Last month, former Chicago Police commander Jon Burge secured an early release from prison for his role in a decades-long police torture ring—ironic news, given that dozens of his victims are believed to be still languishing in prison. It’s unclear how many individuals remain incarcerated at the hands of Burge, but Loyola Law School Dean David N. Yellen and a group of students have been trying to get to the bottom of it.
In March, Cook County Criminal Division Judge Paul P. Biebel Jr. tasked Yellen with finding inmates incarcerated by Burge. With the help of student volunteers, Yellen has combed through hundreds of cases and identified roughly 20 inmates.
Earlier this month, Yellen submitted the first wave of names to Biebel. Biebel, in turn, will assign pro bono attorneys to help the inmates prepare for post-conviction reviews.
It’s likely more names will be added to the list this month; Yellen and his students are only halfway through their work, which they hope to wrap up in about six months.
Yellen recently sat down with Chicago to discuss his progress.
Why were you the one who was tapped to serve as the special master?
Judge Biebel and I have served together on a couple of boards and know each other from various things. He called me up and asked to come see me about something. I thought he was coming over to ask for a job. He told me about the lawsuit asking for a class–action status that had been filed, and what was going on. And, assuming that he ruled against authorizing the class action, he still wanted to proceed in a way that would get all the relevant cases looked at one time, so he wanted to go the special-master route. But why did he ask me? You’d have to ask him that, but I think it’s because I have a background in criminal law but I’m not involved as a practicing lawyer, so I think he saw me as a neutral but informed person.
Tell me about your background in criminal law.
After law school, I worked for a small litigation firm in Washington, D.C., that did white–collar criminal defense. Then I worked for the House Judiciary Committee on criminal justice policy. And when I became a professor, my area was criminal law. I wrote a lot about sentencing, juvenile justice and white-collar crime, and occasionally took on cases and served on different advisory boards. I’m on the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, and keep my hands in criminal justice issues to the extent that I can.
Can you give us a brief primer on Burge’s history of misconduct?
The allegations against Jon Burge go back well into the ’70s, but they weren’t well recognized until the late ’80s and early ’90s. He was suspended from his job in 1991 and was fired in 1993, when the police’s internal investigation came to the conclusion that he had been engaged in torture and other misconducts. That was the first official acknowledgement of what he had done. Since then, many individuals sought the post–conviction review or filed civil action. I believe there’s been $100 million or more paid out in settlements to victims of Burge and people who worked for him.
In the more recent time, Judge Biebel appointed the special prosecutor, who released a report—a massive documentation of widespread nature of torture and abuse by Burge and people working for him.
It was a watershed moment because it was an official, detailed documentation that this torture had gone on for a long period of time. Lots of people in prison allege that there was police misconduct—torture or otherwise—but what sets Burge cases apart is that there was this official acknowledgement of what had happened.
Where does your work come into all this?
Here’s what Judge Biebel asked me to do: Look for cases in which people gave a statement that was used against them, and then claimed at the time of their prosecution that that was a result of torture by Burge or his subordinates, and still remain in prison and haven’t had any meaningful post-conviction review since the official acknowledgement of torture. So my job is to identify people who meet those criteria. I’m not assessing the credibility of their claim. I’m looking to see whether they meet the checklist of criteria. If they do, I refer them to Judge Biebel, who is going to appoint a counsel for them and refer their case to another judge to give them the post–conviction review. And if that judge decides that they were tortured into giving a statement against them, their conviction must, under the law, be overturned.
I’ve received at least 400 letters from inmates. Student volunteers and I have been sorting through and investigating. And we’ve identified some additional people who meet the criteria, and we’re still looking into many, many other cases at this point.
When do you hope to finish all the work?
I hope to finish by May or June. If you count every inmate who’s written to me with some complaint they hope I could look into, it’s a lot, but many of them become quickly clear that they are not part of what I’ve been asked to do. Not in the right time period, for example. Or nothing to do with Burge.
I’m taking on a limited assignment. It’s something that a lot of people who [are] writing to me don’t understand. It’s not my job to look into allegations of all torture by police officers. It’s not my job to look into other misconduct alleged against police officers—other than torture. I’m getting lots of letters in both of those categories, and those are serious problems, but they are not part of my volunteer assignment. There have been a few cases where the claims, although not within the confines of this case, are compelling enough that my students and I have tried to help them find a volunteer lawyer.
Will your work put an end to what Mayor Rahm Emanuel called a “dark chapter in the history of the City of Chicago”?
If these cases will help close the door on this chapter, that’ll be a good thing. But it’s never neat. Remember, anyone who meets this criteria gets a lawyer and a hearing, and if a judge decides that there was a confession obtained by torture, the conviction is overturned, but that doesn’t necessarily end that case. It’ll be up to the special prosecutor to decide whether to retry those people. Because this would not be a finding that they were innocent; it would be a finding that their conviction was illegally obtained. And I’ve heard from families of murder victims, and the person convicted of that murder is in prison today but has a Burge claim. Obviously they are very upset about the thought of the person who they believe killed their loved one being released even when there are other evidence against. So it’s incredibly messy.