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Editorial: Stop dragging out police abuse suits

Updated: October 3, 2011 12:06PM

Too bad federal Judge Elaine Bucklo is not the mayor of Chicago.

Maybe then the city would get out of the business of fighting no-win lawsuits brought by the alleged victims of former police torture meister Jon Burge.

In March, during a hearing in a suit brought by former prison inmate Ronald Kitchen, who was wrongly convicted of murder, Bucklo looked around her courtroom at a slew of attorneys for the city and marveled:

“There’s an awful lot of you . . . Does this make sense? I don’t understand why this case, why you don’t settle. [Kitchen] was declared innocent. Burge is in jail. Have you tried to settle this?”

“I don’t see it in the near future,” replied Richard Bueke, one of Burge’s city-paid attorneys. “Plaintiff’s bar sees this as a cash cow.”

Judge Bucklo is right — the city should settle immediately. And Bueke is half right — Kitchen’s suit against Burge and the city is a cash cow for Kitchen and his lawyers.

As it should be.

Kitchen spent 21 years in prison — 13 on Death Row — for a multiple murder he did not commit, convicted based on a false confession extracted by officers working for Burge. Kitchen alleges he was deprived of food and sleep while detectives beat him with their fists, a phone book and a telephone receiver and struck him in the genitals with a nightstick.

Why shouldn’t Kitchen, who is 45, be generously compensated for a miscarriage of justice that threw him into the pit of prison for almost half his life?

Nobody seriously doubts that Kitchen was a victim of Burge’s notorious “Midnight Crew.” The evidence that Burge tortured dozens of suspects during the 1970s and ’80s is overwhelming. Last year, his deeds finally caught up to him when he was convicted of perjury and sentenced to prison for four and a half years. A federal jury decided he had lied under oath when he said he had not tortured suspects.

In continuing to fight lawsuits brought against Burge, his accomplices and the city, City Hall is playing a losing hand. The city already has paid out $21 million to settle 10 suits, and six more suits are pending. The city has shelled out $13 millions to lawyers.

But the cost to Chicago is not only, or even predominantly, monetary. The real price Chicago pays in dragging out these suits is to the reputation of the police department and the city as a whole. Legal battles against torture victims make for a lousy marketing strategy.

As Carol Marin reported in Tuesday’s Chicago Sun-Times, former Mayor Richard M. Daley is now likely to be deposed — for the first time — by lawyers representing Burge’s alleged victims, a development sure to guarantee that this ugly story stays in the headlines. U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer allowed Daley’s name to be added to the list of defendants in a suit filed by former prison inmate Michael Tillman.

Daley, in our view, never did enough to end Burge’s reign of terror as Cook County state’s attorney or call him to account as mayor. But he did take steps to repair the police department’s damaged reputation, beginning with his decision to hire Jody Weis as superintendent. Weis had zero tolerance for cops who crossed the line.

The longer Chicago refuses to settle these police torture cases, the more the city’s reputation suffers.

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