Tip from ‘within COPA’ prompts request to boot city attorneys from case

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A Chicago Police officer puts his foot on the neck of Heriberto Godinez Jr. | Still image from video

A federal judge is being asked to kick three attorneys representing City Hall off of a police misconduct case over allegations that apparently surfaced with anonymous phone calls “from inside” the city’s new police oversight agency.

The trio of lawyers from an outside firm include Helen O’Shaughnessy, former general counsel to the now-abolished Independent Police Review Authority.

Torreya Hamilton, a lawyer representing the family of Heriberto Godinez, sought the lawyers’ disqualification in a motion filed last week alleging that O’Shaughnessy acted more as an investigator than a lawyer in the Godinez case. It even advanced the theory that O’Shaughnessy sought to create favorable evidence for the city.

O’Shaughnessy could not be reached for comment. Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s law department, said in a statement that, “the Law Department is reviewing the motion and will respond as appropriate.”

Godinez, 26, died in police custody on July 20, 2015, in Brighton Park. Officers found Godinez while investigating a burglary in the 3000 block of West Pershing. Dashcam video shows police trying to take him into custody as he wiggled on the ground near a Chicago Police SUV.

On the video, an officer can be seen putting a foot on Godinez’s neck for about two seconds.

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability ruled last fall that two officers who were involved used excessive force, according to Hamilton’s motion. Meanwhile, the central dispute of the lawsuit is what caused Godinez’s death.

According to Hamilton, Assistant Medical Examiner Latanja Watkins found at Godinez’s autopsy in July 2015 that his “neck had been broken at the midpoint.” However, in a November 2016 IPRA interview, Watkins said, “there was no convincing evidence, uh, of a broken neck,” records show.

Hamilton noted that O’Shaughnessy attended and participated in the November 2016 interview in which Watkins changed her opinion, identifying herself only by name and badge number. Hamilton called O’Shaughnessy’s presence “an unusual circumstance precisely because such a practice makes IPRA’s general counsel a witness.”

Meanwhile, Hamilton wrote that she was contacted twice Jan. 24 by an anonymous caller from “within COPA.”

“This caller informed Attorney Hamilton that O’Shaughnessy was not just present at the Watkins interview, but that she had been intimately involved in the investigation and had attempted to steer the investigation in favor of the police prior to COPA taking over the investigation,” Hamilton wrote.

A COPA representative did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Hamilton also said she has discovered a list of questions that were prepared for Watkins. Hamilton suspects they were written by O’Shaughnessy, and “it appears she was attempting to create favorable evidence for the city,” according to Hamilton’s motion.

O’Shaughnessy has since joined a private firm and filed her appearance in the Godinez case on Dec. 19, records show. Hamilton now wants U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer to disqualify O’Shaughnessy as well as Avi Kamionski and Shneur Nathan, the lawyers who formed the firm where she now works. Hamilton insists they have become witnesses in the case.

Pallmeyer said Monday she may rule on Hamilton’s motion as early as next month.

The same judge took the city to task in January before it abruptly settled a lawsuit over the August 2015 police shooting of Jaquise Evans. The city settled after new evidence came to light on the eve of trial, and after Pallmeyer insisted city attorneys explain “what they are doing to correct this problem.”

In December, the city also settled a civil case involving ex-cop Joseph Frugoli after new evidence surfaced mid-trial. U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall has said she will consider sanctions in that case.

Meanwhile, a city attorney has resigned and two more have been suspended amid the law department’s string of embarrassments.

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