Trial by Torture

Think the LAPD and NYPD are corrupt? Over two decades, a single brutal unit of the Chicago Police Department allegedly tortured confessions out of dozens of suspects, including 10 who are now on death row. Now, some of them are finally getting another day in court.

Image: Andrew Lichtenstein

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Sitting in an interview room deep within the walls of Unit Nine, Darrell Cannon hunches over suddenly, his huge hands clench and unclench, and his jaw works wildly as he tries to rein in his emotions. It doesn’t help. The six-foot-three-inch prisoner, a senior figure in El Rukn, one of Chicago’s most notorious gangs, begins to cry.

Metamorphosis. The 48-year-old has become a terrified child. “I hate them just that bad,” he says softly through his tears.

It’s an hour and a half into the interview, and either Cannon has just demonstrated an improbably powerful acting talent — responding exactly how physicians who examine torture victims expect them to behave when reliving their torment — or he has just finished recounting a chilling true story of police torture.

Unit Nine is one of three maximum-security wings in Chicago’s sprawling Cook County Jail. Cannon has been housed here since mid-1998, when he was moved up from a state prison to attend court hearings on a motion to suppress the 1983 confession that landed him a life sentence for murder.

Cannon has never denied that he was driving the car in which a young man was shot and killed, but has long argued that he neither knew in advance about the murder nor participated in it — and that he only confessed after a prolonged encounter with the fists, boots, shotguns, and cattle prods of the police who arrested him. His denial of the murder plans may or may not wash, but the torture claims could eventually land him a new trial.

Cannon is getting another day in court, more than a decade and a half after the crime, with the help of attorneys Flint Taylor and Tim Lohraff of the People’s Law Office — and he’s not alone.

~ Darrell Cannon's depiction of his own alleged torture by Chicago police officers. Cannon drew this and other diagrams to assist investigators.

Cannon’s diagram of police torture. Click the image to see an annotated enlargement.

Dozens of other prisoners have come forward saying they were tortured into confessing by police officers from Chicago’s Area Two who were, at the time, under the leadership of Commander Jon Burge. Their claims are hair-raising — and remarkably consistent. They tell of alligator clips attached to their ears, noses, mouths, penises, and testicles; of electric shocks to the genitals; of being burned atop radiators. Now, after years of such claims being brushed aside, at least five prisoners in addition to Cannon who say they were tortured are having arguments heard in the state and federal courts this year. All told, 10 people on Illinois’ death row claim they were tortured by Burge’s squad into admitting guilt, and the validity of the confessions of dozens of other current and former prisoners are now in doubt.

This could turn into one of the great scandals in modern American judicial history, exposing a pattern of police violence as horrific as many of the crimes against which they were supposed to be fighting.

Due process be damned
The mentality of the police, according to then-head of the Chicago PD Richard Brzeczek, seems to have been “‘we know he did it, but we have to circumvent these goofy rules of due process, either by lying or fabricating evidence, whatever it takes to convict this person.’ Or they’d fabricate evidence and lie even though somebody didn’t commit the offense. (They thought) it’s OK, because he’s going to do the time for all the crimes he didn’t get caught for.”

Darrell Cannon is, to put it mildly, no saint. Initiated into his gang at 14, he spent two years in a juvenile detention center for shooting two rival gang members. Later, as an adult, he spent 13 years in prison on a murder rap. He was released in early 1983, but soon migrated back into the arms of El Rukn.

Less than a year later, the ex-prisoner was involved in another murder. A small-timer named Darrin Ross owed some drug money to A.D., a gangster colleague of Cannon’s. Darrell and A.D. took Ross for a ride. Ross’ body was later found in one of the far South Side’s remote tracts of low-slung public housing.

It wasn’t too long before the police from Burge’s Area Two violent crimes squad caught up with Cannon. The cops arrested Cannon inside his apartment early in the morning, and then took their prisoner for a little ride of their own. Several hours later, they had a confession.

Cannon claims that the officers drove him to a deserted wasteground near the city’s southernmost limits. “It was normal,” Cannon, says for the police “to beat you up a little bit, put a few bruises on your head. But what the characters here was doing was very out of character.”

Darrell Cannon recounts his alleged torture by Chicago police

Darrell Cannon in the Cook County Jail.

Cannon alleges that first the officers suspended him by his arms, which were handcuffed behind his back. Then, he says, an officer named Peter Dignan pulled a shotgun from the car’s trunk and showed Cannon the shell in its chamber, saying “Look at this, nigger.” According to Cannon, the officers then forced the gun into his mouth, and pulled the trigger — but through a sleight of hand, the cops had slipped the shell out of the gun’s barrel. The trigger clicked, Cannon’s hair stood on end, and the officers started laughing, he says. “In my lifetime, I’d never experienced anything remotely close to this,” Cannon recalls.

Three times, Cannon was mock-executed. Still he wouldn’t confess. And so, Cannon says, the officers re-cuffed him with his hands stretched out above his head, laid him down on the backseat of the car, pulled his trousers and underwear down, and stuck a cattle-prod to his testicles.

“It was a burning sensation that seemed to go all through [my] body. After about the fourth time, I lost count. The pain got to the point where I couldn’t handle it anymore and I told them that I’d say whatever they wanted me to say.”

Cannon’s lawyer brought up the torture charges during his trial, but the judge refused to hear him out. (That judge is now serving time for accepting bribes.) Cannon was sentenced to life without parole.

A history of brutality
Chicago has a long history of violence, both gangster- and police-related. The People’s Law Office, now representing Cannon and many other putative torture victims, first made a name for itself by investigating the FBI and Chicago police force’s role in the shooting deaths of Chicago’s Black Panther leadership in the late 1960s. Last summer, arresting officers managed to shoot three unarmed suspects to death in the space of a couple of weeks. Last autumn, a jury awarded $28 million to a man shot and paralyzed by police.

Cannon’s story was echoed by numerous black men in Chicago over a period of two decades. In the 1980s, Chicago judges routinely dismissed these claims as fabrications concocted by desperate prisoners who were facing either the death penalty or life behind bars. Still, the city often paid out cash settlements to these prisoners — without ever admitting the truth of their allegations. This held for Cannon: Although the police never admitted torturing Cannon, they did agree to a civil settlement of several thousand dollars.

Over the following years, allegations by several dozen other prisoners came to light, all claiming similar treatment at the hands of the Violent Crimes Unit of South Chicago’s precinct Areas Two and Three. Gradually, largely due to the detective work of lawyers such as Taylor and Lohraff, a pattern emerged. Either the dozens of men, all of whom were African American and few of whom knew each other, had all coincidentally fabricated essentially the same story over a period of nearly two decades to numerous different attorneys, or a cabal of white police officers under the command of Jon Burge were torturing a significant number of suspects into making confessions.

One of them is Aaron Patterson, a former gang member who had grown up near the old steel mills on the south side of Chicago. In 1986 he was arrested and charged him with the particularly vicious stabbing murders of an old Hispanic couple, named the Sanchezes, who had served as neighborhood fences for stolen goods. It took a while, but eventually Patterson confessed. However, the young man waited until his interrogators were out of the room, and then used a paper clip to etch into a bench that he had only admitted to the crime after being suffocated with a typewriter bag, beaten, and told by Burge that he would be shot and killed unless he owned up. “I passively agreed to what they said,” he told me in a letter, “by repeating these words, ‘whatever you say,’ every time they kept saying things in reference to the case.” As soon as he got to court, Patterson told the judge he’d only confessed after being tortured.

The judge wanted none of it, and Patterson wound up on death row. Now, he is hoping that newly uncovered evidence pointing to another suspect’s guilt for the Sanchez murder will free him, and hoping the courts will recognize that he was tortured in time to prevent his execution.

The orchestrator
Jon Burge grew up in the working class Irish communities of southern Chicago. A red-head with a pugilist’s frame, he served as a military policeman during the Vietnam War. That’s likely where he first came into contact with tools of the trade such as the electric shock-producing “Tucker Telephone,” as well as psychological torture methods such as meticulously staged mock executions.

In the early 1970s, Burge joined the Chicago police force, rapidly rising up the ranks. By the early 1980s, he headed the violent crimes squad in the drug- and gang-infested south side streets patrolled by the Chicago PD’s Area Two. In the late 1980s, he moved over to Area Three, taking his methods with him.

Burge was a popular commander, a hands-on leader who inspired the trust of his underlings. In the summers Burge would live on his boat, The Vigilante, hosting cop parties on the waters of Lake Michigan. Sources have told Darrell Cannon’s lawyers that, at these water-borne gatherings, Burge would boast of his ability to break prisoners.

Burge’s unit got results: They solved bloody homicides and got numerous dubious characters off the streets and into Illinois’ prisons. There was only one problem. Scores of the poor, always African American men who confessed their misdeeds to Burge’s unit would tell their state-appointed defense lawyers, and often the judges hearing their cases, that they had been viciously brutalized by Burge or his underlings. They claimed that they had had alligator clips attached to sensitive parts of their bodies and had electric shocks administered; sometimes cattle prods were used. They claimed that they had had bags put over their heads for minutes at a time, a technique known as the “Dry Submarino.”

Others stated they had been burned atop radiators or subjected to mock executions, like Cannon’s. Several drew detailed diagrams of the instruments used to torment them. Others, including Cannon, directed investigators from the Office of Professional Standards to the locations where the violence allegedly occurred.

Burge seemed to revel in his power to inflict injury on those he had within his clutches. In many cases, the people he and his colleagues allegedly tortured had probably done the crimes he was extracting confessions about. Other times, they may well have been innocent of the particular crime of which they were being accused, but guilty of a slew of other offenses.

But, in February 1982, Burge’s unit slipped up, leaving such visible torture marks on a prisoner that the courts were eventually forced to take action.

That month, three Chicago police officers were shot dead, prompting the force to launch one of the biggest manhunts in its history. Hundreds of officers combed the streets, arresting young black men, frisking people at random, saturating the ghetto in their search for the killers.

Amid a welter of publicity, two brothers were picked up and taken to Area Two’s headquarters. The elder brother, Andrew Wilson, later was taken to the county jail with severe facial bruising and cuts suggestive of a prolonged pistol-whipping, strange alligator-clip marks on his ears, nose, penis, and testicles, marks indicative of wires having been attached to his extremities, and large burns on his body. The jail was so concerned that his lawyers would blame its staff for the injuries that they refused to admit him without a doctor examining him first. Police chief Brzeczek was contacted, and in his words, gave the local commanders “one of the great chewing-outs of a lifetime.”

Andrew Wilson was sentenced to death. But three years later Wilson’s confession was indeed thrown out by the Supreme Court, which found ample evidence of excessive police force. In 1987, at a new trial, Wilson’s original death sentence was changed to life without parole. Wilson then sued the city and eventually won a $1.1 million settlement.

Breaking ranks
As the scandal unraveled in the early 1990s, Chicago’s political establishment gradually began to abandon Burge. Decorated war hero and police commander that he was, he was to take the fall for all of the violence and brutality and disregard for due process that had permeated Areas Two and Three for a quarter of a century under the studiedly blind eye of Chicago’s political machine.

Brzeczek claims to have ordered a special internal investigation into Wilson’s torture shortly after it happened, and to have sent a letter to Richard Daley Jr., then the State’s Attorney, in charge of Illinois’ prosecutors. (Daley is now Chicago’s mayor.)

In the letter, Brzeczek outlined the specific charges against Burge and his team, detailed his belief that top officers in the precinct must have known what was going on in their holding cells, and called for a broad outside investigation. Daley’s office never replied.

“This was not a legal decision,” Brzeczek asserts, “but a political decision. They chose to ignore it.” But, when Wilson’s lawyer successfully appealed the death-penalty conviction and won the suit against Chicago, Burge’s star began to wane.

In December 1991, after two years of demonstrations and a scathing Amnesty International report, the city’s leadership suspended Burge. More than 2,000 police officers demonstrated in support of him, and black-tie fund-raisers were held in his honor. Nevertheless, facing a mountain of evidence as to Area Two’s brutal methods, Burge was fired in 1993.

Yet despite dropping Burge, the police department and prosecutors never admitted a systematic pattern of abuse, settling civil suits without ever acknowledging criminal wrongdoing. Rather than admit that Area Two had gone rotten, the state’s attorney’s office still refuses to recognize all the other claims of torture. None of the state’s attorney’s lawyers would comment on the allegations against Burge made by Cannon or any of the other prisoners. The current police department administration also refuses to comment. No other Area Two officers have been disciplined for their actions. Six years after being fired, Burge himself has never been brought up on any criminal charges.

Keeping a low profile
More than 1,500 miles from the rough streets of inner-city Chicago lies Apollo Beach, Fla., a rinkydink little town perched on an inlet feeding into the Gulf of Mexico.

Built around the lawns of a well-manicured golf course, complete with a series of artificial and stultifyingly similar canals, it is a new community, home mainly to people fleeing the harsh winters and day-to-day complexities of life on the rest of the continent.

Burge, now in his mid-50s, retired down here after his career went up in flames in Chicago. He lives near the Apollo Beach golf course, in a large bungalow with pink wooden window shutters, a red-tile roof, and an indoor swimming pool. Amid the other pink, yellow and sky-blue bungalows, the ex-commander’s house stands out for its excessive sterility: The walls and the driveway look as if they have never been touched or even breathed upon, his car is hidden behind the locked door of his garage, the garden has no flowery touches, and drawn window shades shut out the world.

The ex-commander has an unlisted phone number. A Vietnam veteran, he is not a member of any of the myriad American Legion and Veteran of Foreign Wars posts in the vicinity. A boat-owner, he is not a member of either of the town’s marinas. Nor is he a member of the golf course a stone’s throw from his property, or the nearby racket club and gym. His is the existence of a man who does not want the world to know where he is.

Burge did not reply to letters that I sent him. When I knocked on his door he told me he didn’t like my “ethics or manners,” ordered me off his land and threatened to call the sheriff. When I phoned him he shouted down the line, “I have nothing to say. My friend, I don’t need to defend myself. I’ve done nothing wrong and I don’t need to talk to you or anyone else.” He proceeded to insult me a few times, and then hung up.

Justice creeps nearer
Sometime in the next few months, the judge hearing Darrell Cannon’s case will make his rulings. Known to be no fan of defendants, Judge John Morrisey may nevertheless have to confront the torture charges laid out before him by doctors who specialize in treating torture victims, an investigator from the Office of Professional Standards and the personal testimony of several prisoners. Ex-police chief Brzeczek, who now practices law as a defense attorney, believes that all those who claimed torture at the time of their trial, but who weren’t listened to, should now get new trials.

In the end, this is not primarily a story about innocent men framed for crimes they did not commit, although that is certainly a big part of it. Rather, it is about how a democratic society, that claims to imbue all its citizens with “inalienable rights,” deals with those people — almost always poor and often non-white — who have chosen, or fallen into, lives of crime, or who have otherwise fallen outside the margins of the acceptable.

“People are entitled to a fair trial,” says a colleague of Judge Morrissey’s who is involved in hearing the appeal of another prisoner who confessed at the hands of Burge. “That’s the real issue.”

Photos by Andrew Lichtenstein


Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods


Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.