John ConroyPhotos by J. GEIL/Staff photographer

Withering electrical shocks. Plastic bag suffocation. Radiator burns to the chest.

For years, prisoners endured terrible, systematic torture as police tried to get them to confess to crimes.

It wasn’t in Iraq, Afghanistan or another war-torn nation, however — it was right here on Chicago’s South Side. Under the leadership of a police commander named Jon Burge, the department repeatedly took suspects and physically tormented them, abusing until they confessed to heinous crimes.

Defendants’ attorneys cried foul. Something terribly wrong had happened to these people, and there was physical evidence to prove it: the victims’ bodies.

But few people bought their stories. Judges, government attorneys, police officials: all deaf to the cries of wrongdoing.

Oak Parker John Conroy changed all that.

As a reporter for The Reader, Conroy wrote tens of thousands of words over the last 20 years about the Chicago Police Department’s “House of Screams” at Area 2 police headquarters on the South Side, where victims were systematically tortured.

And for close to a decade, starting in 1990, he was the only one writing about them. By the time the mainstream press picked up the torture story, Conroy was already on to the next step of the story.

This June, more than 35 years after the first electric shock interrogation related to Burge allegedly occurred, the former commander was convicted by a jury. He’s scheduled to be sentenced in January.

Some say it’s not exaggeration to say that without Conroy, this wouldn’t have risen to such prominence. The spotlight singularly cast by Conroy on the horrific happenings amplified the pressure on public officials as he kept writing story after story, opening the door for inmates to appeal their convictions.

“If he hadn’t gotten the ball rolling, none of this would have happened,” said Jon Loevy, an attorney who’s worked several civil rights cases stemming from Burge. “Nobody does this work without starting with what John put together.”

Attorney Locke Bowman of Northwestern University’s Roderick MacArthur Justice Center has also worked on a number of wrongful conviction and civil rights cases stemming from the tortures at Area 2.

“If it hadn’t have been for John Conroy, Burge’s misconduct would have been like a tree falling in the forest and no one would have heard,” Bowman said. “The mainstream media paid no attention to the story for years — John was the only person who wrote about it. Not only did he write about it, but he wrote about it with enormous skill.”

But as Burge approaches his sentencing, Conroy says he doesn’t feel a great deal of emotion about the event. Like a good reporter, he’s thinking about the next plot line.

“I think somehow people think that because I worked on this for so long, this is some kind of ending for me,” Conroy said. “There’s 20 guys still in prison on the basis of these suspect confessions and there are a lot of officers who committed perjury along the way who could still be prosecuted for that perjury.”

Shocking start

Conroy wasn’t always sold on the story, though. When publishing house Knopf tried to get him interested in a book on torture in the 1980s, he didn’t think it would be worth it. He’d just gone through a nerve-wracking experience on his first book, as his editor had left before it could make it to press, leaving him orphaned.

So he was skittish about starting another one.

“I didn’t want to write a noble book that no one would read,” Conroy said. “But I said I’d look into the possibility.”

He started with a piece on torture victims, researching a clinic that was then in Uptown that treated torture victims. Then, a friend working for a legal journal told him about a curious case that was making its way through the courts — a man named Andrew Wilson, who had been convicted of the 1982 killing of two police officers.

The story wasn’t so much Wilson’s crime, but the horrific tales he told of the way police had treated him.

Wilson was a career criminal and by no means a saint, but he had convincing evidence that police had tortured him at the police station — photographic evidence.

So, he had sued Commander Burge, a slew of other officers and the city, with the help of his attorney, Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office.

Wilson wasn’t very convincing on the stand, Conroy said.

“Wilson crouched down while he was testifying. He looked like he was afraid he was going to get hit at any time, and he was not very articulate. He called the stenographer the ponographer,” Conroy recalled in an interview with Wednesday Journal. “He wasn’t tailored to go over well with a jury.”

But Taylor said it was important for his firm to take the case.

“We ended up representing Andrew, basically, because no one else would,” Taylor said.

The evidence, Taylor said, was just so astonishing.

The pictures — the pictures Wilson had of his wounds were just so powerful and shocking.

“Blowups of the … photos were the most troubling evidence against Commander Burge,” Conroy wrote in his first substantial piece for The Reader on the case. “The chest shots showed marks where Andrew Wilson said he had been burned against the radiator. A picture of his thigh showed a very large burn mark as well. The shots of the ears, however, were the most curious: they showed a pattern of U-shaped scabs that seemed inexplicable unless one believed that [electrified] alligator clips had indeed been attached to Wilson’s ears.

Wilson lost those first two civil trials, but he persisted with his attorneys, fighting to prove that he was tortured at Area 2 on that night in 1982. They eventually prevailed, even though Wilson didn’t see a cent of the money, dying in jail in 2007.

But the trial, and Conroy’s coverage of it, changed the landscape. More and more cases were revealed where prisoners independently said they had been tortured — and with the same techniques, particularly electric shocks.

Justice emerges

The cases started to pile up, and even anonymous letters in Chicago police envelopes began to pour in, backing up the story that Wilson and the People’s Law Office had presented.

Though the police department’s Office of Professional Standards hadn’t found any wrongdoing when it reviewed Wilson’s case at first, it soon became impossible, Conroy wrote, for the city’s lawyers to dispute what had happened. Burge was fired in 1993.

However, the State’s Attorney refused to prosecute Burge for years. With the statute of limitations over on most or all of the cases where Burge had allegedly tortured his victims, they avoided reopening cases — even with the confessions in question of prisoners on death row.

It led then Gov. George Ryan to pardon several death row inmates in 2003 and place an indefinite moratorium on the death penalty. Civil suits began flying at Burge from his victims, and on one of the very first cases — leveled by a man Ryan had pardoned named Madison Hobley, Burge denied under oath having tortured Hobley during interrogation.

The statute of limitations on Hobley’s case had long since been up, having been arrested in 1987. But Burge’s statement opened the door for new charges, and U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald took the bait in 2008, charging Burge with perjury and two counts of obstruction of justice for lying under oath.

In June, a jury convicted Burge on all three counts. If Burge receives the maximum sentence — his sentencing is currently scheduled for Jan. 20, 2011 — he faces up to 40 years in prison.

Work still to be done

Conroy was laid off from The Reader in 2007, 29 years after he wrote his first piece for the paper in 1978. After freelancing for Chicago Public Radio writing about Burge’s trial earlier this year, he was hired last month by the resurgent Better Government Association, a group led by former ABC 7 political reporter Andy Shaw that’s quickly assembling a dream team of investigative reporters on its muckraking staff.

Conroy can’t talk much about what he’s doing these days. The BGA keeps its investigations well under wraps until they’re ready to reveal them, often partnering with a media outlet to get the word out.

So while he can’t say if he’s still looking into what happened at Area 2 all those years ago, he still thinks there’s work to be done.

“Yes, in a way, Burge is always held up as the problem, but it was so much more,” Conroy said. “If his first supervisor had taken him aside and said ‘Burge, if you pull this stuff one more time again, you’re going to be guarding the parking lot down at 11th and State,’ we wouldn’t be talking today.

“It’s the failure of his supervisors in the police department, it’s the State’s Attorney turning a blind eye, it’s judges at the local level who refused to believe what was told to them in evidence presented to them, seeing patterns but not allowing pattern evidence in — higher courts viewing this thing all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court,” Conroy said.

“So no, I don’t think this closes anything,” he added. “Is it a major event? Well, certainly it belongs on the timeline, but I hope that’s not the end of the timeline, and I’d like to see that timeline keep running. Maybe the conviction, that was a significant moment. Now, a jury has said ‘Yes. This happened.’ That’s important. But the labor that it took to get that jury to do that, by so many people over so many years, makes it feel like very small compensation.”

Particularly as the nation’s attitude toward torture changed drastically with the rise of TV shows like “24” and hard-fought wars against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, Conroy wondered aloud in an interview if it was worth it. He did write that noble book that few people read, a tome called “Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People” that was released in 2001, right at the dawn of the war on terror.

“On the one hand, I’m proud of the work — on the other hand, I think it speaks to the ineffectiveness of journalism,” Conroy said. “To work on something like that for 20 years is sort of foolhardy. I mean, someone much smarter than me would have said, this isn’t going to change things a bit, what you’ve done here. Nobody cares.”

But Jon Loevy, the attorney who has represented — and won — several civil rights cases against Burge and his crew, disagreed.

“I think the lawyers get the credit for bringing the cases, but if it isn’t for the journalists uncovering the cases, no one knows about them,” Loevy said. “First there had to be an awareness of this situation, and then it had to gain momentum — at any stage in the process it could have derailed. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that without John Conroy and Flint Taylor, none of this would have happened.”

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Ben Meyerson

Ben was Wednesday Journal's crime, parks, and River Forest reporter, until he kept bugging us enough to promote him. Now he's managing two of Wednesday Journal's sister papers in the city, Chicago Journal...

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