Chicago police commander Jon Burge waves to supporters at a 1992 benefit to raise money for his legal fees. Credit: Rich Chapman

Harvey Allen Jr., 65, is doing life in Pontiac, and has been locked up for 30 years. In 1985, he confessed to setting a fire in South Shore that killed four people. But he maintains today, as he has since the fire, that the confession was the product of police torture. He says that detectives intent on making him confess twisted his arms and dragged him up and down the stairs of his apartment; that at the police station, they kicked him and kneed him in the groin; that one of them held a sharp object to his throat; and that he was denied food and sleep. He says that after 45 hours, he gave the detectives what they wanted. He was convicted in 1987, largely because of his confession. In various appeals and post-conviction petitions since then, he’s challenged the voluntariness of his confession, hoping to win a new trial. 

All those appeals and petitions have been rejected, but in 2009, new hope arrived: a state law was passed calling for the creation of a commission to investigate cases in which police torture might have resulted in wrongful convictions. A convict such as Allen could ask the Torture Inquiry Relief Commission to review his case and, if it saw merit, ask the circuit court to consider the case once more. 

TIRC began its work in 2011 and has referred 17 cases to the circuit court for reconsideration. Three of the convicts in those cases have since been freed.

Allen’s case was one of the 17 referred. In 2013, TIRC found “sufficient evidence of torture to conclude the claim is credible and merits judicial review for appropriate relief.” Such a finding doesn’t mean the commission has concluded that torture occurred, just that there’s enough evidence for a court to take another look.

But the referral from TIRC won’t help Allen—because the alleged torturers weren’t Jon Burge or any of his subordinates. Burge is the former Chicago police detective and commander who led a ring of detectives who tortured confessions out of criminal suspects in the 1980s and early 90s. He worked in Area 2, on the far south side, and Area 3, on the southwest side. On March 25, an appellate panel ruled that the plain language of the law creating TIRC limits the relief it can provide to victims of Burge and officers he supervised. 

It’s hard to argue with that conclusion. The TIRC law restricts torture claims to “allegations of torture committed by Commander Jon Burge or any officer under the supervision of Jon Burge.” The law’s “rather extraordinary naming of a specific living person” showed the legislature’s intent, the appellate court said.

In a separate appellate decision last week involving two other TIRC cases, an appellate panel ruled that TIRC did have jurisdiction in cases involving police detectives who once served under Burge, even if the detectives were no longer serving under him when the torture allegedly occurred. 

When the bill that led to the TIRC law was being discussed in the state senate in 2009, its sponsor, Kwame Raoul, noted: “I do realize that police abuse exists beyond this particular police station. . . and beyond the supervision of this particular police commander.” But he went on to assure his colleagues that the bill was aimed at Burge-related cases: the finding of a special prosecutor that torture had happened under Burge set cases related to him apart from others, Raoul said.

As is often true, a primary intent of the bill’s sponsor was to make sure his bill got passed. “In 2009, it wasn’t like I thought police torture was limited to Burge’s command,” Raoul told me last week. But he worried then that if the bill was broadened beyond Burge and beyond Chicago, it might run into trouble. With the bill focused on Burge-related cases, it sailed through the senate and house.

Last year, Raoul and Senator Iris Martinez tried to amend the law to expand TIRC’s jurisdiction beyond Burge-related cases. Their bill passed easily in the senate but died in a house committee. Raoul says he’ll try again this spring, and hopes an amendment will be enacted later this year that will allow TIRC to weigh in on cases in which detectives who had nothing to do with Burge may have used torture to extract confessions.