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Head of panel investigating police torture claims quits under fire

09/25/2013  Chicago  David Thomas director Illinois Torture Inquiry Relief Commissigets ready for public meeting ThompsCenter downtown Chicago Wednesday

09/25/2013 Chicago David Thomas, director of Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, gets ready for a public meeting at the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago on Wednesday, September 25, 2013. | Michael Jarecki/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 28, 2013 7:15AM

The executive director of the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission resigned Wednesday under pressure from the families of crime victims.

David Thomas, 69, resigned effective Sept. 30 after a closed executive session. He said he never intended to serve on the commission past his 70th birthday in October anyway.

The commission looks into whether police torture was used to gain confessions from people convicted of murder and other serious crimes. The law requires the commission to inform victims’ families of the hearings.

Commissioner Rob Warden apologized to the families that weren’t notified. He characterized the error as inadvertent.

“We are very sorry,” Warden told an audience packed into a hearing room at the Thompson Center.

Crime victims’ families — with the support of Gov. Pat Quinn — had called for Thomas’ ouster.

One of them, Joseph Heinrich, is a relative of 1983 murder victims Dean and Jo Ellen Pueschel. He said his family was one of at least nine that weren’t told of hearings that resulted in findings of torture.

Judges could possibly order new trials after reviewing the evidence of torture. The commission has forwarded a total of 17 cases to the courts for review.

On Wednesday, the commission rescinded the decision to send the Pueschel case and two others to the courts to give the families of the victims a chance to speak. But the commission could still vote in November to re-submit those cases to the courts.

One of those cases involved the 1982 murder of Chicago Police Officer William Fahey and his partner Richard O’Brien.

Brothers Andrew and Jackie Wilson were convicted of the killings. The commission found Chicago Police detectives working for now-disgraced Cmdr. Jon Burge had tortured Jackie Wilson into confessing. Jackie Wilson is serving life in prison. His brother died in prison.

The commission itself is an outgrowth of the Burge torture scandal. Burge is serving a prison term for perjury in connection with the cases.

Joe Fahey, a brother of Officer Fahey, was one of those to address the commission Wednesday.

“I lost a brother, an older brother I looked up to,” he said, his voice faltering. “A brother who made me laugh when I needed cheering up. … A brother whose name is the same as my oldest son.”

Mike Fahey, another brother, called the commission’s failure to notify his family about the hearing into the case “an outrage.”

“Let’s do the right thing and keep Jackie Wilson in jail,” he told the commission.

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