The belated charging Tuesday of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke with the first-degree murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald more than 13 months ago ought to be viewed as an indictment of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez for dereliction of duty.
Alvarez’s excuse for her tardiness — i.e., it was a “complicated” case involving a multi-layered investigation by police internal affairs investigators and FBI as well as her office — is unadulterated bunk. First-degree murder is a state crime. The responsibility for prosecuting it lies with Alvarez and Alvarez alone.
It is patently and painfully obvious that the charges preferred yesterday were predicated on nothing that was not obvious, or ought not to have been obvious, to Alvarez since Oct. 21, 2014 — the day an autopsy determined that McDonald had been shot 16 times the previous night by Van Dyke.
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Van Dyke is entitled to the presumption of innocence at this point, but the police video of the shooting leaves no doubt that McDonald did not — as Pat Camden, a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, contended on the night of the shooting — lunge at Van Dyke or any other officer before the shooting.
Alvarez’s failure to bring timely charges in the case is part of a pattern of dubious judgments that has called her commitment to even-handed justice into question, including, but of course not limited to:
- Opposing the appointment of a special prosecutor in the case of David Koschman, who died after an altercation with R.J. Vanecko, a nephew of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, in the Division Street nightlife area in 2004. In 2013, as a result of the investigation led by Special Prosecutor Dan K. Webb, a grand jury indicted Vanecko for involuntary manslaughter. He pleaded guilty in 2014 and was sentenced to 60 days in jail.
- Contending in a 2012 “60 Minutes” interview — after DNA exonerated four young men of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in suburban Dixmoor and linked a known sex criminal to the crime — that, notwithstanding the DNA results, the youths could be guilty because it was “possible that this convicted rapist wandered past an open field and had sex with a 14-year-old girl who was dead.”
- Fighting for years to keep a man named Daniel Taylor in prison for a double murder to which he had been coerced into confessing in 1992, at age 17, but could not have committed because he was in the custody of Chicago Police for disorderly conduct when the crime occurred. In 2013, Alvarez finally acknowledged Taylor’s innocence, but only when it became clear that he would prevail in a post-conviction proceeding.
- Delaying 20 months in bringing charges against Chicago Police Detective Dante Servin, who shot a 22-year-old woman in the back of the head in 2012. In 2014, Alvarez belatedly charged Servin, who was off duty at the time of the shooting, with involuntary manslaughter. In a bizarre turn of events, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Dennis Porter acquitted Servin, holding that Alvarez had erred in failing to charge Servin with first-degree murder.
- Prosecuting a former gang member, Willie Johnson, for perjury in 2014 for recanting testimony he had provided 15 years earlier that sent two potentially innocent youths to prison for a double murder. Although Illinois law allows perjury prosecutions based merely on conflicting sworn statements, without regard to which is false, the prosecution was unprecedented in a post-conviction case. Although 23 former judges and prosecutors protested Alvarez’s action on the ground that it would deter truthful recantations, she persisted. Having no defense, Johnson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison, only to have his sentence commuted in 2015 by outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn.
- Releasing convicted murderer Alstory Simon in 2014, saying that his rights had been violated by David Protess, a former Northwestern University journalism professor, and Paul Ciolino, a private investigator, who obtained a video-taped confession from Simon to a 1982 double murder — a crime for which a man named Anthony Porter had come within two days of execution before his exoneration in 1999. Alvarez claimed Simon’s conviction had been coerced, even though months after he pleaded guilty, he had written to a lawyer claiming not innocence but rather that he had killed one of the victims in self-defense and the other accidentally.
- Overcharging the so-called “NATO Three” — a trio of crackpots who during 2012 NATO meetings in Chicago threatened to attack Barack Obama’s headquarters and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s home with slingshots and Molotov cocktails that undercover investigators helped assemble — with terrorism. In 2014, a jury — seemingly agreeing with a defense characterization of Alvarez as “a prosecutor with the mentality of the Spanish Inquisition” — acquitted the defendants of terrorism, convicting them of the lesser charge of mob action.
- Failing in 2013 to bring charges against a man linked by DNA to a fatal stabbing for which an innocent Chicagoan named Maurice Patterson had been imprisoned since 2004.
In sum, the foregoing incomplete recitation of Alvarez’s record, leaves no doubt, at least in my mind, that she is unfit for office — especially an office that wields immense power to administer justice, or often in her case, injustice — in one of the nation’s largest counties.
In the March 2016 Democratic primary election, the Cook County Democratic Central Committee has taken the unusual step of refusing to endorse its party’s sitting state’s attorney for a third term. Two credible candidates — Kimberly Foxx and Donna More, former assistant state’s attorneys both — have filed for the office.
It would serve the public interest if Alvarez simply bowed out without visiting further distress upon the citizenry.
Acting in the public interest, of course, can hardly be expected of Alvarez.
Rob Warden is co-director of Injustice Watch. The views are his own. Injustice Watch welcomes submissions of commentary. We retain final say on what we publish.