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After momentous week, prosecutor Kim Foxx says 'we have to right wrongs'

Monday, November 20, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Megan Crepeau

Last week marked an extraordinary flurry of activity in Cook County’s main criminal courthouse as State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s first year in office comes to a close.

In just four days, prosecutors at the Leighton Criminal Court Building dropped charges against 17 men in all, and two others claiming innocence won a new trial and their freedom after years in prison.

Foxx, who ran as a reformer on the issues of wrongful prosecutions and police reform, had come under criticism from activists who saw her first-year record as mixed at best. But in an interview Friday with the Chicago Tribune, she said the recent events highlighted her office’s commitment to reform.

“This week has heartened me about the good work that we do,” she said. “As a prosecutor’s office, inasmuch as we fight for public safety, we also recognize that we have to right wrongs and be willing to do that.”

Foxx ousted two-term incumbent Anita Alvarez in last year’s Democratic primary by hammering away at Alvarez’s handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting as well as what critics viewed as foot-dragging on wrongful conviction cases.

A protege of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Foxx had the backing of Democratic Party cash and cruised to victory in the general election over a meagerly funded Republican opponent, becoming the first African-American woman to hold the county’s top prosecutorial post.

Throughout the campaign, Foxx touted her roots growing up in the city’s Cabrini-Green housing complex to convince voters that she would lend a sympathetic ear to issues such as rampant gun violence and police accountability. Though Foxx had been an assistant state's attorney, she also had worked in the public guardian's office and, as Preckwinkle's former chief of staff, pushed criminal justice reform legislation in Springfield.

The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, which represents rank-and-file officers, declined comment for this story but has been critical of Foxx as weak on crime.

Among those to go free last week was Arthur Brown, 66, who spent nearly 30 years in prison for a double murder. Prosecutors reversed course on the case after Brown’s attorneys went directly to Foxx’s inner circle to argue for the release.

Brown’s lead attorney, Ronald Safer, said Tuesday the quick reaction indicated a “culture shift” in the office.

Before approaching higher-ups, Brown’s attorneys had spent months tangling with prosecutors in postconviction proceedings. Foxx was not personally aware of the details of the case until Safer alerted her and her top deputies, she said.

Foxx said she wants her prosecutors to focus less on narrower legal points on which postconviction issues have usually been argued and more on determining the fairest outcome for each case.

“I think it’s moving from kind of the myopic vision of ‘can we win on this issue?’” she said. “Having a broader view of ‘did the right outcome happen in this case?’ versus ‘can we defend the conviction?’”

Brown’s case benefited from a fresh set of eyes, Foxx said.

“That ... I think allowed for us to sit down and speak with the assistants on the case and say, ‘I know you were looking at this narrow issue, but let’s take this in its totality.’”

The day after Brown’s release from jail, another longtime inmate, Jose Maysonet, was granted freedom — but only after five former Chicago police officers said they would assert their 5th Amendment rights and refuse to answer questions.

Without the former cops’ cooperation, the office had little choice but to drop the charges, even though prosecutors said they remained convinced of Maysonet’s guilt.

“Those officers not availing themselves to testify under oath ... undermined, obviously, the conviction in this case,” Foxx said in the approximately 45-minute interview.

Among the five officers was former Detective Reynaldo Guevara, who has drawn increasing attention because of allegations he beat numerous suspects and coerced witnesses while on the force.

Foxx told the Tribune her office is closely examining each of the convictions linked to Guevara.

“Across the board, what is his level of involvement? What are the facts? What are the allegations about the involvement?” she said. “…We’ve targeted those cases in which he has been involved.”

A similar review of cases tied to disgraced former police Sgt. Ronald Watts led to what is believed to be the county’s first mass exoneration Thursday when the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit cleared 15 men at once of drug convictions.

Foxx said Watts’ corruption conviction — he and a subordinate were sentenced to federal prison in 2013 for stealing money from a drug courier who was secretly working with the FBI — doesn’t necessarily taint every conviction tied to the ex-sergeant.

“You have to look at individual cases,” she said. “Is he operating with the same people? Is he on the scene? Is he writing the (police) report? Is someone else writing a report? … His name alone does not offer the taint.”

Foxx did not give specifics about how many Watts-related cases her team is investigating, but she acknowledged the number is voluminous. Attorneys for the 15 men cleared of wrongdoing last week say as many as 500 additional convictions tied to Watts and his crew need to be investigated.

In the wake of the mass exoneration, Chicago police abruptly reversed course last week and removed seven cops once part of the allegedly corrupt crew from street duty and gave them desk assignments.

Foxx promised a review of cases connected to officers tied to Watts. Prosecutors have been alerted to notify supervisors of such cases, she said.

“There will be an evaluation of those cases,” Foxx said. “The question will then be what is the level of (the officers’) involvement, then deciding what to do.”

The office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which is spearheading the investigations of the potentially tainted prosecutions, has seen a fivefold increase in claims of innocence this year compared to 2016, according to Foxx.

The unit is staffed with just six attorneys, including Mark Rotert, a veteran attorney brought in this summer to lead the effort.

Budget constraints prevent her from staffing the unit as much as she would like, Foxx said, but she plans to begin rotating more employees in and out of the unit to help with the load.

The office’s postconviction unit, which deals with claims of constitutional violations, is also short-staffed -- just four attorneys to handle 900 to 1,000 cases, Foxx said.

Foxx said she hopes rank-and-file prosecutors will proactively spot potential issues with their cases and feel empowered to address them.

“Moving forward, it’s how do we make sure that we’re flagging these things earlier?” she said. “How do we make sure that everyone has the tools and opportunity to intervene ... sooner?”

Chicago Tribune’s Jason Meisner contributed.

Twitter @crepeau

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