Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez recently ordered a major shift in strategy to win approval for gun charges even though her prosecutors have rarely lost that battle in the past.
Prosecutors have quietly started asking grand juries to approve charges in illegal gun possession cases instead of going before judges.
The goal is to make sure gun cases aren’t dismissed before trial. But judges weren’t tossing out many of those cases before trial anyway, according to court statistics.
Over the past year and a half, judges found probable cause existed for illegal gun possession cases to move to trial about 95 percent of the time. Only 150 of 3,352 illegal gun possession cases resulted in a finding of no probable cause in preliminary hearings before judges, according to statistics provided by the state’s attorney’s office.
Asked why she’s steering clear of judges at the beginning stage of gun possession cases when the number of dismissals was already low, Alvarez said: “If we can save one child’s life, we are doing our job.”
Fabio Valentini, the head of criminal prosecutions for Alvarez, elaborated: “Even if just one of them (suspects) went out and committed a violent crime as a result of a finding of no probable cause (by a judge) when they should have been locked up, that’s one life saved.”
Valentini noted the police department has begun assigning detectives to investigate gun possession cases.
In the past, the arresting officer’s testimony and the recovered gun might be the only evidence presented to the judge at the preliminary hearing. Now detectives are being assigned to gun possession cases and they’re sending guns to crime labs for testing to link the suspects to the weapons.
Valentini said those tests might not be completed before a preliminary hearing. Obtaining an indictment from a grand jury can provide prosecutors more time to gather the evidence needed to bring a solid case to trial, he said.
The Chicago Sun-Times learned of Alvarez’s change in policy after hearing from cops who grumbled that they were waiting longer than usual to testify before the grand jury. They suspected the new policy on gun cases was causing the delays.
Alvarez didn’t make a public announcement about her policy change, but a spokeswoman confirmed it when the Sun-Times asked about it earlier this month.
“Obviously, we have been looking to see if there is anything different we can do when it comes to gun cases,” Alvarez said, adding that she is angry about the rampant gun violence in Chicago.
She acknowledged she’s been unsuccessful in seeking stronger gun laws in Springfield. Alvarez and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration have been pushing for stronger sentencing for illegal gun possession for years.
“We are looking for more consistency in our gun cases,” said Alvarez, who is running for re-election in 2016. “When it comes to proving these cases at trial, the juries want more evidence.”
Alvarez said she hasn’t received any pushback from judges for not bringing gun possession cases before them at preliminary hearings.
Pat Milhizer, spokesman for the Cook County Circuit Court, said: “We certainly have all the confidence in our judges who preside over these preliminary hearings to determine if these cases should move forward and as the numbers show, the vast majority of the cases are strong enough to advance.”
“But it is well within the discretion of a prosecutor to decide how he or she prosecutes a case,” he said. “They determine what they believe to be the best course of action — and the circuit court respects their ability to exercise discretion at this stage of the proceedings.”