Published March 3, 2011

For a few hours Monday morning, we were under the impression that the Chicago Police Department had reopened a seven-year-old death investigation involving one of Mayor Daley’s nephews.

That made sense. The original police investigation, as the Chicago Sun-Times revealed in an investigative report in Monday’s paper, was shot full with holes.

But on Monday afternoon, the CPD announced that it had not reopened the case, seeing no reason to do so.

And that made no sense at all.

The facts remain the same, unchanged over seven years:

A young man is dead, the result of being punched and cracking his head on the street.

The person who punched the young man has never been identified, let alone charged.

It should not have taken a Sherlock Holmes to figure this one out. But the police and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, we can’t help but suspect, intentionally dragged their feet.

A thorough reinvestigation – this time by a special prosecutor – is necessary in the name of justice, and also to clear the air of the stink of a possible political fix.

It was about 3 in the morning on April 25, 2004, when 21-year-old David Koschman and four friends left a bar on Division Street and got into a drunken argument with three other men, all about 10 years older, and a woman. One of the older men was Richard J. Vanecko, a nephew of Mayor Daley.

Somebody punched Koschman in the face and he fell backward, hitting the back of his head on the street. He died 12 days later from a brain injury. The Cook County medical examiner’s office ruled his death a homicide.

Who punched Koschman? His friends later said it was neither of Vanecko’s two male companions; they also could not pick Vanecko out of a police lineup. And Vanecko declined to be interviewed by the police.

But Sun-Times reporters Tim Novak, Chris Fusco and Carol Marin uncovered troubling aspects of the police investigation. Detectives did not interview witnesses until after Koschman died. They didn’t conduct the lineups until almost a month after the incident. By the time of his lineup, Vanecko – who had been wearing a hat on Division Street – had shaved his head, yet nobody conducting the lineup asked him to put on a hat.

Most troubling of all, prosecutors say their files on the case have disappeared. As criminal law experts told the Sun-Times, files don’t just disappear.

Until a more complete investigation is conducted – with no preferential treatment for nephews of mayors – nobody should imply or assign guilt to anyone. Nor, for that matter, should Koschman be absolved of any blame. By all accounts, he was pretty drunk and riled up that night. One witness described him as “jumping up and down” and “really aggravated.”

But equally questionable is the conclusion, reached by the police in 2004, that the person who punched Koschman was acting in self-defense. Nothing in the evidence turned up by the Sun-Times indicates that the 5-foot, 5-inch Koschman was physically aggressive toward anybody.

Mouthy? Maybe. Dangerous? Not likely.

Somebody threw a punch that night, quite likely never imagining the consequences. The average punch outside a Rush Street bar is calibrated to break a nose or blacken an eye, not to kill.

But somebody did die.

And a city’s faith in the integrity of its police force demands a fresh and thorough by-the-book investigation.