Jury selection under way in Burge trial

May 24, 2010 (CHICAGO)

Jon Burge is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice.

The name, the lawsuits and the protests have been part of Chicago fabric for so many years it's not surprising that almost all of the prospective jurors questioned Monday knew the name Jon Burge, and they know the nature of the government's case against him.

One potential juror said, "I've been reading about this case for years. I have some strong feelings and I don't think I could put them aside." She was excused. But most others in the jury pool -- under questioning -- said that while they had heard about the case, they don't have fixed opinions.

Protesters outside the Dirksen Federal Building do have fixed opinions. They believe Jon Burge and a circle of officers under his command did torture suspects and coerce confessions. Anti-Burge demonstrations like the one today have been going on for roughly two decades. The difference is, Burge is now about to be tried not for torture, but for lying about it.

The former Chicago police commander, now 62 and in declining health, arrived early Monday at the Dirksen Federal Building.

In court, Burge watched and listened as prospective jurors were brought in one at a time and questioned. Most said they were aware of the case and the charges. A few said they had strongly held opinions, but most said they could put aside whatever they had heard and fairly judge the evidence.

"It is very important that he get a fair trial that the men who were tortured by him -- 110 men -- did not get," said attorney Flint Taylor.

Taylor has represented some of those men who were wrongly imprisoned. What he and others will be keenly watching will be testimony from a Burge subordinate, now retired Detective Mike McDermott, who has been granted immunity and is expected to provide direct knowledge of some of the incidents of alleged torture under Burge's command.

"If McDermott comes forward and tells the truth under the grant of immunity, then that is something qualitatively different than the cover-up that's gone on for these many years," Taylor said.

The city fired Burge in 1993 and has paid out millions in civil settlements and legal fees in the years that have followed.

"This trial should have been settled a long time ago. We should have been out of this. Justice has to be served, no matter what," said Ald. Ed Smith, 28th Ward.

At last count, 27 prospective jurors were questioned Monday in Judge Joan Lefkow's courtroom. Nine of them were excused.

Most of those were let go not for any perceived bias, but because of childcare issues, or their employers won't pay them for time off in a trial that may take may run a month to six weeks.

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