Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez takes a bare-knuckle approach to crime fighting.
That may be laudable when going after violent criminals, but too often, her critics say, she has used the resources of her office to punish the wrong people and protect the powerful.
One of the questionable cases involved a mother in south suburban Blue Island. In 2012 the woman’s 13-year-old daughter became pregnant after the woman’s live-in boyfriend allegedly raped the girl. A nurse at the teen’s school learned of the alleged assault and notified authorities.
As they tried to build a criminal case against the boyfriend, Blue Island police asked the woman to notify them before her daughter had an abortion so they could obtain DNA evidence, presumably tying the boyfriend to the teen.
But there was no court order and the mother, for reasons that are unclear, didn’t tell the police before the abortion was performed. The boyfriend, who confessed, was still charged in the case, officials said.
Still, Alvarez’s office went after the mother, too, charging her with obstruction of justice, a Class 4 felony punishable by up to three years in prison, according to interviews and records. (We’re not naming the woman because of the age of her daughter and nature of the allegations.)
"She was under absolutely no obligation to notify police," says the mother’s attorney, Richard Dvorak. "Who would require a rape victim to notify police before obtaining an abortion?"
The mother pleaded guilty because "she was facing a possible prison sentence," Dvorak says, and received one year of probation.
"Even if [the mother] was trying to cover for the boyfriend it wouldn’t be obstruction of justice," Dvorak says. "The girl has every right to get an abortion without telling the police. It’s an outrageous prosecution."
Sally Daly, Alvarez’s spokeswoman, said the office stands behind the decision to prosecute the mother. "She was charged because she didn’t do what she should’ve done to protect her child," Daly says.
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Critics say Alvarez overreached on a number of other occasions, including her decision to charge Willie Johnson with perjury.
Johnson was a key witness in a 1994 double-murder trial. On the stand he identified Cedric Cal and Albert Kirkman as the gunmen, and they were both convicted and sentenced to life in prison, according to interviews and records.
Fifteen years later Johnson recanted that testimony and claimed it was a "story that the [state’s attorney’s office] and police helped create," court filings show. At an evidentiary hearing in 2011 Johnson denied that Cal and Kirkman were the shooters, or that he even saw them at the scene.
A Cook County judge didn’t find that recantation to be credible, however, and denied Cal and Kirkman’s bid for a new trial.
The story could have ended there. But Alvarez’s office took the unusual step of charging Johnson with lying. It was the only known case in recent years in which the state’s attorney’s office prosecuted a recantation-related perjury.
A group of prominent lawyers, including former Gov. James Thompson and author Scott Turow, spoke out against the move. In court papers filed in July 2014, they argued that Johnson’s prosecution could dissuade witnesses from "coming forward to set the record straight."
"It has and will have a chilling effect," added Karen Daniel, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law.
Alvarez wasn’t persuaded. She told Thompson’s group that her office prosecutes perjury in limited circumstances and that the charges against Johnson were warranted.
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Ultimately Johnson was sentenced to 30 months in prison before then-Gov. Pat Quinn commuted that term last January, right before he left office.
Alvarez hasn’t always taken such a hard-line stance about lying.
Earlier this year her office charged four police officers – three from Chicago and one from Glenview – with felony perjury for allegedly lying during a drug case hearing. But she also declined to go after a Chicago police officer who may have lied during an alleged armed robber’s court hearing.
That tale began in 2010, when a masked gunman shot a South Side liquor store owner in the leg and stole $400 from the cash register. The store owner told police he thought the gunman was one of his customers.
Ranceallen Hankerson was charged with armed robbery and attempted murder, after the owner identified him in a police lineup.
A year later, at an April 13, 2011, evidentiary hearing, a Chicago police officer testified that she never showed the store owner a photo array that included a picture of Hankerson.
But that may not have been true.
An audio and video recording from her squad car captured a cell phone conversation in which she said the store owner viewed a photo array but didn’t pick out Hankerson. Then, at a pre-trial meeting in 2012, the police officer told an assistant state’s attorney that she had been "untruthful," records show.
The officer said the store owner saw the photo array and did not pick out Hankerson, directly contradicting her testimony.
Alvarez’s office dropped the charges against Hankerson.
As for the officer, prosecutors considered charging the officer with perjury or official misconduct but ultimately took no action. Reached on the phone, the officer declined to comment.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter, Patrick Rehkamp and Robert Herguth. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9035.
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