CHICAGO (AP) — Cook County’s embattled state’s attorney asked a judge Thursday to appoint a special prosecutor to take over the case against a white Chicago police officer she didn’t charge until more than a year after he shot a black teenager 16 times.
In a motion that surprised civil rights attorneys who were set to continue their push to force Anita Alvarez off the case, her office filed a motion to have someone else prosecute Officer Jason Van Dyke, who is charged with first-degree murder in the October 2014 killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
Alvarez was voted out of office under withering criticism of her handling of the case and is leaving office in December. She didn’t charge Van Dyke until hours before the court-ordered November 2015 release of the dashcam video.
On Thursday, even as she was asking off the case, Alvarez continued to defend herself against allegations that her close political relationship with the police officers’ union created a conflict of interest and made her reluctant to pursue criminal cases against officers in misconduct and shooting cases.
She explained her reason for asking off the case in a statement: “I believe that the results of the recent election and the impending transition of this office make this the best and most responsible decision.”
If Cook County Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan approves her motion, as is widely expected, it would clear the way for the appointment of an outside prosecutor, which activists and civil rights attorneys have demanded. Gaughan said he would announce his decision on June 2.
After the hearing, the attorneys who had been trying to force Alvarez’s removal from the case said they hoped that the judge would appoint an independent prosecutor who is not affiliated with Alvarez’ office or that of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
“There is, as a matter of reality, a close nexus in terms of personnel and in terms of non-aggressiveness in these matters between the state’s attorney and the (state) attorney general’s office,” said lawyer Locke Bowman, who represents a coalition trying to have Alvarez removed from the case.
Madigan’s office didn’t immediately respond to a phone request for comment.
The release of the dashcam video showing Van Dyke shooting McDonald over and over led to major protests and federal and local investigations of the police department. It also prompted Mayor Rahm Emanuel to fire the police superintendent, Garry McCarthy.
Alvarez has defended her office’s handling of the case, which she has called very complicated, and her record in filing charges against police officers. But the timing of her announcement of charges — just hours before the court-ordered release of the video — helped feed accusations of a cover-up by the department and Alvarez’s office.
On Thursday, Alvarez expressed hope that by handing over the case to a special prosecutor, she might help restore faith in the legal system.
“It is my greatest hope that the citizens of Chicago who have been shocked and polarized by this crime and this tragedy will understand and welcome this decision,” she said.
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