Coalition calls for special prosecutor in Jason Van Dyke murder case

Former mayoral candidate Jesus "Chuy" Garcia (right) is one of 27 petitioners supporting the use of a special prosecutor in the Jason Van Dyke case. (Aryn Braun/MEDILL)

By Aryn Braun and Misha Euceph
Video by Kierra Gray

In a petition filed this morning, 27 interested parties called for a special prosecutor in the trial of police officer Jason Van Dyke, citing Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s close ties to the Fraternal Order of Police as a “conflict of interest.”

The petitioners, including U.S. Representatives Danny Davis and Bobby Rush, and Cook County Commissioner and former mayoral candidate Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, point to Alvarez’s continued involvement in the case as unjust and compromising.

Specifically, the group said that Alvarez’s decision to wait to charge Van Dyke, a white officer who shot black teenager Laquan McDonald, for a year casts a questionable light on her ability to fairly prosecute the officer.

“Laquan McDonald was a constituent of mine,” said Davis, who stood at the front of the room alongside Marvin Hunter, McDonald’s great-uncle and pastor at Grace Memorial Baptist Church in North Lawndale.
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“This has galvanized the community of Lawndale,” said Hunter. “People feel this. This was a kid that died, and it was an execution.”

Illinois’ special prosecutor statute entitles anyone, including the state’s attorney herself, to call for the appointment of a special prosecutor in a case in which the state’s attorney’s office has a conflict of interest, according to Locke Bowman, Executive Director of Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center.

The petition announcement comes one month before the March 15 State’s Attorney election, in which Alvarez faces challengers Donna More and Kim Foxx, whom the Democratic Party endorsed on Jan. 14.

Although many of the representatives present at the announcement of the petition identify with the Democratic Party and support Kim Foxx, Bowman stressed that “there is no conflict of interest,” and the announcement wasn’t political in nature.

“We thought the state’s attorney might step up,” said Bowman. “We waited for others to step forward. When it became apparent that nothing was happening, we stepped in.” Bowman explained that the coalition’s decision to announce the petition a few weeks before the election was not an attempt to influence the vote.

Alvarez’s office disagreed. “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,” said Alvarez in a statement released after the announcement.

The coalition said they will present the petition to Leroy Martin, Jr., Presiding Judge of the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County on Feb. 26. After the motion, Judge Martin will decide whether to launch an official inquiry into Alvarez’s alleged conflict of interest in prosecuting the Van Dyke case, Bowman said.

If Judge Martin grants a hearing, both Alvarez and the petitioners will have a chance to argue for or against the need for a special prosecutor. With only four weeks before the state’s attorney election, it appears unlikely that the judge will make a ruling before the vote.

“If Anita Alvarez isn’t the state’s attorney anymore then this personal conflict isn’t an issue,” said Bowman, suggesting that the petition becomes moot if one of Alvarez’s challengers wins the election.

Photo at top: Former mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (right) is one of 27 petitioners supporting the use of a special prosecutor in the Jason Van Dyke case. (Aryn Braun/MEDILL)