Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 11, 2014
Jon Burge

Jon Burge

January 11, 2003: In Illinois, 167 death row prisoners have their sentences commuted to life without parole. Jon Burge was born in 1947 and was a decorated US Army veteran having served in both Korea and Vietnam. After his years of active duty, he remained in the Army Reserves but returned to Chicago where he became a police officer. He rose to the rank of detective and commander of his department. Allegations were made against him and those under his command. Between 1972 and 1991, he tortured more than 200 criminal suspects in order to force confessions. As allegations mounted, Illinois Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on death penalty executions.

The most controversial arrests began in February 1982 after a series of shootings of Chicago police officers in Police Area 2. This was the squad Burge commanded. Some of those who confessed to murder were eventually granted new trials and a few were pardoned. Burge himself was charged with police brutality but the resulting trial ended in a hung jury. Burge was suspended in 1991 and fired in 1993 after the Police Department Review Board ruled that he had used torture. With this information brought to light, there was a call for the investigation of all his convictions.

The state spent $17 million for a special prosecutor to investigate the accusations. Improprieties were uncovered but no action was taken due to the statute of limitations. Several convictions were reversed, remanded, or overturned. All Illinois death row inmates received a reduction in their sentences. Four of Burge’s victims were pardoned by Governor Ryan. These four men eventually filed suit against Chicago and the police officers, as well as Cook County and some attorneys. They were given a $19.8 million settlement. As the cases progressed, Burge was arrested on charges of obstruction of justice. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 4.5 years in a federal prison.

As the severity of the abuse became ever more apparent, the outcry from citizens became ever more noticeable. Celebrities as well as ordinary John Does, professors, and judges were called to help right the wrongs in the judicial proceedings. Ryan promised to review the cases of death row inmates in 2000. With further investigation it was found that state officials had tried to coerce inmates to drop charges in exchange for lightened sentences. The more information came to light, the less confidence anyone, including the Governor, had in the state penal system. George Ryan was leaving office and as one of his last acts, he not only commuted death row sentences, but pardoned four death row inmates.

Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. – James Madison

With power comes the abuse of power. And where there are bosses, there are crazy bosses. It’s nothing new. – Judd Rose

What I fear most is power with impunity. I fear abuse of power, and the power to abuse. – Isabel Allende

I believe the root of all evil is abuse of power. – Patricia Cornwell

Also on this day: You Betcha – In 1569, the first state sponsored lottery is held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Kingsland – In 1917, an explosion at a munitions factory took place.
US Marshals – In 1794, the first US Marshal was killed in the line of duty.
Insulin – In 1922, a new treatment for diabetes was first used.


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