With Jon Burge finally on trial, a new coalition is calling on state and federal lawmakers to criminalize domestic torture.
The trial of infamous former Chicago police commander Jon Burge got underway last week and, not surprisingly, the first wave of witnesses called by the prosecution offered chilling testimony. Anthony “Satan” Holmes, a former gang member, described the vicious abuse doled out by the officers under Burge's command. The Chicago News Cooperative was there:
Holmes testified that during questioning in a homicide case, Burge hit him with the back of his hand and knocked him out of a chair, and was subjected to shocks from a black box that was plugged into the wall by Burge. Holmes also said a plastic bag was put over his face to cut off his supply of air while he was shocked. Other officers were in the room with Burge at the time of the alleged torture, Holmes said. He confessed after the abuse, he said.
It's cathartic for many in Chicago to watch Burge face judicial scrutiny. Yet he is only facing charges of obstruction of justice and perjury. While a 2006 special prosecutor's probe concluded that dozens of suspects had been tortured under Burge's watch, the statute of limitations had expired on those specific charges.
Nonetheless, the newly-formed Illinois Coalition Against Torture is using the occasion to try to prevent future abuses of this sort.
Like the United Nations Convention Against Torture, Illinois state law defines (PDF) torture as "the infliction of extreme physical pain." Likewise, the federal government forbids "cruel and unusual punishments" outside the United States. But neither state nor federal law explicitly criminalizes the act if carried out by domestic law enforcement officials. Instead, officials like those who tortured dozens of suspects under Burge's watch are charged with crimes -- battery, sexual assault, armed violence, etc. -- that feature relatively short statutes of limitation.
The 40-organization coalition wants to see that change. At a press conference today, members asked lawmakers to establish the crime of torture with no statute of limitations. Illinois' own Rep. Danny Davis, who was scheduled to appear but did not attend, is planning to introduce legislation to that effect in Washington. The anti-torture advocates argue that there is an inherent contradiction when a government defines torture but then fails to punish those who carry it out. The absence of a statute is particularly alarming in Illinois where animal torture has been punishable by law for many decades, thanks to the Humane Care for Animals Act.
Here's some footage from their event today:
Activists hoping to capitalize on the Burge publicity are also demanding justice for those Chicago individuals who were victimized by his regime. That includes what civil rights attorney Stan Willis called a "broad package of remedies," such as city-financed reparations as well as funding for therapy and educational programs. And for the 23 African-American victims still in prison who say their confessions were coerced, the coalition calls for new hearings and trials. That these men are still in prison is "unconscionable, immoral, and illegal," according to Mogul, who added that "it's time they are given due process." Ald. Ed Smith (28th Ward) has previously criticized Attorney General Lisa Madigan repeatedly for shifting some Burge-related cases to other offices and working too slowly through those under her jurisdiction. Today, he went a step further, calling for immediate exoneration.
Gov. Pat Quinn deserves some criticism on this front, as well. Last August, he signed a bill creating the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, an eight-member, independent body tasked with conducting inquiries into claims of torture and then forwarding those recommendations onto the Circuit Court of Cook County’s chief judge. Some hoped the legislation would give new hope to the alleged victims who have already exhausted their options in the court system. But Quinn hasn't yet appointed any members to the commission, even though it requires no direct funding and Section 65 of the law stipulates that "the initial members of the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission shall be appointed not later than 3 months after the effective date of this Act."
Darrell Cannon, who gave an erroneous confession to Burge after cops applied an electric cattle prod to his testicles, said voices from across the city need to stand up for those still behind bars. "The problem is injustice, period," he said. "Injustice has no color."