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Editorial: Justice is left on budget-cutting room floor

Protesters outside Federal Building where retired Chicago Police Lt. JBurge is awaiting sentencing after being convicted perjury. Thursday January 20

Protesters outside of the Federal Building where retired Chicago Police Lt. Jon Burge is awaiting sentencing after being convicted of perjury. Thursday, January 20 2011. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 7, 2012 8:41AM

Chicago taxpayers have shelled out more than $30 million in legal costs over accusations that former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his “Midnight Crew” tortured suspects to make them confess.

But now the state of Illinois refuses to spend less than 1 percent of that to learn if innocent men remain in prison because of police torture.

That sends the wrong message.

When defendants began complaining of police torture as long ago as the 1980s, judges and juries simply didn’t buy it. But so much corroborating evidence has emerged since then that hardly anyone doubts torture did take place in some cases.

Three years ago, Illinois set up a special commission to investigate whether police torture led to the conviction of innocent men. On Tuesday, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission said it had documented five possible cases, while dismissing four others.

But even as the commission referred those cases — its first — to the Cook County courts for review, it was preparing to go out of business. In the closing days of the legislative session that ended last week, the Legislature cut the commission’s funding from $150,000 a year to zero, starting June 30.

In the flurry of last-minute budget revisions, it’s likely that many legislators didn’t know they’d taken the ax to the commission.

That’s bad news for the more than 100 inmates who have filed complaints of torture. The commission was their only hope of getting a new day in court.

Lots of worthy programs have been cut or eliminated in Springfield. There just isn’t enough money. But this panel, whose commissioners are volunteers, should be allowed to finish its work, which is expected to take about two more years. Much of the investigating has been done by pro bono lawyers, but they have no legal basis to keep working on their own.

No one knows when the Legislature will reconvene. But when it does, it ought to find a few dollars to put this issue to rest.

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