AFRICANGLOBE – Over the next year I’ll be writing about the prosecutors up for election in 2016. Some of them have been tyrants in office—breaking laws, over prosecuting, and doing whatever they can to secure a conviction. I’m starting with one of the very worst ones: Anita Alvarez. And because she’s been so terrible, I’m going to split her story into two posts. There are just that many examples of misconduct coming out of Alvarez’s office.
Alvarez is the Cook County state’s attorney, which is just another way of saying that she’s the DA of Chicago. She has been working in the state’s attorney’s office as a prosecutor for nearly 30 years and has been the head of the office since 2008. She’s up for re-election next November, and the March primary is coming up quickly. Kim Foxx, a Chicago native and a believer in criminal justice reform, is challenging her in the primary. (There will be more on Foxx in the next post.)
Alvarez is known as one of the worst prosecutors in the country. Here are just a few of the dozens of stories of misconduct and bad behavior in Alvarez’s office.
SCOTUS says that sentencing children to life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment. Alvarez recommends it anyway.
In 1990, Adolfo Davis was convicted as an accomplice to a double murder. He was 14 years old when he was sentenced to life without parole. It was never even established that he fired the gun.
Then, in 2012, it looked like Davis might get another shot at a more reasonable sentence after SCOTUS ruled that mandatory sentencing of children to life without parole was cruel and unusual punishment. The court left it up to the state whether or not that ruling would apply to those already incarcerated, and in Illinois, dozens of prisoners were given new sentencing hearings. Davis was the first one to be re-sentenced.
During the hearing his lawyers told the court about Davis’s childhood, where he lived in a “crawl space with dirt floors” and was raised by a “loving but illiterate grandmother who struggled to meet his most basic needs like cooking or doing laundry.” The defense described a man who suffered from mental health issues that were not getting treated.
Alvarez’s office made the pretty shocking argument that Davis should be re-sentenced to life in prison without parole. Remember, this guy was convicted of being an accomplice at age 14. Unfortunately, prosecutors were successful. Earlier this year a judge ruled for the state, stating, “[his] commendable acts towards self-improvement, and the support he has received from well-meaning but uninformed persons, are not sufficient for this court to alter his sentence.”
Davis will be in jail for the rest of his life.
A witness recants his testimony in a murder trial and gets charged with perjury.
In 1994, Willie Johnson testified against two men that he said had committed a double homicide. Seventeen years later Johnson recanted his testimony in a post-conviction hearing for the two defendants. He said that he had been afraid to tell the truth at the original trial because he and his family had been threatened. He stated that he was sure that the two men who had gone to prison for murder were not the actual killers.
This goes without saying, but prosecutors should want a system where people can tell the truth, even if they fail to do it when they should. They should want to encourage witnesses to come forward.
But Alvarez’s office wasn’t having it. They believed Johnson’s recantation was a lie and decided to charge him with perjury. The vindictive and overzealous charge was a message to all potential witnesses to not come forward with recanted testimony. Journalist Rob Warden called it “one of the more outrageous prosecutions” he has seen.
A number of high profile lawyers and elected officials, including former Governor Thompson and a retired appeals court judge, found the perjury charge disturbing. They sent Alvarez a letter stating that prosecuting Johnson would “would not only deter false recantations, but also truthful ones,” and asking her to drop the charge. Alvarez refused and Johnson was convicted.
Earlier this year Johnson was pardoned by former Governor Pat Quinn, another indication that many elected officials think Alvarez’s decision was egregious. Meanwhile, the convicted murderers are still in jail.
Alvarez punishes woman for standing up to law enforcement
Here’s another mind-blowing example of Alvarez’s terrible use of discretion. In 2010, Tiawanda Moore filed a complaint with the Chicago Police Department, claiming that she had been sexually harassed by law enforcement. She said that a Chicago police officer had come to her house because of a domestic complaint, asked to speak to her in the bedroom, and then touched and grabbed her breast.
After she filed a complaint, she was threatened by two internal affairs investigators who tried to convince her not to pursue the issue. Sensing something shady was going on, Moore recorded her conversation with the investigators on her cell phone. But when she approached authorities with the recording, it wasn’t the officer and investigators that were charged. Instead Alvarez’s office charged Moore with violating the state’s (now non-existent) wiretapping law. The charge could have landed her in prison for up to 15 years. Luckily, in a great example of jury nullification, she wasn’t convicted. Said one juror, “Everybody thought it was just a waste of time and that (Moore) never should have been charged.”
Cop murders Laquan McDonald. Alvarez takes a year to charge him.
In 2014, Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald 16 times as he was walking away. There was no threat, no danger, and absolutely no reason for the murder. The video footage—which was released this past Tuesday—shows him shooting McDonald in the back and continuing to shoot while he’s laying dead on the ground. Van Dyke only stops shooting to reload his gun, at which point another officer tells him to quit firing.
The cops’ original report stated that McDonald had been killed by one bullet to the chest.
Prosecutors knew about this shooting a year ago and had access to the footage. According to the Chicago Tribune, “Alvarez said she has never seen anything like the video in her three decades in law enforcement. She called the video ‘graphic,’ ‘violent’ and ‘chilling’ and said that it ‘no doubt will tear at the hearts of all Chicagoans.'”
But she didn’t charge Van Dyke last October. In fact, she didn’t charge him for thirteen months. She only charged him with murder after a judge ruled that the dashboard camera footage would be publicly released.
Alvarez claims she was waiting for state and federal investigations to finish before charging Van Dyke, but many believe she was trying to protect the cop. “There are an average of 50 police shootings of civilians every year in Chicago, and no one is ever charged,” said Craig Futterman, one of the attorneys that investigated the story, to the Chicago Reporter. “Without the video, this would have been just one more of 50 such incidents, where the police blotter defines the narrative and nothing changes.”
The chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, Alderman Roderick Sawyer expressed his unhappiness to the Sun Times:
“It’s politically motivated that you decide to do it at this time when you have generously had 10 months — I won’t even go back to the full 13 months — to make a determination to file charges and didn’t. Oftentimes, it takes days to make these types of determinations[.]”
Alvarez undercharged the cop that murdered Rekia Boyd and then purposefully tanked the case—all because she wanted to continue getting campaign donations from police unions.
In March of 2012, Rekia Boyd was shot and killed by Chicago police officer Dante Servin. Servin shot five bullets indiscriminately into a crowd of people, firing over his shoulder from his car. Boyd was hit in the back of the head and killed. Servin was charged with involuntary manslaughter, and a judge acquitted him on all charges—but not for the reasons you may think. The judge believed that it wasn’t involuntary manslaughter he was guilty of—it was first degree murder.
“It is easy to say, ‘Of course [Servin] was reckless. He intentionally shot in the direction of a group of people on the sidewalk. That is really dangerous. … Case closed,'” said the judge. “It is easy to think that way, but it is wrong. It ignores the law on this subject.” DNAinfo reported that the judge “pointed to a history of Illinois court rulings that say: When someone intends to fire a gun, points toward his victim and shoots—much like Servin […]— that behavior is not reckless.” It is intentional. Alvarez’s office knew exactly what the law was and yet they charged him with a charge they could not prove.
The ruling meant that Servin walked free, and many believe that Alvarez deliberately lost the case. Chicago attorney Sam Adam, Jr. stated:
“To charge that as reckless conduct and not first-degree murder — either you’re doing it because you want to curry favor with the police department or you’re completely inept,” Adam said. “I think there’s no question it was deliberate. She wants to curry favor with the FOP. It took a $4.5 million settlement to get charges in this case. She was stuck in a hard place. If you charge first-degree murder, the FOP is mad at her. If you don’t charge anything, the community is upset. So you play the odds. That says you’re thinking about your job, not about what’s right.”
For those doubting that Alvarez tanked the case intentionally, wait until you hear about Miguel Adorno. My former colleague Shaun King wrote about him in April:
On January 23rd, 2010 Miguel Adorno fired his gun under his arm, much like Dante Servin claimed to, at a party in Chicago. A bullet hit Shannon Fanning in the arm. Nobody died, but Miguel Adorno was charged and convicted with attempted murder and given a mandatory 15-year prison sentence. On June 14th, 2013, Miguel Adorno appealed this decision, stating that he was overcharged and over-sentenced for something was purely reckless.
When the state rejected his appeal, they were quite explicit about why:
Illinois courts have clearly and consistently held that when a defendant points a firearm in the direction of an intended victim and fires the weapon, he has not acted recklessly. People v. Sipp, 378 Ill. App. 3d 157, 166 (2007). Because defendant knowingly fired his gun in the direction of the crowd, a reckless conduct instruction was not appropriate. […] Furthermore, specific intent to take a human life is a material element of the offense of attempted murder, but the very fact of firing a gun at a person supports the conclusion that the person doing so acted with the intent to kill.
It’s pretty black and white—Servin committed murder. But he was undercharged because, as a number of sources have reported, Alvarez wanted to make sure that the police unions would support her re-election.
Man convicted of murder was actually in jail at the time of the crime. Prosecutors failed to disclose evidence proving his innocence. Alvarez thinks that’s just fine.
Another crazy case: Daniel Taylor was 17 in 1992 when he was charged with double murder. The only problem? When the murder happened, Taylor was sitting in a jail cell.
After being woken up two weeks later in the middle of the night and interrogated for hours without a lawyer, parent, or guardian, Taylor confessed. The prosecution claimed that either the police log was wrong or he must have managed to escape from jail early. But the police officer that oversaw Taylor’s custody refuted that claim. “It is not possible that Daniel Taylor was released early, released by mistake or escaped from custody,” he said. “For this to have happened, numerous personnel from two separate watches would have had to conspire … to cover it up. … I would not and did not engage in any such conspiracy.”
According to The Open File:
At Taylor’s trial in 1995, the state’s attorney and his team dismissed a bond slip that showed Taylor was in custody for the three hours in question, as well as the underlying arrest report, saying they included clerical errors and should be disregarded by the jury.
This theme continued after trial, all the way through 2001 when the Chicago Tribune investigated the case and turned up Brady material in the prosecutor’s file which hadn’t been disclosed to Taylor’s defense team, including handwritten notes from interviews with police officers who were in charge of the lockup at the time of the murder:
“In the notes, several of the officers are certain Taylor was in the lockup when Taylor and the records say he was. One officer, James Gillespie, is quoted saying ‘he’s convinced’ that Taylor was there at 10 p.m., words that are stronger than his trial testimony.”[…]
“Those [notes] showed police were trying to find a man who shared a lockup cell with Taylor. That man told the Tribune that once police found him and he said he remembered being locked up with a young black man, the police lost interest in him and never contacted him again. Had Taylor’s trial lawyer had the reports, he could have called the man as a witness to try to bolster the alibi that he was behind bars.”
Although that evidence was uncovered in 2001, the state’s attorney’s office didn’t release him until 2012. Alvarez’s own Conviction Integrity Unit, an office she created after being the center of one too many scandals, finally decided to let him out.
But instead of apologizing for failing to disclose evidence and convicting a boy despite him having one of the most airtight alibis possible, Alvarez defended the prosecutor’s actions. She even called the accusation of prosecutorial misconduct for withholding exculpatory evidence is “an unsubstantiated allegation.”
The Conviction Integrity Unit is a good idea in theory. But in practice, it’s a small office — just six staffers, all of whom by definition work for Alvarez. There’s no independence. And the four attorneys in the unit are still prosecutors, and they all continue to try criminal cases. Many believe the unit’s creation was another political move by Alvarez, created just eight months before the last election
The office does claim to have vacated 13 wrong convictions. (It’s not clear how many of these cases were brought to light and first investigated by an outside person or organization, such as the Innocence Project or the Chicago Tribune.) However, according to the Chicago Reader, “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.” And the Tribune reports that, “In some cases, even when DNA evidence has pointed to another potential suspect or when other compelling evidence has suggested a prisoner’s innocence, Alvarez has shown resistance to vacating convictions.”
Judge called prosecutor’s behavior “deeply troubling,” threw out murder conviction.
Anthony Johnson’s murder conviction was thrown out by the state appellate court last year after they concluded that prosecutors had insufficient evidence. Johnson was accused of driving another man to and from a shooting when he was seventeen. The other man was acquitted of the murder but then actually admitted his guilt in his testimony at Johnson’s retrial. He testified that he had shot the victim and left on foot.
Johnson was tried by Alvarez’s chief of criminal prosecutions, Fabio Valentini. His evidence against Johnson came from an eyewitness who was “admittedly so high and drunk that he didn’t even hear gunshots or know a shooting had occurred.”
The Illinois Appellate Court threw out Johnson’s conviction and barred the state from prosecuting him again, calling the prosecution “deeply troubling” and criticizing the prosecutor for comparing the defendant to a Nazi. “[T]he state drew a comparison between defendant and war criminals that were tried for the worst atrocities in modern human history. This type of conduct has no place in the courtroom. … We want to emphasize that this is not conduct we would want to see again.”
Students at Northwestern’s journalism school freed wrongly convicted men, so Alvarez subpoenaed their grades and personal emails.
In yet another example of her vindictiveness and dogged self-protection, Alvarez went after students working to uncover wrongful convictions. She said her subpoenas were so she could assess the veracity of the evidence, but the lead professor at Medill School of Journalism’s Innocence Project, David Protess, viewed it differently. He and others saw the move as a direct attempt to intimidate, retaliate, and bully the students by subpoenaing their personal information, including information that had nothing to do with the case. Alvarez justified it by implying that maybe students made up evidence to get a good grade in the class. The Chicago Reader stated:
The big problem with the position state’s attorney Anita Alvarez has taken is that evidence speaks for itself. If what matters to her is justice — which would be getting [the defendant] out of prison if, and only if, he didn’t kill [the victim] — the provenance of the evidence that he’s innocent, and the possible biases of the parties who assembled it, are beside the point. If, after two years of dutiful assessment of that evidence, Alvarez has decided it’s so worthless that Medill, Protess, and the Innocence Project need to be taught a lesson, then she should say so. But her office is saying nothing of the sort.
She also challenged the first amendment rights of the students, stating that journalism students shouldn’t be able to be identified as reporters. When I was a law student, I wasn’t a lawyer,” she said. (The problem with this argument, of course, is that lawyers have to be certified and barred and reporters do not.) She also took issue with the fact that the students didn’t publish the information they found but simply used it to exonerate the defendant, calling them not journalists but investigators. But journalists are also investigators, looking into stories and working to find the truth. They were not investigating on behalf of a party. They were investigating as journalists.
These are just some of the examples of Alvarez’s unacceptable actions in her role as district attorney. There are more to follow next week, as well as more information about Kim Foxx and the upcoming race. I will be watching this election closely over the next months.
Prosecutorial discretion is one of the most powerful elements of our justice system. Good prosecutors use their discretion wisely. The bad, on the other hand, prosecute overzealously and use discretion vindictively. They’re more interested in convictions than public safety, and they put protecting their reputation before protecting communities. Anita Alvarez is one of those bad prosecutors.