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The trials of Anita Alvarez

Can Cook County's state's attorney convince voters she's more than a lock-'em-up prosecutor from a bygone era?

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On August 18 the leaders of the Cook County Democratic Party gathered at the Erie Cafe, a popular restaurant next to the north branch of the Chicago River, to decide which candidates to endorse in the upcoming primaries. Before the slating session was officially under way, ward and township committeemen, other elected officials, and political consultants milled around shaking hands and trading stories.

Anita Alvarez kept her distance. Though she's the two-term incumbent state's attorney—the top prosecutor in one of the largest court systems in the country—Alvarez looked wary and defensive, as if she were about to go on trial herself. In a sense, she was: amid a growing national movement for changes to the criminal justice system, Alvarez knew she would have a hard time convincing the leaders of her party to back her for another four years.

Around 9:30 AM the committeemen and politicos took their seats in the back meeting room, and one by one the candidates were invited to make five-minute pitches. The state's attorney was called in first. Alvarez, who's 55, likes being known as a tough, no-nonsense prosecutor­­—even her smiles come off as intense. She got right to the point. "My concern is public safety," she said. "That's my job."

Alvarez went on to tout some of her accomplishments—she said she'd helped craft state laws "to get tough on gangbangers," led a nationally recognized crackdown on human trafficking, and expanded "smart on crime" programs to help some offenders get education or treatment instead of facing jail time. She emphasized that she was the only Latina on the countywide ticket.

Still, she acknowledged that not everyone in the room was happy with her. "I have to make decisions every day that might not be popular." Even so, she said, "I have been the most innovative state's attorney in history."

But Alvarez didn't bring up what many citizens believe to be her office's most important task: working to ensure justice.

It's a pressing issue around the country. Influential figures on the left and the right—ranging from President Obama to the ultraconservative Koch brothers—have decried the mass incarceration that's resulted from decades of tough-on-crime policies, which disproportionately impact black and Hispanic men. Over the last year a series of high-profile shootings by police has prompted additional calls for changing how law enforcement interacts with citizens, particularly in African-American communities.

These issues are acute in Cook County. Its jail remains crowded, and the state prison population—more than half of which is from Cook County—has grown over the last seven years, records show. Most inmates are there for nonviolent offenses. The vast majority are minorities, and a third or more are thought to be dealing with mental illness. When they're released, almost all of them return to the same poor, segregated neighborhoods they came from.

While Alvarez counts herself among those pushing for reforms, her three opponents accused her of being part of the problem.

"It's time we restore our county's faith in how we prosecute crime and dispense justice," Donna More, a former prosecutor now in private practice, argued to the committeemen. The state's attorney's office "isn't just about crime and violence," added Kim Foxx, a former county official and prosecutor. "It's about community and justice."

"We have an incumbent who is unpopular and likely unelectable," said county commissioner John Fritchey. "We need to send a unified message that we hear the outrage—that justice is not just about putting people behind bars." (Fritchey later decided not to run.)

Even before the committeemen made a decision, the message was clear: to stay in office, Alvarez has to defend herself against charges that she's a lock-'em-up prosecutor from a bygone era.

It will be a difficult task. Alvarez has one of the hardest jobs in local government, but at many points in her tenure she's pursued a brand of justice widely seen as vindictive and defensive—aimed at people who are less a threat to public safety than to the image of law enforcement.

Alvarez didn't respond to numerous requests for an interview. Her spokeswoman, Sally Daly, responded to questions through e-mail.

A prosecutor in Reagan's 80s

Alvarez grew up at a time when crime was rising in Chicago, as it was in most other American cities. Born in 1960, she was raised in the Pilsen area, not far from the hulking criminal courts complex at 26th and California that now dominates her professional life. Her father worked as a waiter. Her mother was a seamstress.

Alvarez in 1978 as a student at Maria High School - SUN-TIMES ARCHIVE
  • Sun-Times archive
  • Alvarez in 1978 as a student at Maria High School

Alvarez attended the all-girls Maria High School, and went on to Loyola University Chicago and the Chicago-Kent College of Law. She began her career as a Cook County prosecutor in 1986.

By that point law enforcement agencies around the country were engaged in a war on drugs and crime launched by President Ronald Reagan, and most politicians declared their support. Richard M. Daley, the state's attorney at the time, called for longer sentences for gang members and drug dealers.

"The attitude back then was 'Hammer everyone,'" says Thomas Needham, who worked alongside Alvarez in the state's attorney's office in the 1990s.

Most prosecutors at that time were men, especially in cases involving violent crime. But Alvarez developed a reputation for taking on violent criminals in the courtroom.

Alvarez holds up the conviction of Patrick Sykes as one of her crowning achievements as a prosecutor. Sykes was accused of raping and beating a nine-year-old girl in a Cabrini-Green building in 1997. The victim, who was left blind, paralyzed, and unable to speak, became known as Girl X. Though prosecutors used her real name, Shatoya Currie, in court records, it wasn't until the case was resolved that the media began using it as well.

Prosecutors spent more than three years preparing the case. Alvarez first began appearing on court documents at the end of 2000, a few months before the case went to trial.

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys praised Alvarez's simultaneous sympathy for Currie and toughness in the courtroom, and the case thrust her into the public eye. "She was perfect for a case like that," says Needham. Prosecuting violent crimes, particularly with child victims, "came natural to her."

Sykes was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Alvarez continues to invoke the case and tout her work on it.

A mantle of reform

Over the next decade, as crime began to drop, the state's attorney's office came under fire. Evidence mounted that, in its push to put away criminals during the rising violence of the 80s and 90s, some county prosecutors took politically expedient shortcuts. After a number of flawed murder convictions came to light, then-governor George Ryan put a halt to executions in Illinois. Meanwhile, Daley's lieutenant and successor, Richard Devine, was battered with allegations that his office had failed to investigate evidence of police torture under former commander Jon Burge.

Alvarez had climbed to the number three spot in the office by the time Devine announced in 2007 that he wouldn't run again. She decided to jump into the race—as did two aldermen, a county commissioner, a veteran defense attorney, and Devine's top aide, Robert Milan.

Alvarez had never run for anything before. In her first public appearances she seemed to be making an argument in the courtroom and came across as stiff. Her primary credential—more than two decades in the state's attorney's office—hardly qualified her as a fresh face.

Yet that's how Alvarez characterized herself. As her opponents argued with each other during debates, Alvarez stuck to her central point: the state's attorney's office needed to be more responsive to the community, starting with crime victims, and she was best positioned to do it.

"It's time for a change," she said. "It's time to have someone in there who's honest and has integrity."

That was a direct hit on Devine and Milan, though Alvarez didn't explain why she had worked with them for years if they lacked such essential qualities. But no mind: after her husband, Dr. James Gomez, loaned her campaign $640,000, Alvarez ran a television ad stressing that she was both a mother of four and a prosecutor looking out for public safety.

It worked. She eked out a victory in the 2008 Democratic primary with 26 percent of the vote, prompting some observers to dub her a rising political star. That November she coasted to a win over Republican Tony Peraica, becoming the first woman and first Hispanic to serve as Cook County's top prosecutor.

Shatoya Currie, formerly known as "Girl X," with (left to right) speech therapist Barbara Robinson, Alvarez and former assistant state's attorney William O'Brien in 2002. Alvarez touts the conviction of Currie's assailant as a major achievement. - RICH HEIN/SUN-TIMES
  • Rich Hein/Sun-Times
  • Shatoya Currie, formerly known as "Girl X," with (left to right) speech therapist Barbara Robinson, Alvarez and former assistant state's attorney William O'Brien in 2002. Alvarez touts the conviction of Currie's assailant as a major achievement.

A wrong approach to wrongful convictions?

But only a few months later critics began questioning whether Alvarez was more interested in protecting her office's reputation than she was in pursuing justice.

One of the first controversies began when David Protess, then a journalism professor at Northwestern University, presented prosecutors with evidence questioning the guilt of Anthony McKinney, who was imprisoned for the 1978 murder of a security guard. Investigations conducted by Protess and groups of students had already helped free a number of men convicted of murder on contested evidence.

But Alvarez launched an inquiry into Protess and his team, issuing subpoenas for records of their research, the students' grades, and the class syllabus.

Some of Protess's methods were eventually discredited; he left Northwestern in the wake of the ensuing controversy. Meanwhile, McKinney's case went nowhere. Although he and a number of advocates continued to profess his innocence, he died in prison in 2013.

In a 2012 interview, Alvarez said, "We tore those cases apart to see if there was any truth to them. I think it was unfortunate that it was portrayed as me going after the students." But this wasn't the only time Alvarez responded skeptically to evidence of wrongful convictions.

After she was elected, her office helped defense attorneys locate evidence in the case of the Dixmoor Five, a group of teenagers convicted of a 1991 rape and murder in the south suburb when they were between 14 and 16 years old. No physical evidence linked them to the crime—they were convicted based on sometimes contradictory confessions three of them gave after hours of police interrogation with no attorneys present, according to court records. The defendants later maintained their statements were false and given under duress.

In early 2011 DNA found on the victim was matched to a convicted rapist. Yet prosecutors wouldn't rule out the involvement of the Dixmoor Five.

Many veteran legal observers were outraged. That September, a group of lawyers and elected officials filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the convictions should be thrown out. "This is a prime example of an injustice that must be reconsidered and the resulting convictions vacated," they argued.

Finally, on November 3, 2011, the state's attorney's office moved to lift the convictions, freeing the three men still in prison for the crime. Three months later Alvarez announced that she had formed a conviction integrity unit to "make sure that those in prison are there correctly."

But she still wasn't willing to say that the Dixmoor men were innocent of the 1991 rape and murder. In December 2012, 60 Minutes aired a segment titled "Chicago: The False Confession Capital" that zoomed in on the Dixmoor case.

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Alvarez came across as defensive and illogical. At one point she argued that the convict linked to the crime scene could have left his semen there after the rape and murder were committed by others—in other words, that he had engaged in necrophilia.

"It's possible," Alvarez said. "We have seen cases like that."

After the episode aired, Alvarez was blasted for her comments. She said they were taken out of context and wrote a letter to 60 Minutes condemning what she called a "one-sided and extremely misleading story."

"When I analyze cases of this nature, I am committed to ensuring justice for the accused and for the victims and their families," she wrote.

Even her critics say Alvarez and her office have stepped up their efforts to review flawed convictions since then. Such cases are by nature complicated, and every decision the office makes is likely to anger someone, whether it's police, prosecutors, or families of the victims or the convicted.

"It's a huge job," says Joshua Tepfer, who represented one of the freed men in the Dixmoor case.

Since it was formed in 2012, the state's attorney's conviction integrity unit has reviewed more than 350 cases. Of those, Alvarez has vacated the convictions of 13 defendants, according to her office.

Still, some attorneys who've worked with the office say it maintains a defensive posture, as if investigators are out to prove that a case stands up rather than looking at it with fresh eyes.

Tepfer points to the case of his client Charles Johnson, who along with three other teenagers was convicted of a 1995 double murder and robbery at a south-side auto dealership. In 2010 new testing found that fingerprints on the sticker of a car stolen during the crime matched those of another man. Unlike Johnson, he lived close to where the car was abandoned, according to Tepfer.

Tepfer argues that the evidence exonerates Johnson and his three codefendants. "In my opinion, it's a case of very clear innocence," he says.

The state's attorney's office argues otherwise. "This particular case is one in which the office does not believe there is sufficient, reliable evidence to prove innocence or to definitively determine that this defendant did not commit this crime," Daly, Alvarez's spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail.

Still, the state appellate court ruled in 2013 that Johnson was entitled to a new hearing on the evidence. Alvarez then brought in one of the case's original prosecutors to help in its defense.

When asked about this move, Daly confirmed that the prosecutor was litigating the case during the appeals process, but said other attorneys had done the work to reexamine the case. "The prosecutors who originally prosecuted a case DO NOT conduct conviction integrity reviews," she wrote.

But prosecutors in other counties take additional steps to remove even the impression of bias when cases such as Johnson's are reexamined. For example, Brooklyn district attorney Ken Thompson has created what many criminal justice experts consider a model conviction review unit. Attorneys and investigators compile a report about each case they go over, then forward it to an independent panel of attorneys who review it and make a recommendation to the district attorney. Thompson's office is now sharing its practices with other prosecutors.

Alvarez and former mayor Richard M. Daley at the 2009 signing of gun legislation targeting gang members. Daley called for longer sentences for gang members and drug dealers during his time as state's attorney in the 90s. - JOHN H. WHITE/CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
  • John H. White/Chicago Sun-Times
  • Alvarez and former mayor Richard M. Daley at the 2009 signing of gun legislation targeting gang members. Daley called for longer sentences for gang members and drug dealers during his time as state's attorney in the 90s.

Protecting the powerful, prosecuting the weak?

While Alvarez's slow movement on wrongful convictions brought criticism during her first term, her commitment to combating sex trafficking won accolades.

For generations it was routine for cops and prosecutors to clamp down on the sex trade by going after prostitutes caught on the street. But soon after taking office, Alvarez targeted pimps and gangs while trying to steer sex workers to social services. Her efforts helped redefine the problem nationally as one of human trafficking.

Her supporters say that's an example of her rethinking the role of her office to be "smart" on crime instead of just cracking down on it. "She's taken a stand on human trafficking," says Gery Chico, an attorney who finished second in the 2011 mayoral race. "I think she's made tough decisions."

But too often, her critics say, Alvarez has decided to use the resources of her office to prosecute undeserving or powerless people, often while protecting cops and political insiders.

In 2010, for example, Tiawanda Moore claimed a Chicago police officer groped her after he responded to a domestic disturbance call at her south-side home. Moore reported the alleged misconduct to police, and during an interview with two internal affairs investigators she recorded a conversation on her BlackBerry as they allegedly tried to dissuade her from pursuing the complaint.

But Moore went from victim to defendant when prosecutors charged her under a now defunct law that made taping police officers without their consent a felony. She was later acquitted by a jury.

Alvarez was just as forceful about rebuffing calls to reinvestigate the 2004 death of David Koschman, calling it the "obsession" of journalists at the Sun-Times. It took a court-appointed special prosecutor to charge former Mayor Daley's nephew Richard Vanecko with manslaughter for punching Koschman outside a downtown bar, causing fatal injuries.

In 2012, as local and federal officials were bracing for an influx of protesters for the NATO summit, Alvarez made international news by charging three demonstrators with plotting terrorist attacks. By the time the case went to trial in 2014, evidence revealed that undercover police had egged the men on, raising questions about whether prosecutors had overcharged them. Jurors acquitted the three of terrorism while convicting them of the lesser offenses of making an incendiary device and mob action.

The state's attorney has to make difficult calls on complicated cases every day, and Alvarez's supporters say she usually gets them right. "It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't job," says Needham, the defense attorney. "I think she's doing a fine job."

To her critics, though, these cases show that Alvarez has often failed to seek justice for the powerless."She had a chance to get in there and make a change," says 21st Ward alderman Howard Brookins Jr., who lost to Alvarez in 2008. "But she decided against it to go with the status quo."

The reform bandwagon

Despite these high-profile controversies, Alvarez won reelection in 2012 with only token opposition. But during her second term, her office's handling of its everyday caseload—adding up to more than 30,000 felonies and 160,000 misdemeanors prosecuted annually—came under attack and weakened her political standing.

While Alvarez was fending off critics, Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle had become a progressive favorite by slamming the war on drugs and vowing to reduce the jail population. Since 2010 the jail has been under a federal decree to reduce crowding and improve safety, yet in 2013 the inmate count climbed above 10,000, its highest level in six years.

Most jail inmates are locked up because they don't have the money to bail out while waiting for their cases to be resolved, a process that's been taking longer in recent years. Preckwinkle pressured other county officials to come up with solutions and criticized those who didn't move as quickly as she wanted, including judges and the state's attorney's office.

Initially Alvarez and her top aides pushed back, arguing that it wasn't their job to worry about who was behind bars. "Our mandate is public safety," Fabio Valentini, chief of the criminal prosecutions bureau, said in a 2013 interview. "We're not going to stop charging felonies tomorrow because the jail population has become too big."

Changes were instituted anyway. The Illinois Supreme Court directed county officials to find ways to speed up the case disposition process and to send more defendants home on electronic tethers while they wait. Since then the jail population has dipped, and some court and jail officials say the state's attorney's office deserves credit for working with judges to move cases along.

But many defense attorneys maintain that Alvarez has a hard time letting go of the idea that defendants are bad guys who need the maximum punishment.

"She's way too vindictive, and she overcharges too many cases," says attorney Richard Dvorak. "Trial prosecutors have no discretion now. They can't cut a deal without a supervisor's approval. And the supervisors aren't in the courtrooms. It's causing the court system to grind to a halt."

Not true, says Daly, Alvarez's spokeswoman. "The state's attorney is not reluctant to allow reduced charges in exchange for guilty pleas when appropriate, but charges are not reduced simply as a means of disposing a case more quickly either," Daly wrote.

Instead, she blamed the other side for slowing the resolution of cases. "The defense attorneys make money for each court appearance and it is often in their best interests to delay these cases."

This spring Preckwinkle said she'd seen enough. "She was one of the people who had to be dragged kicking and screaming through this reform process," she said of Alvarez. Preckwinkle began offering her view that her chief of staff, Kim Foxx, would be an upgrade as the county's top prosecutor.

In the meantime, Alvarez took steps to bolster her own reform credentials. "I have come to the conclusion that what we are currently doing in Cook County to handle drug cases is not working," she announced at a press conference on April 20.

Going forward, she said, charges would be dropped in most misdemeanor marijuana possession cases. Those nabbed three or more times would be given the option of undergoing drug counseling, as would thousands of people picked up with small amounts of hard drugs, including cocaine and heroin.

She denied that the plan was timed to boost her reelection prospects. "Absolutely not," she said. "I'm ready for whoever wants to take me on."

The proposals received extensive news coverage and praise from reform advocates, but it's not clear what they would actually do. Most of the cases she proposed dropping are already thrown out of court; her plan could actually keep more cases in the system longer, especially for offenders who fail to complete the drug education program.

Regardless, Alvarez had more troubling news to deal with later that day, when Judge Dennis Porter issued an opinion in the case of police officer Dante Servin.

Servin was off duty when he shot at a group of people partying near his west-side home in 2012, killing 22-year-old Rekia Boyd. More than a year passed before prosecutors charged Servin with reckless conduct.

It's rare for the state's attorney's office to charge a cop at all, even though the city's Independent Police Review Authority referred 423 cases for review between 2009 and mid-2015.

But Judge Porter found Servin not guilty, essentially ruling that he had been undercharged. Aiming and shooting a gun at a crowd of people "is an act that is so dangerous it is beyond reckless; it is intentional and the crime, if any there be, is first degree murder," Porter wrote.

The case is not likely to be forgotten. Activists continue to call for justice for #RekiaBoyd on social media and at rallies.

What do voters want now?

Foxx left her job in Preckwinkle's office and announced her candidacy this summer. She's already received the backing of a number of elected officials, though some politicians are wary of her ties to Preckwinkle.

"I don't care if it's Mother Teresa, you do not want a state's attorney who's beholden to political bosses or anyone else," says county commissioner Larry Suffredin, who lost to Alvarez in 2008.

He adds that Alvarez is bad at self-promotion and political schmoozing. "I think she's a bashful person who doesn't tell us what she does. I think she's most comfortable when she's trying a case. She likes the courtroom."

Attorney Kim Foxx is making a bid for Alvarez's seat. - COURTESY OF KIM FOXX
  • Courtesy of Kim Foxx
  • Attorney Kim Foxx is making a bid for Alvarez's seat.

For all the contention surrounding her office, Alvarez has her powerful backers as well, starting with alderman Ed Burke and house speaker Michael Madigan—political heavyweights whose southwest-side wards are now predominantly Hispanic.

But their support wasn't enough for Alvarez to capture her party's endorsement at the slating meeting in August. After hearing from all the candidates for state's attorney, the Democratic committeemen met behind closed doors. Proco Joe Moreno, alderman and committeeman of the First Ward, was among those who opposed Alvarez. "She has a prosecute-them-first, ask-questions-later mentality," Moreno says. "I love to empower Latinos, and we need more representation, but she's not a progressive state's attorney."

But Foxx didn't have the votes either. Preckwinkle quickly moved to hold an open primary, with no one endorsed. The committeemen called out "aye," according to several who were there.

Alvarez had left the gathering by then. "Anita is not concerned about an open primary," Daly wrote. "She runs the State's Attorney's Office professionally and independently without the influence of politicians. She does not engage in political deal making and is not beholden to anyone. That would seem to be what Cook County citizens would want and expect from their top prosecutor."

Or maybe they want that and more. Between now and the March primary, county voters will be asked to decide if they're ready for criminal justice reform—and whether they want a new state's attorney to make it happen.  v

The BGA's Robert Herguth, Brett Chase, Andrew Schroedter, Patrick Rehkamp, and Katie Drews helped report this story. Evin Billington contributed research.


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