Magazine article Editor & Publisher

He's Covering the Pain

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

He's Covering the Pain

Article excerpt

For three decades, police officers in one section of Chicago systematically tortured prisoners, the majority of whom were black. On July 19, special prosecutors Edward Egan and Robert Boyle released the results of their four-year investigation into the actions of former Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his subordinates -- and the report acknowledged that although torture had been administered, charges could not be brought due to the statute of limitations.

The story of Burge and his Violent Crimes Unit never achieved the national notoriety of, say, Frank Serpico in New York. But one Chicago journalist kept the torture cases alive over the years, winning several awards in the process -- and is now gaining new recognition. He is John Conroy, a veteran reporter for the alt- weekly Chicago Reader.

Conroy came to the Reader in 1978 after serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer in Long Island, N.Y. In 1980, he received an Alicia Patterson Fellowship that allowed him to travel to Northern Ireland, resulting in the book Belfast Diary: War As a Way of Life. For his next volume, he delved into the psychology of torturers.

When a reporter from Chicago contacted Conroy in 1989 with information on Andrew Wilson, a convicted cop killer who was suing the police for brutalizing him, Conroy embarked for the city. Wilson, along with his brother Jackie, had shot officers William Fahey and Richard O'Brien on Feb. 9, 1982. Five days later, they were apprehended and brought to police headquarters in district Area Two, where many suspects were tortured.

Andrew Wilson claimed that while in police custody he was beaten, suffocated, burned with a cigarette, tied to a hot radiator, and subjected to electric shock. In 1989, he filed charges against Burge, three detectives, the police superintendent, and the city of Chicago.

All of the accused detectives were well respected. Most of the public was skeptical, if not outright dismissive, of Wilson's case. "I went down [to Chicago] not expecting much," Conroy admits. "It was the word of a cop killer versus these upstanding policemen." But as evidence was presented -- including pictures of Wilson's radiator burns and the imprints of alligator clips singed onto his ears -- Conroy began to change his mind.

The ex-con's suit eventually ended in a mistrial. Nevertheless, Conroy says, "Nobody would've known as much if the Wilson case hadn't come forward. It was pivotal because of the peculiar injuries he had. He's the only guy who emerged from the electrical torture with these kinds of injuries." He adds, "Usually that's the reason why electrical torture is used, because it doesn't leave marks. It was just a fluke that they were left on Wilson."

Another key factor was the anonymous letters that Wilson's attorneys (who were members of the People's Law Office, or PLO) received. The letters, some of which were in police department envelopes, confirmed the torture of Wilson, and accused former Mayor Jane Byrne and state's attorney Richard M. Daley (Chicago's current mayor) of a cover-up.

One of the letters contained what Conroy once described as a "hand grenade," and the anonymous author urged the PLO to speak with an inmate named Melvin Jones. The prisoner claimed to have had his confession coerced after receiving electric shock, just as Wilson claimed. …

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