Anita Alvarez v. Journalism Students

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s efforts to shoot the messenger (Northwestern University Journalism Students) rather than heed the message (information that a man might be wrongfully incarcerated for three decades) demonstrates that Alvarez’s administration will be nothing more than what we have grown to expect from than the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (CCSAO). In this latest example the CCSAO is using the full weight of the available institutional resources to silence anyone that would dare suggest an individual convicted by the CCSAO is innocent.  Clearly intimidation is one of the motivations behind the chosen tactics.

The CCSAO as an institution has never been about making sure they did not convict the wrong man, it has been about protecting the institution and those in charge.  Lest we forget former State’s Attorney Dick Devine going around offering plea deals to Burge victims on death row to get them to drop their allegations of torture.  His job was not to protect the criminal acts of the officers and his prosecutors, it was to investigate and prosecute them. Then again this is Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, to expect something different is perhaps naive.

The great hypocrisy of this battle between Alvarez and the journalism students is that the CCSAO makes no information publicly available about how the office operates.  The CCSAO does not even publish an annual report.  By not releasing information they remove the ability of community members to criticize their work.  When students get the information to challenge the work of the CCSAO there is a “no holds barred” mentality to discredit them.  Can anyone say “what is good for the goose is not good for the gander” or maybe it is “do what I say not what I do.”  Doesn’t it seem just a little hypocritical that an agency like the CCSAO, that operates under the cloak of secrecy to the degree that is does, is asking for such an in-depth level of information about how others have done their work?  That is why I termed the office a “Data Vacuum” in a blog I wrote back on Oct 2nd.  A snippet I will include here:

Some pieces of information that we do not know about CCSAO:

  • How many prosecutors does the office employ?

  • What are the demographics of the prosecutors throughout the office?

  • What percentage of cases brought to the Office by the Chicago Police Department in violent crime cases result in charges being pursued?

  • Who are the prosecutors that are making decisions regarding whether or not to pursue charges in violent crimes?

  • What are the demographics of the prosecutors making these decisions?

  • What are the demographics of the individuals involved in the cases that are being turned down and the cases the Office pursues?

  • How do the rates vary for pursuing charges by location of the crime and the class, race, and ethnicity of the victims and offenders?

A public that can answer the following questions about their prosecutor’s office is empowered to make an informed decision about how the office is operating.  Unfortunately, there is no indication that under the new leadership of Anita Alvarez that the practice of the CCSAO operating in a virtual black box is going to change anytime soon.

Cook CountyIn the Feb. 2010 issue of Chicago Magazine, available online here, Bryan Smith writes a nice piece detailing the battle between Alvarez and the students.  Below I take apart some of what Alvarez is quoted saying and add a little Chicago/Cook County context.

{Gray text is quoted exactly from Smith article}

“Alvarez insists that she is simply doing what a prosecutor should do—make every reasonable effort to ascertain the truth behind possible evidence and testimony in a criminal case. “I have a duty to seek out whatever evidence is out there, and that’s what I’m doing,” she told me.”

Can I get an amen!  Clearly the CCSAO history of turning down false confessions generated by the torture of Jon Burge and his men demonstrates their long track record of making “every reasonable effort to ascertain the truth behind possible evidence and testimony in a criminal case.”  For a more recent and yet unresolved example one only has to go back a few years to a clear example of how little things have changed, the Special Operations Section of the Chicago Police Department.  I won’t recite the entire sage here but instead point you to previous stories: here, here, here, and a federal criminal indictment here.  The CCSAO operates more like a political entity than an agency dedicated to prosecuting crimes.

These people don’t know me, don’t know what I’ve done for the past 23 years as a prosecutor. I think it’s unfortunate that I am being personally attacked.”

Yes Ms. Alvarez, we do not know what you have done for the last 23 years because the CCSAO has operated in secret with no public scrutiny.  Come to think of it, maybe your 23 years inside the CCSAO should concern us.  It certainly does not make you an outside reformer or someone from whom we should expect anything other than protection of the status quo. Your administration has done nothing to change that situation.

One measure of how bitter the fight has become is the internal memo, a copy of which was plucked from the files of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and provided by Alvarez’s spokeswoman, Sally Daly, to at least two news organizations, including Chicago.

Though it is not clear who wrote the memo, the document was apparently prepared in the aftermath of the so-called Ford Heights Four case, in which the Innocence Project helped free four men imprisoned for a double murder they did not commit. The men won a $36-million settlement from Cook County after they were pardoned and released in 1996, and the case made stars out of Protess and his students.

While purporting to describe the investigation that led to the freeing of the men, the memo includes personal allegations that Protess and his students engaged in a wide range of questionable conduct. At least one reference to possible misconduct (which Protess has denied and will not be repeated here) has nothing directly to do with the facts of the Ford Heights Four case. Protess says that other allegations—such as the suggestion that he paid $2,000 to a man who confessed to the murders—were discredited.

“Obviously, if that information had any kind of credibility, Jack O’Malley, who was state’s attorney at the time, would not have freed the Ford Heights Four and incarcerated the three guilty people we brought to his attention,” Protess says. (Calls to O’Malley, now an Illinois appellate judge, were not returned.)
When I asked Alvarez whether she thought it was appropriate for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office to be distributing an old memo filled with unsubstantiated accusations against people with whom she is locked in a legal battle, she appeared stunned. Sally Daly had joined us for the interview, and at that point she jumped in. The document was provided, she said, “in the interest of trying to get the whole picture out there, as opposed to only Professor Protess’s version of facts.”

I asked Alvarez if the document had been offered with her approval. “No,” she said. Daly later told me that the office would have no further comment on the memo.

It would seem to be illegal, or at the very least unethical, for public officials to leak documents for which they cannot identify the author and contain unsubstantiated allegations against someone they are currently involved in litigation against.  One would have to question why Ms. Daly is still employed if this was truly done without the permission from someone with authority in the office.  If she did it under orders or with the permission of an authority figure, who was it and why are they still employed?  Ms. Alvarez, it is time to show the same aggressiveness you have against the students towards those in your own office.  Absent that, we can only see your subpoena of student grades as an effort to silence and intimidate critics of your office and not as a “reasonable effort to ascertain the truth.”

Alvarez’s response in early November touched the match to the tinder. By then, her office had spent months re-interviewing the witnesses produced by the students, and now the prosecutors recounted in detail their version of what had transpired. The students had been “snotty and manipulative,” Anthony Drake was quoted as saying in a report included as an exhibit. Michael Lane, one of the men Drake placed at the scene of the murder, told investigators that the female students had “com[e] on” to him, acting as if they were going to “give up some pussy if I would talk to them,” according to another exhibit attached to the filing.

{Drake and Lane are individuals that were involved in the case and that the students had either retrieved statements from or received information about from other individuals}

What can you say about this?  Disgusting, but not surprising from an administration headed by someone that has spent 23 years in one of the most politically cynical offices in Cook County.  Here, the CCSAO employs the long-established tactic of discrediting a female critic:  imply that she is a whore.  So the CCSAO is now an institution headed by a woman who is willing to disparage the personal reputation of female college students who seek to make a positive difference in the criminal justice system.  So the question is:  how far is the CCSAO willing to go to discredit its critics?   It seems like the CCSAO did not have a problem quickly dredging up a misogynistic attack when it suited it’s purposes.  If the students secure a few legal victories in court one can only wonder what the CCSAO will try next .

The reality is that the CCSAO operates under an umbrella that shields its operations from public scrutiny.  Alvarez is correct in saying that the public does not know about the record she has built up in her 23 years with the office.  This is not an accident; it is part of a purposeful plan put in place by the agency many generations ago to guarantee the public as little access to information about how the agency runs as possible.  Why?  Because an ill informed public is powerless to judge the CCSAO’s operation on the merits, and is instead left with only sound bites and political campaigns for which to form a judgment about the agency.  I guess we will be in the same situation 23 years from know.  Or maybe not. Greater transparency of the CCSAO may be on the horizon  compliments of the Chicago Justice Project, with or without the willing participation of the CCSAO.

Tracy has nearly two decades of experience researching and working within criminal justice systems. When Tracy began pursuing a career dedicate to system reform, he found that no single organization existed to promote evidence-based discussions among law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Recognizing that citizens in Chicago deserved the right to demand transparency in their criminal justice system, Siska established the Chicago Justice Project. He received his Master of Arts degree in Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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