One of the city's most persistent and troubling scandals reaches federal court today when jury selection begins in the trial of Jon Burge, the former Chicago police detective accused of overseeing the torture of suspects.
For nearly two decades, Burge and his detectives allegedly sent dozens of men to prison on the basis of coerced confessions, deepening bitterness between police and minorities and helping inspire former Gov. George Ryan to reject capital punishment and empty the state's death row.
But Burge, now 62, living on a police pension and reportedly in poor health, will not be tried for any act of torture. While federal prosecutors say they will prove that he and his detectives abused suspects, the statute of limitations expired long ago.
Instead, Burge stands accused of perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly lying in 2003 when he denied under oath he knew of or participated in abuse of suspects.
Burge, however, had avoided any criminal charges until he was arrested at his Florida home in October 2008 on perjury and obstruction charges related to a 2003 lawsuit by Madison Hobley.
Hobley was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for a 1987 arson that killed his wife, son and five other people. Amid allegations that officers under Burge's command tortured Hobley, planted evidence and lied at his trial, Gov. Ryan pardoned him and Hobley filed a federal lawsuit. Burge, in a written response to questions in the case, denied that he knew of or participated in any abuse or torture -- statements that federal prosecutors say were lies and are the basis for the new charges.
In 2006, an investigation by a special Cook County prosecutor concluded that Burge and his officers obtained dozens of confessions through torture, but found that prosecutors had no recourse because of the statute of limitations. A coalition of human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, lambasted the special prosecutor's findings, saying the investigation glossed over the alleged abuse and protected the police and prosecutors who did nothing about it.
Perjury can be difficult to prove, so it will not come as a surprise if the accused is acquitted of these charges.