It’s been more than three decades since one of Chicago’s most brutal murders.
On an August night in 1983, two men entered a West Rogers Park home through a window, murdered Dean Pueschel, and raped and murdered his wife, JoEllen Heinrich Pueschel.
Their 11-year-old son, Ricky, was stabbed, beaten with his own baseball bat, and left for dead. Amazingly, he survived.
Last year, the Pueschel and Heinrich families had to revisit the nightmare when the case against Jerry Mahaffey, one of the men convicted of the crime, was sent back to court by the state commission that reviews brutality allegations against former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge’s old homicide unit.
Mahaffey said he was beaten and forced to confess by Burge’s detectives, and the state’s Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission thought there was enough evidence of abuse to send the case back to court.
But the commission didn’t tell the Heinrich and Pueschel families about the Mahaffey hearing, so their first inkling came in a call from a reporter.
"That didn’t really sit too well with us," said Joe Heinrich, JoEllen’s brother. "The victims are always an afterthought in this state."
The Torture Commission was created by the Legislature in 2009 with the best of intentions: Review cases of inmates who may have been coerced by the Burge unit into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit.
The law requires the commission to notify victims’ families when they’re revisiting old cases, but too often that doesn’t happen.
The Illinois Auditor General reports the commission didn’t notify families of upcoming hearings in 9 of the 15 cases they reviewed, and failed to tell any of them about the ensuing decisions.
That’s a problem.
Those families may not want to re-open old wounds — that’s their choice — but they deserve to be informed, not blindsided.
The Torture Commission’s new executive director, Barry Miller, is committed to "proper documentation and victim notification," a spokesman says, and that’s encouraging.
To that end, the commission pulled the Mahaffey case back from court to give it another look after the Heinrich and Pueschel families complained.
That was in January, and this time the families got to testify.
The commission hasn’t released its latest decision yet, but the case caught the attention of Illinois Sen. Minority Leader Christine Radogno, who is pushing legislation that would strengthen the commission’s obligation to notify victims’ families, and even give them a seat on the commission.
"It’s unfortunate we even have to do it, but since we do, we need to make sure everybody’s voices are heard," Radogno says.
Commission member Len Cavise, a DePaul University law professor, questions the value of adding a victims’ representative who might not understand the law.
"I don’t think the bill is a particularly positive addition," says Cavise.
No one condones police brutality, and we should do everything possible to overturn wrongful convictions coerced with excessive force.
But as lawmakers look at ways to improve the workings of the commission, it’s worth considering the addition of a victim’s family member.
In the end, a balanced, transparent process serves everyone fairly — the cops, the incarcerated, and the families of the victims — and that should be the goal of this commission.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.