Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Coerced False Confessions During Police Interrogations

Chicago's Dirty Secret

Over the last two decades, Chicago, Illinois has earned the reputation of having one of the highest rates of police coerced false confessions in the United States. Many documented cases involved the use of unusually brutal tactics, including electric shock, beatings and using a plastic bag to restrict oxygen. The problem got so out of hand that the Chicago Police Department was forced to conduct an internal investigation to weed out corrupt officers who were known to conduct cruel interrogations. 

Jon Burge
Jon Burge

At the center of abuse allegations was former Commander Jon Burge, who allegedly tortured one hundred eight men between 1973 and 1991, according to a Chicago NBC5.com article. Burge denies the claims. The accusations began in February 1982 after the murder of two police officers during a routine traffic stop. Less than a week after the slayings, Andrew Wilson was brought into the police station for questioning. During that time, he claimed that several police officers, including Burge, beat him, tried to suffocate him with a plastic bag, electrically shocked him and forced him against a hot radiator, Rob Warden said in a 2003 article for the Center on Wrongful Convictions. 

All officers implicated in the case denied torturing Wilson or any other suspect. But some have been brave enough to come forward with supporting evidence confirming that torture did take place during interrogations. One such person was former Chicago homicide detective Melvin Duncan, who swore in an affidavit that he "saw a black box with a crank and wires," which he heard was used to electrocute suspects, NBC5.com reported. Although he claimed to have heard suspects being tortured, he admitted he never saw the torture take place.  

Another person who came forward was the sister of a former detective accused of helping to torture suspects, along with Burge and other officers. Ellen Prywell stated in a sworn affidavit that her brother Detective Robert Dwyer and Burge boasted about torturing suspects during interrogations, according to Steve Mills in a Chicago Tribune article. The report suggested that her testimony was "important because it shows torture was 'talked about, planned and even discussed.'"

The mounting allegations led to Burge's and other officers' suspension in 1993. Burge was eventually fired from his position, but the other officers were later reinstated. Wilson sued the police department and was awarded $1 million.

Governor George Ryan
Governor George Ryan

Other lawsuits were filed by more than a dozen death-row inmates who claimed Burge and other officers tortured confessions out of them, Leonora LaPeter reported in the St. Petersburg Times. Four of those on death row were pardoned based on evidence of coerced confessions. Consequently, "in 2000, then-Gov. George Ryan (temporarily) halted executions in Illinois," stating that the men were "perfect examples of what is so terribly broken about our system," LaPeter said. Since then, police interrogations have been significantly reformed. But many agree that there is still a long way to go.

 

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