In a small church in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, former Cook County Judge Pat O’Brien stood next to a table filled with photos of men and women who had been murdered in Chicago.
In front of him were the mothers of those murder victims; each had brought the framed pictures and placed them there, part of their ongoing effort to make sure their loved ones are not forgotten.
At this small event on a weekday night in October, O’Brien, who is running as a Republican to unseat incumbent Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, was promising something each of them desperately wanted: justice.
“The more I talk, whether it’s to yourself or the people in the community, the more I find out it’s not just about integrity, it’s about [Foxx’s] failure to understand what the job is about,” O’Brien told the group of about a dozen.
He was addressing a support group for mothers of murdered children called Prayers of Peace and Justice. Most of the murders are unsolved. Understandably, it is a group that is not happy with the current state of the criminal justice system — even if it’s difficult to pin many of their complaints specifically, or solely, on Foxx. Some of the murders occurred before she was in office or have not been solved by police.
But O’Brien told the women that the problem is that Foxx is too conservative in prosecutions and not enough of a partner to police.
“The bottom line is: You’ve got to be able, at times, to take calculated risks in murder cases,” O’Brien said. “If you haven’t tried them, and taken those risks and seen them pay off … then you don’t know how to do it.”
With the election just two weeks away, and early voting already started, Foxx and O’Brien are laying out two very different visions for the future of the county’s 1,100-person prosecutor’s office. Foxx is touting her success overturning wrongful convictions and pushing bail reform. O’Brien is promising to shift the office’s focus back to getting bad guys off the street, a focus he says has been lost during Foxx’s four years in charge.
O’Brien is semi-retired now, in private practice as a criminal defense attorney. Before spending nine years as a Cook County Judge he spent about a dozen years as a Cook County prosecutor, rising up to deputy chief of the criminal bureau overseeing hundreds of prosecutors.
“Without being immodest, I think I have more experience, and an ability to do this job, which [Foxx] doesn’t seem capable of doing,” O’Brien said in an interview following the event at the church.
O’Brien acknowledged that the failure of police to solve the majority of violent crimes limits what prosecutors can charge, but he believes the state’s attorney’s office could help detectives by being more aggressive and agreeing to take on more violent crime prosecutions.
Foxx does reject some of the cases brought to her office by police. Last year, WBEZ examined murder cases in particular but didn’t find any significant difference in how often Foxx’s office rejected cases compared to her predecessor, Anita Alvarez.
But O’Brien insisted on a common complaint: that Foxx has instructed the people below her to only take on slam dunk cases.
“The state’s attorney is looking for cases that, quite frankly, for the most part aren’t there,” O’Brien said. “One witness, who is a good witness, can convict a person on a murder. I don’t think she’s doing that. I don’t think she’s taking those cases.”
Foxx said “people should be appalled” to hear O’Brien talk about taking risks on violent crime prosecutions “by ignoring evidence and facts and the law.”
Foxx said her office has an ethical obligation to only bring cases when evidence supports the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. She said O’Brien’s approach is what led to Chicago being dubbed as “the false confession capital” of the U.S. by CBS News.
In 1988, O’Brien won the conviction of four teenagers for the murder of medical student Lori Roscetti. Thirteen years after the convictions, DNA evidence proved their innocence.
Foxx points to those wrongful convictions, and more than 20 others that took place when O’Brien was in charge of the criminal bureau, as proof that O’Brien’s approach ends with innocent people behind bars.
“He speaks without apology for his role in the corruption of our criminal justice system,” Foxx said.
O’Brien countered those examples with the current state of gun violence in Chicago, where shootings and murders are up 50% compared to 2019. He said Foxx’s approach has left the community feeling unsafe.
“She believes that criminal justice reform is the sole goal of her office,” he said.
Foxx said there’s no evidence that her policies have caused the surge in violence.
“Mr. O’Brien comes from an era in the office where anything went. … You know, ‘Throw everyone in jail and that will make us feel safer,’ ” Foxx said. “The biggest difference between Mr. O’Brien and I is that I know that the policies of the past did not make us safer.”
There are big differences between the way O’Brien and Foxx see the role of the state’s attorney and the current state of the criminal justice system. But in their interviews with WBEZ, both candidates ended up using almost the exact same phrase to describe their policy positions.
“I believe that criminal justice reform and prosecuting violent criminals go hand-in-hand,” said O’Brien.
“I believe justice reform and public safety must go hand-in-hand,” was Foxx’s version.
Obviously, the differences between them are deeper than sound bites.
Foxx has refused to participate in any more debates with her challenger, something that might have allowed voters to see those differences on full display and make a more informed choice between them.
Foxx said it’s because, in previous forums, O’Brien has resorted to lies and name-calling.
O’Brien’s campaign said Foxx is ducking debates because she can’t defend her record.
Libertarian candidate Brian Dennehy is also running for Cook County State’s Attorney.