Wow! In this one article 1. we SEE how the war on drugs has created catastrophic chaos in our courts! 2. We see unconscionable and illegal delays. 3. We see prosecutor misconduct of the worst kind: punishing people for exercising their Constitutional RIGHTS! We see racism. 4. We see police misconduct. 5. We see judges who fail to hold police accountable.
Four or Five years awaiting trial?! This is an abomination! If you don’t realize that our criminal justice system is a total frickin’ train wreck, read this article!
Excerpts from the Article:
June 25,2012, was a terrible day for Jermaine Robinson. Overall, life was good—the 21-year-old Washington Park resident had been studying music management at Columbia College and was a few weeks into a job working as a janitor at a nearby Boys & Girls Club. But his 13-year-old neighbor had been killed by random gunfire the previous day, and Robinson spent the evening at an emotional memorial service. After the service ended around midnight, Robinson repaired to his girlfriend’s house on Rhodes Avenue to hang out with friends and to see his one-year-old daughter, he says. But just after midnight, he says, several Chicago police officers rammed down the side door of the house and burst into the living room.
Police would later say that they had spotted Robinson dashing from the front porch into the house holding a revolver. According to police reports, the officers found a handgun in the house, which they claimed belonged to Robinson. They arrested him and two other young men. At the precinct, in a cinderblock interrogation room, Robinson says he told police he was only visiting the home and knew nothing about the gun.
But by the time of his arrest, Robinson was well acquainted with Cook County’s criminal justice system. He had grown up poor in the Ida B. Wells Homes in Bronzeville, where his great-grandmother, a retired CTA bus driver, struggled to raise him, his mother, and a dozen other grandchildren. “It was sometimes seven of us in one bed,” Robinson recalls. At times he’d skip school because he feared that his student uniforms were so smelly and unclean they’d draw derision from his classmates. By his mid-teens, he’d started dealing cocaine and heroin, and at 17, he was arrested on drug and weapons charges. Although still a minor, he was charged with a felony and booked into Cook County Jail. After entering a guilty plea, he says, he spent the rest of his teens downstate in the Vienna Correctional Center. In 2011, Robinson says, he spent another several months in prison after being caught with a small amount of marijuana. But upon his release later that year, Robinson says he was striving toward a different path. He’d taken two courses in music management at Columbia that spring, and he hoped to return. His dream, he said, was to cultivate the talent of musicians he knew across the south side. His girlfriend was seven months pregnant with a second child, and the future seemed to hold promise.
“My case was basically my word against the police’s word,” he says. “So by my being a convicted felon, my credibility
As Robinson reacclimated to life behind bars, he noticed something that dismayed him: a few of the inmates he’d met during his first spate in jail as a teenager were still there now, awaiting trial. “There were guys there still fighting their cases from when I first came to the county in 2007,” Robinson said. “These guys were in there for six, seven years.”
He didn’t yet know it, but Robinson was about to join their ranks. Although formally innocent in the eyes of the law, he would spend 1,507 days in jail—more than four years—awaiting trial for the weapon-possession charges.
The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution grants anyone accused of a crime the right to a speedy trial.But a 2014 New Yorker profile of Kalief Browder, who was incarcerated as a teenager in New York’s Rikers Island jail and held for three years awaiting trial, catapulted the issue of pretrial detention into the national spotlight and demonstrated that this constitutional mandate isn’t always enough. In June 2015, two years after his release, Browder committed suicide at age 22. In April of that year, the New York Times reported that Browder’s case wasn’t an isolated occurrence. Of the approximately 10,000 inmates at Rikers at that time, more than 400 people had been awaiting trial for at least two years.
Now, a joint investigation by the Reader and the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute has found that although Cook County Jail has fewer inmates than Rikers did then—roughly 8,000—it holds more than double the number of inmates awaiting trial for multiple years. More than 1,000 Cook County inmates have been awaiting trial for more than two years, according to the Cook County sheriff’s department. In some extreme cases, some have been held without trial for more than eight years. Minorities account for 93 percent of these long-waiting inmates, an even higher percentage than the jail’s overall population. Only 11.5 percent of Cook County inmates are white, as are a mere 7 percent of its long-term pretrial detainees. (The racial breakdown of the jail’s population is already strikingly disproportionate to the county’s population as a whole, which is 42.6 percent white.)
Most inmates awaiting trial for multiple years in Cook County face charges for violent crimes such as murder, rape, or assault. But, according to the sheriff’s department, nearly half of them have been held not because they’ve been deemed too dangerous for release, but simply because they couldn’t post bond. (The problem of pretrial inmates being held because they can’t afford even small bond amounts is so widespread that on Monday Cook County sheriff Tom Dart proposed abolishing the state’s cash bond system altogether.) According to a recent report from the Chicago-based journalism nonprofit Injustice Watch, less than 3 percent of the jail’s population are serving a post-conviction sentence; the rest are still awaiting trial or sentencing.
But poverty isn’t the only cause of prolonged pretrial detention, our investigation finds. Dozens of attorneys, court administrators, and inmates interviewed for this story—plus a highly critical report from the Department of Justice—paint a picture of a court system plagued by unnecessary delays. Court systems around the country are crippled by overwhelmed public defenders and overscheduled courtrooms, but Cook County defendants also face judges and police commanders who fail to ensure that officers appear in court when needed and a state crime lab so overburdened it can take up to a year to turn around basic DNA samples.
Perhaps most troubling, some defense attorneys who choose to invoke Illinois’s speedy trial law—which requires the state to seat a jury within 120 days for defendants in custody—claim to have faced prosecutorial or judicial retaliation.
Extended trial delays deprive defendants of their liberty for months or years as they await trial, causing them to lose jobs, incur debt, fall behind on schooling, and endure separation from loved ones. Perhaps more disturbingly, numerous studies have shown that lengthy trial delays mean defendants are more likely to plead guilty and less likely to be acquitted at trial as compared with those able to bond out of jail. More than one former Cook County inmate said that after being held under pretrial detention for years, they’d concluded that their only way out of jail was to plead guilty for crimes they maintain they didn’t commit.
“Defendants are much more likely to take pleas just because they want to get out of jail,” says Max Suchan, a private defense attorney and a founder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund. “That,” he says, “happens in Cook County every day.”
Although formally innocent in the eyes of the law, Jermaine Robinson spent more than four years awaiting trial on weapon-possession charges. Believing the the state had no substantial evidence against him, Robinson hoped that his case would be tossed out quickly—perhaps in time for him to return to his studies at Columbia that fall. But as registration came and went, Robinson remained in jail, struggling to get his defense off the ground. His family hired a private attorney, then began falling behind on payments; this set off several months of uncertainty about who exactly would represent him, according to the Cook County public defender’s office, which took up Robinson’s case in early 2013. Roughly once every month or two, guards would wake Robinson up at 4:30 AM, put him in shackles, and lead him onto a bus whose windows were mostly covered by steel plates. As the sun began to rise, he would arrive at the courthouse in west-suburban Bridgeview, where he says he would wait with dozens of other inmates in a cramped basement holding area. As noon approached, Robinson would be called to appear before a judge. Each time, the hearing would last for only a minute or two, Robinson recalls, before the judge would decide, for an array of reasons, that his case wasn’t ready to move forward. “Then it would be another continuance,” Robinson says—and another month or two in jail.
When he was drawn into tussles, guards would send him into “the hole”—solitary confinement—for weeks at a time, Robinson recalls. There, he was alone, with nothing to distract him from the incessant screams and moans of inmates in neighboring isolation cells. (According to the Cook County sheriff’s office, typically 25 to 30 percent of Cook County Jail inmates suffer from mental illness.) Periodically, his neighboring inmates would cover their cells with their own feces, filling the block with a smell so intense that it would make the guards vomit. Once, Robinson says, he saw a shackled inmate attempt suicide by throwing himself over a stairwell banister.
As Robinson’s case meandered through the court system, weeks turned into months, and then a whole year passed, yet he wasn’t any closer to trial.
When I reached out to Robinson’s family in January, he had been awaiting trial for nearly four years. His great-grandmother had passed away in 2008, leaving his mother, Lasheena Weekly, to battle her son’s prolonged trial delays. Robinson had spent four months in jail as his public defender fought to obtain personnel records on his arresting officer, Anthony Bruno, records that his judge then took months to review. Before that, Robinson had waited five months just for the court to hear, and reject, a motion to reduce his bond.
Although she believed that the facts of the case were going Robinson’s way, Weekly faced a problem that has particularly vexed many Cook County defendants: although under subpoena to testify at a hearing on a pretrial motion to quash the arrest, Bruno had repeatedly missed court dates, causing months more delays.
In December 2015, Robinson’s public defender, Rosemary Costin, issued a subpoena warning Bruno that his failure to appear at the next hearing, scheduled two months from then, would result in him being held in contempt of court. Still, when that court date arrived, Bruno was nowhere to be seen.
Robinson’s judge, Thomas Davy, set a new court date six weeks later, to try again. Costin issued another subpoena for Bruno to appear. When that date in late March arrived, Bruno was in court, according to records—but in a different courtroom, apparently on a different case. This time, one of Robinson’s witnesses also failed to appear; she had forgotten the court date altogether. Costin issued another subpoena for Bruno to appear. At the following hearing almost two months later, Bruno was again absent. Costin issued yet another subpoena. Five weeks later, Bruno again failed to appear. “It’s been prolonging and prolonging and prolonging,” Weekly said. “They want to get [Robinson] tired of being in that awful place and get him to admit to something that he did not do.”
“Had it been the other way around, and I’d been subpoenaed to court and didn’t show up,” Robinson told me, “there would be a warrant out for my arrest.”
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice, with American University, released a study into how the Cook County Criminal Court manages felony cases. Primarily seeking to understand the relationship between lapses in courtroom efficiency and overcrowding in the jail, the report found that the court system suffered from “a ‘legal culture’ that facilitates unnecessary delay in case processing.” A major driver of this, according to the study, was startlingly simple: as in Robinson’s case, police officers were continually failing to show up for court hearings that hinged on their presence as witnesses.
Police absenteeism not only runs afoul of state laws meant to ensure that witnesses appear in court; it also violates the Chicago Police Department’s own rules of conduct, which specifically prohibits officers from failing to report promptly when called to court. Yet the study noted that police absenteeism “does not appear to generate any sanctioning” of the officers themselves. Daniel Coyne, a defense attorney and clinical law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology, confirmed the DOJ findings on no-show officers in a 2007 paper.
“Lately, it’s worse than it’s ever been,” adds Bill Murphy, a private defense attorney who’s been practicing in Chicago for nearly 50 years. In fact, the backlogged dockets of Cook County’s overburdened courtrooms mean that, when an officer fails to appear at a hearing, it can take months to try again. “It’s rarely like, ‘OK, let’s meet next week,’ ” says Michael Bianucci, a private defense attorney who has worked in Cook County’s criminal courts for 26 years. “No, you’re often talking three months later. If that happens a couple of times, nine months is gone. It’s unbelievable.”
“These are not witnesses like other witnesses,” says Keith Ahmad, a top supervisor in the Cook County public defender’s office. The court is “very reluctant” to issue warrants for police witnesses who repeatedly fail to come to court, Ahmad says—warrants that would often be standard issue for other witnesses who fail to appear. “I’ve never seen a warrant issued for a police officer.”
Falandis Brown, a former security guard, spent 16 months in Cook County jail awaiting trial on a burglary charge, accused of taking a GPS device from a Ford Explorer parked along the Midway Plaisance near the University of Chicago campus. Brown says that the failure of a police officer to appear at his trial was part of why he pleaded guilty this past January, despite privately maintaining his innocence, in order to free himself from jail. In exchange for his plea, prosecutors allowed Brown’s 488 days of pretrial detention to count toward his sentence, which would also include several weeks in state prison. (The CPD declined to comment on Brown’s case, and a spokesperson for the University of Chicago Police Department, which assisted Brown’s arresting officers, said that its officers appeared at all of Brown’s court dates.)
Twenty-nine-year-old Chante Johnson has been awaiting trial for more than five years—2,040 days as of press time—facing charges in connection with the armed robbery of a liquor store in the suburb of Blue Island. His family cites no-show police as one of many factors delaying his trial; court records document multiple notations of “witness ordered to appear,” though they don’t specify which witness.
“What about Chante’s right to a speedy trial, what about the prosecutor proving and presenting a case without all these holes in it?” his grandmother, Gloria Johnson, asked in a 2015 letter to chief judge Timothy Evans. “They have taken four and a half years of his life away, and it’s like nothing to them.”
Meanwhile, late last July, Bruno finally appeared in court in Robinson’s case. Robinson says that, under questioning from lawyers, Bruno provided answers regarding Robinson’s arrest that left Judge Davy visibly unsatisfied. After Bruno’s testimony, Davy granted Robinson’s motion to quash arrest, meaning the police had no grounds to take him into custody in the first place. Two weeks later, the state dropped all charges against Robinson. After being held in jail for more than 1,500 days, Robinson was free to leave.
CPD also declined to make Bruno available, but provided a statement to the Reader about the larger issue of police absenteeism. Between January 2010 and August 23 of this year, CPD recorded 11,698 instances of officers failing to appear in court, according to department spokesman Sergeant Michael J. Malinowski, although the department doesn’t distinguish in its record-keeping between instances when the officer has permission to be absent and instances where he or she does not.
Numerous other defense attorneys interviewed for this story, however, say that it’s almost impossible for the defense to demand trial without jeopardizing a client’s interests. Once the defense has demanded trial, judges may not allow defense attorneys to pursue the pretrial motions that are often essential to get a defendant’s case dismissed, to get the charges reduced, or to properly prepare for trial. And even if defendants do get to a point where they are ready to demand a speedy trial, they can potentially expect blowback from the prosecution or judges, according to several defense attorneys who practice in Cook County. “Demanding trial is like calling the state’s attorney’s mother a bad name,” says the public defender who requested anonymity. “Prosecutors take it very personally when you demand trial.” A trial demand means that an already busy prosecutor must put everything else aside and focus on preparing for trial, he explained, or else face potentially serious repercussions for exceeding the term.
“It’s considered the nuclear option,” Coyne says. “In my 32 years of practice, I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve demanded.” One of the stipulations in Illinois’s speedy trial law is that, once a defendant begins the 120-day clock on a trial demand, the defendant and his or her attorney must appear in court for all scheduled appearances; if a defense attorney misses a single court date, the speedy trial clock can stop. To prevent these constitutional demands from advancing, several public defenders and private defense attorneys allege, some prosecutors will purposely schedule a trial on a date when they happen to know that the defense team has an irreconcilable conflict.
Even a former prosecutor acknowledges that this happens. “I have heard of that and I always thought that was a rotten thing to do,” O’Brien says. “I’ve heard guys saying they’ve done it or are going to do it. I’ve never seen it done, and I’ve never done it.” In rarer instances, some Cook County judges have reacted to defendants’ use of the speedy trial law with hostility, according to several public defenders. They say that these judges have sometimes required an inmate who makes such a demand to return to court with his or her attorney every single day, first thing in the morning, for the entire 120-day duration of the demand. This forces an inmate to be dragged out of bed at 4:30 AM daily to go wait in the courthouse’s underground holding pen for hours to appear at one useless hearing after another. For public defenders, with their packed schedules, such a time commitment is simply untenable.
It’s meant to “punish the inmate in order to dissuade them from demanding or to make them back off the demand,” according to Carr, the Cook County public defender. “I have seen that happen.”
“The speedy trial is more of a fiction than anything,” said Murphy, the private defense attorney, who says prosecutors’ moves to thwart a trial demand are inevitable. “It just can’t be done.”
“The chief judge and the presiding judge of the criminal division—both of those judges have the ability to push back on this culture of disregarding the urgency of how long cases take,” Suchan says. He also emphasizes that judges have a disproportionate influence over the pace at which a case moves through the system. “The judges set the schedules for the courtroom,” he says. “They can say: this is when something must happen.”
In charge of a judicial bench that oversees more than a million pending criminal and civil cases on any given day, the job of Cook County’s chief judge, Timothy Evans, certainly has its challenges, and Evans’s tenure has not been an easy one. In September, after a judicial misconduct scandal and a critical assessment from the state supreme court on the county’s criminal case management, Evans narrowly prevailed in a judicial election that the Chicago Tribune characterized as unusually acrimonious, fueled by widespread discontent with Evans’s leadership.