Devine says 'it's awfully hard to judge' Alvarez on McDonald case
As prosecutor's critics mount, Devine comes to her defense
Critics continue to call for the resignation of Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez for her handling of the Laquan McDonald case, and her political opponents have mounted blistering attacks as they campaign against her in the March primary.
But at least one prominent Cook County Democrat who has stood in her shoes says "it's awfully hard to judge" her actions.
Former Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine said the political primary has distorted the debate over why it took Alvarez more than a year to bring murder charges against Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke despite compelling video evidence showing him shooting McDonald 16 times.
"If you're not there, and you don't see all the evidence, it's awfully hard to judge why things happened as they did from outside," said Devine, who served from 1996 to 2008.
Devine adds that "a lot of this that you're hearing now in terms of the volume and the constancy of it is due at least in part to the political environment."
Alvarez is in the midst of a contentious three-way battle in the March Democratic primary.
"The context could not be more challenging for Anita," Devine said.
Late last month, Alvarez said she had already decided to charge Van Dyke with first-degree murder but was waiting for federal investigators to decide whether to file their own charges.
"At the end of the day, I'd rather take my time and get it right than rush to judgment and get it wrong," Alvarez told reporters.
Alvarez could not be reached for comment for this story.
In a telephone interview Friday, Devine noted that, except in rare cases like a presidential assassination, it's county, not federal, prosecutors who issue murder charges.
Still, Devine as well as former assistant state's attorneys are split on just when Alvarez should have issued charges and how much the involvement of U.S. attorneys and the FBI complicated the matter.
Bob Milan of Glenview, a first Cook County assistant state's attorney under Devine who made an unsuccessful primary bid against Alvarez in 2008, said the prosecutor created an "oil spill" by waiting more than 13 months to charge Van Dyke even as the officer remained in a paid position and other officers who might have faced obstruction of justice charges in the case remained at their beats.
"As a top prosecutor, you need to have a sense of urgency," he said. "She had the tape (of the shooting) within 14 days."
But Thomas Glasgow, Arlington Heights' deputy mayor and a former assistant state's attorney under both Devine and Alvarez, said charging the officer earlier could have jeopardized the ability to interview him.
"The minute you charge someone, there are certain protections under the constitution that kick in," Glasgow said. "And people start clamming up left and right."
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said he had not spoken directly with Alvarez about the case, but he noted that in his work with the FBI on stings at the county jail, the process lengthened investigation requirements considerably, forcing him, at times, to calculate the political risk of involving added authorities.
"There are non-sinister reasons why involving the feds drags things out," he said. "The only thing is, on a thing as horrific as (the McDonald shooting), if you're going to bring in these outside resources, you have to give them a really tight timeline."
Alvarez, now serving her second term, made headlines in 2008 when she became the first Hispanic woman elected to that office. But since her election, her actions in several high-profile cases have sparked controversy.
For example, Alvarez was criticized last spring by Glenview officials, who demanded action after the state's attorney's office took more than a year to investigate police officers accused of lying under oath at the Skokie courthouse.
She's also come under fire for her handling of a previous police shooting. Alvarez charged Dante Servin, a Chicago police detective who in 2012 shot a 22-year-old black woman named Rekia Boyd, with involuntary manslaughter. A judge threw that charge out in April, saying Servin should have been charged with murder.
Both of Alvarez's Democratic primary opponents say they would have handled the McDonald case differently, had they been in office.
Kim Foxx, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's former chief of staff, has called the lengthy investigation process a "heinous disservice" to the McDonald family, pledging to deliver "swift, deliberate and transparent justice" to families of victims if elected.
Chicago attorney Donna More, a former U.S. prosecutor, called the McDonald case the latest example in an egregious pattern.
Though Alvarez's silence has put her in the hot seat, it's also a political strategy that could help her emerge from the primary victorious against two other women, one black and one white, Chicago defense attorney Brendan Shiller said. He suggests that Latino votes, in combination with votes from a strong percentage of police, firefighters and their supporters, could put her over the top in the race.
"Her political survival is dependent on her relationship with law enforcement and the (unions) organized by law enforcement," Shiller said. "Whenever she can, she will avoid being someone that's ... targeting law enforcement. ... She made a political decision to charge (Van Dyke) because she had to for survival."