Carol Marin

Carol Marin

Marin: Appearance of conflict hurts trial

Originally published Dec. 11, 2012


‘What are you going to do, Carol, when it’s a ‘not guilty?’ ” asked a smiling man with unsmiling eyes. He was walking past the bullpen of reporters and cameras Monday at the criminal courts building.

“What are you going to do then?” he asked again, not pausing for an answer.

Richard “R.J.” Vanecko, grandson and nephew of two mayors named Daley, was in the building for arraignment on involuntary manslaughter in the 2004 death of David Koschman.

It’s a safe bet the man, who appeared to be wearing a blue uniform shirt beneath a dark sweater, isn’t a fan of the Chicago Sun-Times, which two years ago began raising questions about whether clout influenced police and prosecutors in the Koschman investigation.

He’s not alone. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez isn’t a fan, either, believing our questions on matters dating back to when she was a top assistant to her predecesor, Richard Devine, have been unfair. She has insisted there was no “good-faith basis to bring charges” and that Koschman, not Vanecko, was the aggressor.

Koschman, 21, died from a lone punch that the police ultimately concluded Vanecko threw in self-defense, though they never interviewed him.

Judge Michael P. Toomin made it clear when he appointed Dan Webb as special prosecutor in April that neither the Chicago Police Department nor Alvarez’s office could escape their conflicts of interest if they were to re-examine the case, rather than Webb.

In his ruling, Judge Toomin referred to “Mr. Vanecko’s membership in the most powerful political family in Cook County” as being central to the question of whether this case got special treatment.

Monday in court came the next question: Who’s the judge?

The answer, the result of random computer selection, is Judge Arthur Francis Hill Jr.

As Judge Hill disclosed to a crowded courtroom, he once worked as an assistant state’s attorney under then-Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley, who, after he went on to become mayor, appointed Hill to the CTA board. The judge also was a top prosecutor for Alvarez’s former boss, Dick Devine.

Judge Hill, however, did not recuse himself, saying, “I believe I can be fair and impartial.”

Kent College of Law professor Richard Kling points out that might not be enough.

“Art Hill is a very fair judge,” Kling said, but he added: “The community has seen a case a grand jury felt was under-investigated or not investigated or swept under the carpet. In order to make sure the community is comfortable with a fair trial, I think it has to be a judge who has minimal or no connections.”

In Cook County, where most judges are Democrats elected thanks to party support, that’s no easy trick.

But back to the guy with the question of what if Vanecko gets acquitted?

The answer is simple. Justice will have been served.

Provided, that is, that his trial isn’t clouded by even the appearance of a conflict of interest.