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Special prosecutor ordered in controversial death

CHICAGO — A Cook County judge on Friday ordered the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the 2004 death of a man during a fight with former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's nephew, issuing a stinging rebuke of the Chicago Police Department and the county's state's attorney.

The family of 21-year-old David Koschman asked for a special prosecutor because they believe there was a police cover-up during the initial investigation. The family also argued that the Cook County state's attorney's office has political ties to Daley and is not fit to handle the case.

Koschman died days after he fell and struck his head during a fight with Daley's nephew, Richard Vanecko, outside a bar in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood. No charges have been filed. In a series of articles, the Chicago Sun-Times raised questions about the handling of the initial investigation by police and the state prosecutor.

In Friday's ruling, Judge Michael Toomin said evidence supports allegations of police misconduct in the initial investigation, including ignoring or falsely recording witness statements and labeling the victim as the aggressor. In public statements, prosecutors and police portrayed Vaneko as acting in self-defense despite never having interviewed or spoken to him, Toomin said.

"So the conclusion that must be drawn (is that) this was a defense conjured up by police and prosecutors," he said. "... It's this court's opinion that that is a gross fiction."

He also singled out the state's attorney's office for criticism.

"The tempest has not been calmed by the actions of the state's attorney's office. ... Quite simply we have a dead body," he said. "This is not a who-done-it. We know who did it, yet no charges have been filed."

The special prosecutor will investigate whether anyone should be charged in Koschman's death or in connection with the investigation by the police and the Cook County state's attorney's office.

The judge ruled there was an institutional conflict of interest because an assistant prosecutor at the state's attorney's office is also a potential witness in any review of how the initial investigation was carried out.

State's Attorney Anita Alvarez's public statements on the case also supported the conflict finding as well as the allegation of an appearance of impropriety were she to remain in charge, the judge wrote in his ruling. He found, however, that there was no political conflict of interest as a result of any ties to Daley.

To deny the request to hand the case to a special prosecutor "would be to cap an indignity with an injustice," he said.

When the judge read his conclusion, the victim's mother, Nanci Koschman, broke into tears, turned and hugged her sister.

"I hope I finally get some justice for David," she said afterward. "I'll go see him this afternoon in the cemetery and tell him that we won one step, now we'll go for the next one."

After the judge's ruling, Alvarez said she would not appeal the decision and will cooperate with whoever is named as special prosecutor.

"I continue to believe I have no legal conflict of interest that would have prevented me from handling the Koschman case," Alvarez said, adding that she believes she has been the victim of unjust attacks by reporters.

Alvarez had asked state police to investigate after reporting by the Chicago Sun-Times raised questions about the Chicago Police Department's investigation of Koschman's death. The newspaper has reported that the police department closed the case after deciding Vanecko acted in self-defense.

State police initially agreed to take on the case in March 2011, but backed out days later without explanation, the state's attorney's office said then.

The Sun-Times has reported that Chicago's inspector general had been reviewing the police department's investigation of Koschman's death.

Daley's office did not respond to requests for comment Friday.