Ill. lawmakers cut funds for police torture panel

June 5, 2012 - 10:05 PM

CHICAGO (AP) — Dozens of Illinois prisoners who claim they confessed to crimes under police torture may never have their cases reheard because lawmakers effectively shuttered the commission established to review the cases, panel officials said Tuesday.

Lawmakers stripped all of the funding for the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, which was set up in 2009 in the wake of allegations that former Chicago police Lt. Jon Burge and several subordinates tortured suspects.

"These guys will continue to rot in jail based on tortured confessions," said the panel's executive director, David Thomas.

He added that the Illinois Legislature's action last week suggested "benign neglect" at best and, at worst, sent the message, " 'We don't care.' "

Dozens of men — almost all of them black — claimed that, starting in the 1970s, Burge and his officers beat or shocked them into confessing to crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder. 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. He is serving a 4 1/2-year sentence in federal prison for perjury and obstruction of justice.

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.

More than 100 people have filed claims of torture with the commission, and Thomas estimated that at least a third of those filings are likely to have merit.

By creating the eight-member commission three years ago, legislators held out a promise that anyone with a grievance would have somewhere to turn, said Thomas. By voting to yank funding, he said, "That promise is crushed."

With funding cut, Thomas said he and commission members would likely resign, and no further work would be done.

Legislators have cast around for places to cut Illinois' multibillion-dollar budget shortfall. State Sen. Dan Duffy, a Lake Barrington Republican, has pointed to the torture commission as one of many commissions that, however well-meaning, are unproductive.

"There are far too many boards and commissions in this state doing far too little work to justify their enormous cost to taxpayers," a posting on Duffy's official website quotes him as saying. Several messages seeking comment Tuesday weren't returned.

Thomas said he appreciates the need for cost-cutting but argues that righting the wrongs of police torture should be a higher priority.

A statement from Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's office Tuesday said that it proposed the legislature approve $235,000 for the commission, adding that, "We do not have the authority to restore funding to the budget but we feel this issue needs further examination."

The commission took time to get up and running, Thomas said, in part because of a meager annual budget of $150,000. It delivered its first report to Cook County's chief judge on Tuesday, recommending legal action on five out of nine claims so far it vetted.

While the commission would effectively stop functioning by the end of June, one commission member noted that legislators will still be able to say that the body continues to exist — at least in name.

"They have created some kind of an illusion of caring, when, in fact, they have just killed (the commission)," commissioner Rob Warden said.

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