In 2009, the Illinois Legislature, in response to the demands of Chicago community activists led by Black People Against Police Torture, passed the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission Act.
The act, which was championed by Illinois State Senator Kwame Raoul, “establishes an extraordinary procedure to investigate and determine factual claims of torture,” and empowers the TIRC to screen such claims, and, where appropriate, to “conduct inquiries into claims of torture with priority to be given to those cases in which the convicted person is currently incarcerated solely for the crime to which he or she claims torture by Jon Burge or officers under his command, or both.”
The eight person commission, chaired by a former Cook County Judge, was forced to operate on a meager yearly budget of $150,000. Nonetheless it took on the formidable task of screening more than 100 claims of torture by Illinois prisoners. Early this year, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn approved the inclusion of $235,000 in this year’s state budget for the TIRC, but the Illinois Legislature voted instead to eliminate all of the TIRC’s funding.
The commission went down fighting, however. As their doors were shuttered in June of this year, the commission issued findings that there was “credible evidence” of torture in claims made by five African-American prisoners. In several of those cases, well-known disciples of the notorious Chicago police torture ringleader, Jon Burge, were directly implicated.
In the Shawl Whirl case, the commission found by a preponderance of evidence that detective James Pienta, who had a 15-year history of allegedly aiding Burge in torturing African-American suspects, had repeatedly slapped and beaten Whirl in an attempt to obtain a confession from him, and had placed a bag over his mouth to muffle his screams. The commission further found that after Whirl had agreed to confess, Pienta “rehearsed” with Whirl what he should say when he gave his formal statement to the assistant state’s attorney, and whenever Whirl made a mistake in repeating what Pienta told him, Pienta dug a key into a pre-existing wound on Whirl’s leg.
The commission went on to highlight the compelling evidence of systematic torture perpetrated by Burge and Pienta’s connection to it that had emerged since Whirl’s unsuccessful motion to suppress his confession was heard in 1990, and concluded that, without his confession, the case against Whirl was “weak” because it lacked any eyewitnesses or compelling forensic evidence.
The commission also found the allegations of torture in the Gerald Reed and George Anderson cases to be credible. Both men were interrogated by a team of detectives working under Burge in the early 1990s. The most prominent of the accused detectives was Michael Kill, who had famously testified in the Ronald Kitchen torture case that he had used the epithet “nigger” “more than a million times.”
As provided in the act, the commission referred its findings to the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Timothy Evans, who, on September 19, 2012, randomly assigned the cases to sitting criminal court judges for further judicial review. According to the act, that review may include an evidentiary hearing on the allegations of torture, a new trial, and, ultimately, dismissal of the underlying criminal charges. Unfortunately, in four of the five cases, the assigned judges are former Cook County assistant state’s attorneys who served in the States Attorneys’ Office during the Burge torture era.
Whirl’s lawyers have moved for the appointment of the current Cook County Special Prosecutor, Stuart Nudelman, to represent the State in Whirl’s case. The Cook County State’s Attorneys’ Office has indicated that it may oppose the appointment, despite the fact that the chief judge of the Criminal Division, Paul Biebel, citing a conflict of interest occasioned by former States Attorney Richard Devine’s previous representation of Burge while Devine was in private practice, has appointed a special prosecutor to represent the State in Burge related torture cases on several prior occasions.
The lawyers for the five men are expected to ask for full evidentiary hearings and new trials on the basis of the TIRC’s findings. Meanwhile, the commission’s dedicated executive director, David Thomas, seeks to continue the commission’s work with volunteer attorneys, and Black People Against Police Torture is pressing its demand, against long odds, that the Legislature reinstate the commission’s funding. As Thomas told the Chicago Tribune in June, the money is “chump change” when considered in light of the commission’s important unfinished business of reviewing claims of police torture that the Cook County Criminal Courts have either consciously ignored or wrongfully rejected.