(MCT) — CHICAGO — A controversial case that has long been entangled in political connections was snagged by one more Monday when a Cook County judge with links to former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was randomly assigned to preside over the trial of a Daley nephew charged in connection with the 2004 death of a man in a drunken confrontation.
The potential conflict-of-interest arose moments after Richard Vanecko stood in Associate Judge Arthur Hill’s cramped courtroom at the Leighton Criminal Court Building and entered a not-guilty plea to a charge of involuntary manslaughter in the death of David Koschman.
With more than two dozen reporters looking on, Hill, a former prosecutor who is well-respected at the courthouse, smiled as he noted that his background was likely already being scrubbed. Hill said he wanted to put on the record that he had served as assistant state’s attorney when Daley was the top county prosecutor in the 1980s and “I received promotions, et cetera.”
Hill said Daley had also appointed him to the board of the Chicago Transit Authority when he was mayor. Before being nominated a judge in 2003, Hill held the No. 2 post under longtime Daley ally Dick Devine, who was the state’s attorney when the investigation into Koschman’s death fizzled without any charges.
Hill told lawyers he believed he could be “fair and impartial” and would not voluntarily remove himself from the case.
“But if the lawyers want me to step aside, I will,” he said.
Special prosecutor Dan Webb, who brought the charge against Vanecko last week, has until Monday to announce if he wants to ask for a substitute, a right under state law given once to each side in a criminal case without having to give a reason.
Several longtime attorneys told the Chicago Tribune on Monday the judge made the proper move by being upfront about his background.
“We leave it to the parties to discern whether they think a judge might not be fair, and that’s what we’ve got here,” said Robert Loeb, a criminal-defense attorney and former Cook County prosecutor. “Judge Hill came out and did the right thing.”
Even if Webb opted for another judge, there’s no guarantee another potential conflict with Daley’s service as state’s attorney wouldn’t occur again. More than two-thirds of the judges currently sitting in the criminal courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue started their careers in the prosecutor’s office.
A 1978 graduate of Northwestern University Law School, Hill spent the first decade of his career as an assistant state’s attorney, successfully prosecuting two teenagers in the high-profile 1984 murder of rising prep basketball star Ben Wilson.
Shortly after Daley was elected mayor in 1989, he appointed Hill to the board of directors of the Chicago Transit Authority. For several years in the 1990s, Hill also served political appointments on the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. At the same time, Hill was partner in a private firm that worked on municipal bond issues for the city.
From 1996 to 2003, Hill returned to the state’s attorney’s office, where he rose to become Devine’s first assistant state’s attorney.
Hill was appointed an associate judge in 2003. Before coming to the main criminal courthouse, he worked in the juvenile court. He started his third four-year term as an associate judge last year.
If special prosecutor Webb were to ask for a different judge, it would buck the trend in a criminal courthouse where the vast majority of judge-substitution requests are made by defense lawyers who perceive a judge may be biased in favor of the prosecution. As a former assistant state’s attorney, Hill has a reputation for a law-and-order bent, but his political ties to Daley and Devine could overshadow whatever perceived advantages there might be in keeping the trial in his courtroom.
Still, asking for a substitution would be a roll of the dice. It would mean the case would go back down for a random reassignment to one of the 30 other felony trial judges in the building. Lawyers who spoke on background Monday said there is always a fear of winding up with someone you believe is even worse for your case.
“You only get one shot at it, then you’re stuck with what you got,” said one attorney who has practiced in the building for more than a decade.
For decades, new criminal cases have been assigned to trial judges using a system dubbed the “Randomizer,” a computer program that selects a judge from among the approximately 30 who work in the main criminal courthouse. Every weekday, after the computer makes dozens of picks, a clerk in the presiding judge’s courtroom announces to each defendant which judge in the building to go to for their arraignment.
But on Monday, as an added safeguard in Vanecko’s case, Judge Michael Toomin, who appointed Webb as the special prosecutor, took the bench to handle Vanecko’s assignment. After Vanecko walked up to the bench and the attorneys announced their names, Toomin looked to the clerk to his right and said, “Give me a judge.” The clerk tapped a key, looked at the computer screen in front of him and replied, “Arthur Hill.” The hearing was over in about 10 seconds.
Lawyers for Koschman’s mother, Nanci, asked for a special prosecutor after an investigative series by the Chicago Sun-Times. In naming Webb as special prosecutor in April, Toomin concluded that the original investigation Koschman’s death raised “troubling questions” about whether police and prosecutors intentionally concealed or altered evidence for political reasons.
Koschman, 21, had been drinking in the Rush Street nightlife district early on April 24, 2004, when he and his friends quarreled with a group that included Vanecko. During the altercation, Koschman was knocked to the street, hitting the back of his head on the pavement. He died 11 days later.
Police at the time said Koschman was the aggressor and closed the case without charges. Last week, a special grand jury found that Vanecko, who is a son of Daley’s sister, Mary, “recklessly performed acts which were likely to cause great bodily harm to another.”
In announcing the indictment, Webb, a former U.S. attorney, noted that at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Vanecko towered over Koschman, who was 5-foot-5 and 125 pounds.
The beefy, bald-headed Vanecko posed for a mug shot in a jack and tie after turning himself in to authorities in Chicago on Friday afternoon. Records show Vanecko, who lives in Costa Mesa, Calif., paid a $10,000 bond to be released.
News photographers and cameramen began staking out the entrance to the courthouse early Monday morning. Shortly after 9 a.m. CST, Vanecko strode stone-faced up the courthouse steps dressed in a gray suit and tie and charcoal overcoat accompanied by his attorneys.
About 15 minutes later, Vanecko’s case was called in Hill’s second-floor courtroom. Vanecko kept his hands folded in front of him and spoke only to answer “Yes, your honor,” when the judge asked him routine questions.
After the brief hearing, Vanecko walked out of the courthouse flanked by his attorneys, making no comment.