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Slow walk to Burge justice appears to be getting slower

Former Chicago police Cmdr. JBurge 2011. | Sun-Times file photo

Former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge in 2011. | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: October 16, 2013 6:43AM

An Illinois state commission responsible for investigating claims of police torture has been so tied in knots by red tape and underfunding that, four years after its creation, not a single case has made it as far as an evidentiary hearing.

Now, instead of speeding things up, Gov. Pat Quinn and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez are criticizing the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, and Quinn has called on the executive director to resign. That would cause yet another delay in justice that would be unconscionable.

The commission’s job is to root out any remaining cases in which innocent men are languishing in prison because of statements extracted through police torture in the 1970s and ’80s by former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his so-called Area 2 midnight crew. More than 100 men have claimed they were tortured, and so far the commission has made recommendations in about 25 cases, either rejecting them or forwarding them for further judicial review.

But in three cases, the commission’s staff — which consisted of the executive director and a secretary — neglected to notify relatives of victims about the hearings, as the law requires. It was clearly an oversight by an overworked staff and the commission has rectified it by pulling back the cases so that family members may testify. But relatives of victims in one of the cases, the 1983 home invasion, rape and murder of Dean and JoEllen Pueschel and the beating of their son, understandably remain angry that they weren’t notified.

In a letter on Wednesday, Quinn said he has asked the commission’s executive director, David Thomas, to step down and called on the commission to remove him if he did not do so. Quinn also said he would fill three vacancies on the commission “in the coming days,” presumably to build support for dumping Thomas, who has refused to quit. Alvarez also is criticizing the commission, although no one ever has called for her resignation when someone in her office — which has far more resources — forgets to notify relatives of a legal proceeding.

Just this week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel apologized for the Burge atrocities, calling it “a dark chapter on the history of the city of Chicago.” The city has paid out more than $83 million for Burge-related cases. The Torture Inquiry Commission needs to dig through the remaining claims and bring this dark chapter to a close.

That’s a tall order for a panel that’s seen nothing but roadblocks.

After the Legislature authorized the creation of the commission in 2009, it sat dormant for about a year until Quinn finally appointed commissioners.

When the commissioners finally had a quorum, they appointed Thomas executive director, but it took four months for his appointment to get through a lumbering state hiring process. It took two more months to hire a secretary. Then the commission had to devote several months to the complicated state-required process of setting up rules and regulations.

In August 2011, the commission finally was able to begin reviewing claims, but in June 2012, the Legislature stripped all its funding, and work stopped. Funding finally was restored in late March, and the commission was pulled out of mothballs. Now, it’s facing another delay.

The commission’s job is not to decide guilt or innocence, but only to determine which cases contain credible claims of police torture. Those cases are referred to Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, who assigns them to judges for further review. Those judges may decide that the torture claims, while credible, are not sufficient to justify an evidentiary hearing. But even those cases that proceed to a hearing won’t necessarily get a new trial, and any new trials won’t necessarily lead to acquittals. And given other strong evidence, the Pueschel case is not a likely candidate for a reversal.

Chicago lawyer Stan Willis, who drafted the original legislation, said he included family notification as a courtesy, but said family members would rarely have relevant testimony about torture claims. They don’t know what happened inside police stations, where torture allegedly took place.

For family members, learning that a horrific case has been reopened for any reason is always disturbing, and it was wrong that the Pueschel relatives were not properly notified. We would be outraged, too.

A compromise in which Thomas is given time to train a replacement might satisfy all parties. But shutting down the commission’s work now should not be an option. If any innocent men have indeed been behind bars for decades because of police torture, any further delay would be indefensible.

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