CHICAGO – After decades of protests, Judge Paul Biebel, chief of the Cook County Criminal Courts, has ordered a full investigation of the use of torture by key members of the Chicago Police Department. Biebel announced his decision on April 29 and appointed Edward Egan and Robert Boyle, both well known former prosecutors, to head the investigation.

The charges date back to the early 1980s and center around former police commander John Burge, whose Area 2 police station became known as “the house of screams” because of the regular practice of officers using torture to extract confessions from African-American prisoners. Scores of men have accused Burge of using beatings, suffocation and electrical shocks to the genitals to get confessions.

At least ten people on Illinois’ death row charge they were convicted by means of such coerced confessions. In at least one case, Aaron Patterson, who refused to sign such a “confession,” was sentenced to death for a murder he says he never committed. Patterson, who enjoys the support of a broad coalition of social justice and civil rights groups, is seeking a new trial.

The Burge situation was exposed by Citizens’ Alert, a police watchdog group set up after Chicago police, egged on by the FBI, murdered Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969. Pressure by Citizens’ Alert and others eventually led to an internal police investigation.

As a result Burge was fired in 1993 but was not otherwise punished. Burge still draws a police pension and no subordinate officer was ever indicted for their role in the abuse and torture of prisoners.

In the years since, Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine has adamantly refused to conduct an investigation because, he claims, the statute of limitations has run out on the original crimes.

Citizens’ Alert and other organizations fighting against police brutality rejected that argument, saying that whether or not the statute of limitations has run out on the original crimes, the conspiracy to hide the truth, itself a crime, continues to this day, and merits investigation. They also argued that the public has a right to know what went on in the Area 2 interrogation room and the extent of the complicity by public officials such as Devine.

In fact, it was Devine’s conflict of interest that led Biebel to appoint the special prosecutors. Not only was Devine involved in the prosecution of Burge’s torture victims, but his law firm, and Devine himself, then out of office, handled part of Burge’s legal defense, with 24 hours of work billed to Devine personally.

In 1998, the Cook County prosecutor’s office closed some cases related to the torture, leading to accusations of a cover-up. More recently, Devine is alleged to have made offers of commutation of sentence to some death-row prisoners if they would drop their accusations of torture.

Retired Judge R. Eugene Pincham and Attorney Standish Willis, as well as Citizens’ Alert, hailed Biebel’s decision, but pointed out that a battle has been won but not the war, and that attention to the problem of racist police brutality is still a matter for the entire city.

Many of the men on death row and others who are serving prison terms on the basis of torture-induced confessions claim that they were innocent and only confessed to put an end to the torment. They have appeals pending, and if a special prosecutor were to rule that their confessions were invalid because they were extracted by torture, some of all of these men’s lives could be saved.

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