Let commission investigating police torture move forward with its work

The attempts to hobble the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, which has uncovered case after case of credible allegations of torture and has hundreds of cases still to investigate, should stop.

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Jackie Wilson, center, flanked by his attorneys Flint Taylor, left, and Elliot Slosar, right, speaks to the press outside Cook County Criminal Court after a hearing about prosecutorial misconduct Friday afternoon, Oct. 2, 2020.

Jackie Wilson, center, flanked by his attorneys Flint Taylor, left, and Elliot Slosar, right, speaks to the press outside Cook County Criminal Court after a hearing about prosecutorial misconduct on Oct. 2, 2020. Wilson is a torture survivor of late Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Since it was created in 2009, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission has had a rough go of it as it looks for credible claims of police torture.

Attempts to hobble the commission, which have come from different directions, should stop. The commission should be allowed to finish its work, unencumbered by attempts to take it down a peg.

As this page has repeatedly pointed out, it’s never been smooth sailing for TIRC. After it was created, commissioners weren’t appointed for nearly a year. In 2012, the Legislature stripped its funding. After funding was restored, TIRC was the victim of a long, 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. Later, then-Gov. Bruce Rauner withdrew the nominations of new commission members, so the body lacked a quorum. In 2021, the Cook County public defender’s office said it would no longer represent men for whom TIRC found credible evidence of torture.

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But despite the obstacles, the commission toiled away, proving its worth by unearthing credible evidence of police torture in case after case. Among the nine men released from prison and four who had charges dropped were James Gibson, freed in 2019 after 29 years behind bars; Shawn Whirl, freed in 2015 after nearly 25 years; Arnold Day, freed in 2018 after 26 years; and Jackie Wilson, who received a certificate of innocence in 2020 after 36 years in prison. TIRC’s request for DNA testing for Mark Maxson not only helped to free Maxson, but also helped to lead to the arrest of the real culprit, who is serving 50 years in prison.

That’s an exemplary record that should bring TIRC respect. Instead, new obstacles keep threatening its work. For example, two court cases are working their way through the system that could reduce the purview of TIRC and the courts.

Also, a poorly thought-out state Senate bill would expand TIRC’s responsibility for cases involving alleged police torture throughout the state instead of just in Cook County, a potentially huge task the commission was never designed to handle.

Undercutting important work

Perhaps most alarming, two special prosecutors representing Cook County are arguing in Will County Circuit Court that the law that created TIRC is unconstitutional. A similar constitutional argument against the TIRC statute was raised two years ago by former prosecutor Lawrence Hyman in the case of Jackie Wilson, but it has never been ruled on. The argument raised against TIRC is that it blurs the line between the judicial and executive branches.

The two lawyers in the Will County cases, Fabio Valentini and Maria McCarthy, are working on cases involving former Chicago Police Det. Kriston Kato, who has been accused of torture. After TIRC found credible evidence of torture, the cases were transferred to Will County to avoid a conflict of interest in Cook County courts.

Valentini and McCarthy, who defense lawyers say oddly enough have their own conflicts of interest, are arguing the claimants in the case should not get a hearing in court. The two lawyers are going after TIRC in the county’s name. Where are the county officials who are supposed to be providing oversight?

It’s shocking that lawyers representing Cook County are trying to undercut the workings of a body that was created to deal with one of the most outrageous scandals in the City of Chicago’s history, that of police torture involving former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his midnight crew of cops in the 1970s and 1980s. TIRC’s original role has been expanded to deal with all cases of alleged police torture in Cook County, not just those related to Burge.

Bringing justice

The law that created TIRC is not overly expansive. An argument could be made that all of the cases of men victimized by police torture should be thrown out, as have many of those involving disgraced former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts. Instead, the commission winnows down the complaints it receives to only those that involve credible evidence of police torture. Then it refers the cases to judges, who examine each case on its own merits. The statute that created TIRC is very reasonable.

The horrors of police torture were appalling, and TIRC not only has brought much of that to light, it has also brought justice to men who spent years behind bars.

The torture inquiry commission still has 445 cases to research and report on. What Illinois should really be talking about is giving TIRC more lawyers so it can finish its work more quickly.

Pulling the plug on TIRC now would be just another tragic piece of an unconscionable chapter in Chicago and Cook County history. Don’t do it.

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