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Cook County prosecutors steer clear of judges in gun cases

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez (pictured in April 2015) State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez ordered her prosecutors to present felony gun-possession cases to grand juries about a month and a half ago. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Cook County prosecutors have been avoiding judges in the early stage of gun cases — opting to have grand juries approve their charges — to make sure the defendants are headed to trial, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

In a major policy shift, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez ordered her prosecutors to present felony gun-possession cases to grand juries about a month and a half ago. In the past, they typically brought those cases before judges in preliminary hearings.

Grand juries and judges can both decide if probable cause exists for a defendant to go to trial. But grand juries almost always agree with prosecutors and indict the defendant, while judges are less predictable, according to officials in the state’s attorney’s office.

The new policy sends a message to criminals that prosecutors are serious about taking gun-possession cases to trial, the officials said. Criminals don’t view the possibility of punishment in gun cases as certain or swift, they said.

“We believe this policy has the potential to strengthen our gun cases by providing greater consistency, allowing more time to gather evidence and build stronger cases, and helping to ensure that violent gun offenders stay behind bars as long as possible,” said Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Alvarez.

Police said they also have been trying to boost the chances of gun arrests resulting in convictions. In a pilot program in two of the city’s three detective headquarters, the department is having detectives investigate every gun possession case for evidence linking the suspect to the gun. In the past, the arresting officer’s account was often the only evidence presented in such cases, officials said.

Alvarez’s policy change is aimed at battling the gun violence that has killed more than 300 people in Chicago already this year, Daly said.

“There is no greater public safety issue in Chicago than gun violence, and the state’s attorney is constantly looking for new or creative ways to crack down on the repeat felony gun offenders who are wreaking the most havoc on our streets,” she said.

But some legal observers said they see Alvarez’s policy change as tough-on-crime posturing. She’s expected to face stiff competition in her 2016 re-election bid.

“Criminal defense attorneys may not be pleased with this new initiative because it may make things tougher for their illegal gun toting clients, but that is not a fair reason to bring political allegations into the discussion,” Daly said.

Defense attorney Marc Gottreich, a former assistant Cook County state’s attorney, said he often handles gun-possession cases at the courthouse at 26th and California. In the past, most of those cases went before judges in preliminary hearings. But one of his clients was indicted by a grand jury on a gun-possession charge earlier this week, Gottreich said.

Gottreich said he doesn’t think the shift to grand juries will make a big difference in the outcome of gun possession cases. Of the gun cases he’s handled, judges didn’t dismiss a lot of them at preliminary hearings, he said.

Daly said she didn’t have statistics on how often judges have tossed out gun-possession cases in preliminary hearings, but she said the state’s attorney’s office was gathering that information.

Pat Milhizer, a spokesman for the Cook County Circuit Court, declined to comment, saying he needs more information about the policy and how many cases are affected.

One judge, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she wasn’t concerned about the change.

After probable cause is determined, a defendant can still file motions to have an indictment dismissed — or to quash statements to the police or evidence the police have collected, such as a gun, the judge said.

As for grand juries deciding whether probable cause exists in gun-possession cases, the judge quipped, “That’s just a little less work for us.”