Martin Preib

Award-winning Writer





Smoke in the Cockpit of Torture Commission?

Is the The Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission (TIRC) in violation of the Constitution?

That question may be put on the table this summer. 

The commission, established to investigate allegations of torture by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, has been condemned by critics as nothing more than an arm of the wrongful conviction movement. Murder cases that were once long considered finished in the legal system have been resurrected through TIRC, even without the discovery of any new compelling evidence.

But now there are rumors that a movement among lawyers is afoot to eliminate the commission by having it declared unconstitutional. 

If true, abolishing TIRC would be a devastating blow to wrongful conviction law firms and academics like the People’s Law Office, Loevy and Loevy, and Northwestern University, all of whom clearly supported the ability of the organization to push their police torture narratives when all other legal strategies failed.  

TIRC is comprised of a significant majority of wrongful conviction activists. Critics—particularly the family members of murder victims—have complained repeatedly about what they say is the built-in bias of the organization. 

Joe Heinrich, brother of murder victim Jo Ellen Pueschel, confronted the commission on this bias: 

Before being appointed to this Board, many commissioners were already involved in Burge-related issues and have already decided that any person interrogated by him or those under him should go free.  Some commissioners have written articles, some have added their support and names to court documents favoring the defendants, one founded an organization to investigate and sue police officers, and another runs an organization that has investigated many of the cases this commission has and will consider.  Just last Friday, Governor Quinn  announced that he wants to add a defense attorney who works for a law firm that has been involved in Burge-related court proceedings and a priest who has been arrested and sued police officers.

The move to eliminate TIRC on constitutional grounds would also come right around the time its members rule on its most controversial case to date, convicted killer Jerry Mahaffey. 

Jerry Mahaffey, along with his brother, Reginald, murdered a couple and attempted to murder their son during a 1983 home invasion. 

The Mahaffey crimes shocked the city as the story unfolded of how the brothers broke into the Pueshel apartment in Rogers Park and attacked the family, including repeatedly raping Jo Ellen Pueschel. In the end, the brothers murdered husband Dean Pueschel and Jo Ellen. They left Ricky Pueschel, the son, for dead after stabbing and beating him repeatedly with a baseball bat, but he survived the attack and testified at their trials. 

In 1984, the Mahaffey brothers staged one of the most daring escapes in the history of the Cook County Jail. They convinced a paramedic to smuggle a gun into the facility, taking a corrections officer hostage. They opened up the cells of other inmates, many of whom joined them. They were recaptured. 

Ultimately they were convicted and sentenced to death. It was an open-and-shut case. The brothers repeatedly admitted they had committed the murders. Their own brother had turned them in. They confessed to a state’s attorney, said no one had treated them badly. The property taken from the Pueschels was found in both their apartments, as were the weapons used in the murders. 

Somehow, despite the fact that every legal proceeding bolstered the clear guilt of the two men and the utter absence that they were in any way mistreated by the police or prosecutors, the commission is scheduled to rule on the torture claims of Jerry Mahaffey at their July 22 meeting. 

But if TIRC were ruled unconstitutional, what weight would their rulings hold?  

Eliminating the commission would also come at a time when the wrongful conviction movement is reeling from a series of scandals. One is the recent declaration by Judge Thomas Byrne that Alstory Simon is innocent of a 1982 double homicide. Simon confessed after being coerced by Northwestern University Professor David Protess and his Private Investigator Paul Ciolino.

Several other wrongful conviction cases have imploded after judges have ruled their witnesses were lying.

TIRC member Rob Warden, who recently retired from Northwestern’s Law School, was repeatedly confronted with the evidence of corruption in the Porter case, but refused to take action on it. 

The commission itself has been caught violating its own rules by failing to notify the family members of victims about the fact that TIRC has taken up a case on behalf of the man who murdered their loved ones. 

A key player in any move to strip TIRC of its power could be Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. Up for re-election, Alvarez has garnered criticism that she is unwilling to make tough decisions based on the evidence and the law, and more on political considerations. Will Alvarez state publicly whether or not she believes the commission is constitutional? 

One faction that seems to be opposing Alvarez in the upcoming election is headed by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, a vocal supporter of wrongful conviction movement. Preckwinkle has remained silent about the evidence of corruption in the movement, sticking to the police coercion party line even when the evidence shows the claims were trumped up, as they were in the Porter case and others. 

The Chicago Reader, led by reporter Mick Dumke, has transformed itself almost into Preckwinkle’s personal public relations outlet. 

It’s as if the Reader—by getting Preckwinkle’s people elected to the Cook County State’s Attorney—wants a return to the good old days when the paper could write one wrongful conviction narrative after another, regardless of the facts. A state’s attorney who was ideologically allied would go a long way in allowing the Reader to do so. 

In any case,  the question of the commission’s constitutionality would raise the heat around the wrongful conviction cases once again, and likely force authorities like Alvarez to take a stand. 

Will the authorities who believe TIRC is unconstitutional stand up and say so?  

Or will political considerations rule the day? 

Behind it all looms a darker, more crucial question: Will the city allow two more killers to be set free?

Who knows in the Crooked City?