On November 25, 2015, the world got its first glimpse of Chicago Police Department (CPD) dashcam video that showed an officer shoot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. While officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder when the video went public, the situtation sparked protests from people wondering why it took the state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez, more than a year to make a move.
Now a coalition of activists and family members wants to be sure Alvarez is not involved in Van Dyke’s prosecution. On Tuesday (February 16), the group filed a petition with the Cook County Circuit Court to have her “disqualified from representing the people” in the case and replaced with a special prosecutor.
NBC Chicago reports that the group feels her relationship with the police will prevent her from performing her job. Civil rights attorneys representing the coalition held a press conference on Tuesday:
“We make this request because Anita Alvarez cannot discharge her duties to the people because she is so aligned with the Fraternal Order of Police,” said Sheila Bedi, a law professor at Northwestern University Law School and an attorney at the MacArthur Justice Center. “The Cook County justice system regularly, every day, as we speak churns black and brown men through the system, many for minor non-violent offenses. Yet this very system ground to a halt when it came to holding accountable the police officers who were responsible for the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald….”
“State’s Attorney Alvarez has lost the confidence of the public,” [Jesus “Chuy”] Garcia said. “She lost the confidence of the public when she delayed the charging of Officer Jason Van Dyke for 400 days. It is clear that any oversight of this case has been mishandled.”
Alvarez has previously said that she didn’t “believe any mistakes were made” in the case. Her office issued a statement on Tuesday in response to the request for a special prosecutor. It reads, in part:
Since Anita Alvarez was elected state’s attorney, she has brought charges against 96 law enforcement officers when those charges were appropriate, and this case is no different—Jason Van Dyke should be prosecuted by experienced Cook County state’s attorneys using the resources gathered during the thorough joint investigation with federal authorities. It’s more than a little coincidental that this action is being taken less than 30 days before an election, at a press conference held by the political supporters of a candidate for state’s attorney.
The law of the state of Illinois dictates the circumstances under which a special state’s attoney ought to be appointed in any case—not the state’s attorney. If any party with standing wants to make that request and legal arguments that would merit the appointment of a special state’s attorney, they should do so in a court of law, not a press conference. But it is clear that there is no legal conflict in this case, and prosecution will proceed to hold Jason Van Dyke accountable for the murder of Laquan McDonald.
Locke Bowman—who runs the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University and was one of the co-petitioners—told The Huffington Post that Alvarez’ connection to CPD isn’t enough to force a change in prosecutor, but that a demonstrated conflict of interest could be sufficient. “What is required is proof that there is actually a conflict. That is, a competing interest on the part of the state’s attorney that actually interferes with her ability to conduct an independent and zealous investigation and prosecution,” Bowman said. “Anita Alvarez has cast her lot with the Fraternal Order of Police and that political alliance is interfering with her ability to act independently.”