A decorated former Chicago police officer whose name has become synonymous with police brutality in the city was sentenced Friday to 4 1/2 years in federal prison for lying about the torture of suspects.
Dozens of suspects — almost all of them black men — have claimed for decades that Jon Burge and his officers electrically shocked, suffocated and beat them into confessing to crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder.
U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow said the sentence reflected the seriousness of the allegations and, in making her decision, she wondered why a respected officer so admired by his department would resort to such violence.
"My best guess is ambition," Lefkow said. "Perhaps the praise, the publicity and the commendations . . . were seductive and led you down this path."
Burge was charged with lying when he testified in a civil lawsuit brought by Madison Hobley, who was sentenced to death for a 1987 fire that killed seven people, including his wife and son. Hobley was later pardoned.
Hobley claimed detectives put a plastic typewriter cover over his head to make it impossible for him to breathe. Burge denied knowing anything about the "bagging" or taking part in it. The indictment against Burge never said Hobley was tortured but accused Burge of lying about participating in or knowing about torture that took place under his watch. Burge has never faced criminal charges for abuse.
While the former police commander denied during his five-week trial that torture took place, Lefkow noted the jury hadn't believed him — and neither had she. In considering a sentence, Lefkow told Burge she took into account his "unwillingness to acknowledge the truth in the face of all the evidence."
Burge stood facing Lefkow as she read a statement and the sentence. Her offer to let him sit given his poor heath drew groans of protest from the victims and courtroom observers, who otherwise sat rapt as the judge spoke. As Lefkow talked about victims' testimony that she'd found particularly moving, Burge's sister-in-law left the courtroom.
Earlier Friday, Burge told the judge he knew his case brought the police department into disrepute and "for that, I am deeply sorry." He insisted he wasn't the person who's been "vilified" by the media but didn't specifically address the allegations of torture and abuse.
Burge was fired from the department in 1993 for mistreating a suspect, and he choked back tears as he talked about how the case cost him his job and his reputation.
"I'm 63 years old, and while I try to keep a proud face, in reality, I am a broken man," he said.
Burge's attorneys and supporters had pleaded for leniency, noting he has prostate cancer, congestive heart failure and other health problems. His brother asked Lefkow to be "humane," saying, "almost any sentence will be a death sentence, and I don't want to see him die in prison."
More than 30 Burge supporters, many of them police officers, sent Lefkow letters to praising Burge's dedication to his job, selflessness and effectiveness as a police officer and investigator. Two jurors from Burge's trial also wrote letters on his behalf, with one suggesting a prison term of three years would be appropriate.
But the judge said she also received letters from Burge's victims, members of the black community and others who argued for a lengthy sentence. One letter she said she'd be haunted by was from an inmate who'd been incarcerated for 30 years for a crime he said he didn't commit but was tortured into confessing to by the police.
"I had the body of a man, but I was a child inside," Lefkow said he wrote in his letter.
Hobley's sister broke down in tears Friday morning as she talked about the effect her brother's case had on their family. Robin Hobley looked directly at Burge and, with her voice breaking, said: "You put us through 16 years of torment . . . of people believing my brother was a murderer, and he wasn't. You have no idea what you did to our family.
"We believed in the system, we believed in the police."