(MCT) — CHICAGO — In the eight years since her son was killed in a drunken confrontation with Mayor Richard Daley’s nephew, Nanci Koschman often felt powerless against the forces telling her it was all her son’s fault.
Chicago police said her son, David, was the aggressor. Cook County prosecutors insisted there wasn’t the evidence to charge Daley’s nephew, Richard J. Vanecko, with unleashing the fatal blow. She was warned that a lawsuit would be tied up in court for years. Grief-stricken, Koschman masked her doubts about the investigation and began the agonizing process of learning to live without her only child.
“I didn’t even have the money to bury my son, let alone fight something (in court),” an emotional Koschman said Monday in a shaky voice.
But others took up the cause, and on Monday the case took a dramatic turn. A special Cook County grand jury indicted Vanecko with a charge of involuntary manslaughter. It is believed to be the first time a special prosecutor has brought charges in a high-profile Cook County case in more than four decades.
But while the charges are historic, it is far from a slam-dunk case, some veteran criminal-defense attorneys say. Potential problems range from the shifting stories of witnesses to a lethargic police investigation marred by missing files and failed lineups.
Vanecko’s legal team expressed confidence that he would be cleared of wrongdoing.
Koschman, 21, had been drinking in the Rush Street nightlife district of Chicago early on April 25, 2004, when he and friends quarreled with a group that included Vanecko. During the altercation, Koschman was knocked to the street, hitting the back of his head. He died 11 days later.
The initial probe fizzled out without any charges filed by then-State’s Attorney Richard Devine. The case was reopened last year after an investigative series by the Chicago Sun-Times raised questions about whether authorities intentionally concealed evidence for political reasons. State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez first asked the Illinois State Police to take over the investigation but later fought against having a special prosecutor appointed.
Judge Michael Toomin took the rare step of appointing former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb as special prosecutor in April after concluding that the investigation by Chicago police and county prosecutors raised “troubling questions” about their efforts.
Webb said in a statement Monday that his team reviewed thousands of documents and interviewed more than 50 witnesses so far in the seven-month investigation. He also made clear that the special grand jury has not completed its duties, saying its inquiry into how police and prosecutors handled their investigation continued “at a vigorous pace.”
Locke Bowman, an attorney with Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center who represents Nanci Koschman, applauded the criminal charge against Vanecko but said many questions linger about whether the clout of the Daley family hindered the investigation by police and prosecutors.
Clutching her sister’s arm for support, Nanci Koschman fought back tears as she told reporters she planned to visit her son’s grave Tuesday to tell him of the indictment.
“I’m going to tell David tomorrow that he can finally be at peace, that someone is being charged,” she said.
Vanecko, 38, who currently lives in California, is expected to appear for arraignment next week at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago, according to Webb. Vanecko has already posted a $10,000 cash bond and will remain free pending trial. He faces anywhere from probation up to five years in prison if convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
The charge has no statute of limitations and is typically brought in accidental shootings or other cases in which the accused didn’t intend to cause death. The grand jury accused Vanecko of reckless conduct that was “likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another.”
Webb’s statement noted that at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Vanecko towered over Koschman, who was 5-foot-5 and 125 pounds, but he gave no clue if his lengthy investigation turned up new evidence.
Several veteran attorneys told the Chicago Tribune that Webb could be in the difficult position at trial of trying to prove Vanecko wasn’t acting in self-defense when witness accounts in initial police reports painted Koschman as the aggressor, according to several veteran attorneys.
Several of the witnesses — including Koschman’s friends who were with him that night — have since said their statements were falsified in the reports. But the shifting accounts could make it harder for Webb to prove Vanecko’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Northwestern University law professor Ronald Allen said the case is also complicated by the underlying allegation that Chicago police somehow covered up what happened. Rulings from the trial judge about how much of the alleged cover-up will be allowed in at trial will be key, he said.
If the jury can hear details about how police allegedly botched the investigation, then seemingly inconsistent statements from witnesses will make more sense, Allen noted.
Also complicating the prosecution was the fact that nearly everyone at the scene had been drinking.
Vanecko’s legal team, led by Terence Gillespie, issued a statement revealing that Koschman was heavily intoxicated — nearly three times the legal limit for a motorist.
Koschman “was clearly acting in an unprovoked, physically aggressive manner,” the lawyers said.
They also defended the work of police and prosecutors, saying, “These decisions were not because of favoritism but because the facts did not warrant felony charges.”
Daley could not be reached for comment.
Alvarez, who was sworn in Monday for a second term, defended her office’s handling of the case. For the first time, she said that her office had convened a special grand jury that was interviewing witnesses in conjunction with an investigation by city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson. That effort was stopped after Toomin appointed a special prosecutor, she said.
Nanci Koschman said her goal from the beginning has been to find the truth about what happened that night and clear her son’s name. Knowing Vanecko is facing charges “feels good,” she said, but seeing him behind bars would not bring David back.
“I never thought that (Vanecko) went out that night intending to hurt my son,” Koschman said. “To have him go to jail, what would that do?”
Asked whether she wanted Vanecko to apologize, Koschman offered a sad smile.
“That would be nice,” she said. “I don’t think it will be forthcoming, but it would be nice.”