Judge says police torture report should be released
May 19, 2006 (CHICAGO) (WLS) -- A report on torture allegations against former Chicago Police Commander John Burge and other officers will be released to the public. The torture investigation is now drawing the attention of the United Nations.
The investigation started four years ago. Attorneys for several officers involved tried to block the report's release.
This case is, as Judge Paul Biebel wrote, "an open sore on the civic body of Chicago that has festered for many years." The special prosecutor's report, four years and $5 million in the making, is an effort to get at the truth.
Though there was some opposition, there was little doubt that Biebel Friday would authorize the release of the report which he did. That release could come early next month.
"In the City of Chicago, 192 men were tortured, on the South Side of Chicago, and it was because of their race, bottom line," said David Bates, alleged torture victim.
David Bates did time for a murder he says he didn't commit. He confessed to it only because, he says, detectives beat him and tried to suffocate him.
Bates' case is one of dozens that have been the subject of protests over the years aimed at fired Chicago police commander John Burge, and other violent crimes cops who allegedly tortured suspects into confessions.
As a small group chanted and carried some now familiar signs Friday morning, Chief Criminal Courts Judge Paul Biebel decided that a special prosecutors report into the police torture allegations will be released to the public.
Attorneys for some of the police officers had argued against that, but Biebel ruled that "the public's right to be informed of the results of this exhaustive investigation outweighs the privacy rights of individual officers."
"Biebel is a great judge. He sees it one way. I see it another," said Joe Roddy, attorney for police officers.
"The time has come for disclosure. The time has come for people to be held to account criminally," said Locke Bowman, MacArthur Center for Justice.
Even if the special prosecutor's report concludes that there was evidence of systematic and methodical torture of criminal suspects, the officers couldn't be charged with that now because too many years have passed.
But the lawyers who argued this case contend that police and the city have continuously stifled efforts to disclose what truly happened, and that, they believe, constitutes obstruction of justice.
"If there are no indictments we certainly feel and hope and trust that the US government will finally, after all these years, act in conformance with the committee against torture of the United Nations," said G. Flint Taylor, Peoples Law Office.
Taylor refers to the United Nations Committee against Torture which earlier this month in Geneva, Switzerland, held hearings that focused in part on the Burge cases. That panel released a statement Friday expressing its concern with what it called a "limited investigation" and "lack of prosecution" in the alleged torture cases in Chicago, and it wants a report on the ongoing investigation.
The next status report on this case is in about two weeks.
Two former Boy Scouts say they witnessed the torture of a suspect and they believe former commander Jon Burge was involved.
There was a 1980's film called "Stand By Me" about kids who stumbled onto a crime scene and it changed their lives forever. Not only are the following memories remindful of that film, they are also the first independent, corroborated witness accounts of possible torture inside a Chicago police station.
"I've tried to put it in the back of my mind most of the time and tried to live my life as good as I could. But after seeing something like that, it's a life-changing experience," said Frank Sirtoff, alleged torture witness.
Forty-five-year-old Frank Sirtoff says he will never forget what he saw during the summer of 1975 when he was a 14-year-old boy scout living on Chicago's Southwest Side. Sirtoff says he and a cousin, who was also a scout, entered the Area 3 police headquarters -- then at 39th and California -- to visit their scout leader who was a detective in the youth division on the third floor.
"We made it a habit of going there quite often, at least once a week," said Sirtoff.
But that day, the boys went exploring on the second floor. Sirtoff says he remembers opening a door and seeing a black man in distress sitting at a long desk.
"And this man was sitting in the wooden chair, strapped down with handcuffs on his arms, his legs," Sirtoff said. "The leg of the chair and wires all over his body, wires on his arms, his hands, his forehead, by the temples of his head ... and on top of the desk was a black box with a crank handle and all of the wires going into the box."
Frank's cousin wished to remain anonymous as he talked about also seeing the black man, the box and the wires and a large, red-haired detective.
"He had red hair, mustache, big guy. He said, 'shut that n----r up and get these f-----g kids out of here,' " said Frank's cousin, who was 13 at the time.
Sirtoff says, after seeing news reports during the past 30 years, there is no doubt in his mind the red-haired man was Jon Burge, the now retired police commander under investigation for the torture of nearly 200 black men.
"I look at Burge, and Burge looks at me right in the eye, and says, 'kill the n-----r and get the kid,' " Sirtoff said.
Police department records say that in 1975 Burge was not assigned to Area 3. That year he was a sergeant working as a detective in the intelligence division and for the Fourth District on the South Side.
Sirtoff's scout leader, Martin W. Conroy, who retired as a detective in 1995, says he remembers Sirtoff and the other boy "frequently visited at the youth division". By telephone from his home in Texas, Conroy said, "I believe them. Why would they make it up?"
On Burge being at 39th and California that day, Conroy said, "If outside detectives made an arrest in Area 3, they might come there for an interrogation or to take part in it."
Attorney Flint Taylor has represented alleged victims in 10 torture-related lawsuits.
"It's been documented that in the '70's there were cases where people would be picked up in another area of the city, for Burge, that Burge would either go to him or he'd be brought to Burge," said Flint Taylor, People's Law Center.
Sirtoff says, after the confrontation with the red-haired detective, he and his cousin ran to Conroy's office on the third floor where they were ordered out of the building. It wasn't until many years later, after seeing news reports on alleged police torture, that he began suffering guilt for not telling someone about what he had seen.
"I want to be able to say to myself and think to myself that I didn't die taking this to the grave with me, and that guy that was sitting in the chair, he knows that I finally told somebody about it," said Sirtoff.
Sirtoff says in 1994 he told the FBI in northwest Indiana about what he saw. He says he did not tell the FBI in Chicago fearing it might be as corrupt as police. The FBI will neither confirm nor deny that such an interview took place.
Sirtoff left voice mail messages at the People's Law Center in Chicago three years ago. He told the same story on the tapes -- that still exist -- but he did not leave his name or a number where he could be reached.
Neither Sirtoff nor his cousin talked to the special prosecutor who has been conducting the official investigation.
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