Alleged Chicago torturer gets day in court

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Abu Ghraib has nothing over Chicago. Forty years ago, Jon Burge returned from Vietnam, joined the Chicago Police Department and allegedly began torturing people. He rose in the ranks to become a commander in Chicago's South Side, called Area 2. Electric shocks to the genitals, mock executions, suffocation with bags over the head, beatings and painful stress positions are among the torture techniques that Burge and police officers under his command are accused of using to extract confessions in Chicago, mostly from African-American men. More than 110 men are known to have been victims of Burge and his associates. Victims often went to prison, some to death row. Facing mounting evidence and increasing community outcry, Burge was fired from the Chicago Police Department in 1993. He now lives in Florida, collecting his pension.

This week, in a federal criminal trial beginning in Chicago, Burge faces charges, not for torture, but for lying about torture under oath in an earlier civil suit brought by one of his victims (since the statute of limitations on torture, remarkably, has expired). He faces up to 45 years in prison. Burge's co-conspirators remain uncharged. Also untouched in the trial is the role played by the current mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, who as state's attorney for Cook County from 1980 to 1989, and as mayor since then, has consistently fought investigations or prosecutions of the alleged torturers.

Darrell Cannon is one of the men alleging torture against Burge and his associates. He says police tortured him in 1983 and forced him to confess to a murder he didn't commit. He spent more than 20 years in prison, but after a hearing on his tortured confession, prosecutors dismissed his case in 2004. It took him three more years to gain release from prison.

At 6 a.m. on Nov. 2, 1983, Chicago cops under Burge's command arrested Cannon and drove him to an isolated industrial area on the Chicago waterfront. He related his ordeal to me:

"They did a mock hanging, where I'm cuffed behind my back and one of the detectives would get on the bumper of the detective car, the other two detectives would lift me up to him, and he would grab my handcuffs from behind. They would let me go. That will cause my arms to go up backwards, almost wrenching the inside of my shoulders.... Then they switched to a second torture treatment, where they got their shotgun.... One of them said, "Go ahead, blow that ni***r's head off." And that's when [Detective] Peter Dignan forced the shotgun in my mouth.... They did a mock execution three times."

Cannon refused to confess. He went on: "They then put me in the backseat of a detective car.... They pulled my pants and my shorts down ... took an electric cattle prod, turned it on and proceeded to shock me on my testicles."

Cannon finally made a false and coerced statement, implicating himself as an accomplice to murder, to make the torture stop.

His attorney, Flint Taylor, is with the People's Law Office, which has been representing scores of Burge's alleged torture victims. Taylor pointed out the controversial role of Mayor Daley. "Darrell Cannon here, my client, was tortured in 1983. If Daley had moved in 1982 with the evidence he had to remove Burge from the police force and prosecute him for torture, we would not have Darrell Cannon spending 20, 25 years behind bars and not having him tortured by electric shock. So, the real crime here started many years ago with the cover-up, a cover-up that was engineered by the mayor himself."

In January 2003, before leaving office, Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, commuted the death sentences of all 156 people on Illinois' death row, after the innocence of 13 other death row inmates had been proved. Ryan pardoned four on death row who were known to be victims of Burge's torture.

Where did it all begin? One thing is clear: In 1968-69, Burge was an MP at the U.S. Army's Dong Tam camp in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, where captured suspected Viet Cong soldiers were allegedly interrogated with electric, hand-cranked field telephones supplying shocks. Torture techniques similar to this were rampant under Burge's command in Chicago.

Given ongoing reports of torture in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have to wonder how many Jon Burges are being bred in President Barack Obama's two wars.

Amy Goodman is the co-founder, executive producer and host of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on more than 450 public broadcast stations in North America.

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