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$5.25 million settlement adds to legal tally from Burge-era police torture cases

Former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge was interviewed by NBC5 while he was at a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina. | NBC5 screenshot

Chicagoans may never know what former Mayor Richard M. Daley had to say in his only sworn deposition about the role he played in the Jon Burge torture era.

But one thing is certain: the only Burge case thus far to produce a Daley deposition will cost beleaguered Chicago taxpayers $5.25 million.

The settlement, expected to be approved Monday by the City Council’s Finance Committee, goes to Alonzo Smith. Smith claims Area 2 detectives Peter Dignan and John Byrne tortured him into confessing to a 1983 murder he did not commit.

Based on that confession, Smith spent 20 years in prison, only to have prosecutors dismiss the conviction in 2015 after a judge declared there was enough evidence Smith had been tortured to grant him a new trial.

A certificate of innocence for Smith is still pending.

“He was threatened by Burge personally, taken to the basement of Area 2, handcuffed to a chair and two of Burge’s most trusted confederates, Dignan and Byrne, repeatedly put a bag over his head and beat him in order to get a confession out of him,” said attorney Flint Taylor, whose Peoples Law Office represented Smith.

The lawsuit contends Smith confessed only after Dignan hit him repeatedly between the legs with a black rubber night stick 16-to-18 inches long. Byrne allegedly kicked Smith in the stomach. Both detectives were accused of hitting Smith with their nightsticks on the palms of his hands and on the backs of his legs.

“Thereafter, they pulled the plastic bag over his head, put a thick brown rubber band around the bag and told plaintiff that they were going to show him how to suffocate a dope dealer,” the lawsuit contends.

“While plaintiff had the bag over his head, defendant Byrne kicked him in the stomach and defendant Dignan hit him in the stomach with his night stick. The next thing plaintiff remembered was getting up off the floor with the bag removed from his head. Dignan and Byrne then picked him up, put him back in the chair and told him that was Round One and reminded him that they had all night.”

When Smith said he could stand no more of the torture, the detectives “told him to tell the truth and instructed him on exactly what to say, then made the plaintiff repeat the story back to them,” the lawsuit contends.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley (pictured in 2014) was questioned under oath in the lawsuit of Alonzo Smith, who says he was tortured by Chicago police operating under disgraced Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his “midnight crew” of detectives. | Ashlee
Former Mayor Richard M. Daley (pictured in 2014) was questioned under oath in the lawsuit of Alonzo Smith, who says he was tortured by Chicago police operating under disgraced Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his “midnight crew” of detectives. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media

Daley was a defendant in Smith’s lawsuit.

Unlike prior Burge cases where the city settled just in time to keep Daley from testifying under oath, Smith’s case was not settled in time.

U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve not only refused to dismiss Smith’s lawsuit, but also ordered Daley to sit for the deposition.

“Alonzo Smith spent 20 years in prison because of the conspiracy to cover up the torture scandal. The judge found that we had made sufficient allegations that Daley was part of the cover-up,” Taylor said Tuesday.

“His role as state’s attorney was immune, but it still was evidence of the continuing conspiracy. And certainly when he was mayor, the judge found — at least in terms of denying the motion to dismiss — that it was part of the continuing conspiracy to falsely imprison Alonzo Smith on the basis of a tortured confession.”

At the behest of Daley’s attorneys, the deposition was sealed with a protective order. But Taylor hopes it won’t stay that way forever.

“If someone goes in front of Judge St. Eve and asks for it, I would hope” the deposition is released, Taylor said.

“It’s in the public interest to know what their public officials have testified about with regard to such important issues in the history of the city of Chicago and the police torture scandal.”

In 2006, Daley said he was willing to accept his share of responsibility and “apologize to anyone” for what he called “this shameful episode in our history.”

But two days after a special prosecutor’s report made then-Police Supt. Richard Brzeczek the primary fall guy for Burge’s pattern of abuse, Daley pointed the finger of blame in the same direction.

Daley categorically denied that he deliberately looked the other way to avoid jeopardizing either his political ambitions or the prosecution of an accused cop killer.

“Do you think I would sit by, let anyone say that police brutality takes place, I know about it, that I had knowledge about it, and I would allow it? Then you don’t know my public career. You don’t know what I stand for,” Daley said then.

“I’m an attorney. I’m proud of my public service as state senator, state’s attorney and mayor of the city of Chicago. I would not allow anything like this. One incident is one too many.”

Daley would remain on the defensive about Burge until the day he retired from politics in 2011.

That paved the way for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to finally write a new chapter — by apologizing to Burge torture victims and doling out $5.5 million in reparations to 57 victims of the Burge police torture era after a painstaking claims process that did nothing to heal the wounds of more recent police shootings.

Burge was sentenced to 4 1/2 years for lying under oath about police torture, but he got time off for good behavior. He was released in 2015 from a halfway house near his home in the Tampa area.

He died in September at age 70.

The mountain of settlements, judgments, reparations and legal fees has already cost Chicago and Cook County taxpayers nearly $140 million. And it’s still growing.