After months of ignoring activists’ calls for her to remove herself from prosecuting the officer who was indicted for killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez has finally agreed to back away from the case.
After dashcam video showed Chicago Police Department officer Jason Van Dyke shoot McDonald 16 times, Chicagoans asked why it took Alvarez more than a year to charge him with first-degree murder. Those questions turned into protests and petitions to have her removed from prosecuting the case and a primary election loss that will see her unseated this fall. Through it all, Alvarez refused to hand over the case to someone else, saying she hadn’t made any mistakes and would not step aside.
So it was surprising when she announced yesterday (May 5), that she had officially recused both herself and her office from handing the case. In the statement, she explained her reasons for passing off the case and maintains that she does not have a conflict of interest that prevents her from fairly prosecuting police officers:
While it has not been an easy decision, I believe that it is the right one because it will help to avoid unnecessary legal delays and provide continuity in the handling of this very important and complicated case. It would also insure that one designated prosecutor will handle this case as it proceeds to trial. While there is no legal conflict of interest that would prevent the State’s Attorney’s Office from continuing the prosecution of this case, I believe that the results of the recent election and the impending transition of this office make this the best and most responsible decision.
The Chicago Tribune reports that Daniel Herbert, an attorney for Van Dyke, issued a statement asking Alvarez to reduce the charges: “The husband and father of two young children now faces a minimum of 45 years in prison if convicted because he was sacrificed as a political pawn in an unsuccessful attempt to save someone’s career.”
If approved by Judge Vincent Gaughan, Alvarez’s court filing clears the way to appoint a special prosecutor. Assistant State’s Attorney Alan Spellberg said Gaughan would first have to offer it to prosecutors with the attorney general and the Illinois state’s attorney appellate prosecutor’s offices.
Attorney Locke Bowman, who represents the coalition that lobbied for a special prosecutor, told the Tribune that both agencies are too aligned with the county to fairly prosecute police officers. Judge Gaughan agreed to let Bowman suggest attorneys who would make good appointees.
“The decision about how to proceed forward after the recusal is just as important as Alvarez’s decision to recuse,” Bowman told reporters yesterday. “This prosecution needs to be handled superbly, it needs to be handled with fairness, it needs to be handled with a view not just to doing justice with respect to Mr. Van Dyke but also with respect to other officers who were involved in the cover-up.”