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Alvarez on trial: The state's attorney's defense

Saturday, December 19, 2015
Chicago Tribune

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby wasted no time in filing charges against six police officers after Freddie Gray died from injuries suffered while in their custody.

Mosby bypassed a grand jury and charged the cops — four of them with homicide — on May 1, just 12 days after Gray's death. Seven months later, she took her strongest case to trial; she came away this week with a hung jury.

If it all comes unglued now, Mosby will have to answer to critics who say she went too far, too fast, in a politically charged moment. It looks like they were right.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez has the opposite problem. She's accused of slow-walking the case against a white Chicago cop who killed a black teenager on Oct. 20, 2014.

The shooting was documented by a police dashboard camera video so damning that the city paid Laquan McDonald's family $5 million in April to avoid a wrongful death lawsuit. It took seven more months — and a court order that made the video public — for Alvarez to charge Officer Jason Van Dyke with first-degree murder.

Alvarez isn't the only target of public outrage. The police superintendent and the head of the police oversight agency have lost their jobs, blamed for a longstanding culture of slow-or-no discipline that emboldens rogue cops. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is under heavy fire for not addressing it sooner and for keeping the video secret as he battled for re-election. He won't face voters until 2019, should he decide to run again.

But Alvarez's job is on the line now. She's headed for a March 15 primary without the backing of several key Democratic Party leaders. Her two challengers, former prosecutors Donna More and Kimberly Foxx, have significant support. Some of their political sponsors have prompted the Cook County Board to push Alvarez to attend a hearing about her handling of the McDonald case. But she knows it would be hostile; they can't make her go and she says she won't.

We're thinking she should. (If she needs an inducement, she might watch Hillary Clinton parry House Republicans on the Benghazi committee.)

Alvarez ought to explain to voters, as often as she can, why Van Dyke sat behind a desk, collecting a government paycheck, for 13 months before she charged him with murder.

What took so long?

She has an argument ... to a point.

Bringing a case of unjustified violence by a police officer is complicated, largely because police are allowed to use deadly force to protect themselves and the public. There are some tricky evidentiary rules in such cases. So it can take longer to build a case against a cop.

But the video of the McDonald shooting was so compelling that the city's attorneys quickly agreed to pay $5 million instead of taking their chances with a civil jury. Alvarez says it's unlike anything she has seen in three decades of law enforcement. She had the video a year ago.

Alvarez has an emphatic response to those who accuse her of whitewashing the case: She called in the U.S. attorney within days of seeing the video.

While the state's attorney weighed criminal charges against Van Dyke, the feds apparently launched a broader investigation into possible obstruction of justice.

The two offices worked together, sharing resources and information. The plan was for state and federal prosecutors to announce their findings at the same time.

Yet Alvarez abruptly wrapped up her own investigation and brought charges when a judge ordered the city to release the video. Alvarez says she wanted Chicagoans to know Van Dyke had been charged with a crime before they saw the images of him shooting McDonald 16 times.

The best-case argument for Alvarez is that she yoked herself to a federal investigation, and the feds are known to take their sweet time.

The worst-case argument is that Alvarez found convenient political cover in the feds when she was faced with a heater case — the prosecution of a cop. Then she quickly shed that cover when the failure to prosecute a cop got even hotter.

Eventually we'll know much more when the feds wrap up their case and we learn if there was other alleged criminal activity. Statements given by other officers at the scene are dramatically at odds with the video, yet the police department's internal review determined that the shooting was justified. It looks like a cover-up. How far up did it go?

The feds could be at this a long time. They're not going to consider the March 15 Illinois primary date as any concern of theirs.

Alvarez should be judged not just on this case but on her overall record. She should be judged against her competition. This is not Alvarez against anybody-but-Alvarez. Two opponents have to make a case that they would better serve the citizens of Cook County.

But, bottom line, Alvarez's standing with voters will largely turn on her handling of the Laquan McDonald case, and she will have to be more convincing about her intent at each step of this long process.

Alvarez can start by going into the lion's den. Go talk to the county commissioners.

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