CHICAGO (MCT) — As terrorism charges mounted in Cook County, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez continued to push a bold — and unprecedented — strategy to hold NATO protesters accountable under the state’s obscure anti-terrorism law.
The decision, however, does not come without risk or second-guessing. With four men charged in the plast two days under the never-used anti-terrorism law, prosecutors are hitched to an untested statute that was never envisioned as a tool for combating hipster anarchists.
“It is unusual. We recognize that,” Alvarez spokeswoman Sally Daly said in the office’s first extended remarks about the aggressive move. “The NATO Summit coming to Chicago is also unusual. ... We feel as if we are stepping up and accepting responsibility for crimes that have occurred in our jurisdiction.”
In charges made public Sunday, prosecutors alleged that Sebastian Senakiewicz made a terrorist threat by bragging that he had “a carful of explosives” capable of taking out half of a train overpass. He claimed last week that the incendiary device was hidden in a hollowed-out book, but police did not find any explosives when they searched his Chicago home, according to court documents.
Though Senakiewicz’s arrest stemmed from a related investigation, prosecutors said he is not connected to the three out-of-state men charged over the weekend with plotting attacks against various targets including President Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s house and police stations.
Yet the four men now share the distinction of being the first to be prosecuted under the state’s anti-terrorism law, which passed amid a heightened fear of global terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan pushed for the legislation days later, telling lawmakers that law enforcement needed every tool available to “prevent the mass murders of thousands of Illinois citizens.” The new law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support — and then went untouched by prosecutors for nearly 11 years.
New York also passed similar laws in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, but they have been used just three or four times, experts said.
“For one thing the federal government seems to have virtually unlimited resources in those cases and more familiarity with various law enforcement strategies,” said Aaron Mysliwiec, who is currently defending a New York man charged under that state’s statutes. “I wouldn’t say all those cases are legitimate cases just because the feds are involved. But when the feds aren’t involved, you wonder why that is.”
In Illinois, the anti-terrorism law remained covered in cobwebs until a few weeks ago when an investigation into a group of alleged anarchists in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood uncovered the alleged plot to hit several police stations and other high-profile targets with Molotov cocktails. Sources said prosecutors seriously began to consider the terrorism charges when they learned through two informants — including one undercover police officer who infiltrated the group — that the plan targeted political figures.
State law defines a terrorist as any person who “engages or is about to engage in an act with the intent to intimidate or coerce a significant portion of a civilian population.” With that language in mind — and perceived threats against the president, mayor and local police — Alvarez and seven of her prosecutors spent Friday night analyzing the statute and weighing whether their case rose to the level of domestic terrorism, a source familiar with the decision said.
It was a marathon meeting with lawyers reading the statute out loud at times. Others ran in and out of the room to look up case law on other potential charges such as conspiracy to commit arson.
After four hours of debate, Alvarez polled the room and had a clear consensus that the terrorism statutes offered the toughest penalties and sent the strongest message. She announced the groundbreaking charges the following morning.
Some lawyers, however, questioned why federal authorities did not take over the case if it truly rose to the level of domestic terrorism. Local law enforcement officials have said they consulted several federal agencies throughout the investigation but will not comment on those behind-the-scenes conversations.
“I think it makes it all the more suspicious because most serious terrorism cases are prosecuted by the federal government,” said Chicago lawyer Thomas Anthony Durkin, who has represented detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Though U.S. attorneys are typically better suited to handle terrorism prosecutions because of their experience and resources, the new Chicago cases are nowhere near as complicated as those charged under federal law. Without hidden money trails to follow or international treaties to navigate, the Cook County cases are not unlike the ones prosecuted there every day, experts said.
“It’s a terrorism case in name only,” said former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer.
Still, it can be risky to prosecute a case under an unchallenged law, experts said. Without existing input from higher courts, it’s impossible to know whether the statute will hold up under scrutiny.
“It has never been tested and that’s dangerous,” Cramer said. “No one is sure what the appeals courts are going to say about it.”
And it’s not just the law that is entering uncharted territory. The Cook County prosecutor’s office has little experience in terrorism cases.
In fact, attorney Michael Deutsch, who represents the three men in the alleged Molotov cocktail plot, has arguably more experience with terrorism trials than the rest of Alvarez’s staff combined. He represented Bridgeview businessman Muhammad Salah, and others who have been accused of supporting extremist groups.
Ryan, who is also a former DuPage County state’s attorney, predicted Cook County prosecutors will have little trouble with the statute.
“The office is more than capable of handling a case like this,” he said. “I’m sad that there are people who want to do harm to others, but I’m glad they had this tool to address it.”
That tool also gave Alvarez a chance to send a stern warning to protesters before the weekend’s largest rally, experts said. And in the end that may be the most compelling reason to dust off the statute.
“It tells protesters that they are welcome to come and demonstrate peacefully. But if they’re coming to bomb people and buildings, they’re going to go to jail for a long time,” said attorney Ronald Safer, a former federal prosecutor. “It absolutely sends a message.”