Burge torture taxpayer tab eclipses $210M — and counting

Jon Burge's head made to look like a piggy bank breaking in half with coins and dollar bills falling out.

Illustration by Verónica Martinez

Fifteen years ago, my colleagues at the People’s Law Office and I were engaged in a legal and political battle with the city of Chicago over police torture. Then-corporation counsel Mara Georges was threatening to renege on a settlement agreement that had been reached on behalf of several torture survivors who had been awarded innocence pardons by former Gov. George Ryan.

Seeking to bolster our public case that a settlement was more fiscally responsible than continuing to fight the individual lawsuits in court, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request for attorneys’ fees and costs paid to private counsel to defend Jon Burge, his band of henchmen, and the city in these cases. The total to that point was $10 million. Add to that the $7 million that Cook County taxpayers kicked in to finance a four-year investigation of Burge torture by special prosecutors that was widely condemned as a whitewash, and the tab for police torture in Chicago, as of September 2007, was roughly $17 million.

Fast-forward 15 years, and the city and county are repeating the same approach to police torture cases. The city is currently fighting seven lawsuits filed by torture survivors in federal court. And the county’s special prosecutor continues to fight tooth and nail to maintain convictions that were obtained through alleged torture.

The only thing that has changed is the total cost to taxpayers, which has now ballooned to more than $210 million — and counting.

How have we reached this figure? Through public-records requests and available data, we tallied the total amount paid in defense and special prosecutor fees, settlements, state Court of Claims and Torture Commission expenditures, and pensions to alleged torturers. This figure doesn’t include the unknown amount that the federal government expended in successfully prosecuting Burge and later investigating, but refusing to indict, his two self-anointed “right-hand men.”

A pie chart showing the amount paid for settlements, verdicts and reparations ($108.2 million), pension payments ($38.7 million), Chicago lawyers' fees ($37.5 million), Cook County lawyers' fees ($19.5 million) and state torture commission and court of claims ($7.9 million).

City of Chicago ‘pinstripe patronage’ ($37.5 million)

“Pinstripe patronage,” so dubbed by legendary Chicago attorney R. Eugene Pincham, has long been an important aspect of the city and county’s response to police violence litigation. In the 1970s, they collectively expended more than $2 million in defense of Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan and the Chicago police officials who planned and carried out the fatal raid on the apartment of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. In the 1980s, the Chicago City Council appointed former prosecutor William Kunkle to represent Burge in Andrew Wilson’s federal torture case, and the parade of private lawyers in the Burge cases has continued to this day.

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Demond Weston’s petitions for relief were routinely denied. But that was before the full extent of Chicago police torture under disgraced commander Jon Burge was known, and before the three Burge subordinates who questioned Weston were accused of torturing confessions out of suspects in a series of other cases.

The total pinstripe patronage now stands at $37.5 million. Three enterprising lawyers, Andrew Hale, Terry Burns, and James Sotos, and their associates are by far the leaders in collecting fees to defend the city in police misconduct lawsuits. Collectively, they have taken home $21 million in defense of the Burge torture cases (and, as remarkably, $116 million in total taxpayer-funded fees and costs from 261 police misconduct cases since 2004).

Cook County special prosecutors and ‘pinstripe patronage’ ($19.5 million)

The Cook County Board and Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office have also practiced pinstripe patronage by hiring outside lawyers (often former prosecutors) to represent the county in the Burge cases. In 2002, Circuit Judge Paul Biebel, in charge of the court’s criminal division, appointed two former state’s attorneys, Edward Egan and Robert Boyle, to investigate the mounting allegations of torture and abuse by Burge and his crew. Four years and $7 million later, they finished their investigation with a report that exonerated former State’s Attorneys Richard M. Daley and Richard Devine while invoking the statute of limitations as a rationale for not returning any indictments.

In 2009, another special prosecutor was appointed, this time to resist the claims of torture that were being heard in the Cook County criminal courts, a task that the private law firm headed by Michael O’Rourke took on with a vigor that has rivaled that of their city defense brethren. The county has paid these private lawyers more than $8.5 million since 2009, according to my calculations based on the monthly meetings of the Cook County Finance Committee (curiously, the running total posted by the committee in its monthly agenda is about a million dollars less).

The county also pays private lawyers to represent former prosecutors who are sued for their alleged roles in the conspiracy to torture and cover up. Together with settlements in those cases, the county has paid another $4 million in public monies. Thus, the county has expended at least $19.5 million in opposing claims of torture in the criminal courts and otherwise furthering the cover-up of the Burge torture scandal.

Pensions to Burge and his alleged co-conspirators ($38.7 million)

Despite public outcry, Burge continued to collect his pension after he was fired by the Chicago Police Department, convicted by a federal jury for lying about torture, and served 54 months for perjury in Butner federal penitentiary. Those payments had amounted to more than $900,000 when he died without beneficiaries in September 2018. His two foremost “right-hand men,” John Byrne and Peter Dignan, who have been found to be torturers by Office of Professional Standards investigators and a federal civil jury, have collected an additional $2.65 million. When all the detectives and supervisors who have been found or repeatedly accused of torture and cover-up are included, the number balloons to $43 million.

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Several Area 2 commanders and police superintendents — most notably Phil Cline, LeRoy Martin Sr. and Fred Rice — also played important roles in the torture scandal, and their pensions add another $5.3 million to the mix. All totaled, these pensions amount to $48.37 million, approximately 80% of which has been funded by the city.

City settlements, verdicts, and reparations ($108.2 million)

While spending taxpayer money without compunction to defend police torture, city leaders have shown an opposite attitude when addressing the damage that the Burge torture scandal has visited on its African American victims. After its unsuccessful attempt to renege on the 2006 group settlement, city lawyers during the Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel administrations employed a similar strategy in almost all the successive cases that were brought by exonerated torture survivors — fight the case tooth and nail, racking up million of dollars in fees, and then reluctantly settle the case as the trial date neared. After Emanuel, under intense pressure, agreed to a historic reparations package that included financial compensation to 57 torture survivors who had no legal recourse and made a full-throated admission of culpability, one would have thought that the days of the city insisting in court that there was no systemic torture had finally come to an end.

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Unfortunately, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, in stark contrast to her repeated public condemnations of the pattern and practice of torture under Burge, has doubled down on the city’s defense of police torture. In 2020, for the first time since 1989, the city took a police torture case to trial, defending notorious Burge henchmen Byrne and Dignan in the Stanley Wrice case. The jury handed the city a resounding defeat — a $5.2 million verdict. After blustering that it would appeal, the city quietly settled last year for just over $6 million.

Since 2005, the city has now settled 19 cases for a total $101.25 million. When the $5.5 million in reparations and the $1.4 million obtained in the 1990s are added, the total awarded adds up to $108.15 million, with at least seven cases still pending.

State torture commission and court of claims ($7.9 million)

In 2009, the state of Illinois passed the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission Act, thanks to the organizing of Black People Against Police Torture and state legislators Kwame Raoul and Art Turner. The TIRC Act provided for administrative review of Burge-era police torture cases and empowered the commission to send meritorious claims of torture back to the Cook County criminal courts for new hearings. The commission, whose scope has subsequently been expanded, has sent numerous cases back to the courts, and many survivors have been afforded new trials. To date, the TIRC has cost state taxpayers $4.5 million.

The state Court of Claims is tasked by law to award a legislatively determined amount to those Illinois prisoners who were wrongfully convicted and were subsequently determined to be innocent. To date, 16 Burge torture survivors who have received a judicially awarded certificate of innocence or an executive innocence pardon have received a combined $3.4 million from the Court of Claims for a total of 378.5 years of wrongful incarceration. This figure does not include the million of dollars expended to house these innocent men.

Seven pending police torture cases

The total expenditures are staggering. And the end is not in sight.

Seven Burge-era torture survivors are currently seeking damages in federal court — all but one of them have been declared innocent after decades in prison. To date, Lightfoot, the State’s Attorney’s Office and the Cook County Board have lawyered up, committing untold additional millions to continue defending the indefensible.

Three of the cases merit special mention. Robert Smith, James Gibson, and Jackie Wilson spent a collective 98 years behind bars and have been found to be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Not only have they sued their alleged torturers and the prosecutors who allegedly collaborated with them, but they also have sued the city for its admitted pattern and practice of torture under Burge.

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In Smith’s case, one of the defendants is Cline, who replaced Burge as the Area 2 crimes lieutenant in 1986 and later ascended to become the superintendent. According to Smith’s allegations, Cline did nothing to investigate or stop the pattern and practice of torture but rather perjured himself to cover for one of the detectives who physically abused Smith. Cline, now the executive director of the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation, has denied the allegations.

In the Gibson case, the city’s pinstripers have followed a well-worn path: They moved to bifurcate the pattern and practice claim from the underlying torture claims to avoid admitting in court what the city’s policymakers have repeatedly admitted publicly. The judge denied their motion and will now decide whether to grant summary judgment on the issue of whether there was a policy and practice of torture — a motion, supported by an amicus brief signed by 47 business and civic leaders, which I hope will hoist the city on its own policymakers’ petard.

In the Jackie Wilson case (Full disclosure: I am one of his lawyers), a parade of prosecutors — from the assistant state’s attorney who had been previously found by special prosecutors Egan and Boyle to have lied when he denied his involvement in the torture to the prosecutors who wrongfully prosecuted Wilson three separate times — are named as conspiring co-defendants. Several of these former prosecutors are now the subjects of another special prosecutor’s investigation into their alleged perjury and obstruction of justice. Wilson is not only armed with a certificate of innocence but also with detailed findings by the criminal court judge who ultimately dismissed his case that he was tortured as part of the pattern and practice at Area 2. So far, the city and county’s response, no doubt influenced by Cline and the Fraternal Order of Police, has been to double down with eight sets of private lawyers who are throwing all sorts of highly questionable arguments at the wall, including a frivolous challenge by one of the prosecutor’s lawyers to the TIRC’s right to refer meritorious cases to the criminal courts.

It is now 50 years since Burge and his crew tortured their first Black victims, yet the city and its mayor, aligned with the Fraternal Order of Police, and the county and its state’s attorney, aligned with old-guard prosecutors who reigned under Daley, Devine, and Anita Alvarez, continue to deny, obstruct, and spend taxpayer dollars in state and federal court in an unending and unconscionable effort to deny freedom and compensation to those torture survivors who so richly deserve some modicum of justice.

Until the political powers that be remove themselves from the wrong side of history, the Burge torture scandal will drag on, and the taxpayers will continue to involuntarily fund the torture deniers who are responsible for this shameful chapter of racist police and prosecutorial violence and cover-up.

Flint Taylor is a founding partner of the People’s Law Office in Chicago and has represented dozens of clients in torture and other police misconduct cases. He is the author of “The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago.”