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Vanecko Judge Steps Aside, New Judge From Outside Cook County Sought

Richard J. "R.J." Vanecko (Chicago Police Department)

Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko (Chicago Police Department)

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Updated 12/17/12 – 6:46 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) – After a judge with ties to former Mayor Richard M. Daley recused himself from the involuntary manslaughter case against a Daley nephew, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans is asking the state’s highest court to appoint a judge from outside the county.

Evans agreed to ask for a judge from outside Cook County to preside over the case to prevent “the appearance of impropriety” in a politically charged case that “would undermine public confidence in the administration of justice.”

Daley’s nephew, Richard “R.J.” Vanecko, was indicted earlier this month on a count of involuntary manslaughter in the 2004 death of David Koschman.

CBS 2’s Marissa Bailey reports Cook County Judge Arthur Hill, who was randomly selected to preside over the Vanecko case, stepped aside on Monday.

Last week, at Vanecko’s first court hearing, Hill disclosed he worked for Daley when the former mayor ran the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office in the 1980s. Hill said he received promotions under Daley, and when Daley became mayor, he received an appointment to the CTA Board. Hill was also the top aide to former Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine at the time of Koschman’s death, when authorities declined to seek charges against Vanecko.

Initially, Hill said he would not step down voluntarily, believing he could be fair and impartial, but he said he would step aside if prosecutors or defense attorneys asked him to. However, at another hearing on the case on Monday, Hill voluntarily recused himself.

“Art Hill is a very good judge, a very fair judge. This case shouldn’t have gone to him to begin with,” CBS 2 Legal Analyst Irv Miller said. “I felt sorry for Art Hill that it got thrown in his lap, and he took the media hits that he took last week.”

Miller said, when a computer randomizer was used to pick a judge for the case last week, judges with obvious Daley connections – like Hill – should have been taken out first.

After Hill stepped aside, special prosecutor Dan Webb’s team of lawyers asked that a judge from outside the county be brought in to hear the case, to avoid other possible conflicts of interest.

Judge Michael Toomin, who reopened the case in April, when he appointed Webb to re-examine Koschman’s death and the handling of the original investigation, agreed to ask Evans to request that the Illinois Supreme Court bring in an outside judge to handle the case. Evans agreed Monday afternoon.

Miller said a new judge could be assigned as early as the end of the week.

David Koschman

David Koschman, 21, died in May 2004, 11 days after he was punched and hit his head on a curb during a confrontation on Rush Street. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, news reports indicate Richard J. Vanecko, a nephew of Mayor Richard M. Daley, threw the punch. (Photo Credit: CBS)

Miller said he agreed with special prosecutors that an outside judge should be brought in, to remove any question of a conflict of interest in the politically charged case.

“I think that the public is looking over the shoulder of the criminal justice system, and the public pays for the system, the public has to rely on the system,” Miller said. “I think it’s important that the system works for this particular family, and for this particular defendant, so everybody thinks they’re getting a fair shake.”

However, Vanecko’s defense attorneys said it’s an outrage to suggest no Cook County judge could be fair simply because many have ties to Daley, or the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.

However, defense attorney Marc Martin said he was confident Vanecko would be acquitted, no matter who the judge is.

“The state’s witnesses in this case are liars. That will be shown, and when the facts are known, it will be a not guilty, so they can bring in a judge from Kalamazoo for all i care. We expect to get a fair trial, but we think a Cook County judge can handle this case,” Martin said.

He declined to say whether the defense team would request a jury trial or a bench trial for Vanecko.

Vanecko is accused of causing Koschman’s death during a drunken confrontation on Division Street more than eight years ago. Early on the morning of April 25, 2004, the two allegedly quarreled outside a bar in the Rush and Division Street nightclub district. During the argument, Vanecko punched Koschman once, knocking him to the ground. Koschman hit his head on the concrete and and died 12 days later.

Investigators initially determined the 6’3″, 230 pound Vanecko punched the 5’5″, 140 pound Koschman in self-defense. But in April, Toomin appointed Webb as a special prosecutor to re-investigate the case, after the Koschman family and others criticized original investigation. The Koschman family and other critics of the original investigation have said they believe police and prosecutors might have decided not to charge Vanecko because he is Daley’s nephew.

Webb has also been investigating the original handling of the case, and his office has said that investigation continues.