Updated: January 19, 2012 10:59AM
A fundamental challenge to the integrity of Chicago’s criminal justice system now falls into the lap of Judge Paul Biebel Jr.
Will Judge Biebel, chief of the Cook County Criminal Courts, buck Chicago’s political establishment and do what’s right?
Or will he turn a deaf ear to a mother’s reasonable plea, further encouraging many Chicagoans to believe that justice in this city pulls its punches to protect the politically powerful and connected?
On Wednesday, Nanci Koschman, the mother of David Koschman, a young man who died after being punched by a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, petitioned Biebel to appoint a special prosecutor to re-examine the circumstances of her son’s death. She wants the special prosecutor to determine whether charges should be filed, seven years after the fact, against the man who threw the punch, Richard J. Vanecko.
Every bit as important, she wants the special prosecutor to determine whether the Chicago Police and Cook County state’s attorney’s office, apparently reluctant to slap the cuffs on a Daley, dragged their feet during the original investigation.
From our perspective, given a slew of troubling facts and questions unearthed in the last year by Sun-Times reporters, we don’t see how Biebel can deny Mrs. Koschman’s request. There are too many reasons to believe the original investigation was a whitewash. For that matter, we would hope that State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez will support Mrs. Koschman’s petition.
It was about 10 months ago, on Feb. 28, that the Sun-Times published the first in a series of stories detailing how Vanecko and his pals bumped into Koschman and his pals on Division Street one spring night in 2004 and, after an exchange of words, somebody punched Koschman. It was your typical drunken street encounter, except that Koschman hit his head on the street and died 11 days later.
Usually when that happens — somebody is lying at death’s door after being punched — the cops go at it seriously. They interview all witnesses. They grill the most likely suspect. They frequently press charges. And they do it fast, before tracks can be covered. They do not, that is to say, wait 25 days before even talking to a key suspect, as they did with Vanecko.
And yet — in perhaps the most damning indication of a whitewash — the Chicago Police closed their Koschman investigation in 2004 because they said they could not identity the person who threw the punch. It was only this summer, after the Sun-Times laid out the strong and obvious evidence, that the police finally acknowledged what they had known all along —Vanecko threw the punch.
As Mrs. Koschman’s lawyers wrote, “Such a blatant failure to connect the dots has the hallmarks of an investigation governed by politics, not professionalism.”
Time and again, we have called for a proper investigation, but the one official looking into the matter, City Hall Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, has limited powers to do the job. He cannot compel testimony by people who don’t work for the city, and employees are free not to answer questions.
An independent prosecutor might still decide against filing criminal charges. It was, after all, a single punch a long time ago.
But the record of the special prosecutor’s work, especially if released to the public, might get to the bottom of whether the original investigators swept the matter under a rug.
A heavy rug, perhaps, with a City of Chicago seal on it.