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Don’t stop the work of uncovering police torture

We need to know if innocent men remain in prison. The Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission has hundreds more cases to investigate. Its work is under threat from a lawsuit.

James Gibson, a victim of torture by disgraced Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his “Midnight Crew,” discusses the filing of a civil lawsuit during a news conference in his attorney’s downtown office.
James Gibson, a victim of torture by disgraced Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his “Midnight Crew,” discusses the filing of a civil lawsuit during a news conference in his attorney’s downtown office.
Sun-Times file

Since it was created in 2009, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission has uncovered examples of men who were sent to prison because of statements extracted by police torture.

Among men who have been freed from prison after the commission found credible evidence of police torture are James Gibson, freed in 2019 after 29 years behind bars; Shawn Whirl, freed in 2015 after nearly 25 years, and Arnold Day, freed in 2018 after 26 years.

In one case, that of Mark Maxson, DNA evidence obtained by the commission to establish whether Maxson was tortured not only proved his innocence but also identified the real killer, who was sent to prison for 50 years. Maxson had served nearly two decades in prison.

The commission, which has more than 480 cases still to examine, must be allowed to finish its work. But as part of a lawsuit in federal court, a judge is being asked to rule the commission is unconstitutional.

That would be an unconscionable blow to justice. Illinois needs to do all it can to track down every case of an innocent man languishing in prison because of police torture. Now is no time to put a stop to the commission’s work.

Beyond Jon Burge

The claim that the commission is unconstitutional comes in a response to a civil lawsuit filed by Jackie Wilson, who was freed in 2018 after 36 years in prison after being convicted of taking part in the slaying of two police officers. In 2015, TIRC found credible evidence that Wilson was tortured by police.

The claim of unconstitutionality is argued by Lawrence Hyman, an original prosecutor in the Jackie Wilson case and now a defendant in the lawsuit.

In part, Hyman argues the legislation creating the commission “is unconstitutional on its face” because it could be enforced only for victims of one person, former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge. In the 1970s and 1980s, Burge and his so-called Area 2 Midnight Crew tortured African American men into confessing to crimes. Hyman also argues the commission is unconstitutional because it lets the executive branch of government infringe on final judicial judgments. That view of TIRC’s constitutionality does not appear to be widely shared in the legal community.

The issue about Burge would appear to be moot because about five years ago, the Legislature expanded TIRC’s jurisdiction to cover all cases of police torture, not just those connected to Burge. That brought many more cases under TIRC’s purview. Those cases needs to be investigated.

But besides Hyman’s court filing, the commission faces another new challenge. The Cook County public defender’s office said it will no longer represent the commission claimants because the cases are outside its statutory authority. That means even if the commission establishes credible evidence of police torture, some indigent prisoners won’t have anyone to represent them when their cases are handed over for a judge to review. No one will be looking out for them.

This can’t be the last word. Funding must be found somewhere to help potentially innocent men with credible claims of torture make their case. The commission’s job never was to determine guilt or innocence. It just flags credible allegations of police torture. After that, cases go to court and require the subpoenaing of documents and witnesses. It’s not something claimants can do on their own without a lawyer.

“A dark chapter”

It hasn’t been easy sailing for the commission. After it was created, commissioners weren’t appointed for nearly a year. In 2012, the Legislature stripped its funding. After funding was restored, then-Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez tied things up with an unnecessary fight over who would represent the state’s side during evidentiary hearings. Then TIRC’s executive director was forced out, and all work stopped for months until a new one was appointed. With all the red tape and underfunding, not a single case made it to an evidentiary hearing in the commission’s first four years.

Now that TIRC is making progress, it’s no time to put the brakes on.

In 2013, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel apologized for the Burge atrocities, calling it “a dark chapter on the history of the city of Chicago.”

Yet here we are, eight years later, on the verge of opening another dark chapter by shoving into the slow lane the efforts to find out if innocent men remain in prison — or maybe stopping those efforts altogether. It’s time to speed things up and ensure justice is finally served.

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