The nephew of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley pleaded not guilty Monday to involuntary manslaughter in the 2004 death of a suburban man whose family suspects a police cover-up in the initial investigation into the fatal fight.
The case hit a potential snag just minutes after 38-year-old Richard Vanecko's arraignment began when the assigned judge told attorneys he worked as a prosecutor under the ex-mayor, telling both sides they can decide if they want him switched out for another judge.
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A somber-looking Vanecko walked by dozens of TV cameras and reporters for his arraignment at a Cook County courthouse eight years after a fight outside a Chicago bar led to the death of David Koschman, who was 21 at the time.
A defense attorney entered the not guilty plea for Vanecko, who was indicted last week by a special grand jury. Koschman, of Mount Prospect, died days after he fell and struck his head during a fight with Vanecko, who is the son of Daley's sister, Mary.
Vanecko, who now lives in Costa Mesa, Calif., stood in court ramrod straight in a gray pin-striped suit, his hands folded in front of him. He spoke only briefly to answer several questions from Judge Arthur Hill, including about whether he understood he had to appear for every hearing.
"Yes, your honor," Vanecko responded.
If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of up five years in prison.
Judge Hill began Monday by describing his links to Daley, including that he worked as an assistant prosecutor when Daley was Cook County State's Attorney in the 1980s. Later, after Daley became mayor in 1989, he appointed Hill to the Chicago Transit Authority board
"I want to be sure the parties know that. I believe I can be fair and impartial," he said. But he, added, it should be up to attorneys themselves to decide if they want him to stay on the high-profile case.
Hill gave attorneys time to decide whether to request a new judge, setting another hearing for Dec. 17.
Judge Hill was selected at random, in part to avoid accusations of favoritism. But finding judges -- many of whom are former prosecutors -- with no connections to Daley or his family could be a challenge.
Daley was Chicago's longest-serving mayor, leaving office in 2011 after 22 years in office. The second longest serving mayor was his father, Richard J. Daley, who died in office in 1976 after 21 years as mayor.
The grand jury in the case is continuing its inquiry into whether authorities covered up or impeded the investigation because of Vanecko's political and family ties.
A separate judge who appointed former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb as the special prosecutor agreed in April there was evidence to support allegations of police misconduct in the initial investigation, including ignoring or falsely recording witness statements and labeling the victim as the aggressor.
In public statements, prosecutors and police portrayed Vanecko as acting in self-defense despite never having interviewed or spoken to him, the judge said when he ordered the appointment of a special prosecutor.
In a statement last week, Webb said the grand jury's investigation into whether the Chicago Police Department and the Cook County state attorney's office "acted intentionally to suppress and conceal evidence, furnish false evidence and generally impede the investigation" is continuing "at a vigorous pace."
Webb's statement did not hint at what, if any, conclusions have been reached, only that "thousands of documents have been reviewed and more than fifty witnesses have been interviewed." The release also included that Koschman was 5-foot-5 and 125 pounds, while Vanecko, then 29, was 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds.
Neither Vanecko nor any attorneys involved in the case spoke to reporters as they left court Monday.