John Conroy
John Conroy Credit: Sarah Lawhead

John Conroy “did more than anyone else in all of journalism to expose police torture in Chicago,” Don Terry wrote last year in the Columbia Journalism Review. “Conroy and the Reader kept the story alive for years until reinforcements arrived.”

That coverage began with Conroy’s “House of Screams,” which ran on the Reader‘s cover in January 1990—the story of torture within the brick walls of Area 2 headquarters, then at 91st and Cottage Grove.

A year earlier, a friend of Conroy’s, a writer for the monthly Chicago Lawyer, had told him of a murder convict who was suing the city of Chicago, its police department, and four detectives, alleging that detectives had used electroshock to extract a confession from him in 1982. The principal defendant among the police officers was a lieutenant named Jon Burge, who’d been the commanding officer of violent crimes at Area 2. The plaintiff, Andrew Wilson, had confessed to killing two cops, slayings he had, in fact, committed. His suit alleged that his treatment at Area 2 wasn’t unique—that police customarily abused persons suspected of killing police officers, with supervisors either participating or looking the other way.

Conroy was in the courtroom when the trial of the lawsuit began, on February 13, 1989, in the Dirksen Federal Building—but he had doubts that there was a story in it for him. The claims made in the lawsuit sounded too bizarre. “But Wilson was the first witness—after opening statements, boom, there he was,” Conroy recalls. Wilson said detectives had clamped wires to his ears—wires connected to a black box a detective began cranking. “It hurts, but it stays in your head, OK?” Wilson told the jury. “It stays in your head and it grinds your teeth. . . . It grinds, constantly grinds.”

Conroy stayed for the whole trial. He was there every day, all six weeks, while other reporters came and went. The jury was deadlocked, and a mistrial was declared. Reporters virtually ignored the retrial—except for Conroy, who sat through most of those eight weeks as well. Burge and his comrades were cleared of all charges. “The country wins,” one of the defendant detectives said after the verdict.

To the other reporters, the story was over—the cops had been cleared. It wasn’t over to Conroy. The verdict had been odd: the jury had also found that the city indeed had a de facto policy allowing police to abuse suspected cop killers. And Conroy himself had concluded that Andrew Wilson and many other suspects at Area 2—not just suspects in cop killings—had really been tortured.

“House of Screams” weighed in at 19,915 words—quite long, even by Reader standards of that era. You’ll have to do a little scrolling to read the whole thing on your phone.

Conroy scrupulously recounted the evidence of torture—including evidence that the jury never heard because of dubious rulings by the trial judge, who was poorly regarded in the Dirksen building. “House of Screams” was damning, and also artfully constructed and vividly told. Readers found themselves in the gallery with Conroy. William Kunkle, the lawyer defending the four accused policemen, was “quite theatrical” in his cross-examination, Conroy wrote. “When he tore open an envelope, you could hear the rip from one end of the courtroom to the other.” Conroy captured the tone of the trial in a way that only a steadfast and perceptive observer could. “It often seemed there were two cultures in conflict in the courtroom,” he wrote. “One was black, poor, given to violence, and often in trouble with the law. The other was white, respectable, given to violence, and in charge of enforcing the law.”

Conroy is still grateful for the patience his editors showed in allowing him to spend nearly a year on a single article. “The story would not exist without the latitude the Reader gave its writers,” he says. “It couldn’t be written properly unless you were there every day. Maybe the New Yorker allowed its writers to do that, and maybe the Atlantic—but I don’t know anyone else who did.”

“House of Screams” inspired a grand total of four brief letters from readers in the three months after it ran. One said Wilson and his ilk “have had this city by the balls for years,” and the police “were only returning the favor.” Another suggested that if cop killers were being tortured, it was progress—they used to be executed on their way to the station, the writer maintained. Only two readers expressed disgust over the police methods Conroy had described.

Jon Burge at a 1992 rally for his supporters
Jon Burge at a 1992 rally for his supportersCredit: File

Conroy wasn’t disappointed, at first, by the negligible response; he was relieved. There was no threat of a libel suit from the detectives, no letter from the city or police department calling the piece a hatchet job. “I felt like what I had written had withstood the test,” Conroy says.

It did more than that. Prompted by the article, the police department’s Office of Professional Standards opened an investigation two months after the story was published. The investigation concluded that suspects had been systematically abused at Area 2 for years. Burge and two of the other defendant detectives were suspended, and in 1993 the police board fired Burge. The federal appeals court threw out the verdict in the Wilson lawsuit, slamming the trial judge. In 1996, a new federal judge granted Wilson summary judgment, and ordered the city to pay a million dollars in damages. (None of the money went to Wilson; it went to his lawyers and to the family of one of the police officers he’d slain, since the family had won a wrongful death suit against him.)

Conroy had expected the city’s dailies to carry the story forward after the revelations in “House of Screams”—but they didn’t. Even the firing of Burge by the police board prompted mainly cursory coverage—not the systemic analysis Conroy had hoped for. So in January 1996, he wrote again about police torture for the Reader—the first of 22 pieces he’d author on the subject over the next 11 years.

As Don Terry noted in his Columbia Journalism Review article, reinforcements did arrive. The Tribune ran a five-part series on prosecutorial misconduct in 1999. The exonerations of men on death row, some of whom had confessed, led to broader coverage of police abuse in interrogation rooms, to a moratorium on the death penalty, to the clearing of death row by Governor George Ryan, and to a new law requiring the videotaping of interrogations in murder cases. The reinforcements were essential, but Conroy’s unwavering coverage had led the way.

Andrew Wilson died of natural causes in 2007, under prison guard in a downstate hospital. He was 55.

In June 2010, a federal jury convicted Burge, 62, of obstruction of justice and perjury for lying under oath, in a recent lawsuit, about abusing suspects. In January he was sentenced to 54 months, a term he’s now serving in North Carolina.

By the time Burge was finally tried, Conroy was no longer available to the Reader to cover the trial. The paper’s financial straits had led to the layoffs of four veteran writers in December 2007—one of them him. He blogged about the trial for the website of the public radio station Vocalo.

Conroy now works as an investigator for the Better Government Association. A play he’s written about police torture, My Kind of Town, will open in May at TimeLine.

Many have pointed to Conroy’s police torture coverage as an example of the great reforming power of inspired journalism. Conroy doesn’t see it that way. The changes his work helped produce haven’t gone nearly far enough, he says. “We failed to ignite the appropriate public and governmental outrage, and we failed to really achieve any significant reform in the system that enabled the torture.”