Chicago torture victims face uphill legal battle

Melvin Jones says he screamed and begged for mercy as Chicago police touched metal clips to his feet and thighs, churned a hand-cranked device and sent shock waves of electricity through his body more than 25 years ago.

Melvin Jones says he screamed and begged for mercy as Chicago police touched metal clips to his feet and thighs, churned a hand-cranked device and sent shock waves of electricity through his body more than 25 years ago. Today, Jones is homeless — one of dozens of alleged torture victims who have little hope of winning compensation, despite the federal indictment this week of a former police commander who officials say lied about overseeing the abuse. Some of the men already served prison time for crimes they claim they confessed to only after police beat or electrocuted them. More than 20 remain in prison. But lawyers say the city’s resistance, inaction by the state attorney general’s office and the statute of limitations mean Jon Burge’s indictment — while a moral victory — is unlikely to change victims’ circumstances any time soon. "There hasn’t been much courage shown by high political officials," Flint Taylor, who spent years on the issue and is Jones’ attorney, said Wednesday. "That’s something that needs to be changed before this nightmare can end." Burge, 60, was charged with lying in a civil rights lawsuit when he said he and detectives never engaged in activities such as "bagging" — covering a suspect’s head with a typewriter cover until he couldn’t breathe. Jones, who is currently in a hospital, claims Burge told him on that day in 1982 that he had just two choices — to confess to murder or continue being tortured, Taylor said. Some alleged victims said they were heartened by Burge’s indictment, even though it came decades after the alleged acts. "I’m proud to be American," David Bates said. "I feel a part of the justice right now, and this is how we are going to be made whole." Many victims say they still suffer psychologically — some say they have regular nightmares. But fewer than 10 of the alleged victims have received monetary claims. Then-Gov. George Ryan pardoned four Death Row inmates who were convicted on evidence gathered by Burge and detectives under him. The four recently reached a $20 million settlement with the city. Legally speaking, the deck seems stacked against most of the men. Taylor partly blames Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan for what he says has been a lack of action in getting new trials for everyone whose convictions were based solely or primarily on coerced confessions. "That ball is in Madigan’s court," he said. "She has sat on this for five or six years — with the exception of one or two cases." Madigan’s office said that’s not true. Out of 25 cases of alleged torture that attorney general’s office took on in 2003, 11 have already been resolved, her office said, including three pardons and two cases where a judge ordered the men free. Several of the 14 other cases were put off because defense attorneys wanted to wait for the long-delayed publication of a special prosecutor’s report that came out only in 2006, said Madigan spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler. "There has been no delay attributed to the attorney general’s office," she said, adding the office is "acting as quickly and as diligently as possible." Statutes of limitations mean men who served time or are still in prison can only sue if the governor or courts exonerate them — including by granting pardons or agreeing they deserve new trials, Taylor said. Despite legal obstacles to new lawsuits, Taylor said "the claim for reparations is one of moral and political righteousness," noting Burge and his subordinates collect pensions. "If you’re gonna pay $1.25 million a year in pensions to these guys, you should pay some money to the men who were victimized regardless of whether you have a legal obligation to do so," he said. A main thrust of Taylor’s legal efforts now is getting new trials for alleged victims still in prison. Taylor said new trials would not necessarily mean anyone actually guilty of crimes would walk free, but he said that was a possibility if prosecutors can’t produce evidence other than the forced confessions. "If all you’ve got is a confession, well, sorry, but in this country, under this Constitution, you don’t go to prison under a coerced confession — certainly not a tortured one," Taylor said. Time could run out for some alleged victims, including Jones, who Taylor said is too ill to speak with reporters. Taylor and Jones declined to disclose Jones’ illness. "But he was tortured by our government, and under our laws, he should be compensated," Taylor said. "But for a successful cover up by the city, he would have gotten compensation a long time ago." AP ______ Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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