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Daley connections cloud fair trial issue

No Cook judge should preside over Vanecko trial

Published: Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 4:59 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — Chicago is such a political town that it’s only natural that public cynicism is growing over whether a Cook County judge should preside over the highly political manslaughter case against R.J. Vanecko.

Vanecko, 38, is the grandson of one Democratic political boss named Daley and the nephew of another named Daley. The Daley clan has ruled politics in Cook County and virtually all the major offices within for more than half a century.

Chicagoans are predictably cynical because they’ve lived here and know the place. But there is a way out:

Don’t have a Cook County judge try the Vanecko case.

Find a judge from far away, far outside the metropolitan area, far removed from even the hint of the Chicago Way. Otherwise, no matter how it goes, there will be the pungent scent of politics and connections and clout.

Vanecko, the accused in a case extremely difficult to prove, doesn’t deserve that. Neither do the people. And neither do the judges.

It’s not any one judge’s fault that Chicago is a steamy political system in which connections and tribes and clans and favors dominate public policy. It is the way of things here. But judges aren’t victims — they’re eager participants.

When lawyers stand before the Democratic organization for judicial slating, their first statement often has nothing to do with the law, but everything to do with fealty.

“I’m a good Democrat!” they say.

In other states, Republicans dominate and pick the judges. However, this is a Democratic state.

Boss Democrats may not have the absolute clout they once had over massive patronage armies subsidized by taxpayers. But they do have the judges, their last line of defense and control, and party bosses have the power to make or break them, from the state Supreme Court to Traffic Court.

The pols have installed some excellent judges, as well as some hacks who had little experience in a courtroom before putting on the black robe.

Make no mistake, the political system is also on trial. This isn’t just a manslaughter case.

Special prosecutor Dan Webb is also investigating cops and prosecutors to determine whether clout played a role in Vanecko escaping charges for so long. If there is a superseding indictment, how can any Cook County judge be expected to oversee a case against former colleagues?

A judge couldn’t. And shouldn’t.

That’s why I’m thinking we should find a judge from some strange, corruption-free universe, like the state of New Hampshire. That’s far enough. They’re stubbornly libertarian. And they have a superb state motto: “Live Free or Die.”

That’s nicer than our unofficial state slogan, “Illinois: Will the Defendant Please Rise?”

The other day, Cook County Judge Arthur Hill, a respected judge and former prosecutor, was selected to preside in the case against Vanecko.

The grandson and namesake of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley and nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley was finally indicted Dec. 3.

Vanecko stands accused of involuntary manslaughter in the death of David Koschman, 21. According to Webb, Vanecko stood 6 feet 3 inches tall, weighing 230 pounds, when he confronted Koschman, 5 feet 5 inches tall, 125 pounds, on Division Street early on the morning of April 25, 2004.

It stinks that it took eight years to get an indictment in this heater case. And to his credit, Judge Hill immediately disclosed that he worked closely with Daley when the former mayor was Cook County state’s attorney. Daley also appointed him to the board of a highly political contract mill, the Chicago Transit Authority. Hill said he believed he could be “fair and impartial” and wouldn’t recuse himself from the case unless the lawyers ask.

But with his connections, Hill should have known better. He shouldn’t wait to be asked to recuse himself. Richard Kling, a longtime attorney and law professor who teaches professional responsibility at Chicago-Kent College of Law, said it’s all about perception.

“I like Art Hill,” Kling said. “I know Judge Hill. I think this case has such ramifications and has been in the public eye for so long, even the remotest appearance of impropriety needs to be avoided. … There are allegations that it was swept under the rug. Then there are allegations of political influence. It’s especially important to avoid the issue of impropriety.”

Tribune reporter Jason Meisner found that at least two-thirds of the criminal court judges in Cook County had ties to Daley or the prosecutor’s office. That’s only natural, since Daley and his surrogate successors have been running the place for decades.

“I would say probably 85 to 90 percent of the building were either assistant state’s attorneys under Richard Daley when he was the state’s attorney or somehow got something through Daley and his administration, such as Art Hill, when he was appointed at the CTA,” Kling said. “They all have connections.”

Ask yourself: What if the names in this case were reversed? What if a Daley family member was the victim and Koschman were the accused?

Would an indictment have taken eight years? No. And given the politics of Cook County, would Koschman feel as if he could get a fair trial here? No.

So a judge who’s never even thought about dancing along the Chicago Way is required.

Because to try the nephew and grandson of a boss in a city like Chicago, in a case as political as this one, there shouldn’t be the slightest whiff that inside that black robe is somebody somebody sent.

John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He can be e-mailed at jskass@tribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @John_Kass.

©2012 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services

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