June 04, 2012
The Chicago Tribune
State torture panel faces an abrupt ending
By: Steve Mills
On Tuesday, a state commission set up to investigate claims of police torture will refer its first cases to Cook County's chief judge, beginning to fulfill its mandate to plumb one of Chicago's most stubborn scandals by making recommendations for legal relief.
Then it will go out of business.
The Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission was approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn in the summer of 2009, a response to the long-standing scandal around former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge and many of his subordinates, who were accused of torturing suspects to get confessions. After appointing a slate of commissioners and hiring a small staff, it launched investigations of its first cases in September.
Its budget last year: $150,000. Its proposed budget for the coming year, which called for adding a staff attorney: $235,000.
The state House and Senate, however, voted last week to strip the commission of its funding, meaning it will go out of business June 30, although the law that gave the commission its existence will remain on the books. The panel's eight voting members, led by a former judge and including a former public defender and former prosecutor as well as three non-attorneys, were unpaid, said David Thomas, the executive director.
Thomas said he is unsure why the funding was cut or how it happened. He simply got notice that the money would not be there.
"It's chump change. But we don't have a real political constituency. Our people are all in prison," Thomas said in an interview Monday. "Theoretically, you still have a torture commission. So they can feel good about themselves but not spend any money to fulfill the promise."
The commission was the product of an effort to grapple with the Chicago torture scandal, which dates to the late 1970s. Claims of torture prompted former Gov. George Ryan to pardon four death row inmates who had claimed they were tortured by Burge or his subordinates. The claims also led to a special prosecutor's investigation that concluded torture by Chicago police had occurred.
Federal prosecutors charged Burge with perjury and obstruction for lying about the torture allegations, and he was convicted in 2010. He was sentenced to 41/2 years in prison and is serving that sentence. Federal officials continue to investigate allegations connected to police torture.
The commission got off to a slow start, finding members and formalizing rules. But when it meets Tuesday afternoon at the State of Illinois Building, it will be fulfilling its mandate as commissioners send to Chief Judge Timothy Evans five cases they found credible. Four cases will be set aside; the claims in those cases, according to Thomas and commissioners, were not credible.
Evans will assign the cases to trial judges who then will decide how each of them should be handled — though the commission does not have the authority to force the courts to act. Prosecutors can challenge claims and are expected to do so. An additional 100 cases or so are in the pipeline, many of them submitted by inmates whose cases arose in Chicago and who say they were abused by officers and detectives who worked under Burge, according to Thomas, a veteran attorney and former professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.
"The commission and the staff have put an incredible amount of work into these cases," said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University and a member of the commission. "But now all of that work is for naught."
Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, a sponsor of the bill that created the commission, said he was unaware funding had been cut.
"With the documented history of torture in our Police Department, you'd think it would be enough of a priority to make sure there was funding," he said.
The governor's office said the $235,000 that was budgeted was appropriate but that it can't restore funding the Legislature cuts.