In the five years since it was created, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission — set up to help find out whether innocent men are sitting in prison because of statements extracted by police torture —has struggled with delays in appointments, a cutoff of funding and a successful campaign to oust its executive director.
Now, state Sen. Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, has introduced a bill in Springfield to restructure the panel.State Sen. Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, is chief co-sponsor.
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The bill, among other changes, would add a ninth commissioner who would represent crime victims; have the governor — instead of the commission — appoint the executive director; and allow a victim to appeal a commission finding to the Cook County chief judge if the commission did not properly follow victim notification rules.
Among Radogno’s constituents is Jerry Heinrich, a critic of the commission over its handling of the Jerry Mahaffey case. Heinrich is the brother of JoEllen Pueschel, who together with her husband Dean was slain in 1983 in their Rogers Park apartment, while their son was beaten. Family members were angry that the commission did not notify them when considering the Mahaffey case, as required by law. Members of the commission said the omission was an error. Jerry Mahaffey and his brother Reginald are serving life sentences for the double murder.
“What this bill tries to do is just clarify the process,” said a Radogno spokeswoman.
Radogno also plans to talk to Gov. Pat Quinn and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez about any concerns they may have with the commission, the spokeswoman said.
One defense lawyer said the bill is part of an effort by opponents to weaken the commission, which “flew under the radar” for a while, but now has begun to “ruffle feathers.”
Cases related to the commission have begun to be heard. On Feb. 13, Cook County Judge Jorge Alonso ruled against Shawn Whirl, who says he was tortured into confessing to the 1990 murder of cabbie Billy G. Williams. Although not technically a TIRC case, information from the Torture Inquiry Commission investigation was used during the hearing. Whirl’s lawyers plan to appeal.
The commission was created in reaction to torture of suspects by former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and other officers.