Last September, the criminal case of Illnois v. Wrice went to the Illinois Supreme Court. The Court concluded that "... use of a defendant’s physically coerced confession as substantive evidence of his guilt is never harmless error." ( Distinguishing its ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279 (1991)
In regards to the petitioner, Stanley Wrice, the court reversed the trial court’s order denying defendant leave to file his second successive postconviction petition and remanded to the trial court for appointment of postconviction counsel and second-stage postconviction proceedings.
While a few persons, like Mr. Wrice, who were convicted with torture-induced confessions, have been released by the efforts of attorneys pursuing their own cases. Many still languish in prison without any formal means to challenge their convictions with the new evidence that has accumulated over time. A number of other men with credible torture claims are still in prison without having had a full and fair hearing into their allegations that they were tortured.
An amicus brief filed in the Wrice case, was signed by four DePaul law faculty along with 60+ other signers, including several former state and federal judges and prosecutors, and dozens of lawyers, legislators and legal scholars.
An additional objective of the amicus brief was to have the Illinois Supreme Court, not only rule on the harmless error question, but to take the unusual step of using its " supervisory authority" to provide judicial remedies for those who claimed to have been convicted with evidence obtained under torture.The brief advocated that "The Court should exercise its constitutional supervisory powers." "...The Court has repeatedly noted that its supervisory authority is a sweeping power, constrained only by the exigencies that summon forth its use..."
The brief requested the Court to direct the Special Prosecutor (with input from the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission ) to identify each case in which a currently incarcerated prisoner of the State of Illinois claims that he confessed under torture or physical abuse by Jon Burge and direct Circuit Court of Cook County to conduct evidentiary hearings in each case to determine whether the prisoner’ s conviction rests in whole or in part on a confession that was coerced.
The Court did not chose to use of its supervisory power in this way, as the brief signers had hoped. This left the incarcerated men with only the legislatively created, Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, as their only remaining legal option for a re-examination of their claims that they were convicted on the basis of evidence under torture which the Court had recognized as never being "harmless error".
The Illinois legislature had mandated a procedure to provide such an option, through the creation of the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission. The Governor signed the bill in August 2009. DePaul law Professor Leonard Cavise has been named to the eight member Commission.
Now this avenue of appeal appears to be foreclosed for the remaining defendants. The state House and Senate voted last week to eliminate the funding for the commission, as a result it will go out of business June 30. Although the law that gave the commission its existence will remain on the books. The eight commission members were working for free and much of the commission's work was contributed pro bono by five private law firms. So the only expense for the state was mostly the salaries of the executive director and a secretary.
While the state is in fairly desparate finacial straits, the eliminated funding for the Commission is a tiny part of the budget. The previous underfunding and now its complete elimination implies that legislators are unwillining to follow through on correcting the injustice that continues to exist and undermines public confidence in the Illinois legal system.
Since the Commission still exists in law and Commission members have been appointed, one would hope that the legislature and the Governor will eventually show some steadfastness in correcting a serious wrong by re-funding the Commission to do its appointed work.