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Good choice to head torture inquiry panel

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: February 1, 2014 6:19AM

The Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, which has suffered one near-death experience after another, got a much-needed boost last week when an experienced ex-prosecutor was named to take charge.

Now the commission, which has been virtually moribund since the end of July, must buckle down and complete its work before the fickle Legislature decides once again to pull its funding.

The commission has an immensely important task: Helping to find out whether any innocent men are behind bars because of statements extracted years ago through police torture. But it’s run into one delay after another.

First, Gov. Pat Quinn took about a year to appoint quorum of commissioners. Then, in June 2012, the Legislature stripped the funding, which took nine months to restore. Next, there was an unnecessary battle with Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez over who would represent the state’s side during evidentiary hearings. Most recently, the executive director was forced out in September after complaints that some relatives of victims weren’t notified of proceedings.

Now, though, things are looking up.

The new executive director, Barry A. Miller, has the background to understand what went on in police lockups decades ago. He was a member of the prosecution team that convicted former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge of using electric shock, suffocation and burns to torture suspects in the 1970s and 1980s.

At the same time, as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois from 2000 to 2009, Miller has the experience to steer clear of spurious claims from inmates who might invent tales of torture in hopes of cutting their sentences short.

That’s a good balance. We don’t want to see another round of burying complaints about the misdeeds by Burge — or by his so-called midnight crew of detectives. But we don’t want a commission that’s naive about false claimes of torture, either.

Since the Legislature authorized its creation in 2009, the commission has documented 14 cases of credible torture claims and 16 where the evidence just isn’t there. About 150 cases are waiting for action. August is the deadline for filing new claims.

The commission needs to pick up the pace. Already, work has begun on next year’s state budget, which the governor traditionally presents in February during the budget address. Understandably, the legislators responsible for keeping the commission in the budget will expect to see some results.

A separate attempt to get to the bottom of police torture allegations is an effort by the MacArthur Justice Center and the People’s Law Office to create a class-action lawsuit for Burge victims, giving them evidentiary hearings. Cook County Criminal Courts Presiding Judge Paul P. Biebel Jr. is scheduled in March to issue a written opinion on that option.

But we don’t know how Biebel will rule. Right now, the torture inquiry commission is the only game in town for righting long-ago wrongs inflicted on victims of police torture.

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.

It’s taken decades to get this far in clearing up a sordid stain on Chicago law enforcement’s past. The torture inquiry commission and its new executive director need to make sure the process is wrapped up with all deliberate speed.

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