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Who will handle the Laquan McDonald case?

By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader

Citing recent criminal trials against Chicago police officers and a general mistrust of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, a group of civil rights attorneys are asking for an independent prosecutor in the Laquan McDonald case. The request was made on March 23 before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Gaughan. Gaughan has given prosecutors in the high-profile case, which is being followed by international media outlets, six weeks to respond. The request came as the Chicago police officer accused of murdering McDonald back in October of 2014 asked Gaughan if he could miss some of the status hearings in the case. Attorneys for Officer Jason Van Dyke said he has received numerous death threats, which is the reason for the request.

Attorney Flint Taylor spoke to the media after the hearing. He cited the case of Det. Dante Servin, who had murder charges against him dismissed by a judge who ruled Alvarez’s office charged Servin with the wrong crime. Taylor said those type of prosecutorial errors cannot be made again in a case like this.

“The whole world is watching to see what happens with this case. Ms. Alvarez was voted out of office last week by a large margin, which shows how she is not trusted by the public. With there being so much at stake here, I think the people would be served best by an independent prosecutor,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s group also cited Alvarez’s relationship with the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents officers. In 2012, the FOP endorsed Alvarez’s reelection bid.

“We believe the conflict is based on the FOP’s close connection with Anita Alvarez, as well as her propensity and record of not pursuing vigorously, or at all, police misconduct, police shootings, police cover-up cases in her history as the State’s Attorney of Cook County,” Taylor told a group of media members outside the courtroom. “It’s not just the Servin or McDonald case; those are just the cases where someone was killed. It’s the everyday cases of people being harassed, mistreated and their Civil Rights violated by police that are never investigated let alone charges filed.”

Democratic nominee for State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has also called for a special prosecutor in the McDonald case. Foxx, who defeated Alvarez handily in last week’s primary election, was not available for comment after Wednesday’s hearing. Depending on how long the case takes to get to trial, the need for a special prosecutor could be null and void if the case does not go to trial until either Foxx or her opponent in next month’s general election Christopher Pfannkuche are in office. But those who are asking for the independent prosecutor are unwilling to take that chance.

“Her commitment is wavering and uncertain when it comes to the need to prosecute police officers when police officers offend,” said Locke Bowman of the Northwestern University MacArthur Justice Center. “That is why today’s action is necessary. I’m not sure how her office will respond to this, but my guess is they will do what they have been doing since she has been in office: deny, deny and deny.”

Understanding the gravity of the situation and intense public interest in the case, Gaughan said he was not going to make a rush to judgment. He said requests for a special prosecutor are very rare and must be used only in extreme cases where there exists a conflict of interest, safety purposes or a lack of competence.

“And because I want to make sure that each party has adequate time… I’m not going to rush this or anything else like this, because this has to be done thoroughly and professionally,” Gaughan said.

A spokesperson for Alvarez said she had no comment on the motions filed. Weeks ago however, Alvarez said there was no need for a special prosecutor because her office would prosecute Van Dyke.

In the meantime his lawyers claim he is getting death threats on a daily basis to himself and his family. They asked the judge if he could miss some of the status hearings in the case to reduce his public exposure. Attorney Dan Herbert said the safety of his client is his top priority. He also chimed in on the special prosecutor controversy.

“I would be fine with it or with Alvarez’s office,” Herbert said.

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