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EDITORIAL: State’s attorney’s office heads in wiser direction

Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Something changed in Cook County last week. We may have witnessed an historic moment toward greater justice.

The Cook County state’s attorney’s office dropped charges against 17 men, uncomfortable with the integrity of the police work that led to the charges, and the office did not object when two other men — possibly wrongly convicted — were freed after years in prison. They were granted new trials.

We haven’t seen such a willingness to take a second look at questionable cases since — well, since never. More typical has been the assistant state’s attorney who, ordered by bosses to push forward with a hinky case that should have been dropped, quietly apologizing to a defense lawyer.


We’ll know better in another year or so just how big a reform movement this really is. For all the progress toward greater justice we’ve seen in the last week, we have also heard grumbling from reform-minded lawyers who remain disappointed. They expected even more dramatic changes in the last year, given that State’s Attorney Kim Foxx won election last November — ousting the incumbent Anita Alvarez — by promising to put ultimate justice ahead of tallying up convictions.

But we’ll dare to hope.

As state’s attorney, Alvarez compromised the pursuit of justice by fighting relentlessly against re-opening an investigation into the death of David Koschman, the young man who was killed by a punch thrown by a nephew of a mayor. For months, Alvarez also withheld from the public a horrifying police video that showed how Laquan McDonald, a teenager who appeared to pose no immediate threat, was fatally shot 16 times by an officer. She tried to kill reviews of cases of men who were sent to prison on the basis, in part, of statements extracted through police torture.

We just don’t see Foxx going down that road. On the contrary, if her decisions of last week are a sign of things to come, she’s going down a better road.

The lesson here is that elections matter. And, as a corollary to that, there will always be defenders of the indefensible status quo.

Look no further to see what Foxx is up against than a letter from Kevin Graham, president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, published last week by the Sun-Times. Graham accused Foxx of running a “renegade prosecutor’s office” and pandering “to the powerful anti-police movement in the city.”

On what planet is an insistence on sound and honest police work “anti-police?”

Foxx is still pulling her reorganized office, with its 1,200 employees, into shape. She tapped the federal criminal justice system for some of her top aides, valuing their fresh viewpoints, but it’s taken them time to become familiar with how the county justice system works. “They don’t have the cultural background,” one lawyer said. “They are struggling to find footing.”

Adding to the challenge, Foxx has had to contend with budget cuts. In July, in a first round of cuts, she reduced the number of positions in her office by 17 — and those cuts have been felt.

Post-conviction cases are one area where reformers are demanding faster action by the state’s attorney’s office, but Foxx has only three people assigned to the unit, which is handling 900 cases. Similarly, her office’s beefed-up Conviction Integrity Unit, which reviews old cases when new questions are raised, is staffed by just six lawyers. At the same time, defense lawyers are bringing five times as many cases to the attention of this unit, apparently more confident that under Foxx they will get a fairer review.

The Cook County state’s attorney’s office has changed substantially for the better since way back in 1969, which may have been its low point. That was the year State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan led a scandalous raid on the West Side that resulted in the deaths of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.

Equally important, outside watchdog groups today keep the the state’s attorney’s office under close scrutiny. Controversial cases have been investigated by the Center on Wrongful Convictions and the MacArthur Justice Center, and by journalists who have nurtured a shift in public awareness.

To be a criminal prosecutor is to do a tough and often frustrating job. We appreciate that. As former federal prosecutor Scott Turow once said, prosecutors in the state courts face so many burdens, loopholes, technicalities and traps for the unwary that they sometimes feel they have to push the envelope to secure justified convictions. And if they mess up, a criminal can be returned to the streets to prey on innocent people.

But the golden rule of the office, historically so often violated, remains pretty simple: If the honest evidence is not there, don’t pursue the case.

This isn’t the first time the Cook County state’s attorney’s office has dropped cases based on bad or corrupt police work. In 2006, then-State’s Attorney Richard Devine sent a memo instructing that cases connected to nine corrupt special operations police officers be scuttled.

But Foxx appears to be charting a course based more closely on true justice than we have seen in the past.

As we say, elections have consequences.

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