State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s Once-Rising Star on the Wane
Dec. 10, 2012
It wasn’t long ago that Anita Alvarez was seen as a rising star.
She rose from within the prosecutorial ranks to become the first woman and first Hispanic to hold the powerful post of Cook County state’s attorney but was still viewed by many as having an independent streak.
She won re-election with ease in November and was said not long ago to be in line for a judgeship.
But in the past two weeks, Alvarez has suffered two major embarrassments.
Last week, a special prosecutor announced an indictment against Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko, a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, for involuntary manslaughter in the 2004 death of David Koschman — a case in which Alvarez had declined to file charges, saying there wasn’t enough evidence. Alvarez also argued that an outside prosecutor wasn’t needed. Now, the grand jury led by special prosecutor Dan K. Webb, a former U.S. attorney appointed by a judge, continues to investigate whether criminal charges should be filed against anyone from Alvarez’s office or the Chicago Police Department over their handling of the case.
The second embarrassment for Alvarez came Sunday on national television. A CBS “60 Minutes” segment, recorded six months ago, put a spotlight on Cook County as the capital of documented false confessions. The U.S. Department of Justice has opened an inquiry into the interrogation practices in Cook County.
At one point in the program, Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project in New York, said that in one case, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office suggested in court that necrophilia was a possible reason why the DNA of a convicted rapist was found inside the victim.
A group of kids were charged with the crime after confessing.
The “60 Minutes” interviewer asked Alvarez: “It’s possible that this convicted rapist wandered past an open field and had sex with a 14-year-old girl who was dead?”
Alvarez: “Well, there’s all kinds of possibilities out there, and what I’m saying is we don’t know what happened.”
Reached by phone Monday, Neufeld said though the interrogations happened under a different regime, Alvarez’s remarks showed she is unwilling to change practices.
“Frankly, there’s not a lot of difference between her saying necrophilia is a possibility in this case and saying the earth is flat,” Neufeld said. “For the state’s attorney to simply get up there and say, no, we have more confidence in the aggressive interrogations of teenage boys than to DNA hits to these offenders with known MOs — it indicates a lack of fitness to the job.”
Capitol Fax political writer Rich Miller said Alvarez had committed “political suicide” with her interview on “60 Minutes.”
“Anita Alvarez humiliates herself on national TV,” Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote.
Even some political allies of Alvarez were scratching their heads over why Alvarez agreed to do the CBS interview.
“We are appalled, absolutely, unequivocally appalled by the lack of information [in the ‘60 Minutes’ report],” Alvarez’s spokeswoman, Sally Daly, said. “They did not include information that is critical to this case. Anita spent an hour doing this interview. We were ensured that we were going to get a fair shake … I didn’t expect that from ‘60 Minutes.’ She could have easily not done the interview. She stood up and explained the cases publicly.”
Daly said the piece failed to report key facts in the cases — the so-called Engelwood Four case and one in which a group of Dixmoor men’s cases were dismissed after they spent years in prison. That included some suspects pleading guilty and testifying against others before judges and juries.
“These cases were presented multiple times to judges and juries,” Daly said. “Our office did a very, very thorough, careful review of these cases. She found that there was not enough evidence.”
As for the Vanecko case, Daly said her office’s handling has been mis-portrayed as well, referring to Alvarez’s comment last week that she had a grand jury looking at the Koschman case before Judge Michael P. Toomin decided to bring in a special prosecutor.
Vanecko’s indictment was announced on Dec. 3, the day Alvarez was sworn in for a second four-year term as state’s attorney. Daly pointed out that former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was the keynote speaker at the swearing-in.
Former Ald. Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor, said Alvarez has had a “pretty undistinguished period as state’s attorney.
“I am very unimpressed with her lack of ability to prosecute any of the corruption cases,” Simpson said.