investigative journalist and author. He brought the torture story to light eighteen years ago and has covered it since for the Chicago Reader. He was laid off five days ago. He is also the author of "Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture."
The City of Chicago’s landmark decision to pay nearly $20 million dollars to four former death row prisoners tortured by Chicago police has hit a roadblock. The four men — all African American — sued former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and more than twenty officers who worked with him, alleging that they were coerced into falsely confessing to murder in the 1980s. We speak with John Conroy, the investigative reporter who brought the story to the fore eighteen years ago. He was recently laid off from the Chicago Reader. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: The City of Chicago’s landmark decision to pay nearly $20 million to four former death row prisoners tortured by Chicago police has hit a roadblock. The four men are all African American. They sued former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and more than twenty officers who worked with him, alleging that they were coerced into falsely confessing to murder. The City had agreed to a $19.8 million settlement on Friday. But on Wednesday, last-minute legal complications arose in settlements with Stanley Howard and Aaron Patterson, two of the former prisoners involved in the lawsuit. Initial reports suggest this could cause a lengthy delay in all four cases.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2006, special prosecutors released a long-awaited report stating there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Burge and four other former officers abused suspects to extract confessions in the ’80s. Charges have never been filed against Jon Burge, who oversaw the torture.
John Conroy was the investigative reporter who brought the story to the fore eighteen years ago. He has consistently covered it ever since. However, Conroy was among four reporters at the Chicago Reader dismissed last week in a cost-saving measure by the paper’s parent company, Creative Loafing.
John Conroy joins us now from Chicago. Welcome to Democracy Now!, John.
JOHN CONROY: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance first? We’ll talk about the roadblock to the agreement in a minute, but the $20 million, how was it arrived at? Who does it go to? What happened to them?
JOHN CONROY: Well, it went to — it’s supposed to go to four survivors of the torture, all of whom had served time on death row for crimes they hadn’t committed. And the roadblock, I don’t think, is terribly significant in the grand scheme of things. This case has been — these cases were filed in 2003. And I don’t think that a month or two in the grand scheme of things is going to matter a great deal.
However, one complicating factor is that one of the former prisoners, who is now back in prison, Aaron Patterson, had signed a loan agreement based on — there are companies out there who make loans to people, highly speculative loans, high-risk loans, you might say, at verified interest rates, and Patterson took out one of these loans early on. I don’t recall the exact figure, but it might have been $50,000, and it’s now way up in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps nearing a million or more. So the longer there is a delay in settling Patterson, the higher the price tag could go. So that is one thing adding pressure on the Patterson people to settle and on the city to wrap it up.
I think it’s another month, and it will be wrapped up. The things that are blocking it right now weren’t that significant.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, John Conroy, for those of our viewers and listeners who may not be familiar with the specifics of these four cases, could you talk a little bit about how the cases developed and the nature of the torture that they were subjected to?
JOHN CONROY: Yes. These four cases, they’re four men who were pardoned by Governor Ryan in 2003, but they are just the tip of the iceberg, really. There were more than a hundred men who were tortured using electric shock with either a cattle prod, a hand-cranked device much like an Army field phone, or a third device which I believe was a now-extinct medical device called a violet ray machine, which was once a cure-all. Hundreds of thousands of them were manufactured here in Chicago. And in addition to that, some men were suffocated. Some were hung by handcuffs. Mock executions were conducted on others. Some were subjected to severe beatings.
And these four were able to file civil suits now, many years after the torture. The last man who was tortured, of the four, was tortured in 1987, so twenty years ago. And he’s only able to file, because of the pardoning by Governor Ryan. There are many men who served time and are out now who are not able to file, because of the time that has passed, and there are twenty-five men, approximately, who are still inside, whom nobody is paying much attention to, who are there on the basis of suspect confessions.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And there’s been no effort to reopen some of these convictions, based on the nature of the confessions that were obtained under torture?
JOHN CONROY: No. This is remarkable to me, but it’s Chicago, and there is a consistent pattern, same officers appearing in different cases, telling the same story that they didn’t do this thing that they’re accused of, men telling stories about having been tortured with these strange machines, one of which they cannot name, they cannot describe. They can describe it, rather, but they can’t name it, and — which gives the men a credibility, when they’re describing a machine that nobody — few people know it exists. And they’ve described it, but can’t name it.
Anyway, they have — there’s a lot of consistency to the reports, no effort to reopen their investigations — the investigations into their crimes. Now, some of these men are guilty. Many of the men who were tortured were guilty. Nonetheless, this isn’t a country where we have that standard of human rights, where we torture people into confessing to crimes.
AMY GOODMAN: The numbers, John Conroy, some —- more than 135 people saying they had bags placed over their heads, guns forced into their mouths, electric shocks applied to their genitals. What has happened to Jon Burge since then, the police commander in charge?
JOHN CONROY: Well, in 1992, police board hearings began in the single case of Andrew Wilson, who had shot dead two police officers and emerged from the police station with very distinct marks on his ears and nose from alligator clips. And it was really an employment hearing; it was not a criminal hearing. And the police board decided, in a very vaguely worded decision, that Burge should no longer be on the force. At that point, he was fired, and he retired to Florida, where he lives today and collects his pension. Other than that, there has never been any criminal proceeding -—
AMY GOODMAN: Collects his police pension?
JOHN CONROY: Yes. There has never been any criminal proceeding against any of the officers. And now, there is a glimmer of hope among those who had hoped to see something like that. Patrick Fitzgerald has announced that he — our US attorney here in the Northern District of Illinois — has announced that he is investigating the possible obstruction of justice and perjury committed not in the torture cases themselves, but in these civil suits. These officers testified that no torture had taken place, they didn’t know about any torture, they never heard about any torture. And it’s possible that they can be indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice now. But we have to wait and see.
The deadline for Fitzgerald is really November of this coming year. That’s the latest date by which he could possibly indict Jon Burge, because Burge took the Fifth Amendment for everything, except some written answers he gave in November of 2003 in the Madison Hobley civil suit, which is now trying to be settled.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you’ve been covering this story for eighteen years. What was the initial reaction to your stories when you first started writing about this, and especially by the other commercial press in Chicago? And how does it feel, that long on a story, to get these kinds of results so long afterward?
JOHN CONROY: Well, the initial reaction was dead silence, really, on the part of the mainstream media, but the — interestingly, the internal investigative arm of the Police Department, the Office of Professional Standards, used this story to — as a starting point for their reopening of the investigation. And it was that — there were actually two investigators assigned, and each — one was assigned to review the Wilson case, and one was assigned to review the big picture at Area Two. And they concluded, separately, that torture had taken place, one, in the Wilson case and, two, that it was a pattern at Area Two and that the command officers had known about it.
So, many years — well, actually, in 1993 then, and as a result of those reports, there were police board hearings, which resulted in Burge being fired, but strangely, that was treated sort of as a one-day story: Burge was fired over torture. But nobody said, “Well, what about the victims?” And so, the next piece I did in 1996 pointed out that — it was called “Town Without Pity,” and it was really about the lack of public reaction to the fact that there were men on death row who were going to die if something wasn’t done about their cases.
So, fast-forward to today, four of the cases may wrap up with some kind of financial reward for these men, but it’s, you know, a drop in the bucket compared to what could have been paid and should be paid, really, in remuneration for the damage done to these men’s lives, not just those four men, but the more-than-hundred men who were tortured.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, John, you’ve been laid off?
JOHN CONROY: I was laid off last week. Four writers from the Reader were given the boot. We don’t fit into the future plans of the company which purchased the Chicago Reader last summer. The company is based in Florida.
AMY GOODMAN: What will you do now?
JOHN CONROY: I’m not sure.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, John Conroy, investigative journalist and author. He is author of the book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture.