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Editorial: Zero tolerance for police and prosecutors who lie

Thursday, September 17, 2015
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board of the Chicago Tribune

A veteran prosecutor is accused of lying under oath to keep a key piece of evidence from being thrown out of court. Now he's the one who could be charged with a crime.

The defendant, charged with attempted murder of a police officer, could be freed without a trial.

The potential fallout doesn't end there either. Every case that Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Lattanzio handled in his 12-year career is in question, now that State's Attorney Anita Alvarez has fired him for alleged misconduct. Taxpayers could be on the hook for yet another wrongful prosecution settlement.

And the credibility of the Cook County justice system takes another hit.

What Lattanzio is alleged to have done is known as "testilying." It is nothing new, and it's not limited to Cook County. It happens when police skip the legal steps needed to justify a search, then swear that they followed the rules. A good prosecutor can spot it easily, and won't stand for it. Lattanzio is accused of playing an active role.

In March 2012, Chicago police officers investigating the shooting of Officer Del Pearson searched Talaina Cureton's house and found a .38-caliber pistol behind a basement wall. They arrested her son, Paris Sadler. Ballistics tests later linked the gun to the crime.

But Sadler's attorneys say the evidence was obtained illegally. Sadler's mother testified last month that when the officers came to her door, she told them she wanted a lawyer, but they ignored her. She says she made sure to mention that to Lattanzio, who stopped by to interview her the next day.

But her complaint wasn't noted in the written statement that prosecutors introduced in court. Called to the witness stand, Lattanzio swore that the document hadn't been edited and that Cureton never told him she had asked for a lawyer.

It looked like a case of he said/she said until Sadler's attorneys reported that Cureton had secretly recorded the meeting on her iPad. Alvarez concluded that the three-year-old recording contradicted Lattanzio's testimony, and she fired him. She also asked the Illinois attorney general's office to consider criminal charges and referred the case to a state commission that disciplines lawyers.

She promised to investigate every case in which Lattanzio took a witness statement. Public Defender Amy Campanelli says her office will do its own review. What a mess. But there's no other way to clean it up.

Alvarez is sending a message here: Lying to obtain a conviction is a career-ending mistake. It's not the first time she's made that point.

In June, a Cook County grand jury indicted three Chicago police officers and one from Glenview for allegedly lying to cover up an illegal search in a drug case. Video from a police cruiser's dashboard camera contradicted the officers' account of the events leading to the arrest of Joseph Sperling.

The evidence was thrown out. Charges against Sperling were dropped, and he won a $195,000 settlement from the two towns. The cops are charged with perjury; they face up to five years in prison.

Lattanzio's attorney says the uproar over his client's testimony is all a "sideshow" meant to divert attention from the "overwhelming evidence" that Sadler is guilty of attempted murder.

It doesn't matter if the evidence is overwhelming. Taking shortcuts to collect that evidence isn't just sloppy police work ó it's willful disregard for the rights of the accused. Probable cause isn't a nicety that can be dispensed with for efficiency's sake. Suspects are presumed innocent, and the burden is on law enforcement to prove otherwise.

If police and prosecutors are willing to cut corners to win a conviction, how can the public trust them at all?

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