Families of Murder Victims Finally Defeat Torture Commission in 1983 Case
FOP Miss Another Opportunity?
The Illinois Torture and Relief Commission (TIRC) voted 5-3 not to let a case involving a double murderer head back to a judge for review.
In a heated meeting in which family members of the Mahaffey victims were forced to leave, the commission voted that Jerry Mahaffey, who murdered Dean and Jo Ellen Pueschel in 1983, would not recommend that his case get a judicial review on the claims he was tortured into confessing.
Jerry and Reginald Mahaffey’s murder of the Pueschels in 1983 shocked the tranquil far north side community of Rogers Park. The two men climbed into the Pueschel’s apartment from an open window and attacked 11-year-old son Ricky, raped Jo Ellen Pueschel and then murdered her and her husband Dean. They left Ricky for dead, but he survived and eventually testified against the Mahaffeys.
The Mahaffeys were arrested on the south side by detectives who had once worked with Jon Burge. Riding the torture claims bandwagon against Burge and his men, Jerry Mahaffey claimed he too was tortured into confessing.
After a double murder, rape, and attempted murder of a child, all during a home invasion, when the proceeds of the crime were found stacked in his apartment and the pair were turned in by their own brother, what other defense was there for Mahaffey?
Mahaffey’s torture claims never went anywhere in court. He was eventually sentenced to death, but ended up with a life sentence after the abolishment of the death penalty. The family members of the Mahaffey murders thought their ordeal was over after Mahaffey’’s conviction, but the establishment of TIRC in 2009 breathed new life into Mahaffey’s claims.
The family members spent an agonizing several months trying to wage what seemed to be an all but doomed fight to prevent Mahaffey’s case from getting back into court. If it did, Mahaffey could eventually have been set free.
But the family members hit on a crucial strategy.
They brought a prosecutor in the case, Irv Miller, to the TIRC meeting. Miller walked the commission through his investigation, showing clearly there was never any indication that Jerry Mahaffey was abused in any way. With Miller’s statements, the family members of the Mahaffey victims got the votes they needed.
The Mahaffey case comes in the wake of TIRC caught up in its own scandals. Last year, after TIRC members were caught failing to notify family members of victims that they were taking up cases—violating the mandate of their own statute— many people, including Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, were questioning its very legitimacy.
“There’s no oversight to this commission. I don’t know who they report to, if anybody. I don’t think anybody’s watching or vetting what they’re doing,” she said. “It appears they’re having these proceedings and they are closed-door…”
Indeed, a crucial question is emerging whether TIRC is even constitutional. How legitimate is a state-funded agency that creates a special class of defendants? How legitimate is a state commission that circumvents the judicial process?
Specifically, TIRC allows defendants to jump to the third stage of the post-conviction process.
“And that’s exactly what happens in a TIRC referral—the defendant bypasses the first two stages and goes right to a third stage evidentiary hearing” said Joe Heinrich, brother of murder victim Jo Ellen Pueschel in a statement to Crooked City. “Regardless of what some of the more clueless TIRC commissioners say, a TIRC referral puts convicted murderers on an unconstitutional fast track towards freedom.”
Murderers on a fast track to freedom? Sounds like a kind of paradise for wrongful conviction zealots, obtained through yet another end-around the judicial process.
As it is, arguments by commission members often have difficulty passing the smell test. Family members of the Mahaffey victims, for example, presented a body of evidence showing that claims by commission member Steven Miller were clearly false.
Miller seemed visibly angry at the presentation of the evidence. He eventually voted in the minority, in favor of Mahaffey’s case going forward, despite former prosecutor Irv Miller’s detailed account of the Mahaffey arrest. One wonders if there was any evidence whatsoever that could have swayed Miller.
One also wonders why commission members, including Miller, had never sworn in former prosecutor Irv Miller at a previous meeting to hear his side of what happened in the case. TIRC investigators had interviewed Miller at another time. But the questions by the commissioners on Wednesday night seemed largely unaware of what Miller knew about the case. They peppered Miller with elementary questions. Did the TIRC investigator report accurately to the commissioners what Miller said in the previous interview? Or did commissioners not bother to read what Miller said to the TIRC investigator? Here it was the day of the big vote and the commission seemed largely ignorant of what Irv Miller had to say.
Perhaps if commission members had interviewed Miller under oath at an earlier meeting, the Mahaffey case would have never gone forward and the family members of the victims would not have endured so many years of terror, wondering if Mahaffey would be walking the streets again. And one other question: Why did the family have to bring former prosecutor Miller forward? Why didn’t TIRC?
Wholly absent from the discussion by Commissioner Steve Miller and the other members is the mounting evidence of corruption within the wrongful conviction movement that gave life to the commission. One wonders, for example, how retired head of the Northwestern Law School, Rob Warden, can even be a allowed as a member of the commission given the vast evidence of corruption at Northwestern University while Warden worked there.
The main body of evidence at Northwestern involves former Professor David Protess, who was fired in 2011 from the school for lying about his cases, including altering evidence subpoenaed by prosecutors. Protess’ seminal wrongful exoneration of Anthony Porter has fallen apart under renewed legal scrutiny. A judge recently declared that the man Protess fingered for the 1982 double murder, Alstory Simon, was innocent. Cook County Prosecutor Anita Alvarez released Simon from prison last year, saying Protess had violated Simon’s constitutional rights when he coerced a confession from Simon.
Simon’s attorneys have asserted in a $40 million lawsuit against Northwestern and Protess what they call a pattern of corruption in Protess’ wrongful conviction investigations. Given this degree of corruption at Northwestern, it hardly seemed imaginable that Warden, who coauthored two books with Protess, could be considered a legitimate, unbiased or even competent candidate for TIRC.
And the evidence of corruption in the wrongful conviction movement extends beyond just Northwestern. It calls into question the entire basis for the establishment of TIRC. There is now as much need for an investigative body into the city’s wrongful conviction movement as there is one for the police.
And here the meeting last night represents another crucial lost opportunity for the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents cops in Chicago. Last night’s meeting was a perfect opportunity for the FOP to confront the torture commission on the corruption within the wrongful conviction movement and the commission’s wholesale failure to consider it in their own deliberations.
An FOP representative could have pointed out to the commission that the evidence of corruption in the wrongful conviction movement is stronger and every bit as chilling as anything leveled against the police, including Jon Burge.
The evidence in the Porter case, for example, indicates that Northwestern and Protess conspired to free a cold-blooded killer and convict a man they knew to be innocent. Isn’t that what they accuse the police of doing, particularly Jon Burge?
An FOP representative could have asked TIRC members why they refuse to consider this evidence, revealing in their failure to do so their intense bias that casts yet another shadow on their legitimacy.
An FOP representative could have explained to the commission that the more likely reason detectives plead the fifth in wrongful conviction claims like the Mahaffeys’ is not that they are hiding any guilt. It is that they perceive the commission—and the wrongful conviction movement in general—as a kind of witch hunt against cops, the intense anti-police hysteria in the city codified in a state commission whose mission and methods are largely unexplained and for whom there seems little, if any, accountability.
But no one from the FOP spoke or issued a statement. Instead, what saved the day was a former prosecutor and the organization and commitment of the family members of the Mahaffey victims.
For these family members, the TIRC vote is a victory in a war they have been battling for many years. For the police, the vote is a victory in a long battle, for TIRC has set their sights on a whole new generation of detectives.
One of the detectives in the Mahaffey case was Jack Bryne. Let the record now be straight: His conduct in the Mahaffey case was unimpeachable. Every shred of evidence in the long history of the case proves it. It was his and his colleagues’ work that took two monsters off the street and put them in prison for the rest of their lives.
There is much work to be done. Detectives in the Mahaffey case are part of a growing number of cops and detectives throughout the city, old and new, who have been caught in the crosshairs of the wrongful conviction movement.
Nothing will change until their union steps up. Until then, any cop can be tossed into the machinations of the most Crooked City.
Martin Preib is a Chicago Police Officer and writer. His first book, The Wagon and Other Stories From the City, was published by the University of Chicago Press. His second book, Crooked City, is available on Amazon. His articles have appeared in Playboy, The Chicagoan, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, and New City. He is currently working on his third book about former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and an arson in 1987, titled Burn Patterns.