Chicago's cash-strapped police torture commission is falling apart

February 7, 2012

The Associated Press

A commission created by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn nearly two years ago with the ambitious goal of righting the wrongs of Chicago's police torture scandal is quietly falling apart, another apparent victim of the state's budget mess.

The Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission hasn't even met since August or reviewed a single case. It is operating with a quarter of the money commissioners sought, which has delayed the hiring of a staff attorney.

Jeanette Plummer's son Johnny, who at age 15 was arrested for two murders, is among the dozens of current inmates — most of them black — who claim they were beaten or tortured until they confessed to crimes they didn't commit. She questions if officials really want to learn the truth about a scandal that plagued the police department for nearly three decades.

"They don't want these people to get out of jail," Plummer told The Associated Press. "How would they feel if somebody had them locked up?"

The commission was tasked with reviewing torture claims related to now-incarcerated former Chicago police Lt. Jon Burge and his officers, with priority given to allegations by men who are currently incarcerated. Commissioners can collect evidence of torture and recommend to trial court judges that the cases be reopened.

Instead, commissioners are stalled, bogged down by complicated state rules and not enough money.

"(Lawmakers) got a little media bounce when they created the commission, and they've left us high and dry," said DePaul University law professor Leonard Cavise, a member of the panel who is awaiting word on whether he'll be reappointed.

"This is a commission that is absolutely necessary to investigate a very important social and judicial and law enforcement problem," Cavise said. "To let its existence be put into jeopardy by what I presume is executive oversight or somebody's neglect is inexcusable."

While a state Supreme Court decision last week in the case of one of the incarcerated men could revive the appeals of the others, the commission plays an important role in getting lawyers and resources for inmates whose cases have languished, advocates said.

At the last meeting in August, Chairman Patricia Brown Holmes notified the commission that its budget for fiscal year 2012 had been cut from $600,000 to $150,000, according to meeting minutes.

Holmes didn't return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment, but the minutes from the meeting say "she understands the urgency in getting the Commission up and running but wanted to emphasize the obstacle the Commission currently faces."

The current funding is less than half what the panel received a year ago and covers just two staff members — an executive director who's an attorney and an administrative assistant.

Without an additional attorney on staff to help weigh each case, Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said new ways of dealing with the labor shortage are being explored, including the use of pro bono attorneys. Currently, the two-person staff can look over the cases, but the full commission needs to review them.

State Sen. Jacqueline Collins, a co-sponsor of the bill that created the commission, said senators tried to save its funding the last time around but were thwarted by members of the House . She pledged to continue to fight.

Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Mike Madigan, said the global financial crisis has meant less money across the board in state government. He said the House developed a budget plan that limited spending.

"There are a number of entities that aren't getting as much as they had in the past ... all worthwhile purposes," Brown said. "But there's a reality in terms of what the taxpayers of the state can pay for."

Collins acknowledged that the commission isn't alone in hurting for state dollars but said adequately funding it would send a clear message about its importance.

"I look at (the budget) is a moral document, it says something about who we are as a society," Collins said. "Certain services or requests on the budget should be given priority."

Anderson and Kelly Kraft, a spokeswoman for Quinn's budget office, said the governor will ask for funding for the commission in his upcoming budget address, but they declined to say how much.

Commission members, who are unpaid, say they're disappointed to be hampered by a fiscal situation they can't control.

"If (legislators) really cared about it, they would appropriate sufficient money," said commissioner Rob Warden, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University's law school. "It simply can't be effective without sufficient funding."

Quinn appointed the first members to the commission in July 2010, including Holmes, who is a retired Cook County judge, law professors and members of the public. State law dictates that the commission has eight voting members appointed by the governor, who also can appoint alternates.

It's unclear whether commissioners will be able to pull together the needed quorum by the next meeting in April. Several commission members have resigned, and there has been no movement by the governor's office on approving their replacements, commissioners say. Meetings scheduled for October, December and February were canceled.

The governor plans to nominate a new chair "in the coming weeks," Anderson said.

Sen. Kwame Raoul, who introduced the bill that created the commission in 2009, said it has become a victim of both the budget crisis and a lack of political will.

"Not everybody can necessarily see the value of making sure we go as far as we can to investigate and resolve claims of torture," he said.

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.

Johnny Plummer has served 21 years of a life sentence, and his mother says people just want the Burge-related cases to just go away without realizing some torture victims are still behind bars.

"I just want my son and the rest of them to come home," Jeanette Plummer said.