In a stunning reversal, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez on Thursday recused herself from prosecuting Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke and asked a Cook County judge to appoint a special prosecutor to handle the high-profile murder of teenager Laquan McDonald.
Alvarez held firm in her motion filed Thursday that her office did not have a conflict of interest in the case as critics have charged. But she noted that she would still recuse herself and ask for a special prosecutor “to obtain justice for Laquan McDonald, and to ensure continuity in the handling of this important and complicated case . . . ”
During the Democratic primary election, Alvarez repeatedly rejected calls for a special prosecutor in the Van Dyke case, a key issue during the campaign that ended in her getting trounced.
In a statement issued by her office, Alvarez said: “I believe that the results of the recent election and the impending transition of this office make this the best and most responsible decision . . . It is my greatest hope that the citizens of Chicago who have been shocked and polarized by this crime and this tragedy will understand and welcome this decision and respectfully support the efforts of all elements of the criminal justice system as the prosecution of Jason Van Dyke moves forward.”
The lawyer for Van Dyke, who is accused of gunning down the 17-year-old McDonald in October 2014, said he wasn’t surprised by the top prosecutor’s decision, given her recent primary defeat.
But civil rights attorneys Locke Bowman and G. Flint Taylor, who filed a petition seeking a special prosecutor for the Van Dyke case and possibly other officers not charged, were pleasantly taken aback.
“We were quite frankly surprised and also very gratified to learn this morning that Anita Alvarez is seeking to recuse herself from the prosecution of Jason Van Dyke,” Bowman said, flanked by Taylor and lawyers for the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who filed a similar petition.
It was the right thing to do in the interest of fairness and justice, Bowman said.
Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan has not made a decision on a special prosecutor but may rule on it June 2.
Both petitions lambasted Alvarez’s handling of Van Dyke’s case and argued that she cannot prosecute the 38-year-old officer because of her close ties to the police union and her failure to hold cops accountable for misconduct.
In February, when Bowman, Taylor and others announced their court filing seeking a special prosecutor, Alvarez issued a statement, that read, in part: “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.”
A spokeswoman for Alvarez’s office denied that she was reversing her position, despite Alvarez repeatedly saying during her campaign that a special prosecutor was not needed and having her office fighting the motions in court.
Kim Foxx, the Democratic nominee for state’s attorney, said Alvarez’s move was “clearly the appropriate” thing to do.
Legally, Gaughan must consult the attorney general’s office, the appellate court and other state’s attorney’s offices in Illinois, but Bowman and Taylor hope the governmental agencies step aside and allow Gaughan to select a prosecutor who would have the public’s approval.
“This prosecution needs to be handled superbly,” Bowman said.
“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 a cover-up. This is a prosecution that needs to have the confidence of all communities in Chicago.”
Bowman, in court, told Gaughan he would provide a list of candidates at the June court date.
Van Dyke’s attorney, Daniel Herbert, said he was “indifferent” to Alvarez’s decision. “We’re going to be ready to try the case no matter who is on the other side of the courtroom,” he said.
But the defense attorney noted that while his team’s trial strategy won’t change, a special prosecutor could slow the case going to trial since he or she would have to be brought up to speed in the case.
Earlier on Thursday, Herbert asked Gaughan to excuse Van Dyke from attending routine status hearings based on harassment the officer has faced coming and going from the Leighton Criminal Courthouse.
Herbert said both he and Van Dyke have received death threats and reiterated that Van Dyke’s father’s truck was damaged when the pair came to court for an earlier hearing.
Should Van Dyke be required to attend status hearings, he should be given extra security coming and going from the building at 26th and California, Herbert said.
Assistant State’s Attorney Risa Lanier noted that since video of Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times surfaced, the protests have “died down.”
Gaughan didn’t rule on Herbert’s motion to excuse Van Dyke from coming to court but said he had consulted with Sheriff Tom Dart’s office and a security plan has been put in place.
There were no protesters or hecklers around the courthouse Thursday.
Herbert told reporters that Van Dyke doesn’t want special treatment. “He doesn’t want to stay home for convenience sake . . . The threats have been pretty direct and they’ve been quite serious,” Herbert said.
“I would like as much security as possible. This case, whether or not there were no protests on the last court date, we know there is going to be a significant amount of outcry and protesters as we get closer to the trial.”
Herbert’s motion claimed that the media is as intimidating as the activists and passersby are to Van Dyke.
Of those who see Van Dyke as a pariah was an individual who allegedly shouted out to the officer, “I am going to kill you, I am going to f— you up. I hope you get raped or killed in prison. You are a racist.”