One May morning last year two cars collided on the west side, at Sacramento and Walnut. One car ended up in a vacant lot, the other sat disabled in the intersection. No one was injured.

Chicago police officers Timothy Grisby and Lloyd Maxwell were driving back to their station, at Harrison and Kedzie, when they happened on the accident. Firefighters were already on the scene. The officers’ shift was ending, and they had an arrestee handcuffed in the backseat of their squad car. But they decided to stop to help get the disabled car out of the intersection.

Grisby, Maxwell, and the firefighters pushed the car into a parking space on Walnut in front of a two-flat near the corner. This upset Maren McGee, a lanky 25-year-old man who lived in the building and was outside at the time. They’d pushed the car into the parking space his mother normally used.

A scuffle broke out between McGee and the officers, and McGee’s mother and her brother got in the middle of it. Grisby and Maxwell sustained a few cuts and bruises, as did one of the many officers who arrived to back them up. Maren McGee and his uncle, 40-year-old Steven Patton, wound up in the Harrison-Kedzie lockup, charged with “aggravated battery to peace officers,” a felony with a possible sentence of three to seven years. McGee was also charged with “criminal damage to state supported property”–the officers contended he’d thrown a brick and dented their squad car. McGee’s mother, Anita McGee, was arrested and charged with obstructing a peace officer, a misdemeanor. But she was released on a recognizance bond, and the charge was later dropped.

Two days after the incident a judge in the Cook County Criminal Courthouse, at 26th and California, set Maren McGee’s bond at $40,000 and Patton’s at $50,000. Defendants must post 10 percent of their bond to get out of jail. Neither McGee nor Patton nor any of their relatives could come up with that much money, so the two remained in jail.

The following month they got lucky. The computer that randomly doles out cases to the courthouse’s 30 trial judges assigned their cases to Judge Leo E. Holt–“Let ‘Em Go Leo,” as some prosecutors call him.

A portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. hangs over the bench in Holt’s courtroom. Holt bought the lithograph in the early 90s and hung it in his courtroom in south-suburban Markham. When he was transferred to the courthouse at 26th Street in 1998 he brought the portrait with him. “With that picture I’m trying to send the message that this is a place of fairness,” he says.

Holt revered King and represented him as a lawyer in 1966 during the open-housing marches here. Holt was one of several lawyers who went to court to fight the city’s attempt to limit the number of marches. The city prevailed. He also represented many protesters who got arrested here in 1966 and ’67 during sit-ins downtown and marches near the home of Mayor Richard J. Daley. The misdemeanor charges–disorderly conduct, obstructing traffic, resisting arrest–often resulted in bench trials before judges who almost invariably were white and who typically owed their seat on the bench to Daley. “We lost them all,” Holt says.

Holt was in private practice, mostly as a criminal defense lawyer, for 27 years before becoming a judge. He was elected in 1986 thanks to the political support of his longtime friend Harold Washington, then Chicago’s mayor. Judges can’t run for retention after they turn 75, so Holt, who’s 76, will retire when his current six-year term expires in November. No one in the state’s attorney’s office will shed a tear.

At 26th Street opinions about Judge Holt are sharply divided. Defense attorneys extol his courage, awareness of case law, and fairness. Prosecutors grumble about his low bonds, light sentences, and tendency to acquit.

“He’s no rubber stamp for the defense,” says Steven Greenberg, a private lawyer. “I’ve lost cases in front of him, and he whacked [sentenced harshly] one of my guys. But he’s extremely knowledgeable about the law, and he follows it. He believes the defendant is presumed innocent and that he’s entitled to that presumption.”

Holt “has a consistent standard of reasonable doubt regardless of whether the charge is murder or prostitution,” says Valerie Panozzo, a public defender who was assigned to Holt’s courtroom, number 502, throughout 2003. “The state says his standard is too high. I say it’s the standard that all courts should operate by.”

Holt “follows the law meticulously,” says former appellate justice R. Eugene Pincham, who’s known Holt for decades. “The best proof of that is the state’s attorneys don’t like him.”

Pincham himself was a judge at 26th Street, from 1976 to ’84. He says the state’s attorneys didn’t like him either, because he didn’t rule their way as often as they were used to. He would greet prosecutors newly assigned to his courtroom by telling them they must have annoyed some bigwig: “I’d say, ‘Some superior is teed off at you for you to be sent here.'” Several former prosecutors of that era echo that assessment. Dan Locallo, then a prosecutor and now a Cook County circuit judge, recalls a fellow prosecutor on the state’s attorneys’ softball team who dropped a fly ball in a key game on a Friday afternoon; the following Monday he learned he’d been transferred to Pincham’s courtroom.

Veteran and former prosecutors say they don’t think the state’s attorney’s office uses Holt’s courtroom as punishment when it doles out assignments, but being sent to 502 certainly isn’t a reward. “Nobody wants to go there,” says Michael Nolan, who’s now in private practice but was an assistant state’s attorney until 2001. “It’s not considered a good assignment for a prosecutor, because you lose a lot.” The two assistant state’s attorneys now assigned to Holt’s courtroom declined to comment about him.

Officials in the state’s attorney’s office have made their feelings about Holt evident, most significantly in their attempts to have certain cases transferred out of his courtroom. After the computer assigns a case to a judge the state and the defense are each allowed one “substitution of judge” motion. The party making the SOJ motion alleges that the judge is prejudiced and requests a different judge, and no supporting evidence or explanation is required. As long as the motion is made within ten days of the case’s assignment, the judge who’s the subject of the motion is supposed to return the case to the chief judge for reassignment.

Defense lawyers have had the SOJ right for decades, prosecutors only since 1987. Lawyers on both sides are reluctant to make such motions for fear of insulting judges. Private defense lawyers file far more SOJ motions than public defenders or prosecutors, most of whom have to keep working with the same judges. (Most public defenders and prosecutors are assigned to courtrooms for periods ranging from 3 to 18 months.) Defense lawyers–private attorneys and public defenders–are far more likely than prosecutors to file an SOJ, a reflection of the tighter bond that usually exists between judges and prosecutors. According to a study by the state’s attorney’s office (limited to cases in Chicago and the northern suburbs), during an 18-month period in 2000 and 2001 defense lawyers in Cook County filed 1,124 SOJ motions, while the state filed only 19.

The state’s attorney’s office has been willing to risk insulting Holt. Between September 1998–when Holt was transferred to 26th Street from Markham–and July 2001 the state filed 52 SOJ motions against him. Of the 19 SOJ motions filed by the state’s attorney’s office during the study, Holt was the target of 6.

In April 2001 Holt refused to grant the state’s attorneys’ SOJ motion in a murder case. He maintained that the state’s attempt to keep cases out of his courtroom was an unconstitutional encroachment on the judiciary’s right to assign cases as it saw fit. The state’s attorney’s office asked chief criminal court judge Paul Biebel to order Holt to transfer the case. The two defendants in the case were juveniles being tried as adults, and a prosecutor asserted that in serious cases involving juveniles Holt had a reputation for holding the state to a “higher standard and burden of proof…than is required by law.” After a hearing Biebel declined to force Holt to transfer the case, saying the state couldn’t claim a judge was biased simply because he’d ruled against it in other cases. The state appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, but it declined to intervene. Holt retained the case and wound up convicting one of the defendants of murder and the other of a lesser charge.

Holt and the state’s attorney’s office squared off in another SOJ dispute in 2002. This time the supreme court directed Holt to yield to the state’s motion and transfer the case.

African-American lawyers and judges have contended that racism is behind the SOJ campaign against Holt. They point to another series of SOJ motions by prosecutors against another African-American judge–James Rhodes, whose courtroom is in Markham. Prosecutors filed 13 SOJ motions against him in 2000, after he was assigned to that courthouse. Rhodes granted several of the motions, then began refusing to transfer cases. During a hearing before the chief judge in Markham, the state said that Rhodes had handed out too many probation sentences when he sat in juvenile court and that he was therefore likely to deny justice to crime victims. The chief judge rejected that argument and said Rhodes would keep the cases, adding that prosecutors “simply don’t like the sentences he gave while he was a juvenile court judge. Lest we forget, defendants are also entitled to justice.”

In one other notable SOJ campaign in Illinois, the chief prosecutor in downstate Belleville filed six SOJ motions against Judge Milton Wharton in 1989. The prosecutor admitted he was filing the motions in an attempt to force the chief judge to transfer Wharton out of the felony division. Wharton refused to relinquish the cases, and the state’s attorney asked the supreme court to order him to. But the high court said such a use of SOJ motions was improper. Like Holt and Rhodes, Wharton happened to be black. For years he’s been the state’s only black elected circuit judge outside of Cook County.

Officials in the state’s attorney’s office here have maintained all along that their SOJ motions aren’t racist, since there are black judges against whom they’ve never filed an SOJ.

The state’s attorney’s office has filed fewer SOJ motions against Holt in the past few years. But last August prosecutors filed another, and he again refused to go along. Chief judge Biebel again supported him, but in January the supreme court directed Holt to transfer the case.

Holt continues to receive strong support from African-American lawyers and judges. In October the Illinois Judicial Council–an organization of 140 judges, most of them African-American–gave Holt the Charles E. Freeman Pioneer in Justice Award, named for the first black Illinois Supreme Court justice. Recipients of the award are chosen for their “trailblazing efforts and pioneering spirit.”

“Prosecutors say I’m biased against them,” Holt says. “I say I try to be as fair as I know how. I’m as fair as my background and development allow me to be, just like they are. We just come from different places.”

Holt was raised by his mother, on welfare, in the south side’s slums. He dropped out of high school at 16. He got his high school equivalency degree while in the army, then worked days and went to school at night, finishing college and law school in 11 years. “I see things as a person born and raised in the ghetto would see them,” he says.

Police harassed young black men when he was an adolescent, he says, “as they do now.” He and his friends would bring along “police money” when they drove somewhere–$5 or $10 to give police if they were stopped. Whether the stop was for a genuine violation or not, he says, it could quickly turn into a night in jail without the bribe.

One day during the blizzard of 1967, when Holt was already a lawyer, he was walking down the middle of a south-side street because his car was stuck. He saw a police car pull up behind several young black men. The young men immediately headed to a wall and leaned against it on their hands, preparing to be searched. “The policemen hadn’t said a thing to them,” he recalls. “That kind of conditioning–you see the police, you go get on the wall–could never develop in a more affluent community.” He says experiences like that allow him to see the world differently than most judges. “A judge who has grown up in a middle- to upper-middle-class environment is totally at a loss to understand a guy who grew up in the bowels of the ghetto or in the barrio. The distance is too great.”

Unlike Eugene Pincham, who intimidated many a prosecutor with his sharp tongue and bellowing voice, Holt is not an imposing figure. He’s a slight man with rounded shoulders. His eyes are milky from cataracts, and a lazy left eyelid gives his face a skewed aspect. His ears are large. He has a sparse mustache and a modest beard and not much hair above his dwindling eyebrows. He speaks deliberately.

“It’s a pain in the ass to do anything in his room because he’s so slow,” says Steven Greenberg. “But he explains every ruling he makes.”

Last year Holt was diagnosed with emphysema–he’d smoked for almost 60 years before he quit three years ago. For five months he wore a nose tube connected to an oxygen tank on and off the bench, but he no longer needs it. He wears cloth braces on his arthritic hands. His back tightens up when he sits too long, so he often rises and stretches briefly behind his chair while listening to testimony.

“I’m flamboyant, energetic, arm waving,” Pincham says. “Leo is cool. I’m not cool.”

Holt “has always been a very thoughtful person,” says appellate justice Ellis Reid, who’s known him for 45 years. “He’s inquisitive, and he has a high intellect. And he’s slow to anger.” Reid laughs. “You’re not gonna PO Leo. If you made Leo mad, I just don’t know what you did.”

Despite his unassuming appearance, Holt is “hard-nosed,” Pincham says. Reid agrees: “He’s not going to do something just because the press or the state’s attorney is coming down hard on it. You’re not going to force him to do what he doesn’t think is right.”

Last year Holt presided over the William Ligue Jr. case. Ligue was the 35-year-old man who vaulted bare chested onto the field during a September 2002 game at Comiskey Park, accompanied by his 15-year-old son, and tackled the Kansas City Royals’ first-base coach. Ligue, who’s white, pleaded guilty last May to aggravated battery, without an agreement with the state on the sentence. Prosecutors, baseball officials, and sports columnists demanded that Holt sentence Ligue to prison.

In June, Holt postponed the sentencing, saying, “I agree with the state that the whole world is watching the case.” He said he wanted the world to see “a criminal justice system that responds with intelligence, with compassion, with understanding, with reason, and not with a knee-jerk reaction to reap vengeance, retribution, and punishment.”

In August he gave Ligue probation. He also imposed a 90-day curfew and required Ligue to do 80 hours of community service, undergo addiction counseling, and attend parenting classes. He said he believed that the sentence would give Ligue a better chance of becoming a useful citizen than a prison term and would cost taxpayers much less. He suggested that if baseball owners truly wanted to deter hooliganism, there were steps they could take. He wondered, “What is the expected conduct of fans who sit for two or three hours drinking unlimited quantities of beer?”

Sun-Times sports columnist Jay Mariotti conceded that Holt had a point regarding beer sales, but otherwise, like almost everyone else in the press, he blasted Holt. He berated the “warm-and-fuzzy” judge’s “inane show of compassion.” His colleague Rick Telander called Holt “an aging, baffling fellow.”

After Ligue tested positive for marijuana three times last December, prosecutors were gloating. “We didn’t think he should have gotten probation in the first place,” said Bernie Murray, chief of criminal prosecutions, “and now we are being proven true.”

In August 2003, when Ligue was sentenced to probation, Maren McGee and Steven Patton were still in jail awaiting trial on the charges stemming from the altercation on Walnut Street. Patton’s public defender asked Holt to reconsider Patton’s bond, pointing out that his only felony conviction, for drug possession, was 14 years old. Holt agreed to give Patton an individual-recognizance bond, which allowed him to get out of jail without posting any cash.

During his pretrial hearings Patton had been optimistic about his chances in Holt’s courtroom. He’d seen the picture of Martin Luther King Jr. above the bench. “King wasn’t just for the black man–he was for justice for all,” Patton says. “I thought that since the judge had that picture up there, it meant he was a fair man.” He’d also heard the sermon Holt often gives defendants he’s sentencing to prison. Holt tells them that Malcolm X went to a penitentiary at the age of 20, when he was a pimp, burglar, drug dealer, and addict. But in prison he decided to change his life; he never returned after serving his seven years, and he became a world-renowned leader. “I try to suggest,” Holt says, “that a reformation is possible for anyone, that it just takes the courage to do it.”

Patton says, “I got the message from Judge Holt that no matter what somebody may have done in their past, each day they wake up there’s hope for the future that they can come around.” In 1990, according to court records, Patton was charged with two separate murders. A jury acquitted him of one of them in 1992, and the state dropped the charges in the other case. “I’m not at liberty to talk about those cases,” Patton says.

Maren McGee’s public defender, Valerie Panozzo, also asked Holt for an I-bond. But McGee had two drug convictions, both within the previous eight years. Holt denied the request, and McGee remained in jail.

Police were alleging, among other things, that McGee had cursed them and flailed his arms when they tried to arrest him. McGee had been arrested on numerous other occasions for disorderly conduct and petty drug offenses. Several of the arrest reports also describe McGee cursing police and flailing his arms during an arrest. After one such episode in 2003, two months before the Walnut Street fracas, police took McGee to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, but he was declared mentally fit and released.

McGee’s mother says that Maren was “bricked” several years ago in a Hispanic neighborhood, for reasons she never learned. “His skull was crushed,” she says. “I almost lost him.” He was in a hospital for several weeks and in a rehabilitation center after that. He had to relearn how to walk and talk, and he still has occasional seizures and problems with his balance. He’s been jumped several times since, and he gets frustrated that he can’t defend himself, she says.

The state tried to get both Patton and McGee to plead guilty to the aggravated-battery charges. They faced up to seven years, but the crime can draw probation. Patton says prosecutors first offered him two years in prison for a guilty plea, but he declined. Later, he says, prosecutors offered to reduce the charge to misdemeanor battery and give him probation if he pleaded.

According to Panozzo, the state also offered McGee two years in prison, then reduced that to one year.

Patton says the probation offer was tempting, “but I didn’t want to plead guilty to something I wasn’t guilty of.” He says it helped to know “that I had a law judge, a judge who would give me a fair trial.” He decided to go to trial, “and my nephew followed my lead.”

Holt was the target of more unflattering press in February. “Low bail by judge in gang case riles cops,” proclaimed the headline of the front-page Tribune story. It reported that police were “furious” about Holt’s decision to set a bail of $100,000 for a reputed gang leader charged with attempted murder. That defendant, Kenyatta White, was able to post the 10 percent required to get out of jail. “In the eyes of police and prosecutors,” the Tribune said, “Kenyatta White was the consummate example of a defendant who deserved to be held on a high bail, or even no bail at all.”

White, who police contend is the number two man in the Black P Stones, had been charged with murder in 2003. A different judge had set his bail at $500,000, and then the case was assigned to Holt. White posted the required $50,000 last April and was freed. In December, Ajani Brown, the brother of the man White allegedly murdered, was shot 15 times in his car on the south side. Brown survived and accused White of the shooting, and White was charged with attempted murder. A bond court judge ordered White held without bail in the second case.

White’s lawyer asked Holt to set a bail. Under Illinois law a defendant can’t be denied bail unless “the proof is evident or the presumption great” that the defendant is guilty of the offense. After accusing White of shooting him, Brown had recanted, then, after a visit from federal agents, recanted his recantation. Holt ruled that the case against White wasn’t strong enough to deny him bail.

In determining the amount of bail, a judge is required to balance many factors, including whether the defendant poses a threat to the community and the weight of the evidence against him. Bail is designed to help ensure the defendant will appear in court, not to punish the defendant for a crime he’s presumed innocent of. In setting White’s bail at $100,000, Holt referred to a 1930 Illinois Supreme Court case, People v. Snow. In that case the high court underscored a defendant’s constitutional right to a reasonable bail and stressed that a judge “has no more right to disregard and violate the Constitution than the criminal has to violate the law.”

“You don’t violate the Constitution to keep the streets safe,” says Eugene Pincham. “The people have said in the Constitution that we are concerned about the powers of government, particularly about government locking someone up without bail.” He believes the Tribune story was inspired by the state’s attorney’s office as part of an ongoing campaign against Holt. He also sees it as another example of the conflicting views whites and minorities hold regarding the role of criminal courts: “What we say in the hood is, ‘You ain’t lived on my street.’ We see things differently in my neighborhood from how the Tribune sees them and how the state’s attorney’s office sees them. In my neighborhood we’re more worried about getting locked up for nothing with no bail.”

Pincham concedes that in his community people are also concerned about violence. “But you don’t rid the community of crime with slogans from politicians and prosecutors about getting tough on crime,” he says. “You have to give people jobs and opportunity.”

The Tribune also observed that this was “not the first time Holt has drawn the ire of law enforcement for a controversial bail decision.” It noted that Holt had also cut the bail of William Ligue in the Comiskey Park case, from the $200,000 set by the bond-court judge to $10,000, which allowed him to be free while the case was pending.

In Cook County $200,000 is an extraordinarily high bail in an aggravated-battery case. Many defendants charged with aggravated battery are released on their own recognizance. Judges usually try to make bail affordable not only because it’s required by the Constitution, but because the jail is already overflowing with prisoners. It’s designed to hold 10,250, but the population fluctuates between 10,300 and 11,000–at a daily cost to taxpayers of more than $600,000.

There were no stories in the Tribune–or any other paper–suggesting that perhaps Ligue’s bail was excessive. But the public and the press tend not to get exercised over bails that are too high. Some lawyers at 26th Street say many judges would have done the politically prudent thing regarding Ligue’s bail–they’d have let it stand.

Michael Johnson, Kenyatta White’s lawyer, also represents one of the two defendants in the most recent SOJ dispute between Holt and the state. Johnson says prosecutors don’t like Holt mainly because he, unlike many judges, doesn’t reflexively swallow the testimony of police officers. “Judge Holt doesn’t believe witnesses who give incredible testimony, whether it be the guy on the street corner or a police officer,” he says. “And the state doesn’t take kindly to that.”

Indeed, Holt has on numerous occasions suppressed key evidence against a defendant, rejecting police testimony about how they obtained it. Such rulings have often resulted in the charges against the defendant being dropped.

The state can’t appeal acquittals, because the Constitution protects against double jeopardy. But it can appeal rulings that suppress evidence, and the state has challenged such rulings by Holt eight times. In seven of those cases, the appellate court has affirmed Holt’s decision–six times unanimously. The impression one gets from these cases is not that Holt is antistate, but that he’s a stickler when it comes to constitutional requirements.

The one reversal wasn’t a complete reversal. The case concerned three high schoolers charged with bringing guns to school. Holt had suppressed evidence against them–the guns that were seized–ruling that the students had been searched without probable cause. He said in a written opinion that school officials “have a duty to take whatever lawful steps are necessary to assure that the school premises are safe and weapon free.” But, he went on, the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches still had to be adhered to. The appellate court reversed the ruling for two of the defendants and affirmed it for the third. The court also lauded Holt’s “carefully considered” and “erudite” opinion in the case.

In 1994, two weeks after Holt had thrown out the case against one of the high school students–17-year-old Serrick Pruitt–Pruitt shot and killed an acquaintance, 16-year-old Marvin Givens, during a quarrel. In an editorial the Tribune criticized Holt’s decision in the gun case, though it said he wasn’t to blame for Givens’s death; it pointed out that Pruitt would have been on the streets, his case still pending, even if Holt hadn’t suppressed the evidence. One reader vehemently disagreed in a letter to the editor, saying Holt was as responsible for Givens’s death “as if he had pulled the trigger.” Tribune columnist John Kass likewise laid the blame for Givens’s death at Holt’s feet.

“I’m not a prognosticator of the future,” Holt says. “I felt badly that Mr. Pruitt killed another human being. But I did not feel any responsibility for it or any regret about my decision, which I still believe was the right one.”

On the first Monday afternoon in February, McGee and Patton sit side by side between their public defenders at the defense table in Holt’s courtroom. McGee is in his tan jail uniform. He’s dark complected, with dreadlocks and a wispy goatee. Patton is wearing a dark green sweater and dress pants. He’s lighter skinned and much bigger than his nephew–six-foot-two and well over 200 pounds.

The gallery’s dozen long oak pews are empty this afternoon, save for myself and several coats strewn across the back bench. McGee’s mother and four other supporters of the defendants are in the hallway. They’re potential witnesses, so they can’t watch the trial.

The jury box is also empty, as it almost always is in courtroom 502. The jurors’ chairs have suffered hardly any wear or tear since Holt moved in three years ago. Like Patton and McGee, nearly all defendants who go to trial in 502 choose to waive their right to a jury and entrust their fate to Holt. Judges at 26th Street typically preside over one to two dozen jury trials a year. Holt has one or two a year. Defendants opt for bench trials here so often, he says, “because they think I will be fair with them.”

The state’s first witness, Officer Timothy Grisby, is a young, slim African-American. He relates how he and his partner, Lloyd Maxwell, helped firefighters push the disabled car into the parking space on Walnut and how McGee approached and “told me to move the fucking car.” He says he told McGee to move along but McGee began shouting at him. When McGee picked up a brick Grisby drew his gun and told him to drop it. Instead McGee hurled the brick at Grisby. It missed him and hit the squad car, denting a back door.

Grisby says he holstered his gun because children were nearby, then he and his partner moved in to arrest McGee. But McGee began swinging, striking both officers; Grisby wound up with facial cuts and swelling. He says McGee’s mother and Patton interfered with the attempt to arrest McGee. As Grisby was trying to handcuff McGee, Patton grabbed Grisby’s arm and told him, “You’re not gonna lock up anybody.” Patton put Grisby in a headlock, the two exchanged punches, and Patton tried to walk away. But Grisby called on his radio for assistance, and other officers arrived. McGee was maced, pulled to the ground and handcuffed, and Patton was arrested as well.

On cross-examination Grisby allows that during the struggle Patton told him, “You can arrest him [McGee], just don’t hit him in the head.” Grisby says he didn’t hit McGee in the head but that he did strike him in the stomach with his metal baton. He says he wasn’t angry that McGee was swearing at and punching him.

Steven Cieciel, a barrel-chested young white officer who provided backup, is next on the stand. He says that when he arrived Grisby and Maxwell had McGee against a fence, but McGee was still resisting arrest. He helped bring McGee to the ground so he could be handcuffed.

Assistant state’s attorney Mark Hitt, who’s doing the questioning, asks Cieciel how many times McGee struck him.

“A minimum of four,” Cieciel says, “probably more later on, like eight–oh, I’ll say a minimum of four.” He also says Patton made “threatening remarks” during the skirmish and struck him and other officers.

The state’s final witness is Detective Barbara Midona, who questioned the defendants in the lockup at the Harrison-Kedzie station the day of the incident. Midona says McGee told her he became enraged after officers refused to move the disabled car from the parking spot in front of his house. She says he admitted picking up a brick, cursing at the officers, and swinging his arms. She says Patton admitted grabbing an officer’s arm to prevent the officer from handcuffing his nephew. But on cross she allows that McGee also told her that police first swore at him, that he picked up the brick after being pushed to the ground by one of the officers, and that he swung his arms not to hit the officers but to avoid being handcuffed. She also allows that Patton told her he grabbed the officer’s arm to stop him from hitting McGee in the head with the handcuffs.

After Midona is excused Hitt offers as evidence several photos taken after the altercation that show injuries to the officers–though none to McGee or Patton–and a dent in the door of a squad car. With that, the state rests. Hitt doesn’t bring up McGee’s or Patton’s criminal history because they’re inadmissible. Judge Holt is supposed to decide not whether McGee and Patton were likely to have committed the offenses they’re charged with but whether they did.

The public defenders representing McGee and Patton immediately ask Holt to acquit their clients–a motion routinely made by the defense at the close of the state’s case and one that’s usually rejected. Holt must decide whether the state’s evidence, viewed “in the light most favorable to the state”–the standard at this point in the proceedings–could lead to a conviction.

Arguing for the motion, Panozzo says the police officers told a “colorful story” but an unbelievable one. She contends that McGee had no reason to pick up the brick unless he felt threatened by the officers, which he did after they swore at him and pushed him to the ground. As for the charge that McGee damaged the squad car, she says the state’s photo shows little more than a scuff mark that could have come from a shoe.

Patton’s public defender, Jim Fryman, says that tempers undoubtedly flared on both sides during the incident, but that it was clear Patton did little more than try to restrain Grisby from continuing to hit McGee. Fryman points out that several bystanders were at the scene, including the two drivers involved in the car accident, but police apparently didn’t question them.

Holt says the evidence is sufficient for McGee’s aggravated-battery case to continue and he’ll hear his witnesses tomorrow. He also rules that there’s enough evidence to suggest McGee threw a brick at the squad car and dented it. But, he points out, McGee has been charged not just with criminal damage to property, a misdemeanor, but with damage to state-supported property, a felony. To prove that charge, he says, prosecutors are required by law to show that the damaged squad car was paid for with government funds, but they introduced no such evidence. He throws out the charge.

Holt is on firm ground with this ruling. In the 1988 case People v. Bartlett, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that defendant Albert Bartlett shouldn’t have been convicted of damaging state-supported property–a police station lockup–because prosecutors had produced no evidence that the lockup was paid for with government funds. The state, the appellate court observed, must prove “all of the material and essential elements constituting a crime.” Holt tells me later that this obligation “is not a technicality, but rather a basic constitutional requirement. If you’re going to have judges decide that some element doesn’t have to be proven, you may as well not have the law.”

As for Patton, Holt says that even in the light most favorable to the state he sees little evidence supporting the aggravated-battery charges. He notes that a citizen can legally use force if he reasonably believes it necessary to defend himself or someone else and says that after Patton saw Grisby pull his gun on McGee and strike him with his baton, it was reasonable for Patton to attempt to restrain Grisby. Police officers “enjoy a unique position in our society, and rightfully so,” Holt says. “But it doesn’t mean that they are beyond the law….A person need not submit to an unlawful battering just because a person is a peace officer.” Patton, he adds, was only trying to protect his nephew from serious injury. “And as he may have found out, no good deed will go unpunished.”

But if it was a good deed it won’t be punished further. Holt acquits Patton.

In 1961, just two years after Holt became a lawyer, he was charged with a serious crime. He and five other lawyers, two doctors, and a former insurance adjuster were accused of cheating insurance companies out of $20,000 with fake accident claims.

Holt, his law partner, and one of the doctors went on trial at 26th Street in the courtroom of Judge Alexander Napoli. Holt’s codefendants opted to be tried by a jury. He chose to have Napoli decide his case. The jury acquitted the two codefendants, and Napoli convicted Holt. Napoli observed for the record that the case against Holt had been weaker than the case against the other two defendants, then sentenced him to one to two years in prison.

Holt stood convicted of conspiring with two defendants who hadn’t been found guilty of anything, and Napoli allowed him to remain free on bond pending an appeal. Later he granted Holt a new trial, and the case was subsequently dismissed for lack of evidence.

Holt says he was dragged into the case because his law partner was corrupt, though Holt didn’t realize it until after they were indicted. The partner was later disbarred because of an unrelated matter.

Holt rarely talks about the case. He says the memory is too painful. His mother was alive when he was convicted but died before he was cleared. “My mother raised two sons alone during the Depression years, working as a domestic,” he says. “We were poor but close. She was a proud woman and proud of her sons. She extracted a promise from us as young boys that we would not embarrass her by going to jail. She was devastated when I was accused of a crime. My greatest regret in life is that she died before I was vindicated.

“It was such a horrible experience, and it still lives with me. It’s one of the things that caused me to become a criminal defense lawyer. I’m certain it’s played an awfully, awfully deep role in how I perceive the criminal justice system. For years, and even now sometimes, that case comes back to mind, and I’m reminded of how easily we can wrongfully convict someone.”

He adds, “If I’m debating with myself whether or not a man is guilty or innocent, it means I have a doubt. And if you have a doubt, obviously there’s nothing you can do but acquit. Does that sometimes result in someone being acquitted of a crime that he has actually committed? Probably. But it is better that way, so we say–and I believe–than that we convict someone who is in fact innocent.”

Before McGee’s trial resumes the following afternoon, two defendants on bond are commiserating in the courtroom gallery during the lunch recess. They have hearings before Holt today, but they’re expecting their cases to be continued. The two men are from different generations–one is 52, the other 24. But they’re both African-American, and like most defendants in this courthouse, they’re both charged with drug crimes.

The older man has short braids, a rugged face, and a husky voice. “This system’s all fucked up, man,” he says. “They catching people with two rocks and throwing them in jail and all that bullshit. Ain’t gonna get no better either.”

“Much worse,” says the younger man. He’s wearing an oversize sports jersey with the number 13 on the back. “It’s easy to get into trouble,” he says with a sigh, “but it’s hard to get out.”

“It sure is,” the older man says. “These people, they can turn a small incident into a mountain.”

Their conversation turns to Judge Holt. The older man says, “He seem like the type of judge, you got a job or something, he want to help you out.”

The younger man nods. “I came to court last month, they had a different judge in here. I almost had a heart attack. He was sick or something.”

When court resumes, Holt first completes a bench trial he started in the morning. The defendant is a young Hispanic man charged with unlawful use of a weapon. A police officer testified this morning that while on patrol near 19th and Racine one evening last August he heard several shots fired. He said he saw the defendant running with a gun, then dropping it in the street. A friend of the defendant takes the stand and testifies that she was in the vicinity when the shots were fired. She says she didn’t see who fired the gun, but she saw the defendant moments before she heard the shots, and he wasn’t holding a gun. She says he had a cell phone in one hand and waved to her with the other. But Holt finds the testimony of the police officer convincing. He convicts the defendant and sets sentencing for March.

The two defendants in the gallery get their continuances, and then McGee’s case resumes. His first witness is 16-year-old Christopher Ford, who’s dressed in a gray baseball jersey with “Newark” across the chest. He says he lives across the street from McGee and was standing with McGee on the corner of Sacramento and Walnut after the car accident. When the firefighters and police officers pushed the disabled car into the parking space in front of McGee’s home, he heard McGee ask the officers to move the car and one of the officers tell McGee, “F you.” Ford says one of the officers pushed McGee with his baton. When the officer pushed McGee a third time McGee picked up a brick, and an officer pulled his gun. An uncle of McGee’s–not Patton–told McGee to drop the brick, and McGee did.

Soon five more police cars raced up, Ford continues. At this point, he says, McGee’s mother and Patton had McGee against a fence and were trying to calm him down. Anita McGee was holding on to her son’s arms. Ford says one of the newly arrived officers “walked up, grabbed Maren behind his neck, and pulled him down.” He says he didn’t see McGee strike any of the officers.

The next witness is 33-year-old Jamal Bennett, a heavy, round-faced man in jeans and a black T-shirt who lives next door to the McGees and says he watched the scuffle from his front porch. When he stepped onto the porch, he says, Anita McGee and Patton had Maren McGee backed up against a fence, and Anita was holding Maren by his arms. “At least seven” police officers were crowded around them. A tall white officer reached over Anita McGee, and “it looked like he grabbed Maren.” He says Maren went down into the mud with at least five officers on top of him. “They struggled with him for a few minutes and eventually they subdued him.”

On cross-examination Bennett allows that he couldn’t tell what McGee did during the scuffle in the mud.

“You don’t know what was going on at the bottom of the pile, right?” prosecutor Hitt asks.

Bennett says that’s correct.

“You don’t have X-ray vision, right?” Hitt asks.

Bennett concedes he doesn’t.

McGee’s final witness is Patton, who describes himself to the court as a “self-sufficient contractor.” Patton says he ran out onto the porch when he heard the commotion in front. Anita McGee had Maren pinned against the fence, and police officers were around them. He says McGee and the officers were “hollering obscenities toward each other.” He and Anita McGee “was telling Maren, ‘Come into the house,'” but one of the officers “said, ‘No, that motherfucker’s going to jail.'” Patton says he told the officers that McGee “had sort of a mental problem” from a previous head injury. One officer tried to handcuff McGee, but McGee pulled his arm away. Patton says he offered to handcuff McGee himself, but the officer said he couldn’t let him do that. An officer tackled McGee, then another officer hit him in the head with his handcuffs. When he tried to hit McGee a second time with the handcuffs, Patton grabbed the officer’s arm. “I said, ‘You can arrest him, but you can’t beat him in his head.'” Patton says that when he released the officer’s arm the officer “spun around and punched me in the face.” He says Officer Cieciel kicked McGee in the ribs and maced him.

On cross Hitt focuses on Patton’s reference to McGee’s previous head injury and mental problem. “How does this head injury manifest itself?” he asks.

“He was hit in the head with a brick,” Patton says.

“That’s not my question,” Hitt says. “What does he do that’s irrational? What does he do that’s problematic?”

Patton stares at Hitt.

“Let me try again,” Hitt says. “What’s the symptom of his mental disorder?”

“He has several symptoms,” Patton responds testily. “Sometime he get angry, sometime he will cry–this what you wanna know?”

Hitt suggests to Patton that he warned police about McGee’s “mental problem” because he was worried about what it might cause McGee to do.

But Patton says he was only asking the officers not to hurt McGee “because he’s not dealing with a fuller deck.”

In her closing argument Panozzo observes that Officer Lloyd Maxwell didn’t testify, even though he was purportedly one of the two victims of McGee’s alleged battery. She says the two officers who were at the scene who did testify were vague and inconsistent regarding who did what to Maxwell. She says it’s also unclear whether the other officer McGee allegedly injured, Cieciel, was injured by McGee, or Patton, or inadvertently during the pileup on the ground. McGee had clearly resisted arrest, she concedes, but he hadn’t been charged with that.

Andrea Grogan, the courtroom’s lead prosecutor, makes the state’s closing argument. “Everything that happens out there happens because of the horrible conduct of Maren McGee,” she says. The injuries to the officers “shouldn’t happen,” she says. “They are police officers. All the defendant had to do was walk away.”

McGee is idly stroking his goatee at the defense table as Holt begins his ruling. He says the altercation was clearly sparked by McGee’s “irrational, obnoxious conduct” and his “ludicrous” belief that police were taking his mother’s private parking space. “If we’re gonna live in this complex society, somebody got to have some sense,” he says. “And Mr. McGee exhibited little, if any.”

But the issue, Holt says, is whether the state has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that McGee committed aggravated battery against Maxwell and Cieciel. He says he finds it odd that McGee wasn’t charged with the battery of Grisby, who testified that McGee hit him, but was charged with the battery of Maxwell, who didn’t testify at all. He calls Maxwell “the person who lurks in the background.” As for Cieciel, Holt says, he “comes on the scene when McGee is substantially subdued” and “proceeds to kick him in the ribs and mace him.”

Holt concludes, “Mr. McGee was 100 percent obnoxious in his conduct. But obnoxiousness is not a crime” nor “a justification for an equally obnoxious response by police officers.” He says McGee’s irresponsibility in picking up the brick was met by the irresponsibility of Grisby in pulling his gun, adding that the officers ought to have let McGee’s mother and uncle calm McGee down. “Somebody got to have some sense,” he says. Then he acquits McGee.

“I always try to educate when I give a verdict,” Holt says in his chambers after the trial. “I tried to make it clear that Mr. McGee’s conduct was totally obnoxious and irrational. He got his uncle in jail for three months. I was giving a message for police too. This situation out there did not have to escalate the way it did. Hopefully the state will tell them what I said. The prosecutors may put their own spin on what I said, but hopefully they’ll tell them.”

He goes on: “There are a lot of confrontations between blacks and police officers, whatever the color of the police officers. What I was trying to say was, we can stop this by having some sense. Somebody got to have some sense–on both sides of the equation.” The scuffle “could have escalated all out of proportion,” he says, adding that many of Chicago’s race riots in the 1960s occurred “because both sides responded in an irresponsible way.”

Although Holt is too old to run for retention, he could be reappointed by the supreme court after his term expires. He’s not sure whether he’d like to be. He says he’s mainly looking forward to retirement. It would allow him to spend more time with his six-year-old granddaughter, Sia, whom he often drops off at kindergarten on his way to court and whom he takes ice-skating on Thursday evenings. “I would learn to skate with her, but if I fell I’d be in deep trouble,” he says. “Bones would splatter all over the place.”

He says that after he retires he’ll also speak out loud and often about the criminal justice system: “We tend to romanticize about this system, and I want people to see it for what it is.” He says it’s a system that convicts too many innocent defendants and too many people–young black males in particular–for drug offenses. “When you have more black men in prisons and jails than in colleges and universities, you know what the generation is coming to.”

Notwithstanding Malcolm X’s reformation, Holt doesn’t have much faith in prisons. “I don’t believe lengthy prison sentences do anything positive from a social point of view,” he says. He hasn’t seen much benefit from shorter prison stints either. The prison system “has a captive audience, and it doesn’t do anything with it. It’s sinful to get people who are illiterate, hold them for five years, and return them to the community still illiterate. It doesn’t make the streets safer.

“Most offenders will be coming back to the community,” he says. “In many instances they’ll be coming back to my community. They’re going to be marrying my granddaughters. If they come back in worse shape than when they went in we’re ruining our community. And you’re not going to stop it simply by talking about it. You’re going to have to do something to bring the spotlight to this problem. I’m not talking about violence. I’m talking about the kind of revolution that King proposed. I’m about as nonviolent a person as there would be. But that doesn’t mean that we should sit back and let this generation of black people go down the drain.”

Five days after the conclusion of McGee’s trial Officer Grisby still hadn’t heard the verdict. He’d called the prosecutors to find out what happened, he said, but they still hadn’t gotten back to him. When I told him what the verdict was he said, “It was the judge’s decision. I’ll just have to stand by it.” But he said he didn’t think he or the other officers had overreacted. “We were the victims,” he said.

Anita McGee said she appreciated the lecture Holt gave with his verdict. “It was like he was setting his child down and talking to him,” she said. “And he was right–everybody was acting like a fool.”

She said she was surprised her son had been treated fairly in court. Most judges, she said, “are just ready to convict everyone and send them on. So when you get a judge who’s willing to listen and give a person a fair hearing, you can’t do nothing but respect and honor him. He’s just a law-abiding judge.”

Maren McGee was released from jail shortly before midnight on the day of his acquittal. His mother drove him home. On Walnut Street they found a parking space right in front of their two-flat.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia.