Will Legislators Finally Hold Renegade Commission Accountable?

August 12, 2020
Martin Preib

Putting Law Enforcement on Torture Commission the Least Legislators Can Do…

No one knows the horror of a little known but powerful state agency with the power to put convicted, vicious killers back on the street more than the family members of their victims.

In any given meeting of the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission (TIRC), held in a small room on the upper floors of the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago, these family members can be found assailing what they claim are the frivolous, arbitrary re-investigations of cases, re-investigations that could ultimately release the person convicted of killing their loved one. These heart-wrenching scenes are rarely ever covered by the Chicago media.

For these family members, this commission is its own form of torture. The criminal cases that put the murderer of their loved one away, they were led to believe, had been settled, all the appeals exhausted and post-conviction petitions rejected. But all that changed in 2009 when legislators created TIRC. Under the vast and arbitrary power of this commission, TIRC has the authority to send these long-settled cases back into the criminal courts, thereby breathing new life into them.

When the cases go back into court, prosecutors are faced with retrying it with witnesses and victims long dead, or key players suddenly changing their stories after decades, under the most suspicious circumstances. Much of the time, the prosecutor simply walks away from the impossible task.

Family members of victims see in TIRC not a commission aimed at righting wrongs, but how clearly and dangerously the city’s, county’s, and state’s criminal justice system has been politicized and radicalized.

Commissioners and their media lapdogs claim that TIRC is a necessary response to the allegations against police, particularly former Chicago police commander Jon Burge, accused of regularly abusing suspects and garnering false confessions from dozens of offenders.

But in the last decade, a vast amount of evidence has emerged of corruption on the other side of the ideological aisle, pointing to false exonerations and false accusations against the police. In one of the clearest and most ominous signs that the commission is little more than a state-funded political movement, TIRC has put up a wall around this evidence, refusing to take it into account in any of its decisions.

It has gotten to the point in which the main “evidence” cited by commissioners to overturn a conviction is the fact that a detective may have once worked under Jon Burge, even for just a few months.

Probably no family knows the horror that TIRC can impose more than the Heinrich and Pueschel families, who lost their loved ones in one of the most horrific crimes imaginable at the hands of the Mahaffey brothers.

The nightmare for the family began in 1983.

A sergeant working the South Side of Chicago was flagged down by a man. The man, Cedric Mahaffey, told the sergeant he had information about a double murder that had occurred in Rogers Park on the North Side of the city a few days earlier.

Cedric Mahaffey told them that his two brothers, Reginald and Jerry, were responsible for the killing of a couple and the attempted murder of their son in the course of a home invasion, a crime that had shocked the entire city. Cedric stated that some of the loot taken by Reginald and Jerry from the home included firearms. Starting with Cedric Mahaffey’s information, the detectives quickly unraveled what had happened that night.

Jerry and Reginald Mahaffey had traveled from the South Side in a friend’s beat-up van, planning the burglary of a store at Howard and Western. When they arrived early in the morning, there was a police car parked in the lot, so they abandoned their plan.

They decided on a possible home burglary and headed down the alley on the 2500 block of Jerome, near the border of Evanston. Their van broke down, so they got out and began to walk. Then they spotted an open bedroom window of an apartment.

The Pueschel family was inside, sleeping. They had packed many of their belongings in boxes. They were moving into an apartment in Skokie. Reginald and Jerry entered the room of eleven-year-old Ricky Pueschel. One of the Mahaffeys placed him in a chokehold and covered his mouth and nose. Jerry then stabbed Ricky repeatedly. Ricky passed out.

Ricky was a baseball fan and there were several bats in his room. Reginald Mahaffey found one and began beating Ricky with it. The Mahaffeys figured Ricky was dead. The Mahaffeys entered the other bedroom where Jo Ellen and Dean Pueschel were sleeping. They both struck Dean Pueschel repeatedly with the bat in the head. Jo Ellen awoke. The brothers took her into the kitchen.

The brothers raped Jo Ellen repeatedly.

It turns out the Mahaffeys had not killed Ricky Pueschel. He woke up and walked out into the apartment. Ricky would eventually witness the Mahaffeys murder his mother after she begged for their lives. Then they brutally beat Ricky a second time, thinking once again that they had killed him. The brothers left in a car they stole from the Pueschels, a car packed with guns, jewelry, and other items they stole from the apartment.

Later that day, around eight a.m., Ricky’s grandparents became alarmed when he was not dropped off at their house. The grandfather drove over to the apartment. There he found Ricky walking around the alley, covered in blood and disoriented. Ricky was rushed to St. Francis Hospital. He survived and testified in court against the Mahaffeys. He would eventually lead a distinguished career in law enforcement.

In 1984, while awaiting trial, 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, then used it to take 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 conducted 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, including weapons owned by the Pueschels. Ricky Pueschel also identified the Mahaffeys in open court.

Here are the original news accounts of the murder and arrest of the Mahaffeys:

Nevertheless, on the day that TIRC commissioners were to vote whether to bring Jerry Mahaffey’s case back in the courts and thereby start the process that could put him out on the street, family members of the Pueschels packed the meeting. Based on the discussions of the board, it wasn’t looking good for them. But they had an ace up their sleeves. The family brought the original prosecutor on the case, who had overseen the investigation and the interactions of the Mahaffeys with the detectives.

The family kept Mahaffey’s case from going back to the courts by just two votes.

Family members and supporters of the victims murdered by the Mahaffey brothers react to narrow
Family members and supporters of the victims murdered by the Mahaffey brothers react to narrow

One wonders, why didn’t TIRC interview the original prosecutor? Why did the family have to bring him forward in a last-ditch effort to keep Mahaffey in prison where he belongs? Such obvious questions are rarely asked by the Chicago media, which stands as a virtual cheerleader for TIRC overturning convictions. If the journalists did ask basic questions, they might explore the possibility that TIRC generates a virtually endless stream of revenue for the law firms that represent these inmates petitioning the commission. Each time TIRC tosses one of the cases back into the courts, the commission paves the way for more inmates to file a lawsuit. Chicago is facing a mountain of these lawsuits, which could very well lead to bankrupting the city.

The Chicago media never asks a question that attorneys throughout the city ask every day: How is TIRC even legal? Clearly, it is not. The state legislature cannot create a commission to overturn the rulings and processes of the judiciary.

“Essentially, TIRC appears unconstitutional because it violates the power of Illinois courts to allow an appointed, administrative agency (executive branch) to force courts (judicial branch) to consider appeals or reviews of convicted criminals, outside all rules and statutes controlling the post-conviction appeal process,” wrote Chicago attorney Tom Osran.

Its members—including Craig Futterman, an outspoken anti-police activist and lawyer with ties to the Black Lives Matter movement, and former commissioners like Rob Warden from the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law—have a long history of supporting cases against the police and ignoring the evidence that these cases are often trumped up.

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 commission is basically a club of anti-Burge activists whose shared agenda has now been funded by the taxpayers of Illinois,” Heinrich wrote.

Perhaps the most ominous sign of the bias in TIRC’s commissioners is their refusal to acknowledge the pattern of misconduct in the wrongful conviction movement itself. Recently Judge William Hooks rejected George Anderson’s attempt to garner his freedom for the 1991 murder of two children. Anderson claimed he was the victim of abuse from detectives tied to former police commander Jon Burge. Anderson’s case came to Hooks’s courtroom when TIRC approved it to go to an evidentiary hearing. Anderson was just steps away from getting out of prison.

In his ruling, Hooks likened Anderson to a ghost rider trying to get in on a lawsuit by jumping on a CTA bus after it is involved in an accident.

“George Anderson has attempted to deliberately tailor his testimony. It was a failed attempt to paint himself as a victim of Chicago police torture,” Hooks said.

Hooks’s ruling is groundbreaking, in part because he is one of the most notoriously anti-police judges in the county. But there is also another reason why his ruling is so ominous.

Hooks not only rejected the claims of Anderson in the case—he also rejected the allegations of a pattern and practice of misconduct against police detectives Jack Halloran and Kenneth Boudreau. In his ruling, Hooks shredded the claims by Anderson that Boudreau and Halloran were renegade, racist cops pinning murders on the wrong guy.

And yet Halloran and Boudreau have several cases they worked on pending in TIRC. What is Judge Hooks seeing that the TIRC commissioners are not? Why are they not heeding Hooks’s declaration that the two former detectives have been falsely accused?

Why aren’t TIRC commissioners taking into account the accusations of misconduct at Northwestern University in several exoneration cases, not the least of which is the Anthony Porter case? Former Cook County State’s Attorney undermined that exoneration, claiming Porter’s champions committed misconduct. In another exoneration case, city attorneys are claiming agents for a convicted killer hid evidence. In yet another, they are claiming activists supporting a convicted murderer used a sympathetic media to push a false narrative that compelled then-governor Pat Quinn to release the offender.

So it goes in case after case, powerful evidence that wrongful conviction cases are trumped up. Why does this evidence never enter into the decisions by TIRC commissioners? How can an institution created under the pretense of a pattern and practice ignore evidence of a pattern and practice?

Look into the actual facts of the cases TIRC reviews and their rulings are often laughable were it not for the bloodshed upon which they are based. There is no compulsion for the members to explain to involved parties, let alone the citizens who fund it, why their arbitrary decisions are better or more legitimate than the judicial proceedings, the detectives’ investigation, the prosecutors, the judge, and the jury all concluding the offenders were guilty.

Rather than hold TIRC accountable, since its inception the Illinois legislature has only sought to expand the scope of their authority, now enabled to overturn any conviction in Cook County, not just “Burge” cases.

One wonders just how many lawmakers in Springfield really know about TIRC and their decisions. One wonders if they have reviewed any of the cases that have led to once-convicted killers returning to the streets. One wonders if they have spoken to any family members of the victims.

In response, the Fraternal Order of Police, spearheaded by then-lobbyist Mark Donahue, met with various legislators and explained the FOP’s position on TIRC, the one-sided, built-in conflict of interest that makes the commissioners little more than a state-funded arm of the anti-police movement.

Donahue asked legislators to consider the constitutionality of TIRC, particularly in light of the mounting evidence of corruption in the wrongful conviction movement. Short of that, Donahue argued that at the very least the commission should have at minimum two members of law enforcement on it from the FOP to balance out its one-sided composition.

Would any rational person believe that a commission charged with reviewing criminal cases and police officers should not have at least a few members from law enforcement? Legislators who met Donahue were impressed, particularly when confronted with key exonerations.

Now a bill is pending that would allow two FOP members to sit on the board. Unsurprisingly, the Chicago media went to war against such legislation. Chicago’s media, many of whose members are little more than political operatives for the anti-police movement, reflexively attacked the FOP.

“But the push to reshape the torture commission, even if it is unsuccessful, is another example of the police union and its political allies fighting efforts to expose police abuse and trying to control the narrative around police violence,” the Chicago Reader published.

What tripe. What an utter falsehood. TIRC is the one  “controlling the narrative” and refusing any alternate points of view. If the evidence against accused officers is so compelling, what would the commissioners have to fear with just two minority seats from the FOP added to the commission? Wouldn’t they welcome the possibility for a more circumspect debate, the presence of members who have actually conducted criminal investigations, who have actually even been on a crime scene?

The reflexive attack by the media on the proposed bill is suspicious. Perhaps the presence of law enforcement on TIRC fills both the commissioners and their media lapdogs with dread. What would either party do if the evidence pointing to so much corruption in the wrongful conviction movement was placed before them? It could have dire implications to a narrative that has been pushed for nearly three decades.

State legislators, regardless of their party, therefore, have a deep obligation to the family members of so many murder victims, police officers, and citizens to conduct fair, impartial investigations.

The legislators have an obligation not to risk putting monsters like Jerry Mahaffey back on the street by a renege commission that cannot stand to have even one opposing voice on it.

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