Civil rights attorneys, clergymen and several elected officials filed a court petition Tuesday seeking to force Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to hand over the prosecution and any further investigation involving the fatal police shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald to a special prosecutor.
The petition, coming as Alvarez is in a heated primary battle for her job in large part because of this case, contends that her demonstrated reluctance to charge police officers and, in particular, her close ties to the police officers’ union, creates a “conflict of interest and disqualifies” her from prosecuting Officer Jason Van Dyke and perhaps charge other officers.
Alvarez, who has defended her handling of what she has called a complex case, suggested the call for a special prosecutor was politically motivated, noting several supporters of her challenger in the Democratic primary for state’s attorney were among those who joined that call.
“It’s more than a little coincidental that this action is being taken less than 30 days before an election (primary),” she said in a statement, denying that her ties to the police union and the department are too close for her to be even-handed. “There is no legal conflict in this case.”
Activists have harshly criticized Alvarez for waiting more than a year to charge Van Dyke despite a now-famous dashcam video of the teen being shot 16 times as he seemed to be walking away from officers on Oct. 20, 2014. Since her office charged Van Dyke with first-degree murder in November, some activists said she should let another prosecutor’s office handle the case.
McDonald’s great-uncle, Marvin Hunter, who has called for a special prosecutor in the past, said he supported the petition because he has no confidence in Alvarez or her office. Locke Bowman of Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center said he and others hoped Alvarez would decide on her own to let another office handle the prosecution but filed the petition when they believed that was not going to happen.
The move underlines problems Alvarez may have in next month’s primary, where she faces Kim Foxx, a former aide to the county board president, and former prosecutor Donna More. Since the video of McDonald’s shooting was released, the relationship between law enforcement and the community has frayed further, spurring the chant of “16 shots and a cover-up” by demonstrators protesting the treatment of African-Americans by the police. While the police’s use of force drew much of the attention, Alvarez’s will to bring charges against police who have broken the law has turned into a critical issue of the campaign.
The petition called the McDonald case only the most recent example of Alvarez’s failure to prosecute officers who break the law themselves or cover up wrongdoing by fellow officers.
Alvarez defended her record, saying in her statement that she has brought charges against 96 law enforcement officers since she took office in 2008.
Chicago police union president Dean Angelo Sr. was not immediately available for comment.
Illinois law dictates that in an ongoing criminal case it’s the presiding judge who decides whether a special prosecutor is needed because of potential bias by a state attorney’s office. But special prosecutors have been appointed in other high-profile cases.
Former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb was asked in 2012 to look into whether then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley or his family members sought to impede an investigation into the 2004 death of a man punched by Daley’s nephew. And a retired judge was appointed in 2009 to review allegations of police torture going back decades ago under former Chicago police commander Jon Burge.
Associated Press Writer Michael Tarm contributed to this report.