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Editorial: Change judges in case of Burge-era torture claim

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A judge presiding over a police torture case in which he might be called as a witness is the latest unfortunate barrier to clearing up police torture cases from the notorious reign of former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Burge and his “midnight crew” of police officers routinely tortured suspects, many of whom were sent off to prison on nothing more than the testimony of cops doing the torture. The Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission and a court-appointed special master are digging through the cases to see if innocent men remain in prison. It’s important these cases be dealt with openly and impartially.

But in the case of Jackie Wilson, which will be up in Cook County Circuit Court Thursday, Judge Nicholas Ford’s ties to the case cast needless doubt over his ability to be fair. Ford should take himself off the case and let a judge with no Burge-era ties preside. If he doesn’t, Chief Judge Tim Evans should step in and do it for him.

EDITORIAL


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Wilson and his brother Andrew Wilson were convicted of fatally shooting Chicago police officers William Fahey and Richard O’Brien in 1982. Andrew’s guilt as the shooter is not doubted, but Jackie has always claimed police tortured him into confessing a role in the crime. The evidence that Andrew, who died in prison in 2007, also was tortured was so strong it ultimately helped lead to Burge’s conviction.

In May, the torture commission ruled credible evidence indicates Jackie Wilson was indeed tortured by Burge and other detectives, and referred the case for judicial review. Wilson now has his first chance to be heard in court on his torture claim since he first made it 33 years ago. He deserves an unbiased forum.

But Ford, who was assigned to the case through a random selection process, is a former felony review assistant state’s attorney who has links to several key actors in the Burge torture scandal. Moreover, as judge, he might be called on to rule whether a witness named Keith Walker — from whom Ford himself took a statement that allegedly was extracted by police torture under Burge — is a relevant witness. Wilson’s lawyers, seeking to prove a pattern of police torture, might have to call Ford as a witness to testify about what he knows of Burge-era atrocities. And the special prosecutor in the case also might need to call Ford as a witness if police officers assert their Fifth Amendment rights not to testify.

If Ford rules against Wilson on key procedural points — including whether he himself can be called as a witness — it will raise questions once again about the validity of the case against Wilson, and it will cast another shadow on a shameful chapter of Chicago history.

A judge should not preside over a case in which he has such close ties or in which he might be a witness. Ford seems to have had trouble with that concept in the past, having been rebuked by appellate justices for presiding as a judge on cases in which he had earlier been a prosecutor.

When Wilson and others first complained of police torture, no one believed such things could go on. It’s taken decades, but we now know the tragic extent of physical pain that Burge and his detectives inflicted on African-American suspects. What we don’t know is whether any of the men remaining in prison are innocent.

The attempts to get to the bottom of the Burge scandal have stretched on for years, far longer than is reasonable. Budget cuts, red tape and political opposition have stalled progress time and again.

It’s time for a process that for so long has been mired in obfuscation and denial to be clear and aboveboard. Ford should take himself off the case.
Follow the Editorial Board on Twitter: Follow @csteditorials

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