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By Michael Miner
When Killers Are Victims
The city of Chicago has finally thrown in the towel. After arguing for years that cops hadn’t tortured Andrew Wilson back in 1982, then finding it more useful to insist that cops had, the city was all but laughed at this summer by the federal bench. That’s when Chicago decided to finish paying off more than $1 million in fines and fees and put Wilson behind it.
If you can’t recall reading about the city’s legal defeat, the reason is that you probably didn’t. The media have rarely shown much interest in the Wilson story, and its last chapter was no exception. The Tribune didn’t get around to it until two and a half months after it happened.
The abused innocent are far more mediagenic than the abused guilty, and someone like Andrew Wilson, who’s serving a life sentence for the murder of two policemen, turns journalism’s heart to stone. It’s much easier to write about Rolando Cruz. In fact, it was the latest chapter in the Cruz saga that the Tribune was telling last week when Wilson came up. It seems the Du Page County Board had voted 16 to 1 in April against spending public money to defend the sheriff’s officers and prosecutors accused of manipulating evidence to convict Cruz of murder. But the Tribune said recent court rulings called this decision into question.
One of those rulings was issued July 21 by the Seventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. The Tribune reported on October 9 that, according to the appellate court, “former Chicago Police Officer Jon Burge ‘was acting squarely within the scope of his employment’ when he tortured criminal suspects to extract confessions.”
The allusion to police torture in Chicago couldn’t have been more obscure. It appeared as a passing reference near the bottom of an article on another subject written for the paper’s Du Page County edition. Yet according to a computer search of Tribune archives, it was the Tribune’s first mention of the Seventh Circuit ruling.
By comparison–and only by comparison–the Sun-Times covered itself in glory. The Sun-Times published two full sentences on the Burge ruling and did so on July 23. Its Metro Briefs column reported on page 24:
“The U.S. Court of Appeals has denied Chicago’s appeal of $400,000 in legal fees and $50,000 in damages awarded to convicted cop killer Andrew Wilson in his police brutality suit against former police Cmdr. Jon Burge. The city had argued that it was not liable for Burge’s actions because they were outside the scope of employment, but the court disagreed Monday.”
Those fees and damages were about half the total that federal judge Robert Gettleman had ordered the city to pay in the Wilson case in 1996–a million-dollar penalty the dailies missed at the time and the Tribune has never reported at all. (The other half million dollars were owed by the city on behalf of police officers who knew Wilson was being tortured and failed to step in. The city didn’t quarrel with this judgment and had already paid the money.)
Serious coverage of the Seventh Circuit ruling could be found only in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. It’s account did justice to the disdain expressed by a three-judge panel for the city’s position–which had been that Burge exceeded his job description when he tortured Wilson and therefore was not acting in his role of public servant.
The argument “borders on the frivolous,” wrote Judge Richard Posner. “Burge…was not pursuing a frolic of his own. He was enforcing the criminal law of Illinois overzealously by extracting confessions from criminal suspects by improper means. He was, as it were, too loyal an employee. He was acting squarely within the scope of his employment.”
The Wilson story originated on February 9, 1982, when officers Richard O’Brien and William Fahey were shot to death seconds after pulling over a brown Chevrolet. A few days later Andrew Wilson and his brother Jackie were arrested for the murders.
For years to come Andrew Wilson would seek justice for the treatment he received during his interrogation at Area Two headquarters. Wilson said that at the hands of Lieutenant Burge and his detectives he was beaten, burned, suffocated, and given electric shock through clips attached to his genitals, ears, nose, and fingers. But justice for a cop killer–Wilson’s guilt was never in much doubt–isn’t the easiest crusade to join, and most of the media didn’t. The Wilson affair attracted the media’s restless curiosity only for brief periods in 1992 and ’93: when the police department was forced to release a report by Investigator Michael Goldston of the Office of Professional Standards containing the names of 50 people allegedly abused at Area Two in ways that were “not limited to the usual beating, but went into such esoteric areas as psychological techniques and planned torture”; when the Police Board began hearings into Andrew Wilson’s charges; and when the board found Wilson had been abused and threw Burge off the force.
The city of Chicago paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees to defend Burge and his detectives in civil court. One trial ended with a hung jury, the second with the peculiar verdict that Wilson’s constitutional rights had been violated but that the officers he’d accused hadn’t done the violating. The Seventh Circuit overthrew that verdict on appeal, and the case wound up on Judge Gettleman’s docket. But before a third trial could begin, the Police Board hearings took place, and Gettleman decided to adopt the board’s finding.
For much of Burge’s legal ordeal, the city maintained a consistent position. First of all, Burge hadn’t done it, and at all times he’d been acting within the scope of his employment. But by March 1994 two things had happened: Burge had been fired by the Police Board, and Chicago had been dropped as a codefendant in civil court. So the city reversed itself. Now it claimed Burge had done it, and when doing it he was “no longer serving the City’s business.” He deserved nothing from the city.
In its sudden loathing of rogue cops, Chicago leapfrogged the Police Board. While the board couldn’t bring itself to find Burge responsible for anything worse than “physical abuse,” the city embraced the T word. Its lawyers argued, “Torture of arrestees cannot, as a matter of sound public policy and logic, be found to fall within the scope of Chicago police officers…. A holding that outrageous conduct, such as that engaged in by defendant officers, is within the scope of employment would undermine the City’s efforts to prevent the abuse of police power and authority. The City seeks to underscore its opposition to the abuse of police power by placing the financial costs of such abuses directly on the officers.”
In other words, Chicago would fight police torture by refusing to compensate torture victims. The city wasn’t vowing to investigate torture in Area Two and bring charges against every officer involved in it. The city didn’t lift a finger in that direction. Its indignation ran no further than a plan to make torturers pay for their sins out of their own pockets. After all, why should “innocent taxpayers” pick up the tab for “outrageous conduct” that disgusts us all?
If accepted by the courts, this cynical argument would have all but guaranteed that no attorney would take on a client like Wilson ever again. Any such case would likely last years, cost the attorney tens of thousands of dollars, and when he’d won–as John Conroy observed in one of his Reader articles on the Wilson case–“he would only be able to tap the pockets of the accused cop, and those pockets would in all likelihood be fairly shallow.” But Judge Gettleman rejected the city’s argument when he concluded Wilson’s civil suit in 1996, and now the appellate court has deemed the argument ludicrous.
In 1991 a 13-year-old boy named Marcus Wiggins was interrogated by cops working a fatal shooting and charged with murder. Two years later, after the charges were dropped, Wiggins filed a suit in federal court against seven detectives and Burge, who’d commanded them. He alleged the cops had beaten him and subjected him to electroshock. The city settled that case a year ago by paying Wiggins $95,000. Last May the judge in the case unsealed police files that had been obtained by the People’s Law Office–Wiggins’s attorneys as well as Wilson’s–during discovery. I asked the PLO’s Flint Taylor what the files showed.
“Six years after the Goldston report was made public…what do we have?” Taylor replied. “Over 65 cases I’ve documented of alleged torture in Area Two and later Area Three [after Burge was transferred there], and 15 or 16 of them being reinvestigated [by the Office of Professional Standards]. And out of those we have one where anything happened–and that’s the Andrew Wilson case. We have a group of 10 or 20 detectives and supervisors implicated in multiple cases, sometimes in 15 or 20 of them, and identified in the Goldston report as repeat torturers. And nothing’s happened to any of them. And all of that was kept secret!
“You have people on death row here based on confessions that were tortured out of them. Sometimes it’s the only evidence against them!”
Reporters aren’t lining up to tell these stories. Even so, in recent days police brutality has made another of its occasional appearances in the news. A prisoner in a west-side lockup alleged that a civilian guard struck him with a baseball bat two weeks ago. A west-side youth, Jeremiah Mearday, alleged that he was beaten last month by police. Eric Holder, a black officer, complained that he’d been manhandled last July by 11 white officers who knew he was a cop. The FBI announced that it would look into Mearday’s story. Mayor Daley announced that a task force already looking into police corruption would examine ways of preventing police brutality too.
But the Jon Burge precedent–not mere brutality but torture, torture admitted to by the city, paid for by innocent taxpayers, condemned by Amnesty International–went unremarked as context. Police torture remains the civic disgrace the papers are too civil to mention. “Torture” is so charged a word even journalists can’t utter it easily, and when it originates with an odious figure like Andrew Wilson it becomes unutterable. Cognitive dissonance silences us.
“Brutality by Chicago police is back in the news,” wrote Tom McNamee in an nicely skeptical essay carried last Sunday in the Sun-Times. Here’s how it began:
“A madman is shooting people on the street, right outside a police station. He guns down a terrified man and a fleeing woman. He shoots one cop, then a second.
“Finally, a police officer takes him down–one bullet to the chest–and a half-dozen more furious cops drag him into a back room of the station. One cop gives the killer a hard slap in the face. Then all the cops walk out, leaving the killer bloodied and unattended until the paramedics come.
“OK, so call it police brutality. But how much do you mind?”
That’s the right question, but why did McNamee choose fiction to illustrate it? He found his case study in the opening episode of the new TV show Brooklyn South. He could have found an almost identical case study in his own paper’s files. Except that Andrew Wilson received much worse than a hard slap in the face.
Three weeks ago I wrote about Savage Love’s Dan Savage and the “excellence in journalism” award the sex-advice columnist won from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association for an essay contemplating the end of the “AIDS crisis” and about how NLGJA got ripped for the award by members and activists who believed Savage’s ideas were not only stupid but dangerous. This week’s Savage Love, in Section Four, is Savage’s response to a letter calling him an “idiot.” It’s an amplification of his original essay that’s much more thoughtful and impressive than the combative defense of it he offered me.