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Chicago crime focus of debate between Democratic candidates for state attorney

Two Democratic candidates for Cook County state’s attorney on Thursday offered starkly different visions of how harshly to prosecute smaller crimes of retail theft and minors accused of car theft, while also saying they would tackle the systemic problem of wrongful convictions differently.

In the first televised debate between State Attorney General Kim Foxx, former Illinois Appellate Judge Eileen O’Neill Burke and former prosecutor and corporate lobbyist Clayton Harris III, they tried to draw different lines on how they would run the office. next four years.

With early voting already underway for the March 19 primary, the two agreed there was a need to balance the office’s prosecutorial authority with the restorative justice practices implemented under Foxx.

Both were assistant state’s attorneys in the office at the beginning of their legal careers, but O’Neill Burke suggested that having spent decades in and around the county’s court system as a prosecutor, defense attorney and judge was a significant advantage. Harris, meanwhile, argued that her time in the prosecutor’s office, her experience running the government, and her academic expertise make her the best choice.

During the hour-long televised debate on ABC-7 Chicago and WGBO/Univision, questions were always present about Foxx’s record in previous years and whether the two candidates would maintain or depart from their policies in response to Chicago’s crime.

“If you think things are going well right now, I’m not your candidate. O’Neill Burke said of Harris, who is supported by Foxx’s mentor, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle: Mr. Harris is your candidate.

While the discussion was mostly civil in nature, Harris and O’Neill Burke disagreed on where thresholds should be set for prosecuting retail thefts as felonies, the treatment of minors arrested for car theft, and how to manage morale in an office that has experienced serious and coordinated retail thefts. fell. attrition during the pandemic.

Foxx’s policy of raising the threshold for when retail thefts are charged as a crime from $300 to $1,000, the state’s threshold, has been heavily criticized by business groups who say it encourages mass thefts.

O’Neill Burke vowed to stick to the state’s $300 threshold but potentially streamline investigations into first-time offenders. Harris said she will continue Foxx’s policy but will try to charge burglaries that involve trespassing as burglaries and assaults as robberies. Theft and robbery are both crimes.

“Mr. Harris just told you you won’t follow the law,” O’Neill Burke countered. “You can clear a few aisles at Walgreens before you hit the $1,000 threshold. The results of this policy were Walgreens, CVS, Target, Walmart closing all over the city and country… I don’t agree with that.”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t follow the law. Facts matter here. I said we will enforce the law correctly. What I didn’t do was picket the banner,” Harris responded.

Democratic candidates for Cook County State’s Attorney Clayton Harris and Eileen O’Neill Burke are set to face off in the first debate for Cook County State’s Attorney on Thursday, February 8, 2024 on ABC7 Chicago. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

The two similarly differed on how to address minors involved in car thefts and armed robberies.

Harris said she would add a special prosecution division “focused squarely on organized crime,” including carjackings and gun crimes, and would deal less with “lower-rung” juvenile offenders but try to “decapitate the people who manipulate these kids.” to do this.”

Meanwhile, O’Neill Burke said he would work to ensure juvenile offenders are supervised after school.

“The majority of children are arrested between 03.30 and 10.00 at night. “That’s when we’ll engage them by doing job training, learning to get rich, or apprenticing in professions,” he said.

To improve morale in the state attorney’s office, Harris said she would work to make salaries comparable to those working in the public defender’s office and assign lawyers to areas where their “passion lies.”

O’Neill Burke said morale in the office has plummeted because assistant state attorneys are overworked and have to handle too many cases. A common criticism of Foxx’s tenure.

“Morale is not going to improve in that office until we fix the staffing issue,” he said, by rebranding the office as a place offering “master’s degrees in trial studies” while also increasing numbers. paralegals to assist with difficult work.

“With any police officer found guilty of perjury or misconduct, we need to go back and reevaluate those cases,” O’Neill Burke said when asked how the office would handle wrongful convictions that are a key part of Foxx’s legacy. He said he would consolidate all post-conviction cases into a single office to pool resources and “speed up the process.”

Harris, meanwhile, took the opportunity to highlight criticism that O’Neill Burke mishandled a high-profile case against a child early in his career.

O’Neill Burke Helped convict an 11-year-old boy For murdering his elderly neighbor Anna Gilvis in 1994. The boy, identified in court documents by the initials “AM,” changed his story multiple times. AM confessed to the crime during questioning by Chicago police officers about a year after Gilvis’ death. But physical evidence did not connect him to the grisly murder, and parts of his confession did not match the crime scene.

“Wrongful convictions are unfair and do not make us safer,” Harris said. “We saw this when my opponent wrongfully convicted a ten-year-old boy.”

AM told police that Gilvis entered his home through an unlocked back door, but evidence showed the door was forced open. He said he used rope from a hanging flower pot to tie Gilvis, but in fact Gilvis was tied around his hands, arms and neck with a telephone cord, and his ankles were tied with fabric ribbon. No fingerprints were found at the scene. Although AM confessed to the murder, he did not say he stole anything; Gilvis’ room was searched and the diamond ring and gold watch were never found. Even so, O’Neill Burke previously told the Tribune that the available evidence does not raise any red flags.

Burke was more forthright in an interview with WGN Radio last month. “Did I think this was the biggest case with mountains of evidence? No. But this needs to be put before the court, they determine whether the state has fulfilled its burden. “I did my job in this case.”

Years later, when the case was appealed by a different attorney, a federal judge found that the confession had been coerced by former Chicago Detective James Cassidy, who was likewise criticized for his handling of other high-profile crimes involving teenagers. His interrogation of AM was not recorded on video; This is now a necessary practice.

“That’s the whole reason why we have a conviction review unit: we have to change the culture, not just in the office, but hold police officers accountable… if we can’t trust an officer, we can’t put him on the stand,” Harris said. aforementioned.

O’Neill Burke has previously said his role in the case was “never questioned”, that there was no suggestion that AM’s confession was coerced and that his lawyer provided inadequate defence.

Trial transcripts reviewed by the Tribune show there’s more to the story — AM’s attorney questioned Cassidy about her methods, arguing that the boy was “threatened…coerced…he had to tell them something to stop them from yelling at him.” Let them stop them from cursing him so they can do what they said they would do: Forgive him and let him go.”

Asked about these allegations after the debate, O’Neill Burke said: “A motion to suppress was never made, the boy on the bench never alleged coercion. Her mother never claimed coercion…there was nothing to substantiate it. Nothing. And if someone makes an argument at the close of the discussion, it is not real. This is not evidence.”

O’Neill Burke also touched on Harris’ work for ride-sharing service Lyft after the debate, describing her as an anti-union corporate lobbyist. Harris worked at the ride-sharing company for two years, starting in November 2020.

In 2022, Harris signed up as president of the Illinois Independent Labor Coalition, a nonprofit group funded by Lyft and other app-based ride and delivery services. is pushing for workers to be treated as employees so they can potentially unionize. Meanwhile, companies were pushing for certain benefits that didn’t qualify for classification as an “IC+” or independent contractor-plus employee.

The group’s recent focus has been fighting Chicago regulations that mandate a minimum wage for drivers and restrict price increases.

Harris told reporters after the debate that she was “proud to have the support of multiple labor unions” and that her work at the company included “making sure drivers can work on any platform they want at that moment.” and said the campaign should focus on “security, justice and prosecution.”

Former Chicago city councilman and attorney Robert Fioretti is the only Republican running to replace Foxx.

aquig@chicagotribune.com

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