How Chicago's Top Prosecutor Has Failed to Hold Cops Accountable
State's Attorney Anita Alvarez is struggling under the weight of a national criminal justice reform wave—and plenty of local anger—as she tries to win another term next week.
Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez (L) discusses a police shooting on December 7, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
On November 1, 2014, as 17-year-old Tykwone Davis was recovering from multiple gunshot wounds in Chicago's Cook County hospital, police announced his impending prosecution. Anita Alvarez, the state's attorney, was bringing two charges of first-degree attempted murder against the black teenager, three days after Chicago cops gunned him down. Officers claimed they had no choice but to shoot after the boy fired in their direction. But Davis's brother, who was at the scene, disputed that account immediately, telling local media the kid was running in the opposite direction when an officer began discharging his weapon.
"He didn't say, 'Freeze. Get down. Stop. What you doing?' He just started shooting," Davis's older brother said. Standing outside the emergency room, waiting to see her son, Willette Middleton added, "How in the hell could he have a gun pointed at the police when all his shots is from the back?"
Davis survived the injuries after extensive surgery. But just days earlier, another 17-year-old named Laquan McDonald did not make it even as far as the hospital, dying en route after being shot 16 times by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. In the months following the pair of shootings, Davis's 18th birthday was marked by his transfer from juvenile detention to Cook County Jail's adult population, where he awaited trial. Meanwhile, Van Dyke walked free. Only in the hours leading up to the November 2015 release of the now-infamous dash cam video depicting McDonald's killing did Alvarez bring a charge of first-degree murder against the officer.
That was more than 400 days after the shooting.
Now running for her third term in the March 15 Democratic primary, the state's attorney has been dogged—virtually and in person—by Black Lives Matters activists, who have disrupted her campaign events as frequently as three times in 24 hours and used the hashtag #ByeAnita to harangue her online. At the same time, a consortium of the city's leading civil rights lawyers, politicians, and community organizations have sought to remove Alvarez from the case against Van Dyke, with a recent motion seeking the appointment of a special prosecutor.
Countering the barrage of scrutiny, Alvarez recently asserted that she "won't apologize for the length of time" Van Dyke's prosecution took, as the result of a "meticulous, thorough, comprehensive investigation," and cited the prosecution of 96 law enforcement officers during her tenure. But analyzing the state's attorney's claims, VICE found that metric to have little merit when it comes to prosecuting Chicago Police violence against civilians. Looking at the number of misconduct complaint referrals to her office from the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) and comparing fatal shooting statistics to corresponding prosecutions, we instead found a clear pattern in which Alvarez has consistently gone easy on cops accused of brutality—while aggressively pursuing charges against civilians who survived police encounters.
The state's attorney's rhetoric about the 400 days being essential to charge Van Dyke also does not square with reality given the far more efficient work of her counterparts across the country and the speed by which she charges civilians. And Alvarez's stated commitment to proceeding with prosecutions only when a case is meticulously in order is contradicted by both the botched prosecution of police officer Dante Servin for killing unarmed black woman Rekia Boyd in 2012 and the state's attorney's track-record of hostility to reopening wrongful conviction cases, in which nine men have been exonerated based on DNA evidence. Local activists hope to use her ouster to send a national message about how police can and must be held accountable—even in a city with a storied legacy of brutality by law enforcement.
"It's not just about Alvarez," says Paris Fresh, communications co-chair of BYP100's Chicago chapter, one of the organizations that has made the faces of fatal shooting victims and chants of "16 shots" a regular feature on the campaign trail. "We're letting whoever else wants to hold that position—in Illinois, anywhere—know: They will be held accountable.... The local fights, in Ferguson and Baltimore and Chicago, are connected. They're about what happens to poor black people."
Spokespeople with Alvarez's office and reelection campaign did not respond to a bevy of requests for comment from VICE on the prosecution of Davis, details regarding the 96 officers prosecuted, and the process by which civilians can track the outcomes of police review referrals. Regarding IPRA's investigation into the shooting of Davis, spokesperson Larry Merritt told VICE that the case is in its final stages but declined to share any further details.
Since late 2008, Alvarez has been top prosecutor in Cook County, comprised of 129 distinct police departments. That means that, on average, the state's attorney has pressed charges against a law enforcement officer less than once per department and less than 14 times per year. Within the same timeframe, IPRA has referred 447 misconduct complaints about Chicago police to Alvarez's office for consideration of criminal charges, according to the agency's reports.
In contrast, Alvarez has aggressively pursued the conviction of those who survived incidents of police violence and alleged abuse, in some cases going out of her way to charge civilians with murder even when there is no dispute that the person in question was killed by cops. The state's attorney has also pursued charges against other civilians who survived police shootings, including 20-year-old Denzel Ford and Antonio Cross, who was unarmed when he got shot in the hand in the same hail of bullets that killed Boyd.
In a city that has earned dubious distinction as America's "False Confession Capital," the state's attorney has been hostile to attempts by the wrongfully convicted to clear their names. Most recently, despite the findings of an official investigation commissioned by Mayor Rahm Emanuel that four men who are currently imprisoned on murder convictions are likely innocent, Alvarez has refused to reopen their cases. The state's attorney also opposed all motions by a group of exonerees known as the Englewood Four to vacate murder convictions challenged by new DNA evidence. In 2012, when the Englewood Four were eventually freed, Alvarez defended the prosecution of another group of exonerees known as the Dixmoor Five on 60 Minutes. Like the Englewood Four, the Dixmoor Five had been locked up as teens on false confessions and won their release by virtue of new DNA evidence.
After months of pressure, Alvarez lifted their convictions.
Many of those seeking to depose the current Cook County state's attorney have voiced recognition that new leadership alone will not change the game in Chicago. But the actions of Alvarez's counterparts in New York City, Baltimore, and Boston offer a glimpse of what's possible when a reform-minded prosecutor is at the helm.
In Brooklyn, District Attorney Kenneth Thompson staffed a Convictions Review Unit with ten prosecutors that has resulted in 19 exonerations since he took office at the start of 2014. Later that year, a grand jury indicted officer Peter Liang 83 days after he shot and killed unarmed black man Akai Gurley in the stairwell of the Pink Houses, a housing project in East New York. Liang was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and official misconduct last month.
In Baltimore, Marilyn Mosby, the state's attorney, has fought and won a legal battle in Maryland's highest court to compel the testimony of the first of six police officers to face trial in the death of Freddie Gray. Less than two weeks after the 25-year-old died from a spinal injury following an aggressive arrest and transport by police, Mosby charged involved officers with depraved heart murder, assault, false imprisonment, and misconduct in office.
And in Boston, Adam Foss, assistant district attorney of the Juvenile Division for Suffolk County, has begun implementing an altogether different vision for the role of prosecutor through the lens of restorative justice—actively seeking ways to reduce charges and offer second chances to troubled youth.
Such sweeping reforms are still out of reach in Chicago, where Alvarez is being challenged on Tuesday by veteran prosecutors Kim Foxx and Donna More. But Tykwone Davis's mother Willette Middleton still hopes to see some measure of accountability for her child's shooting and incarceration.
"They shot a child. It took two police—and they still working," she tells VICE, exasperated. "We need justice."
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