On Nov. 2, 1983, as Darrell Cannon recalls it, he was forced to lie down in the back of the detective's car. "That's when they pulled my pants and shorts down," he said, and applied the electric cattle prod to his testicles.
"I felt like I was on fire," says Cannon. "I screamed so hard I was hoarse."
Cannon says the pain finally became so unbearable that he confessed—falsely—to driving a car involved in a murder case. He spent 24 years in prison before being freed in 2006, after prosecutors dismissed the charges against him in connection with a suit he filed alleging that he was tortured by detectives at the infamous Area 2 unit on Chicago's South Side.
The commander of that unit was Jon Burge, a man whose name has long been linked to allegations of police brutality but who has gone uncharged for more than two decades—until earlier this month.
"Those guys who tortured me … it was Burge who taught them," claims Cannon.
Burge, 60, pleaded not guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Chicago to charges of lying to authorities in connection with torture cases. He had been arrested Oct. 21 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice at his retirement home near Tampa, Fla.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, noting that Burge was charged with lying, rather than torture, has made it clear he believes the former commander is responsible for heinous acts. He likened the indictment to the prosecution of the gangster Al Capone. "If Al Capone went down for taxes," Fitzgerald told reporters, "it's better than him going down for nothing."
In the 1980s, it was scarcely a secret in Chicago that many a criminal suspect would go in for questioning with police and come out looking like he had been the loser in a boxing match. It was just another reminder that it was foolhardy to tangle with the Chicago police.
Investigations into allegations of torture have found evidence that police used typewriter covers to suffocate suspects and applied electric cattle prods to the genitals of suspects.
The abuses at Area 2 played a central role in the emptying of Illinois's death row by former governor George Ryan. Pointing to evidence of police brutality, Ryan freed four death-row inmates. Ryan, himself now serving a prison sentence for corruption, also commuted to life the sentences of all those sentenced to death row, saying there were too many doubts stirred by the methods of interrogation.
In Chicago, crowds gathered outside the Federal Building to call out for justice for Burge. Some demonstrators chanted, "Jon Burge should do time." He was released on $250,000 bond. Judge Joan Lefkow set the trial date for May 11.
Burge's lawyer, Richard Beuke, told reporters that the former police commander deserved the standard of "a reasonable doubt" in the case.
Burge was charged with lying in his answer to a questionnaire about abuse. His written reply includes the statement: "I have not observed nor do I have knowledge of any other examples of physical abuse and/or torture on the part of Chicago police officers."
Mayor Richard M. Daley, who was the Cook County state's attorney at the time of Burge's reign as police commander, sloughed off questions that he bore any responsibility for failing to uncover the alleged torture. "I wasn't the mayor," he told reporters. "I wasn't the police chief."
Cannon has a pending civil suit against the city of Chicago, charging that his civil rights were violated.
A soft-spoken man in a brown suit and tie, Cannon appeared last Saturday at meeting of Operation Push, the organization founded by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. People stood in line to shake his hand, hug him and tell their own stories, some with tears in their eyes.
Cannon was 33 and living with his girlfriend in a South Side apartment on the day in 1983 when he says detectives pounded on the door. He says one of them told him, "We have a scientific way of interrogating niggers."
He said detectives took him to a remote section of the South Side, while a second car driven by detectives was parked in a way to block any view by onlookers.
He said one detective put a gun in his mouth while another detective shouted, "Blow that [black man's] head off!" Cannon said he trembled as the detective pulled the trigger. He heard a click. "But the way the mind works, I thought my brains were being blown out the back of my head," he said.
During an interview with NEWSWEEK, Cannon said he still suffers nightmares remembering the torture. He said he still harbors "hatred for the detectives who tortured me and the judges who covered it up."
His lawyer asked Cannon if he wanted to reconsider using the word "hatred" in his comments with NEWSWEEK.
"No," said Cannon quietly, as he shook his head. "I do feel hatred. I hate the very air that they breathe."