New money rejuvenates torture-claims commission

2013-07-26T21:15:00Z 2013-07-26T23:47:21Z New money rejuvenates torture-claims commissionThe Associated Press The Associated Press
July 26, 2013 9:15 pm  • 

CHICAGO | A fresh injection of cash from the state has revived a nearly dead Illinois commission that examines claims of torture by Chicago police, allowing it to investigate a backlog of 100 cases, its executive director said Friday.

Lawmakers recently approved $300,000 for the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, enabling the panel to vet cases of dozens of prisoners who claim they confessed to crimes under torture, David Thomas said.

The commission was set up four years ago after allegations that former Chicago police Lt. Jon Burge and several subordinates tortured suspects — nearly all of them black — including by pointing loaded guns at them or shocking their genitals with electrical current.

Last year, the Legislature stripped all of the commission's funding as it sought to bring the state's yawning budget deficit under control. But amid lobbying by the panel's supporters, lawmakers approved the new money on May 30 this year.

"We're happy with the funding, which is more than we've ever had," Thomas said in a Friday phone interview. "We're in much better shape." In its early years, the commission had an annual budget of around $150,000.

Thomas had warned last year that legislative moves to yank the commission's funds would likely lead him and the eight commission members to resign. For nine months, the panel's work did stop.

The money allotted for the new fiscal year, which began this month, will allow the commission for the first time to hire a full-time staff attorney and a part-time paralegal, both of whom will investigate cases, Thomas said.

"We will have much more capacity to investigate than we have so far," Thomas said.

The commission's mandate is not to determine if those filing claims are innocent but to decide if it is possible their convictions stemmed from confessions under torture. If so, even if they committed the crimes, they may be entitled to have their cases reopened.

Since it was established, the commission has forwarded nearly 20 cases to a Cook County judge to decide if new trials were warranted.

The commission handed its latest batch of five cases to the court this week. In one, Jerry Mahaffey claims he confessed after officers investigating the slaying of a Chicago couple beat him, put a gun to his head and placed a plastic bag over his head so he couldn't breathe.

Burge was convicted in 2010 for lying in a civil suit when he said he'd never witnessed or participated in the torture of suspects starting in the 1970s. He is serving a 4 1/2-year sentence in federal prison for perjury and obstruction of justice.

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