Chicago’s Dark Legacy of Police Torture

Chicago’s Dark Legacy of Police Torture

Chicago’s Dark Legacy of Police Torture

Illinois has shuttered a commission formed to examine the cases of prisoners who say they were abused under Chicago’s former Police Commander Jon Burge years ago. But a truth-telling play—by the journalist who broke the story—will not let us forget.


On January 25, 1990, the Chicago Reader, the free alternative weekly, published a cover story, nearly 20,000 words long, titled “House of Screams.” Written and reported over the course of a year by journalist John Conroy, the investigation exposed, in meticulous detail, a long and chilling history of abuse by police against suspects on the South Side of Chicago. At the Area 2 Violent Crimes Unit, Police Commander Jon Burge had overseen and participated in the systemic torture of an untold number of African-American men, dating back to the early 1970s. They had been beaten, burned against radiators, suffocated with plastic bags and, most disturbingly, had their genitals subjected to electric shocks. “Fun time” was how Burge referred to the electrocution sessions, which, Conroy would later reveal, drew on his experience as a military police officer in Vietnam.

Despite its bombshell revelations, the story did not spark immediate or widespread outrage. Even the local dailies failed to run with it. So over the next seventeen years, Conroy would write twenty-two more articles about Chicago’s police torture regime—stories that laid bare the extent of the abuse and decried the total impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators. Among those who knew about the torture was former Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Daley, sworn in as mayor months before “House of Screams” was published. (Some fifty men claim to have been brutalized in the eight years he served as state’s attorney.) In 2003, out of concern that innocent men had been convicted and sentenced to die based on confessions that had been tortured out of them, Governor George Ryan famously emptied Illinois’s death row, commuting 167 sentences and pardoning four men.

Burge was fired in 1993 and moved to Tampa, Florida, where he spent leisure time on his boat, The Vigilante, and continued to collect his taxpayer-provided pension. It was not until 2008 that he was finally arrested—not for the torture itself but for his role in trying to cover it up in the case of one of the pardoned men, Madison Hobley. Burge was sentenced to four and a half years in a minimum-security federal prison. He is scheduled for release in 2015.

Conroy, meanwhile, was laid off by the Reader in 2007. By then, he had started writing a play about the torture scandal. Darkly titled “My Kind of Town,” and now in its final weeks at the TimeLine Theatre on Chicago’s North Side, it is a complex and powerful indictment of the city’s collective unwillingness to confront its legacy of torture. In two acts, the play draws from numerous cases—and actual testimony describing the abuse—to bring to life the character of Otha Jeffries, a death row prisoner in a state of total mental breakdown, who swears that his confession was brutally extracted from him. (In real life, twelve tortured men were sentenced to die and five were exonerated.) Jeffries’s treatment at the hands of Detective Dan Breen and his boss, Jack Gunther (the Burge character who exists only offstage), includes being handcuffed to a pipe and having his pants pulled down, being shocked on his genitals and his rectum and suffocated with a plastic bag. As Jeffries’s estranged parents try to piece together what happened to their son, his mother, Rita, visits District Attorney Maureen Buckley, who as an assistant state’s attorney years earlier was in the police station during her son’s interrogation and heard him scream. “Please don’t tell me you’re here because you think your son is innocent,” Buckley says wearily, having deeply buried her recollections of that scream. She then advises Rita, “There’s nothing you can do about it except pray for him.”

I saw “My Kind of Town” on June 30. It was auspicious timing; that same day, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission—created in 2009 to investigate several dozen claims of police abuse—had officially gone out of business after state lawmakers announced it was being defunded. The stunning move, over a relatively paltry budget request of $235,000, came just as the commission had finally recommended its first set of cases for judicial review. “It’s chump change,” the commission’s executive director, David Thomas, told the Chicago Tribune about the money saved by the state. “But we don’t have a real political constituency. Our people are all in prison.”

One of these people is Gerald Reed, convicted in 1993 on felony murder charges in a double homicide and sentenced to life without parole. Reed, who maintains he’s innocent, is one of the lucky ones. He is one of five prisoners whose claims of abuse were found “credible” by the commission and should now reach a courtroom, potentially reopening his case.

Reed was brought in for questioning at Area 3 headquarters in October 1990, ten months after “House of Screams” was published. By then, Jon Burge had been transferred there from Area 2 and supervised Detectives Victor Breska and Michael Kill.

Although Breska has gone unnamed throughout the torture scandal except in one other case, Kill has come up in more than twenty cases dating back to 1986. They include Marcus Wiggins, who was only 13 when he was arrested and who described being shocked and beaten. (The city paid him a settlement of $95,000 in 1996.) They also include Ronald Kitchen, who gave a false confession in 1988 after thirty-nine hours in police custody, during which he was beaten with a phone book and a phone receiver, and hit in his genitals with a nightstick. He was sentenced to death and was eventually exonerated, in 2009. Another man, Peter Williams, was beaten and had a pistol stuck in his mouth. As a result he gave a false confession to a crime he could not have possibly committed, since he was in jail at the time. His case was tossed, but his two codefendants—16-year-old Harold Hill and Dan Young, a man with an IQ of 56—were also brutalized and confessed. Both were exonerated in 2005.

Reed claims that upon arriving at the Area 3 station, Victor Breska kicked his chair out from under him and kicked him repeatedly in his legs and lower back. Reed had a metal rod in one leg from an gunshot wound he had sustained in 1985; at a pre-trial hearing in 1992, he testified, “I got pins in my right knee, lower part of my knee, and a rod going from my knee to my hip and he kept kicking me in the center of my thigh and I kept telling him that, you know, I’m hurt, I’m hurt.” X-rays would show that the rod was broken and that the orthopedic pins that kept it in place had loosened. But attempts to introduce this evidence—or any evidence of coercion—at trial would fail. Based almost entirely on a five-page statement that Reed signed after being held in custody for several hours, he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

“The only plausible explanation for the broken rod and the loose screws is the beating at Area 3 described by [Reed],” the commission concluded in its June 18 filing on his case. Given that his conviction hinged on his signed statement, this conclusion has important implications.

Reed has been at Stateville Correctional Center since 1994. Over the past decade, the metal rod has continued to deteriorate. He was walking on two crutches until last summer, according to his mother, Armanda Shackelford, when his cellmate beat him with one of his crutches, which was left in pieces on the floor. “Now they are refusing to do surgery because it costs too much money,” she says through angry tears. “I could see them saying that if he did this to himself. This was done to him. So you’re torturing him all over again.” The only treatment he is receiving, she says, is in the form of Ibuprofen.

I met Armanda at her home on the South Side of Chicago following Conroy’s play. We talked in her living room, where her granddaughter was watching Law & Order. Armanda had seen “My Kind of Town” recently, along with Bertha Escamilla, an activist whose son, Nicholas, also alleged he was tortured (he was eventually released). Armanda identified with the character of Rita Jeffries, who was so determined to help her son. “Fathers—they’re caring,” she said. “But they get tired quicker than the mothers so. The mother will just keep on going.” Today she attends political meetings and rallies with other mothers of prisoners who were abused. When I ask to see a photo of Gerald, she brings out a large poster featuring his name and mugshot. It reads: “Still being tortured.”

Armanda is grateful that the commission had a chance to make its recommendation in her son’s case before it was shuttered. “When I found out, it was just like a light came on,” she says, smiling. “I had been in darkness all this time. And all of a sudden…I could see.” But she aches for the men behind bars who now have little recourse. “That hurt. Because this was their only way out.”

One of the cases that will no longer be reviewed by the commission is that of Johnny Plummer, who was just 15 when he was brought to Area 3 in 1991 to be questioned about a murder case he swears he had nothing to do with. He alleges that Michael Kill hit him in the face, stomach and side, at times with a flashlight, before he gave a statement incriminating himself. (Also involved in his case is Detective Kenneth Boudreau, who has been named in thirty-seven other cases—including those of the aforementioned codefendants Williams, Hill and Young—some as recent as 2004.)

Johnny was convicted of first-degree murder and given life without parole. Now 36 years old, he is at Menard Correctional Center, more than 300 miles away from the South Side neighborhood where he grew up. When I speak to his mother, Jeanette Plummer, on the phone, her outrage over the defunding of the commission is raw. “Why would [lawmakers] take that money back after they set up this board?” she asks. “I’m very disturbed about that. I’m very hurt. That is wrong. They can’t treat people like that.” For her, it adds insult to the injury she felt at the short sentence for Burge, which she called a “black eye” on the black community.

Now, Jeanette hopes that the recent Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which outlawed mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, might now pave her son’s way home. But without a lawyer, he faces an uphill battle.

“They did a good job on that play,” Jeanette says about “My Kind of Town.” “They knew what was going on,” she says of the players, real and fictitious. “They just didn’t care.”

I met John Conroy on the North Side of Chicago on the day after the play. “There are so many cases, they start to run together,” he says, as we discuss the people who inspired his characters and where they are now. He tells me that Dick Devine, who succeeded Daley as Cook County State’s Attorney and whose denial of the police torture was so staunch he called the four men pardoned by Governor Ryan “evil,” was recently honored by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, named one of “Ten attorneys who raised the Bar in the last decade.” A press release describes Devine as “first and foremost an attorney dedicated to the pursuit of justice.” 

When I ask Conroy why he thinks there was not more accountability—or even outrage—over the years of brutality meted out against so many men, he echoes a line from his play, delivered by the lawyer for Otha Jeffries. “I think it’s that there’s a torturable class in this country,” he says. So revelation after revelation, “people just didn’t care.”

That goes for the media outside Chicago, too, which mostly ignored the story for years. “This is the biggest national police scandal of the past fifty years,” Conroy says, reminding me of the innocent men who landed on death row. “Corruption is one thing. This was attempted murder.”

“My Kind of Town” runs through July 29. For tickets and information, go here. For an archive of John Conroy’s stories about police torture in Chicago, go here.

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