Unholy Alliance Seeks to Dismantle Illinois Torture Commission

In 2009, in the wake of the indictment of notorious Chicago police torture ringleader Jon Burge, the Illinois Legislature passed the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission Act. The Act, which was championed by Black People Against Police Torture and other Chicago anti-torture activists, created a Commission that was empowered to take complaints from alleged victims of police torture, investigate the cases, and, where appropriate, send the case back to court for a hearing. The Act provided a hopeful new remedy for those men, almost all African American, who still languished behind bars, decades later, on the basis of confessions which they claimed were tortured from them.

The Act was not welcomed by the Cook County State’s Attorneys’ Office, which had recently changed hands from Richard Devine to Anita Alvarez. Devine was a first lieutenant to then Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley in the early 1980s when compelling evidence of police torture first came to light, and participated with Daley in the decision not to investigate or prosecute Burge and his men. He then left the State’s Attorneys’ Office and went on to represent Burge in the civil rights case brought by torture victim Andrew Wilsonagainst Burge, a case that was instrumental in uncovering the fact that torture was a pattern and practice of the Chicago Police Department. In 1996, Devine was elected Cook County State’s Attorney and steadfastly refused all demands to investigate Burge, while staunchly fighting against all legal efforts to free the torture victims who had been convicted during Daley’s reign.

Alvarez joined the State’s Attorneys’ Office under Daley and rose in the ranks under Devine, prosecuting at least one torture related case along the way. In 2002 the Chief Judge of the Cook County Criminal Court disqualified Devine’s State’s Attorneys’ Office and appointed a Special Prosecutor to investigate Burge, in 2003 he disqualified the SAO from all Burge-related torture cases, and he reaffirmed this decision on two occasions, most recently in April of 2013 after Alvarez again sought to re-enter the cases.

Meanwhile, advocates for the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission (TIRC) fought to get the Commission funded, and it began to investigate the more than 100 complaints that it had received. The Director of the Commission, a well-respected criminal defense lawyer named David Thomas, enlisted experienced volunteer attorneys from large Chicago law firms to assist in the investigations. In June of 2012 the Commission found five cases worthy of hearings, but it appeared that its work would be aborted because the State cut off its funding. Fortunately, community outrage led to the Commission’s refunding by the Legislature.

Consequently, in May and July of 2013 the Commission determined that eleven more cases should be sent back to Court for hearings. Among those cases were two that were highly politically charged – - – Jerry Mahaffey and Jackie Wilson. Mahaffey and his brother had confessed to a gruesome double murder committed in Devine’s north-side neighborhood and opposing their claims of torture had been a personal crusade for Devine and the State’s Attorney’s Office for more than a decade. Jackie Wilson, who was Andrew Wilson’s brother, had confessed to being his brother’s accomplice in the murder of two Chicago police officers, and the Wilson brothers’ case has been a rallying cry for the Fraternal Order of Police, the Police Memorial Foundation, and all torture deniers in the Chicago Police Department and the State’s Attorneys’ Office for thirty years.

Seizing on the fact that an overworked Thomas had neglected to notify the victims of the crimes in the Mahaffey and Wilson cases as was required by the TIRC statute, Alvarez complained to Illinois Governor Pat Quinn who at that time still feared a formidable primary challenge from Richie Daley’s brother Bill. She also planted the story with some of her pals in the media, and Quinn dutifully called for David Thomas’ immediate resignation. Although one of the authors of the bill, well respected civil rights attorney Standish Willis, pointed out that notification of the crime victims was included in the law as a courtesy to them and that they would rarely have relevant evidence on the issue of whether the confession was a product of torture, Quinn nonetheless demanded Thomas’ immediate resignation, and the Commission withdrew its recommendations in the Mahaffey and Wilson cases.

Thomas, rightfully indignant that Quinn, Alvarez, and their unholy alliance of torture apologists were using the notification pretext to scuttle the Commission and its continuing vital work, refused to tender his resignation, and the question was placed on the agenda for the Sept. 25 Commission meeting for decision. Afraid that his alliance would lose the vote, Quinn hastily filled three longtime vacancies on the Commission with handpicked Commissioners the week before the meeting.

On Sept. 25, the hearing room was packed – - – with torture survivors, their families, and anti-torture activists on one side, and the crime victims’ families wearing yellow ribbons and representatives of the State’s Attorneys’ Office and the Police Memorial Foundation on the other. Former police Superintendent Phil Cline, who had succeeded Burge as Area 2 Violent Crimes Commander, was prominent among the torture deniers, who were apparently represented by disgraced Burge attorney Andrew Hale, whose firm has collected more than 20 million dollars in attorneys’ fees from the City over the past ten years for representing a menagerie of alleged police torturers and brutalizers.

The Commission scurried into private session to consider Thomas’ fate, and nearly ninety minutes later returned to announce that Thomas had indeed “resigned” effective on Sept. 30. The vote was 5-4, with the three Quinn appointments toeing the governor’s line and voting to force the resignation.

Not content with axing Thomas, the Commission called an emergency meeting for the next Monday, and, without considering any other candidates, appointed the governor’s handpicked candidate to replace Thomas. A longtime state bureaucrat with no experience in investigations, criminal justice, or police torture, the new “interim” director will not have the benefit of a transitional period where Thomas, who had intended to resign before the end of the year in any event, could educate him about the many pending investigations and the procedures of the Commission. As a result, the Commission’s important work is at a standstill.

This political power play, orchestrated by Anita Alvarez with the willing assistance of the governor, is an end run around the Cook County Courts by a State’s Attorney whose office has been disqualified from contesting the torture cases that the TIRC sends back for hearings. Even more disturbing, in one of the TIRC cases, she was the in-court prosecutor who sent the torture victim to the penitentiary on the basis of what the Commission later found, by a preponderance of the evidence, to be a confession that was tortured from him.

Ignoring her obvious conflict of interest, Alvarez has escalated her attack on the TIRC, calling for the removal of the Commissioners who sided with Thomas and the appointment of pro-police substitutes. It is clear that Alvarez has set out to destroy the TIRC by rendering it completely ineffective. For his part, Governor Quinn continues his sorry record with regard to wrongful conviction cases — a record that is marked by his refusal to act on pardoning a number of obviously innocent men and women who have been wrongfully convicted — by effecting Alvarez’ devious plan. Once again, the onus is on the forces that have battled for justice in the torture cases to fight back in order to save the Commission and its important work.


This article was first published in the Huffington Post.