A Crime Journalist Speaks About his Craft


Veteran Chicago investigative journalist John Conroy discusses how he uncovered a chilling story of police torture in his city —and how it nearly went unnoticed.

John Conroy, the senior investigator at Chicago's Better Government Association, is author of the prizewinning Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, a series of narrative case studies of torturers—ordinary men who, in the service of the state, committed terrible acts of torture. A former veteran reporter for the Chicago Reader, where he broke the story in 1990 about the use of torture by Chicago police, his work has been published and broadcast around the country. He delivered the keynote address at the presentation last month of the 2010-2011 H.F. Guggenheim/John Jay Awards for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting. Conroy's wide-ranging conversation with TCR West Coast Bureau Chief Joe Domanick follows.

The Crime Report: You were researching your book on torture right before you began your groundbreaking stories of police torture in Chicago. How did one lead to the other?

Conroy: I was casting about for case studies in which the reader could identify with the torturer. I didn't want to write about [state sponsored] torture [in then totalitarian] places like Iraq, Argentina or South Africa—but in countries with governments people thought of as “civilized,” like the English in Northern Ireland or the Israelis on the West Bank. I felt that if we saw our torturers as monsters we'd never understand why ordinary men would do such terrible things. They needed to understand how in the right circumstances they could do it themselves. It was then that a friend of mine called and told me about a civil trial taking placing in federal court against members of the Chicago Police Department, in a case filed by [an alleged cop-killer] named Andrew Wilson who said he had been tortured while in custody. So I decided to cover the trial.

TCR: And what happened at the trial that aroused your suspicions?

Conroy: The first witness was [the police accuser] Andrew Wilson. He seemed to be a very frightened man. He always sat in a crouched position, like someone was going to hit him. He told a story about being tortured with electric shock, and being burned against a hot radiator. The accused police officers led by a burly detective and decorated Vietnam veteran named Jon Burge, on the other hand, had the appearance of being fine, upstanding officers. But the evidence, starting with really solid medical evidence, supported Wilson's claims, and after the first trial ended in a mistrial, the police testimony became very suspect, and they started changing their stories.

TCR: What did you find out about a pattern of torture that, in addition to electro-shocks to the genitals and burning suspects on radiators, also included suffocation with typewriter covers, beatings with phone books, Russian roulette and mock executions?

Conroy: Towards the end of the first trial in 1989, Wilson's attorneys started getting anonymous letters from someone in the police department with insider knowledge of the police station where much of the torture took place. And they advised the attorneys to go to Cook County jail and interview a man named Melvin Jones. Jones told them the same kind of torture had happened to him in 1982, just a short time before it happened to Wilson, and that he already testified to the fact at a 1983 hearing. In the transcript Jones was asked: 'So what did Commander Burge say while you were being tortured?' And Jones said Burge asked if he knew [two convicts] Satan and Cochise, because 'they were crawling around on the floor when I did this to them.' When the attorneys talked to Satan he said yes, they'd done the same thing to him in 1973.

TCR: You waited one year before writing your 12,000 word piece for [the alternative weekly], The Chicago Reader, because you wanted to write a story with a long-term perspective. On January 25, 1990, you wrote “House of Screams, Torture by Electroshock: Could it Happen in a Chicago police Station? Did it Happen in Area 2?”Yet no one else wrote the story before you, or for a long time, after you.

Conroy: Much to my amazement, there were reporters present when the story was unfolding, but nobody else reported it.

TCR: What was the reaction to your story?

Conroy: There was almost no reaction, like the story had disappeared in a void. There were three or four letters from readers, and that was it. There was no official response from the police department, no denunciation from the Cook County prosecutor's office [which had failed to prosecute Jon Burge and his fellow officers involved in the torture.] They might have said, look, we prosecuted all these [criminals] who were allegedly tortured, and they were all found guilty of their crimes – this guy Conroy is biased. But instead they said nothing.

TCR: A denunciation probably would have been better for you than no reaction, right?

Conroy: At the time it would have been better. A reaction would have attracted the attention of other reporters. But the fact that the story was met by official silence I think made everyone believe that there wasn't really a story there.”

TCR: Burge was fired, and eventually convicted for lying under oath. But no indictment was ever brought against him related to the torture allegations. In 2006, in a follow-up story, you wrote about the “immense criminality” involved in the torture scandal, including the “hundreds of acts of misconduct qualifying as felonies,” “police superintendents [who] were informed of the torture and knew the identity of the torturers,” What was it about the political and law enforcement culture of Chicago that caused authorities to ignore such serious allegations?

Conroy: The prosecution of police abuse in Chicago by the U.S. Attorney was a field that had been vacated by them for decades. So they left the investigation up to the Cook County [Chicago] State's Attorney, which had good reason not to pursue the allegations because state's attorneys had looked the other way. And there were now 12 men on death row scheduled to die – perhaps innocent, but certainly none had had a fair trial. If they were to reopen these cases and they turned out to be innocent, that would have been very embarrassing. Or if they turned out to be guilty, but the case was tainted and they had to be retried or released – that would have been equally embarrassing. So better not to implicate your office. Who knew how big it might turn out to be? It could throw the entire system into chaos. How many cases would they find? Twelve? Six hundred? One thousand?”

TCR: Was there a racial component in all this? All torturers were white, all the victims black.

Conroy: Yes. The torture all took place on Chicago's South Side, in two areas where Burge was a commander. One of them was an area where Burge had grown up when it was largely white. From 1965, when he graduated, and served in Vietnam, to 1972, when he made detective, the whole area went from almost entirely white to almost entirely black. The communal bonds that hold neighborhoods together were shattered and there was a lot of crime. So Burge was working in a now high-crime neighborhood [that used to be his], and in a police department that was very accepting of brutality back in 1973 – which is the first year we know that Burge used electro-shock torture.

There had been a nine-part-series in the Chicago Tribune at that time that showed just how acceptable police brutality had been at the time. So, enter Burge. He'd served in a unit in Vietnam that had witnessed and taken part in the torture of suspects with electric
shock. So three factors were at work: racial upheaval, high crime rates, and acceptance of brutality with the Chicago police department.

TCR: Illinois' Republican Gov. George Ryan ended his tenure in disgrace, and went to prison in a corruption scandal in which he's still serving time. Yet his actions following the Chicago police torture cases and other allegations of police abuse, showed there was a lot of good in George Ryan as well. Can you comment on that?

Conroy: Yes. Gov. Ryan had been a supporter of the death penalty and had allowed the execution of one man and came within two weeks of allowing the execution of another, before journalism students at Northwestern University were able to discover the real killer in the case. In the meantime, The Chicago Tribune ran a terrific series showing multiple problems with the death penalty, that also focused on prosecutorial misconduct; forced confessions – including the torture cases; bad scientific evidence; terrible defense lawyers and racial disparities in the treatment of African Americans. It showed just how flawed the whole system was.

Ryan was moved by the Tribune series, the work of the Northwestern students and, perhaps my stories. And before he left office in 2000, he declared a moratorium on the death penalty; pardoned four men he said had been tortured into confessing and were innocent, and then gave clemency to everyone on death row. It was amazing. One man just emptied death row in Illinois.

TCR: Your journalism career has now led you in a new direction. What are your current goals and aspirations?

Conroy: My aspirations have changed. It used to be enough for me to just expose [corruption and wrong doing] – that's what I thought my job was. It was up to society to act on it. That part wasn't my job. Now I'm thinking more of results, and what I can achieve in terms of results. I now work for The Better Government Association in Chicago – a nonprofit started in Chicago back in the 1920s by businessmen fed up with corruption. They have a policy arm, in addition to the investigative reporters like me who team up with local media and investigate government wrong-doing of all kinds.

I'm now working on a project on wrongful convictions that I hope will have some impact not so much on those already wrongly convicted, as much as on preventing wrongful convictions on the front end. [We want to show] that there are reforms that can be introduced into the criminal justice system that will prevent them from happening in the first place.

Joe Domanick is West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report, and Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice.

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