In September 2018, less than two years into her first term as top prosecutor, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx stood in front of a gaggle of news cameras and did something rare: she apologized.
She told 18 men who had been wrongfully convicted that the system owed them an apology.
The moment was largely symbolic. The men had already served years behind bars. And judges had already thrown out their convictions.
But it was an important moment nonetheless.
“Nothing like that had ever happened in my experience, this apology,” said Joshua Tepfer, an attorney with The Exoneration Project. “And she didn’t personally have anything to apologize for. She wasn’t involved in it. But as the leader she stepped up and did something like that. And I know that was really meaningful, on a human level, to my clients and to me.”
Foxx referenced that moment in her speech before the City Club in downtown Chicago on Tuesday, announcing that she would not be seeking re-election in 2024.
“I stood before that podium, and I publicly apologized for a conviction that I did not secure, but that the system procured,” Foxx said. And it has never been lost on me that these are not … human interest stories. These are indictments of a system.”
To progressives who helped get Foxx elected back in 2016, that apology signifies the meaningful way Foxx changed the purpose and perspective of the prosecutor’s office, centering the lives and experiences of the poor black people who are most often its target, and acknowledging that as much as the system is supposed to avenge victims it also creates them.
“A really strong foundation”
Foxx, a former assistant state’s attorney, was first elected in 2016. She was part of a national wave of electoral victories for so-called “progressive prosecutors.” She was also the beneficiary of a well-organized and extra-motivated activist movement in Chicago, charged with righteous anger over the police killing of black people in the city, most notably the murder of teenager Laquan McDonald by on-duty officer Jason Van Dyke.
As part of their campaign for accountability, those activists had set their sights on then-State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. They believed she had dragged her feet in charging Van Dyke and had more broadly protected abusive officers.
“2016 was a response to a number of horrific events that resulted in the loss of a number of people’s lives,” said Aislinn Pulley, who was the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Chicago and part of the movement that helped oust Alvarez. “[The] Movement got Anita Alvarez fired, which was really extraordinary and set off a wave of similar actions throughout the country, with people getting rid of really horrible prosecutors.”
When she was elected Foxx had been working as chief of staff to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. During her campaign she talked up her experience growing up in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green public housing complex and said that experience made her dedicated “to working on behalf of those who are on the margins of our society.” She also pledged to turn around Cook County’s “embarrassing” justice system, calling herself a transformative leader for a transformational moment.
Ghian Foreman, president of the Chicago Police Board, said he believes Foxx made good on her promise.
“She’s built a really strong foundation for us, all of us, to continue the work that she started,” Foreman said.
“Extraordinarily important and extraordinarily historic”
The progressives who heralded Foxx’s victory mostly said she had lived up to the promise of 2016.
Before Foxx took office, Cook County had been dubbed the “wrongful conviction capital of the world.” Foxx was public about her office’s problematic history and spoke about the need to right the wrongs of the past.
Pulley, who is the co-executive director of the Chicago Torture Justice Center, said that was “absolutely” meaningful.
“It was the first time in Chicago’s history that we had a state’s attorney that actually admitted to the systemic nature of these wrongful convictions and did not duck the question or duck the issue,” Pulley said. “So it was extraordinarily important and extraordinarily historic.”
During her time in office Foxx has overseen hundreds of exonerations tied to corrupt Chicago police officers.
“My issue has always been repairing the harms of the past and wrongful convictions. And I’ve been lucky enough to have a state’s attorney who was willing to listen and be educated,” said Tepfer, the attorney from The Exoneration Project. “There’ve been two mass exonerations, which is something that’s never been on anyone’s radar previously. And so the idea that we were able to help put this on her radar, and that she engaged in that process is really nothing short of extraordinary.”
Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell said Foxx deserved credit for helping to champion legislative changes legalizing cannabis, expunging marijuana convictions and eliminating cash bail.
“There’s no doubt that public defenders don’t see eye to eye with state’s attorneys in many cases, right? We are on opposite sides of the courtroom. But I do think that her advocacy in the policy perspective helped to [make the court system more fair],” Mitchell said.
But Mitchell said perhaps Foxx’s greatest contribution ties back to that apology in 2018, that she changed the way people think and talk about the county’s criminal justice system.
“Our county has had a really long history of using the awesome power of the state’s attorney’s office to conceal really serious problems with our system … The state’s attorney’s office has stood as a bodyguard, protecting the status quo,” Mitchell said.
But Foxx was willing to challenge that status quo, Mitchell said.
“People will remember that State’s Attorney Foxx was a leader who recognized that [harm] … and was willing to speak about it and support changes that moved us toward acknowledging that reality.”.
And Mitchell said he’s seen firsthand how Foxx’s example has inspired well-meaning attorneys of color to move into the state’s attorney’s office.
She was still a prosecutor
Progressives said, for all her achievements, Foxx sometimes still acted like a traditional prosecutor.
Mitchell and Tepfer both lamented that Foxx’s office continued to pursue lengthy prison sentences that they believe are unnecessary, unfair and hurt communities and public safety.
Tepfer said Foxx talked about the court system “in a way I never envisioned.”
“Has there always been the type of action and policies … to follow up the words? You know, there’s been a level of disappointment with that, certainly, sometimes, but I’m also understanding that she’s pulled in a lot of directions,” Tepfer said.
He cited political pressures on Foxx, as well as the devastating blow of COVID-19.
Pulley, meanwhile, said she believes Foxx could have done more to hold bad cops accountable and free even more victims of police torture from prison.
“Looking for somebody to be honest”
Perhaps most perplexing about Foxx’s announcement on Tuesday is how early it is coming, more than a-year-and-a-half before her term ends in 2024. When asked what is next for the office, many of the people interviewed by WBEZ noted that Foxx still has plenty of time left to continue to make her mark.
As for who should replace Foxx, progressives in Chicago were united in their belief that it should be someone who will build on the foundation she laid.
“I’m looking for somebody to be honest about the criminal legal system,” Mitchell said. “This thing just isn’t working for a lot of people. And I just hope that we can have somebody who’s honest about the shortcomings of the legal system, and that’s fighting to make it better.”