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Editorial: Don’t delay resolution of police torture cases

Mark Maxson after he was released from prison on Tuesday, Sept. 27. | Courtesy ABC7Chicago

We know that from the 1970s through 1991 some Chicago police officers were beating confessions out of suspects.

In 1993, the Chicago Police Department Review Board ruled former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge had tortured suspects. Burge and his “Midnight Crew” of detectives have been implicated in numerous cases of physical abuse. Last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel called that era a “stain” on Chicago.

Former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge leaves the federal building in Chicago on May 24, 2010. | Charles Rex Arbogast/AP file photo

Former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge. | Charles Rex Arbogast/AP file photo

So, once it was clear police had tortured suspects, we pulled out all stops to make sure any innocent men from that era of brutality were set free as quickly as possible, right?

Well, not exactly. We’ve turned out to be much better at throwing up hurdles than actually resolving these cases. Many of them remain in limbo. It’s an unconscionable state of affairs.

EDITORIAL

On Tuesday, a Cook County judge threw out the conviction of Mark Maxson, who spent 25 years in prison for the 1992 murder and sexual assault of a 6-year-old boy. Maxson said police beat a confession out of him. DNA testing in 2015 cleared him and instead matched a different man, a convicted murderer.

There were red-flag warnings in this case from the very beginning. Maxson was convicted of murdering and sexually assaulting a six-year-old boy in Roseland. But even before the trial, authorities knew pubic hair and blood found on the victim and fingerprints on a shard of glass used to stab him did not match Maxson. They shrugged that off and instead based their case on his confession. Who knew back then that some police officers were beating confessions out of suspects?

How many other innocent men are still languishing in prison, put there by statements extracted through police torture? No one knows. But to put anyone, like Maxson, in prison for 25 years for a crime he didn’t commit is a very serious stain on the criminal justice system indeed.

To find out exactly what happened in cases where police torture was alleged, the Legislature in 2009 created the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission to investigate cases for credible evidence of torture. But the commission has run into one roadblock after another. It took about a year for former Gov. Pat Quinn to appoint a quorum of commissioners. Once a commission and executive director were in place, TIRC had to undergo a lengthy rule-making process before it could begin work. In 2012, the Legislature stripped TIRC’s funding, and it wasn’t restored for 10 months. In 2013, the commission’s executive director was forced out, putting everything on hold until a new one was appointed. When Gov. Bruce Rauner was elected, he withdrew the nominations of new commissioners, leaving TIRC without a quorum again. Maxson’s was one of the cases that was delayed.

Also hobbling the commission was a ruling by a Cook County judge that the commission could not investigate police torture in cases unrelated to Burge, leaving many cases in limbo. In July, Gov. Rauner signed a new law that authorized the commission to investigate all Cook County police torture cases. The new law requires new rules, which means TIRC is now back in another lengthy rule-making process that requires, among other things, a 45-day comment period and approval by Illinois’ Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. Because TIRC’s mandate has been officially expanded, the deadline for filing new complaints has been pushed back to August 2019.

Re-investigating these cases is slow, painstaking work for TIRC’s three staff members and some pro bono lawyers who are helping out. Retrieving decades-old case files is time-consuming. Old police files also are hard to find.

It would be easy — but unrealistic at a time when the state can’t even balance its budget — to call for more spending on resources for the commission to speed up its work. But we can urge this: Don’t put up any more unnecessary hurdles until the commission’s work is finished.