BOB GARFIELD: Some reporters work a beat their whole lives without any tangible result. But last week, Chicago writer and reporter John Conroy became one of the lucky ones when he was able to report on the conviction of a one-time Chicago police commander named Jon Burge. For 30 years, accusations swirled around Burge that he'd led a group of police officers in torturing dozens and dozens of mostly poor black suspects to extract confessions in a detective division known as Area Two on Chicago’s South Side. Despite internal investigations finding him guilty, despite being fired from the police force, despite then Illinois Governor George Ryan being so alarmed at the implications of so many false confessions that he established a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois in the year 2000, Burge had never been convicted of a crime – that is, until last week, when Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald secured a conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice. At that point, John Conroy had been reporting and reporting [LAUGHS] and reporting on Burge and his conduct for more than 20 years. It started in 1989, when Conroy was at The Chicago Reader, working on a book about how ordinary people become involved in torture. He got a tip about a little-noticed lawsuit in his own back yard, brought by a man convicted of shooting two police officers who accused Burge of torture.
JOHN CONROY: Andrew Wilson alleged he'd been given electric shock with two different devices and that he'd been suffocated with a plastic bag. He also said he'd been burned against a radiator, although I actually think the radiator burning was accidental. They pressed him up against the radiator, didn't realize they were leaving marks because the goal, of course, is never to leave marks. And it was during the course of that trial that anonymous letters started arriving in the offices of Wilson’s attorneys. And they came in police department envelopes, and they were clearly written by somebody who knew Area Two and the detectives who worked in it. And he tipped those lawyers off to another victim who was then in Cook County Jail. It turned out that victim had been tortured back in 1982, nine days before Wilson was. And he led them to a couple of other victims, and they, in turn, led them to others. The law firm that maintains the most accurate list has 110 victims. So the whole thing snowballed out of the Andrew Wilson case.
BOB GARFIELD: How many people were ultimately implicated in the Area Two scandal, and what became of them?
JOHN CONROY: There are dozens of detectives who have been implicated. Some of them have gone on to work for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office as investigators. Some work for the city as investigators. One of them started his own private detective agency. Some of them are retired. A few of them are dead. None of them have been charged with any crimes.
BOB GARFIELD: Turns out the word “torture” is a little squishy, legally. Tell me why.
JOHN CONROY: There is no such thing as a law against torture in the state of Illinois or, indeed, in any other state that I'm aware of. If you were going to charge someone with giving electric shock, you'd have to charge him with aggravated assault or aggravated battery, official misconduct, perjury, if the torturer lied about it. In the state of Illinois, there’s a three-year statute of limitations on charges of assault, aggravated assault, things like that. So unless you can indict within a three-year period or you can show an ongoing conspiracy to obstruct justice, which requires a renewing act every three years, all of those acts become untouchable.
BOB GARFIELD: So it’s a war crime to torture somebody but it’s not a peace crime.
JOHN CONROY: This is true.
BOB GARFIELD: So now let's talk about the journalistic issue. If there is no statute prohibiting torture, does that mean that you cannot use that word in describing the aggravated assaults that took place?
JOHN CONROY: I think you can use the word. First of all, the Office of Professional Standards, the Chicago Police Department’s division that investigates police use of excessive force, said torture was systematic at Area Two and the command members knew about it. By anybody’s definition, electric shock and suffocation, mock execution, burning against a radiator, all of these fall within the definition of torture. To refrain from describing it as torture is irresponsible.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me the media history of this story. Tell me about the story you first broke. and then what happened in the ensuing years.
JOHN CONROY: I sat through these two civil suits because the first one ended in a mistrial. And at the end of that, I did a story for The Reader. That sparked an internal investigation by the police department. They cite that story as, quote, “a sound starting point.” And, as a result, in 1993 Burge was fired from the police force. The press covered the firing as sort of a one-day story and never bothered to investigate what the implications of him having abused suspects were. You know, I continued to hammer at the issue from different angles because we couldn't keep saying the same thing. I went up the ladder. I wrote about prosecutors and their involvement in the case. I wrote about Mayor Daley and his involvement. I wrote about the father of one of the victims, who was a police officer. In about '98, The Tribune started to cover it. And Steve Mills and Maury Possley did a great job. They incorporated it into their death penalty series, which examined the use of the death penalty in Illinois from a lot of different angles. And their stories really led to the moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois. It's interesting to note that Possley was shown the door by The Tribune about two years ago, and they transferred Mills to the food safety beat.
BOB GARFIELD: You and the guys from The Tribune seem to be classic poster children for the chaos in the newspaper business to the point that you found yourself blogging for WBEZ – I'm going to assume not for a great deal of money – just to see this case get to resolution. Are you that poster child?
JOHN CONROY: [LAUGHS] I guess I am one of them. If you look at The Tribune, they had the best sources in the country on criminal justice, and both of those reporters are now off that beat or gone.
BOB GARFIELD: And you, now what?
JOHN CONROY: I'm hoping WBEZ will pick up the blog as some sort of permanent feature, but I don't know. In the meantime, I try to freelance. I write scripts for a guy who does health videos for the Web. I wrote some copy for a bicycle parts manufacturer. I may do a story about torture for Rotary International’s magazine. Meeting the mortgage every month, it causes me to break out in a sweat sometimes.
BOB GARFIELD: In today’s environment, would this story be covered? Will the next Area Two be uncovered by The Chicago Reader or anybody else?
JOHN CONROY: I would say there’s a 50/50 chance that somebody will uncover it. And maybe it’s even less than that. Certainly, it won't be done by The Reader. They don't have any investigative reporters anymore. And it’s not going to be uncovered by reporters like Mills and Possley, who would go down and examine court files for six months. That’s not going to happen. There is this belief out there among bloggers that citizen journalists are just as good. If you look at the coverage of the Burge trial, you can see the error in their thinking. I can think of one case in which a blogger did original research and wrote about a case on their own. So it’s going to require some lawyers to do all the work themselves and hand it to a reporter, or it’s going to require some reporter at their paper to argue that they should be allowed to take a lot of time and document exactly what’s happened to suspects, at whatever police station the allegations come from.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, John, thank you so much.
JOHN CONROY: You’re welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Chicago writer and reporter John Conroy is the author of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture. He notes that although Burge faces up to 45 years behind bars, this story is far from over. There are at least 20 men who are still in prison, based on contested confessions acquired by Jon Burge and his fellow officers.