Former Chicago detective accused of torture, taxpayers foot the bill to compensate victims

John Burge, a former Chicago police detective is accused of overseeing the torture of suspects and participating in coerced confessions.  He faces charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about his knowledge and participation in the abuse of suspects.  Jury selection for his trial began yesterday.

Victims of Burge include Mark Clements, who spent 28 years behind bars, and Ronald Kitchen who was freed after 21 years in prison. The allegations are that Burge and other detectives used beatings, electric shock, Russian roulette and near-suffocation on various victims. An investigation by Cook County prosecutors found that Burge and his cohorts had coerced confessions by using these abusive methods, but did nothing because they claimed the statute of limitations had run on many of these cases (full story here).

Burge’s abuse and torture went on for about two decades before he was finally fired on allegations of torture in 1993. American children are taught generation after generation that the American system of government is noble and trustworthy in part due to a functional system of checks and balances. It is difficult to see here where exactly those checks and balances were functional while Burge and his comrades tortured suspects for 20 years.

The prosecutors aided, and indeed actively protected these cops. The courts did not adequately question police testimony or evidence, or investigate coerced confessions.  The executive branch is nowhere to be seen in this picture. Further, when it comes to compensating victims of this kind of senseless torture and incarceration, the legislative scheme is an utter sham.

In a case called Briscoe v. LaHue, the Supreme Court held that witnesses, and in particular police officers were absolutely immune from civil liability for committing perjury. The Supreme Court reasoned that “the claims of the individual must yield to the dictates of public policy, which requires that the paths which lead to the ascertainment of truth should be left as free and unobstructed as possible.” Such illogical reasoning clearly leaves out the undeniable possibility that removing certain consequences will also cause the path to lies and coverups to be as “free and unobstructed as possible” also.

This attitude assumes that every witness, and specifically every police officer, never has any motivation to wrongly testify against someone. This simply is not the case. People, and police officers are induced to blame others all the time, sometimes purposely, sometimes accidentally; this is a fact of life. To assume witnesses never have ulterior motives is utterly asinine. Unless one believes that human nature is erased once a person is on the witness stand, this kind of reasoning makes absolutely no sense.

Further, civil liability for perjury would mean witnesses could only be liable if they intentionally lied on the stand. To say that people should not be held accountable in civil court for the damages, ruin and incarceration they wrongfully imposed upon another human being is to go above and beyond what is necessary for maintaining “the paths which lead to the ascertainment of truth.”

In the same vein, Justice White explained that in Imbler v. Pachtman that the absolute immunity of public prosecutors was “based on the policy of protecting the judicial process.” Except in the Burge case, it appears that since the prosecutors who failed to take any action against known torturers were absolutely immune, there was absolutely no check or balance of any kind.  What Justice White really means is that the immunity of public officials is based on the policy of protecting government and its employees, not justice.

Judges like to talk about “public policy” and “protection of the judicial process” but one must be wary when members of government carve out special rules for themselves allowing for the abuse of individuals and without facing monetary recourse. Judges, lawmakers, prosecutors and police are the process. Claims of protecting the “process” are precisely that – laws, rules, hurdles that allow the people in power behave recklessly with no adequate check on their abuse of discretion.

Some victims of Burge’s torture were eventually compensated when the Chicago City Council approved settlements totaling as much as $19.8 million. But of course, the police who actually tortured, abused and coerced confessions will not be footing this bill. Chicago taxpayers will.

This is how the government works. It protects its own by creating absurd laws absolving government employees of personal responsibility, and shifts the costs of government abuse onto the general public.

Georgia Sand

Georgia (George) Sand is an attorney located in sunny California. She enjoys beer, jogging, the beach, music, and chatting with her cats in her spare time.