lied in court during Reeves’ original trial in 1988 and in his re-trial in 1997.

Eannace’s alleged malfeasance involved Willie Williams, who was the key witness against Reeves in both trials. Williams is what Reeves’ attorney Arthur Loevy calls “a jailhouse snitch.” While police were searching for the arsonist who started the blaze on the South Side, Williams contacted police officers from inside prison and told them he had information on the fire.

“There’s a phenomenon of jailhouse snitches, which is an unfortunate part of the criminal justice system,” Loevy said. “Snitches have an obvious motivation to lie, and responsible law enforcement officials know that.”

According to the attorney general’s findings, in exchange for a move from jail to a work-release program and financial assistance for his family, Williams told police detectives that Kitchen and Reeves had told him over the phone they started the fire.

In court, however, both Williams and Eannace told jurors that Williams had not received anything in return for his testimony. The attorney general’s office felt that deception was enough to grant Reeves a new trial and to dismiss all charges against him, setting him free after spending more than two decades locked up.

“It’s very disturbing when we realized the state’s attorney stood up in court and said, ‘This snitch got no benefits,’” Loevy said. “It just makes you wonder how many other cases this happened [in].”

Loevy is one of the partners in the law firm Loevy and Loevy, the largest civil rights law firm in Chicago.

Melanie Stratton, a spokeswoman for the city’s law department, said she was aware of the civil complaint, but could not comment on it. None of the defendants named in the suit have replied to Reeves’ complaint.

“They’re going to ask for more time,” Loevy said.

Burge will have his own attorney in the civil trial, which will be funded by the city of Chicago.

His attorney in the perjury trial, William Gamboney of Oak Park, Ill., said he will not be representing Burge in the civil case. According to Gamboney, Burge is in Florida, where he still collects a $30,000-a-year pension from the Chicago Police Department. He is currently undergoing treatment for prostate cancer.

Reeves’ civil suit lists 45 other men, all but one of whom is black, who have testified to being tortured by the police officers listed as defendants in his lawsuit. The claims of torture, most of them supported by independent investigations by Special State’s Attorney Edward Egan, and Office of Professional Standards Officers Francine Standards and Michael Goldston, include allegations of beating, burning, suffocation and electric shocks to the genitalia and anus.

“The totality of defendants’ misconduct in [Reeves’] criminal case was so egregiously abusive that it shocks the conscience,” Reeves’ complaint reads.

Loevy said he expects Chicago’s Corporation Counsel and the other defendants to ask the civil trial be postponed until the criminal charges against Burge are settled. Stratton said she did not know when the city would respond to Reeves’ suit. According to Loevy, his law firm will fight any delay in the case.

The perjury and obstruction of justice trial has already been delayed four times since the charges were filed. In an October 2008 press conference announcing the charges, Fitzgerald said he believed Burge was guilty of overseeing torture, but because of the statute of limitations he could only charge him with perjury for written testimony in a civil case brought by Madison Hobley, a man who alleged he was tortured by Burge

and others.

In his written response to questions in the Hobley case in 2003, Burge wrote, “I have never used any techniques set forth above as a means of improper coercion of suspects while in detention or during interrogation.”