The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
Who are our judges? Supposedly impartial, neutral third parties, making unbiased decisions about matters both grave and frivolous. We imagine them to be even-keeled individuals, perhaps with some personal quirks, who keep their biases out of the cases they rule on. But that’s just fantasy. The judges who staff our criminal and civil courts are elected by voters who usually pick them based on nothing more than the sound of their names. Or they’re appointed by their colleagues. And those who ascend to the Cook County bench are lawyers who often have long histories as prosecutors or defense attorneys. Before that they may have been cops.
Jon Burge is somewhere in Florida, enjoying his boat and CPD pension as the city continues to pay out multimillion dollar settlements to his victims. But some of the Cook County prosecutors who convicted people based on confessions he and his buddies tortured out of them are still around. Some of them are judges now.
In 2006 the Reader‘s John Conroy—who broke the Burge torture scandal in 1990—reported a remarkable story about Judge Nicholas Ford, who ruled on a request for a postconviction hearing from a man he himself put behind bars, a man who claimed that the confession Ford used to prosecute him was coerced out of him with electric shock by one of Burge’s close associates.
Lawyers who defend police-torture victims in Chicago long ago reached a harsh conclusion about Cook County’s criminal judges: most have a vested interest in refusing to acknowledge police brutality. Now these lawyers can point to a case so extreme it’s almost funny: a judge who apparently ruled on his own performance as a prosecutor, deciding there was no taint to a confession that the judge himself had written. Judge Nicholas Ford passed judgment on assistant state’s attorney Nick Ford. Ford had no problem with Ford’s work.
Conroy’s story is remarkable not just because of the nature of this particular situation, but because it traces the way that people who were complicit in CPD torture made their way up into the ranks of the judiciary. He detailed the attempts of a group of torture victims to get their cases permanently removed from the grips of the Cook County judiciary:
According to the petition, three of the 50 judges were former Chicago police detectives and two of those had worked with the notorious former police commander Jon Burge; three other judges had previously defended the city in lawsuits alleging police brutality; and 16 judges were former assistant state’s attorneys directly involved in the torture cases, men and women who’d either testified on Burge’s behalf at police board hearings that led to his firing or who’d taken confessions allegedly coerced by physical means, prosecuted suspects whose statements of guilt were allegedly obtained by torture, or supervised the prosecution of defendants alleging electric shock, suffocation, attacks on the genitals, severe beatings, or other physical abuse at the hands of Burge’s detectives.
Moreover, Conroy questions the integrity of Cook County judges who never suppressed confessions made to police officers who were later found to be coercing defendants. Nor did they, as prosecutors, attempt to hold any cops accountable.
And as no officer ever admitted to any coercion, those detectives presumably committed hundreds of acts of perjury. In how many of those cases did a skeptical judge suppress a confession because he or she felt it had been coerced? Zero. (Judge Earl Strayhorn once suppressed a confession for the “oppressive atmosphere” in which it was given, but he didn’t conclude that physical abuse had taken place.) And not a single judge publicly recommended that any officer be prosecuted for giving false testimony under oath. Nor did the state’s attorney’s office prosecute a single officer for perjury, misconduct, or assault. And it’s from the ranks of those prosecutors that most of today’s criminal court judges have come.
More than a decade after Conroy published this story, Judge Ford, and quite a few others with ties to cops who tortured people into confessions, are still on the bench. And, as you can see in my feature this week, he’s still making questionable calls.