After 8 years, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez will be leaving office in December. Alvarez was voted out in the March primary when her Democratic opponent Kim Foxx easily won the nomination. Ask almost anyone and they will tell you it was the Laquan McDonald case that was her undoing.
The Laquan McDonald case
McDonald was the 17-year old black teenager brutally shot 16 times and killed by a white Chicago police officer in October of 2014. But it was the police dashboard video released more than a year later that caused national outrage. Alvarez did not bring charges against officer Jason Van Dyke until hours before a judge ordered the city to release the video. That had protesters on the streets demanding her resignation and calling for Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and then Chicago police superintendent Gary McCarthy to resign. Superintendent McCarthy was eventually fired by Emanuel, and a federal investigation was launched.
Chicago voters point finger at Anita Alvarez
The political loss was a tough one for Alvarez and a surprise. Most people expected she would win a third term. Even election polls were showing she was ahead. For the first time since she lost that election, Anita Alvarez sat down to speak with me regarding the case for my web interview series, Heavy Hitters. Originally, when I reached out to her to do the interview I wasn’t sure if she would say yes. After all, the media has been relentless in its coverage of the McDonald case, and most of the time the news has not been favorable to her.
When we finally met it was hours before she was about to speak at an event for the LGBT community at the Center on Halsted in Chicago. I could tell she was a little nervous, which is a side of her not often seen. She’s known to be a tough prosecutor. I think she was looking forward to finally telling her side of the story.
Alvarez says she unfairly took the blame
“I think I was made a fall guy in many ways. You know, I don’t think it was justified,” said Alvarez. She says the Mayor’s office and some alderman had seen that video before it was released and then started trying to put the blame on her and the police superintendent once it was made public.
Unfortunately for her, that video was all that anyone could talk about during the primary, despite efforts by the Alvarez campaign to try to bring up other issues. She says she wanted to focus on gun violence and the progress she’s made in the State’s Attorney’s office since she took over, but the primary election became a one-issue campaign.
What did she think when she saw the video?
I asked her what she initially thought when she first watched the video of the shooting.
“Looking at that tape, I’m human and a mother, like anybody, I had the same reaction. You know, this is a 17-year-old,” Alvarez replied. “From day one, you know, my goal was to seek justice for this young man. But here’s the thing, when you are investigating these police cases it’s difficult because when you go to trial on these, it’s hard to convict police. We wanted to make sure we had the most, the strongest case possible,” Alvarez said.
She says she met with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office, and they all agreed they would do the investigation and announce any charges together, with the FBI being the lead investigative agency. She also told me that the average amount of time to file charges in a police officer shooting case nationally is 400 days. Alvarez says she was planning on filing charges but was waiting for the FBI to make its decision. Once the video was released, she admits it forced her to file the charges earlier than she had planned and noted the FBI still hasn’t announced any federal charges.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel had “no impact on investigation” but left her hanging
Before the video was released, Mayor Emanuel was in the fight of his political life. He unexpectedly faced a run-off after the March, 2014 primary. Critics were convinced the Mayor was working with Alvarez’s office to hold off on releasing the video for fear it could be politically damaging. Alvarez vehemently denies those allegations and says she had no control over when the video was released. She clearly resents, however, what happened after that. A firestorm of criticism was directed at her – and it was a lonely place to be without the Mayor’s support.
Alvarez family suffers under scrutiny
The most personal part of my interview with her was when she spoke about how all the protests and calls for her to resign affected her family. She shared a video with us that brings this home. Alvarez is the married mother of four. In this video, her teen-aged daughter describes how horrible it is to hear people speak so badly of her mother and to call for her to step down. Her daughter won a poetry slam contest at school and performed her speech in front of the entire high school student body. In this, she expresses her raw emotion. Her twin sister caught the speech on her cell phone. It’s powerful to watch.
What would she do differently?
I asked her if she would do anything differently in handling this case. She says she now realizes the public needed to be reassured from the beginning that this case was being looked at, not being ignored. But she adds that prosecutors were bound by ethical rules not to give out any specific details.
Finally, the end of our interview was the most emotional for Alvarez. I asked her what she wanted people to remember about her tenure in office. In her response, she unexpectedly started tearing up. It even surprised her. Her reply, “I want everybody to remember me as someone who lived and cared about every one of her victims, no matter what the case was, this was something that was my number one concern,” she said.
The future for Alvarez
What’s next for Anita Alvarez? She told me she’s not sure. “I still have a job to do, you know, until December, so I’m going to do my job, and continue to go to work and do the right thing, but I’ll survive, you know, I’m tough. I’ll survive.”
I asked Alvarez whom she would vote for in the November general election. She didn’t mention her opponent by name, but said she is a Democrat and will stick with her party. When I asked her what advice she has for the next person who takes over the office of Cook County state’s attorney, her reply was, “Good luck. It’s not an easy job.”
About Heavy Hitters
There are so many interesting people out there that we see in the public eye but we often only see one side of them. This is the chance to learn more about the other side and to allow these people to tell their story in their own way. It’s a personal, inside look into what makes them who they are. Anita Alvarez is the first interview of my new web series, Heavy Hitters. We plan to bring you a new story each month. If you have a suggestion for a “Heavy Hitter” you would like to know more about, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.