Burge's legal woes over torture may not end even if acquitted

By: Matthew Walberg
Chicago Tribune
Sunday, June 27, 2010

Even if former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge is acquitted of perjury and obstruction of justice charges, his legal woes stemming from his alleged torture of suspects may not be over, and the detectives accused of participating in the abuse may find themselves in jeopardy as well.

The jury deciding Burge's fate is scheduled to resume deliberations Monday after conferring for its first full day on Friday. Burge is charged with lying in a civil lawsuit when he denied using torture against criminal suspects in the 1970s and 1980s.

Burge still faces a federal civil rights lawsuit against him by Darrell Cannon, who accused detectives under Burge's command of staging a mock execution and shocking him in the genitals with a cattle prod during a 1983 interrogation until he falsely confessed to murder.

In addition, several other alleged victims who were recently exonerated of crimes — including Ronald Kitchen and Michael Tillman — have signaled their intention to sue Burge and other detectives for the decades they spent in prison. Both were granted certificates of innocence within the past year — a document similar to a pardon — after the Illinois attorney general's office declined to retry them because their confessions had been coerced.

If Burge is asked to provide answers in connection with any future civil suits, he may find himself caught between two perilous choices. On the one hand, he could continue to deny that he ever committed or knew about acts of torture, but that could open him to new charges of obstruction of justice and perjury.

Or he could assert his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. While that may protect him from criminal charges, it could expose him to monetary damages. Unlike in criminal proceedings, the use of the 5th Amendment can be held against a defendant in a civil trial, and if Burge were found liable, he could be forced to pay substantial punitive damages.

And there is an ongoing federal investigation of a handful of former Area Two detectives who allegedly were part of Burge's so-called Midnight Crew. Following the indictment of Burge, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald warned that "(if) their lifeline is to hang on a perceived code of silence, they may be hanging on air."

Attorney Flint Taylor, who has represented a number of Burge's alleged victims in civil lawsuits, said former Sgt. John Byrne and detective Peter Dignan gave similar blanket denials of torture claims in nearly two dozen separate cases when both gave sworn statements in one lawsuit.

"I took their depositions — sometimes for as long as three days — under oath after I gave them specific warnings that the federal government might be investigating," Taylor said. "And they kind of laughed at it. They went on for days, denying every case of torture that was alleged against them."

Taylor believes that if Burge is found guilty, Fitzgerald will almost certainly proceed against his former detectives.

"I think that what (an acquittal) would mean for the future of the investigation would depend on the level of heart and the degree of commitment that the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney's office have in connection with this matter," said attorney Locke Bowman, who has also represented a number of Burge's alleged victims.

mwalberg@tribune.com