April 18, 2014
Robert Smith was convicted in 1989 of murdering his wife’s mother and grandmother almost entirely based on a confession he said police beat out of him. Back then, no one believed him when he recanted his confession. And why would they? It wasn’t until 1992 that a Chicago Police Department internal investigations report publicly disclosed that for more than 10 years suspects were systematically abused.
In the decades since that report, police torture by former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his police crew has been well-documented. We know that at least some of the men whose complaints of torture at first fell on deaf ears were telling the truth. But here’s what we don’t know. We don’t know whether innocent men continue to sit in prison all these years because of statements extracted through torture.
Unfortunately, a special commission set up to investigate torture claims — the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission — in recent weeks got a potentially fatal smackdown from Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Gov. Pat Quinn. The executive director was forced out, a bad omen for a panel that — because its core mission stirs up controversial allegations — has been unpopular with some elements of the law-enforcement community from its start. Whether the commission will get a highly qualified permanent executive director and the support it needs to finish its job — including continued funding — is an open question.
That’s unfortunate. As tempting as it is to declare closure and move on from the Burge atrocities, it would be absolutely wrong until every case of possible police torture has been thoroughly examined.
The commission has faced plenty of hurdles since the Legislature created it in 2009. It took about a year for Quinn to appoint a quorum of commissioners. In June 2012, the Legislature stripped its funding, putting the panel in the deep freeze until late March, when funding was restored.
The commission got in hot water most recently when relatives of victims in two cases — Jerry Mahaffey and Jackie Wilson — ripped the commission for neglecting to notify them of hearings into those cases. It was a clerical omission, but Alvarez — whose office was barred last April from contesting the cases referred by the commission because its involvement in Burge-connected prosecutions was a conflict of interest — wrote a letter about it to Quinn, who called for then-Executive Director David Thomas to resign.
Digging into cases of alleged torture is a touchy business. Some of the people who have credible claims of police torture are in fact guilty of heinous crimes. Relatives of victims in those cases don’t want to hear they are being re-examined. But the commission’s job — and this is the heart of the matter — never was to determine guilt or innocence, only to flag credible allegations of torture for further review by the courts.
A separate effort to create a class-action lawsuit for victims of Burge torture is working its way through the courts. Like the Torture Commission, it would grant evidenciary hearings for cases involving Burge-related torture. Unlike the commission, it wouldn’t include cases of alleged police torture that didn’t involve Burge or his associates.
But the class-action effort has yet to be sanctioned by a judge. As for the torture inquiry commission, four years after its creation only one of the 14 cases in which it found credible evidence of torture has made it to Cook County Circuit Court for an evidenciary hearing.
If there are any innocent men watching from their prison cells as the legal and political battles stretch on year after year, they can only feel they are being abused by the system once again.