Abner Mikva in 1971 Credit: Sun-Times Media Archive

In the spring of 2015, I walked into the Cook County criminal courthouse at 26th and California. I was there for the resentencing hearing of Adolfo Davis, a 38-year-old man who had been given a life sentence at the age of 14.

Davis was the first person in Illinois to be resentenced for his crime under a recent Illinois Supreme Court decision that allowed those given mandatory life without parole as juveniles to have their sentences reconsidered. It was an important day—not only for Davis but also for the other roughly 80 men and one woman who were also incarcerated as juveniles and now eligible for new sentences. Those individuals, their lawyers, their families, the victims’ families, and throngs of media were watching Davis’s case closely, as it would set a precedent.

The hearing took place in a stuffy, wood-paneled, high-ceilinged courtroom on the fourth floor of the courthouse. I arrived alongside two mothers whose sons were awaiting resentencing hearings of their own: Julie Anderson and Cynthia Morfin. Their sons, Eric Anderson and Nicholas Morfin, shared a case, and had been incarcerated since their early teens for a double homicide. Twenty-two years later, the women’s friendship had blossomed as they fought side-by-side for criminal justice reform. They’d been waiting years for this day, as it would soon be their sons’ turn.

As we stepped into the packed courtroom, finding our seats among the crowd, an elderly man shuffled in ahead of us, walked right past the gallery pews, past the attorneys and took a seat in a high-backed leather chair in the jury box. Anderson’s eyes lit up.

“That’s Abner Mikva,” she exclaimed.

“Who?” Morfin asked.

“Abner Mikva, counsel to President Clinton. He’s super old and super brilliant. He’s also a big advocate for criminal justice reform.”

“On our side?” Morfin asked, the tension rising in her voice.

“Yeah,” Anderson said.

“Ooh,” Morfin replied with a sigh of relief.

It turned out that Mikva was there to testify on behalf of Davis. When he was finally called to the stand the hearing was in its ninth hour—without a lunch break and only a handful of five-minute bathroom breaks. Mikva seemed unfazed as he launched, with a booming voice, into his laundry list of credentials: University of Chicago Law School, clerk to a Supreme Court justice, assemblyman, congressman, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, White House Counsel, professor. He was close to 90, yet had completed his last case only a year earlier.

A bastion of the left, Mikva’s liberal attitude toward criminal justice reform was not surprising. Still, Mikva’s presence in the courtroom that day was deeply felt, no matter what side of the case you fell on.

Even James McKay, the colorful Cook County assistant state’s attorney, who, with his crisp suit and exaggerated hand gestures, looked as though he’d come straight from Central Casting for Law & Order, struggled to treat Mikva as just another expert.

“I regret we have to have our first conversation during my cross-examination,” McKay said. “But you know I have to do my job.”

McKay slipped up more than once, referring to Mikva as “your honor,” or “Judge Mikva.” In fact, Mikva finally asked him to stop. “There is only one judge present,” he told McKay.

Listening to Mikva unpack his personal evolution around the topic of criminal justice was captivating. This was living history.

He talked about enlisting in the Army Air Corps during World War II and being court marshaled for going AWOL. As he launched into the story, the judge, Angela Petrone, cut him off, uninterested in his ancillary comments. But Mikva worked it in as he continued to answer questions. His punishment for going AWOL was a week in solitary confinement—unable to talk to anyone. “That sounds petty,” Mikva told the court. “But it was the hardest week of my life.”

Despite what Judge Petrone thought, the experience was immensely relevant to Mikva. What sprung from it was a well of empathy. “When I think of Mr. Davis spending all those years in solitary and segregation,” Mikva said, “I am awed. He claims it helped him. I considered it the most harrowing experience I ever had.”

What’s more, Mikva explained that his ideas about crime and punishment started percolating before the 1963 landmark decision of Gideon v. Wainwright, before there was a right to counsel. They started back in 1951, when, fresh out of law school, he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton. As part of his job, he read handwritten petitions from inmates asking for a reconsideration of their sentence.

“The common pattern was the uncommonness of the sentencing,” Mikva said. “Sentencing is one of the most difficult jobs that judges have because all people are different.”

His argument was strikingly unadorned. “Most people want a justice system that operates very simply. Put in facts and law and grind out a result. With human beings it doesn’t act that way. . . I know it’s tempting to create an automatic, permanent, mathematical result. But it doesn’t work, and I guess one of the proofs of that is Mr. Davis.”

The courtroom was silent, save for the rustling of papers and shifting weight of people trying to get comfortable after ten hours spent sitting on wooden benches.

Mikva continued. “We call places the house of correction, the reformatory, the penitentiary,” he paused. “None of them are called the house of revenge.”

His words were searing.

As he spoke, Morfin dropped her head, pressing her thumb and forefinger into her eyes to hold back her tears. Anderson had her eyes closed and her head lowered, as if in prayer. I’d known these women long enough to venture a guess at what they might be thinking.

What would Mikva say to them? Were their sons’ cases also proof of the justice system’s faulty math?

In the end, the hearing did not go well for Davis. The judge was unmoved and reaffirmed Davis’s life sentence. Mikva called the hearing “a mockery.”

The House of Revenge had won again.