June 29, 2010 -- The perjury conviction of a former Chicago police lieutenant for lying about torturing suspects with electric shocks and Russian roulette is expected to ripple through the city's prisons and courts, stirring up appeals and lawsuits worth millions of dollars, legal experts said today.
A federal jury found former Lt. Jon Burge guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice Monday after a five-week trial in which five men convicted of crimes said the decorated former officer and cops under his command used an array of tortures to make them confess to crimes in the 1970s and 1980s.
"This is a midpoint in this whole process, not an endpoint," Jonathan Masur, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, told ABCNews.com. "First of all, there are most likely dozens, maybe even a hundred people, still in Illinois prison who were convicted pursuant to confessions they say were obtained through torture when Burge was still head of that police district."
Prosecutors alleged that Burge didn't act alone. One witness said Burge didn't actually participate in the torture, but looked on as other officers beat and suffocated him.
Others described Burge's men playing a version of Russian roullette with them, burning them, using electric shock on sensitive areas of their bodies, and suffocating them with typrewriter covers during their interrogations. Most of the victims were black men from the Chicago's South Side.
"I'm confident that as an attorney in any of these cases I would be raising hell," said Bernard Harcourt, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, told ABCNews.com.
Chicago Torture Case Will Likely Cost City Millions
Burge, who is 62 and in ill health, is the only officer to be criminally charged in relation to torture, but federal prosecutors have hinted that there may be others. Burge was charged with lying in a civil suit in 2003 when he denied ever witnessing or participating in torture. He wasn't charged with the torture itself because the statute of limitations had run out.
Masur said the case is likely to generate a flood of criminal appeals and civil cases against Burge, his former superiors and the state attorney's office. He predicted tens of millions of dollars in civil judgments.
"The state of Illinois already spent $6 million on a study to determine what happened" in Burge's former police district, Masur said. "In addition to everything else, Burge has definitely cost the state of Illinois a lot of money."
Other officers denied any role in torture and no other perjury or obstruction of justice charges have been announced. But U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has said the investigation into the decades-long cover-up was continuing.
Fitzgerald said after Monday's verdict that "a message needs to go out that that conduct is unacceptable," and asked others with evidence of torture to come forward. He said it was sad that it took until 2010 to prove in court that torture once occurred in Chicago police stations.
More than 100 victims have said the torture started in the 1970s and persisted until the 1990s at police stations on the city's south and west sides. Burge was fired in 1993.
The lack of charges against Burge led to widespread outrage in Chicago's black neighborhoods. Community anger intensified when Burge moved to Florida on his police pension while his alleged victims remained in prison. It's unclear whether his pension would be affected by the verdict.
David Bates, who served 11 years in prison after he said officers under Burge's command coerced him into confessing to murder, called Burge the tip of the iceberg.
"To tap him out was easy, he's been marketed as the torture person," Bates, who did not testify at Burge's trial, told the Associated Press. "But it goes so far beyond Jon Burge."
Torture Litigation Will Not End With Lieutenant's Perjury Conviction
Only one of Burge's former officers testified at the trial. Michael McDermott admitted that he only testified because he was afraid of losing his police pension and his job with the Cook County State's Attorney's office. McDermott, who was granted immunity from prosecution, told jurors he saw his former boss scuffle with a suspect and point a gun in the suspect's direction in the 1980s.
The Fraternal Order of Police said "hopefully this brings closure to this long-standing dispute" but legal observers said the police torture issue is hardly over in Chicago.
"It was certainly not isolated to Burge in his police district," Masur told ABCNews.com. "He was obviously just sort of the commander in charge of this operation and there were undoubtedly many, many police officers under his authority who were similarly engaged in torture and other activities. I don't know whether it spread to other police districts. It's not clear if it was going on in such a systematic way elsewhere."