Monday, 10 AM: A lawyer and a client are conferring in the first-floor hallway of the Cook County Criminal Courts building, at 26th and California. The client is a stout young black man in a Raiders jacket and a Lakers cap. His corpulent lawyer, also black, has on a finely tailored brown suit; a coordinated silk hankie swirls out of his breast pocket. In the midst of the considerable traffic of the hallway, they are discussing a key aspect of their case.
“Where the fuck’s the money?” the lawyer asks.
The client shrugs.
“C’mon–gimme the fuckin’ 120.”
“I didn’t bring it,” the client says.
“Go home with that bullshit,” the lawyer says, turning and taking a couple steps down the hallway.
“No–wait; I might got it,” the client says. The lawyer stops in his tracks. The client moves over to a wall, reaches into a pants pocket, and pulls out a clump of bills. He explores the wad a moment, then wraps a meaty hand around it, approaches his lawyer, and delivers it furtively, as if he were passing a joint.
“That better be 120 or I ain’t taking it,” the lawyer announces. Passersby study the pair but continue hustling down the hall.
“It’s 120,” the client mumbles.
The lawyer thumbs through the wad: 20, 20, 20, 20, 20. And a single.
“What the fuck is his?” he snarls.
“That’s all I got.”
The lawyer jams the money in his pants pocket and waddles off toward the snack shop. “Where’s that fat-ass going?” the client, in pursuit, mutters.
JUSTITIA is chiseled into the limestone above some sixth-floor windows of this, the biggest and busiest felony courthouse in the country: it’s Latin for “justice.” Other lofty sentiments make an appearance high on the walls: VERITAS, HONOR, and LIBERTAS.
Inside, the marble walls in many of the washrooms are covered with black marker scrawlings: AWESOME LATIN KING NATION IN YOUR FACE. Gangbangers aren’t the only ones scarring the walls: ALL GANG MEMBERS ARE FAGS WHO HIDE BEHIND THEIR BOYS screams from the sheriff-controlled passageway to the lockup behind courtroom lOO.
Rush hour on the courthouse steps begins at about 9 AM each weekday. Defendants, witnesses, lawyers, and clerks hurry into the building. They are divided by color right at the entrance: the lawyers and clerks, most of them white, flash an ID or a badge at a guard and walk right in; the defendants and witnesses, most of the. black or brown, line up at the metal detectors. A red poster taped to a marble column announces:
ITEMS NOT ALLOWED
FOOD & BEVERAGE
“Take everything out your pockets!” the guard on the other side of the metal detector berates the hesitant. The visitors pull out change, keys, pens, lighters, gum; they strip themselves of watches and rings and belts with heavy buckles. Hardly ever does anyone try to smuggle a weapon in. But a lot of summer visitors arrive in tank tops or shorts and are turned away. You can get into the august courtrooms of the Dirksen Federal Building downtown in a tank top or shorts, but bare skin poses too great a threat to decorum at 26th Street.
After passing through the metal detectors, visitors had best not tarry; a guard bellows “No standing in the lobby!” when anyone so much as pauses.
Some me of the visitors turn to the left–they have a probation officer or a states attorney or a public defender to meet with in the 15-story administration building, erected in 1978. But most turn to the right, and head into the 63-year-old, 7-story courthouse.
Around a corner, many stop at a huge bulletin board, beneath the sign Court Calls–Criminal Division. Tacked to the board are three long rows of computer printouts: 48 pages, 22 cases per page; more than 1,000 cases on today’s calendar for courtrooms. There are also four branch courts in the building in which preliminary hearings are held and bond set in 400 cases a day. That’s a total of more than 1,400 alleged deeds “against the peace and dignity of the People of the State of Illinois,” as the formal charges put it, that judges and lawyers here will deal with today.
The cases on the bulletin board are listed alphabetically by defendants’ last names; this Monday they start at Abney and end with Zarco. Cases against defendants named Johnson begin on page 20 and end on page 22. Listed also are the courtroom and judge the case is assigned to, and the major charge.
Nearly half the cases are drug cases: “PCS W/INT”–possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver; “DCS”–delivery of a controlled substance; “MAN/DEL CONT SUB”–manufacture or delivery of a controlled substance. You can see from the printouts how hazardous drug-decriminalization would be, at least to the livelihoods of lawyers and judges.
Another quarter of the cases involve allegations of Thou Shalt Not Steal transgressions: 71 burglaries (taking something after an unauthorized entry) and 22 possesions of burglary tools; 58 robberies (taking something from a person by force or by the threat of force)–37 of them armed; 30 thefts (taking something from a person through deception); 14 retail thefts (shoplifting); 35 receiving, possessing, or selling of stolen motor vehicles; 14 revenue violations; 13 forgeries; 7 state benefits frauds; 1 deceptive practice; 1 home-repair fraud.
Weapons violations–unlawful use of a weapon, aggravated discharge of a firearm, armed violence–are the next big category, with 103 of these cases scheduled for court today. Only 12 defendants have criminal sexual assault or aggravated criminal sexual abuse listed for their major charge, but many of the 61 unlawful restraint cases are also rape cases. There are 53 aggravated batteries and 6 aggravated assaults on today’s docket. And 20 murders.
Becky Greene (her name and the names of other defendants and their families have been changed), scheduled to appear in courtroom 302, is the only defendant on the docket sheet today charged with “bringing contraband into a penal institution.” In February, she brought a pair of gym shoes to a prisoner in Cook County jail (located right behind the courthouse). Guards allegedly found three small bags of heroin–0.07 grams–in the shoes, and a bag of marijuana in her purse. It’s a Class 1 felony; she faces 4 to 15 years.
Steve Dunbar will appear in courtroom 604 this morning, one of three people on today’s calendar charged with “escape.” Dunbar, who had murder and armed robbery charges pending against him, escaped from County jail in May of 1990. (He and hundreds of other prisoners were sleeping on mattresses in rec rooms in the overflowing jail instead of in locked cells. He apparently pried open a malfunctioning door, then crawled over the wire above a gate without the watchtower guards noticing.) He was caught a month later. Escape is a Class 2 felony; he could get three to seven years for it (trying to smuggle 0.07 grams of heroin into the jail being, in the eyes of state law, a greater threat to the peace and dignity of the People of the State of Illinois than a murder defendant escaping from the jail).
Horace Trask and Mario Turpin are due in courtroom 302 this morning, two of the five people on the docket sheet charged with “communicating with a juror or witness.” One September morning last year, they allegedly warned a witness at a southside branch court that they’d kill him, and his in mother, too, if he testified against a friend of theirs. The witness told police. Communicating with a juror or witness is a Class 4 felony, punishable by one to three years in prison; but Trask and Turpin are also charged with intimidation, a Class 3 felony that could get them two to five.
A little farther down the hallway, in the old building’s stately main lobby, with its marble columns and pilasters, the visitors catch the elevators up to the courtrooms. The large, open, Perry Mason-style courtrooms, trimmed in darkened oak, are on floors four through seven. On two and three are the sterile, cramped courtrooms that were added in 1978 when the administrative offices were moved into the new south wing.
When the old building opened, on April 1, 1929, one judge dubbed it “Chicago’s worst April Fools’ joke.” Judges complained that on their high perches in the courtrooms they were too far from the action. A ventilating fan had been built into the wall behind and above the judge’s bench; when the fan was whirring, the judge couldn’t hear what was going on in his courtroom, and when it was off he heard the lawyers and witnesses in the courtroom above. “It looks like the men who designed this place meant to keep the judges fair and impartial by preventing them from hearing,” a bailiff told a reporter the day the courthouse opened.
Workers fixed the kinks. But the chief complaint about the courthouse–its location–has persisted since opening day. The courthouse was built because the old one, at Illinois and Dearborn, was too small to keep up with rising crime. It’s not clear why the County Board chose the isolated and inconvenient southwest-side site; some have suggested it was solely because County Board president Anton Cermak owned the land. Local legal groups have tried for decades to get the criminal courts moved back downtown, saying the inconvenience of the present site makes jurors reluctant to serve and lawyers unwilling to combine criminal and civil work. When Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Public Building Commission decided to erect a downtown civic center in 1960, many saw it as a golden opportunity to move the criminal courts downtown; but the commission decided, in keeping with Daley’s wishes, that only civil courts would get space in the building named the Daley Center. Daley said the southwest expressway that was under construction would enable anyone to get to the criminal courts from the Loop in ten minutes. But when the Stevenson Expressway opened, there was no westbound exit at California.
Felony courthouses are tucked in distant neighborhoods or desolate areas on the downtown fringe in many large cities–the better to hide their clientele. Most middle-class Chicagoans have never been inside the courthouse at 26th Street–probably couldn’t even tell you where exactly it is. A lot of the city’s poor minorities, on the other hand, can tell you where the building’s pay phones and Coke machines are. They’ve been here repeatedly as a defendant or a victim, as a witness or in support of a relative or friend on trial. For them this is a pivotal building, like Cook County Hospital; a place where loved ones are lost, where mothers last touch their sons and children wave good-bye to fathers, with a judge instead of a doctor delivering the dreaded news.
Every day, almost every minute here, judges make decisions (innocent or guilty? probation or prison? three years or seven?) that dramatically alter the lives of those before them, decisions whose impact reverberates through families and sometimes across decades. Yet the news media treat the place as an irrelevancy, reporting only on trials involving unusually heinous slayings, or ones with white victims. The media prefer trials of “Mafia kingpins” in the more modern, more convenient Dirksen building, where everybody wears suits and dresses and there are doors on the stalls in the washrooms.
High fashion here is a sports jacket, especially one in gangbanging black: at 26th Street, there’s no shortage of fans of the Raiders, the White Sox, the San Antonio Spurs, the Charlotte Hornets, the Georgetown Hoyas, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the yet-to-play Colorado Rockies.
There are no benches in the hallways, and on each floor a wall features a framed reproduction of rule 0.5 of the Circuit Court of Cook County, prohibiting lawyers from soliciting business and anyone from loitering in the corridors. People gather anyway in the high-ceilinged halls, and deputies only occasionally shoo them along. During and before court starts, lawyers confer with witnesses, groggy cops and defendants huddle (though never with each other), yawn, and smoke.
This morning, a man in a Pittsburgh Pirates jacket is counseling a man in a New Orleans Saints jacket in the fourth-floor hallway. New Orleans is trying to decide whether to accept an offer from the state: three years, for his guilty plea. New Orleans’s public defender just told him of the offer. If New Orleans goes to trial and is convicted, he could get five years. He isn’t pleased with the offer.
“That’s why you should have come up with the cash for a real lawyer,” Pittsburgh says between drags on his Salem. “Now understand–you don’t know what this public defender is doing. You don’t know if he maybe is helping the state’s attorney clear his books. That’s all they do is scratch each other’s backs. Ain’t nothin’ but paperwork to them is all it is. Now a real attorney won’t be helping the state’s attorney clear his books. Any attorney you’re paying money to could’ve gotten it down to two years.”
“Fuck it, I’m going to trial,” New Orleans says.
Pittsburgh looks shock shocked. “Don’t do that. I’ve been in front of this mother-fucking judge over here. He’ll give you five. Take the three.”
At the other end of the hall, four broad-shouldered white men, all wearing guns on their waists, are yakking. The one in the Notre Dame jacket says, “And so my guy goes, ‘Yo Hannah–ah been in jail three yea’ now–do tha’ coun’ as tahm suhved on mah lahf sen’ce?'” Their belly laughs resound through the hall.
Roam these hallways and courtrooms for just a week, as I did this July, and you’ll see lots of drama, the comic, the tragic. If it’s unvarnished “truth” you’re after, though, try some other building. Cops don’t mind lying to make their case, the defendants and their families will tell you, while the defendants always lie to save their ass, according to the cops. In courtroom after courtroom, you hear each side vehemently, and often convincingly, tell stories under oath that are diametrically opposed; you start wondering what’s the Latin word for bullshit. You also see how complicated, elusive, and discretionary “justice” really is, that it’s easier to carve into limestone than to put into practice.
Monday, 11:30 AM, What really happened in Peter Shagari’s cab, on 35th Street, in the predawn hours of July 13, 1989? That’s what Judge Michael Getty has to decide this morning in courtroom 604.
Shagari, 33, a burly black man in a red plaid shirt, is on the witness stand, telling Getty that the defendant, Darryl Love, pulled a gun on him in the cab. Shagari had picked up Love at 54th and State and had driven him to 35th and Wells, where they began arguing over the $5 fare. Shagari, who grew up in Nigeria and speaks English with a British accent, tells Getty that when he turned to face Love, he found himself staring at a gun. “I said to myself, ‘Oh, you were going to stick me up,'” Shagari testifies.
The cabbie says he managed to yank the gun away from Love. Then he drove to the police station at 35th and Lowe, where he flagged down a squad car. During the drive down 35th, Love tried to open the back door to flee, but the cabbie kept a finger on the master power door lock, Shagari testifies. “He said I should let him go and give him $ 10, that was all he needed. I looked at him and I said, ‘Ten dollars–you have a fare you haven’t even paid.'”
The gun was a four-inch blue steel Smith & Wesson .38 revolver, with one bullet in it, a police officer who follows Shagari to the stand tells Getty. It was unregistered.
Love, 37, who has previous convictions for armed violence and attempted armed robbery, is charged with unlawful use of a weapon (UUW) by a felon. The case might be news in a small town or a wealthy suburb; at 26th Street, it’s one of 85 UUW cases on today’s calendar.
A scrawny man, Love is wearing an Atlanta Bra Braves jacket and sneakers. In a raspy voice, he tells Getty that while he was discussing the fare with Shagari, his hand came to rest on something protruding from the crevice where the back of the seat meets the seat itself. He looked down, he testifies, and what did he find but a gun!
He grasped it gingerly by the barrel, he tells Getty, and handed it carefully to Shagari.
“At this time, what did the cab driver do?” Love’s public defender asks.
“He got excited,” Love says.
“And did he say anything?”
“Yeah, he said some things–but I couldn’t understand him. It sounded like it was English mixed with another language at the same time….It was loud and agitated.”
“Did he physically take the gun from you or did you hand it to him?” the PD asks.
Love frowns, shakes his head vigorously back and forth, and disdainfully says, “I handed it to him.”
“At any time did you indicate to him that you were going to rob him?”
“No,” Love almost shouts. “Ridiculous.”
In his closing argument, Love’s lawyer says he thinks “this cab driver panicked. He misunderstood what the gun was all about.”
But when it’s time for Getty to rule, he doesn’t hesitate. “I believe the cab driver, I don’t believe the defendant. Finding of guilty.”
The case to took three years to come to trial because Love repeatedly failed to appear for his court dates after posting bond in 1989. Police didn’t rearrest him until February The trial took an hour.
Judges usually sentence at a special hearing two or three weeks after trial. But Love asks Getty to sentence him immediately, and the judge gives him three and a half years. He pleads guilty to violating bail bond and gets a year more for that.
For Love, it’s just another dark day in a life that’s been filled with them. When he was interviewed by a probation officer in March, on a request by judge Getty, he described himself as a “functional alcoholic.”
He allowed that he sometimes gets violent under the influence, but said he had never received treatment for his drinking problem. He said he smoked about a joint a day, but did not feel he had a drug addiction. His parents separated when he was very young, he told the probation officer, and both of his stepfathers were alcoholics who beat his mother regularly. One of them beat the kids as well, himself included, Love said; that stepfather eventually was murdered in the streets. Love “has very few nonviolent memories of his childhood and adolescence,” the probation officer noted. Love said he suffered from high blood pressure, bronchitis, asthma, and tuberculosis, and had been hospitalized for broken arms, a broken hand, numerous gunshots sustained from accidents and fights, and one stabbing. He said he relied on a supply of antidepressants to combat chronic depression. When the probation officer asked him if he had ever attempted suicide, “He smiled, tilted his head back, paused, turned quickly to me and said, ‘No–no–write “no,”‘” the officer reported. Love “generally appeared very emotionally unstable,” the proprobation officer said.
Shagari tells me later he is pleased with the sentence Getty imposed on Low. He was growing irritated with how long it was taking to get the case to trial. “I was going to court continuously, taking off from work, but he [Love] was never showing up. I was like like, ‘What am I coming down here for? I didn’t commit the crime.'” The cabbie was glad that justice had finely been served. “Maybe he [Love] will learn from this. When criminals have to go to jail, it makes them think twice before they do these things.”
Monday, 3:40 PM: The doors to most of the courtrooms are dead-bolted, with janitors instead of judges presiding within. The hallways are quiet now too, the flattened cigarette butts on the black-and-white tile the only trace of those who filled the halls this morning.
Felicia Shaw stands alone at the west end of the sixth-floor halfway, staring out a narrow window. Through the wired diamonds in the grimy glass, the principal view is of County jail’s Division One, the squat building that houses the county’s accused murderers and rapists. From the window you can also see the jail’s watchtowers, 20-foot walls, and fences topped with spiraling razor wire, and, beyond, the smokestacks and water towers of the southwest side.
A jury in courtroom 602 has just retired to decide the fate of Shaw’s 22-year-old nephew, Larry W., who is charged with armed robbery and possession of a stolen motor vehicle. A group of young men, one of them wielding a baseball bat, commandeered a car from its owner in the parking lot of a south-side White Castle restaurant two summers ago. The victim picked Larry out of a lineup as one of the men, and Larry signed a statement admitting his participation. Larry’s lawyer told the jury today that Larry signed the confession under duress and that the victim’s identification was mistaken.
Larry is luckier than some; many defendants don’t have anybody show up to offer moral support when they’re on trial. Shaw spoke with Larry in the jail last weekend. He was hoping his mother–Shaw’s sister–would be here today. “I had told him, ‘If your mother don’t be there, I’ll be there,” Shaw says now in the hallway. “Somebody have to be here. I just don’t know why my sister didn’t come. I told her he wanted her to. As soon as he came into the courtroom he asked me where was his mother.”
She shakes her head. “A mother got to be more involved than that with her son. Because when they ain’t, those boys get to doing things they ain’t got no business doing.”
Shaw, 37, isn’t blaming her sister entirely for Larry’s problems with the law, she tells me; she knows how hard it is to raise boys in Chicago today. Her 15-year-old daughter “ain’t even missed a day of school,” while her 20-year-old son sits in a penitentiary, doing time for armed robbery and home invasion. “He went into some Mexican’s house and took some money and some ready rocks [cocaine]. I didn’t even know he did any dope. He never did none around me. I tried to watch him, but you can’t watch ’em all the time. I can’t walk around holding his hand. You got to let ’em have their freedom. But when you let a kid have too much freedom, that’s when they go off in the wrong direction.” She sighs, “Then you have to be sitting down here in these courtrooms listening to a lot of unnecessary stuff.”
A man in a navy shirt, with a COOK COUNTY CUSTODIAL patch his sleeve, strolls up and peeks between on Oak doors into courtroom 602. “Jury out?” he asks us.
I nod. He frowns. “I gotta wait then,” he says. He can’t clean up the bullpen (the lockup behind the courtroom) while Larry is in it.
The custodian, Ray Rake, a white, 38-year-old Evergreen Park resident, peels back the foil from the sandwich he’s carrying and takes a bite. He listens as Shaw grouses on to me about her sister’s no-show today.
“You his [the defendants] aunt?” Rake asks her.
“You the only one from the family here?”
She nods again.
Rake shakes his head. “My nephew was on trial down here a few years ago. He has 14 aunts and uncles, and 13 out of the 14 didn’t make it down here.” Rake was one of the 13 who didnt attend the trial, and he regrets it. Now that he works here, he sees how much it means to defendants to have loved ones on hand, he tells me later.
“What was he on trial for?” I ask him.
“He bombed a black person’s house,” Rake says casually. “On 84th Street. It was in all the papers.”
Shaw, who is black and wearing a dark leather hat with the continent of Africa depicted in red, yellow, and green on the front, is quiet and expressionless. “Your nephew hates blacks?” I ask Rake.
“Naw,” Rake says with a wave of his sandwich. “They were drunk. It was the two guys he was with really did it. They turned state’s evidence on him and the charges were dropped against them.”
Shaw tells us her son fathered a child who wasn’t born until after he was in prison. He’s only seen the child once, during a prison visit. “That’s the real shame of it,” she says.
“The same thing with my nephew,” Rake says. “His wife was pregnant when he went to trial, but the kid was born after he was in prison. He’s never even held the kid.”
Rake has worked here two years. He doesn’t miss a chance to visit with the people in the hallways. “A lot of the people who come here are real upset,” he tells me later. “I think we should make people feel at ease–lighten it up for them. These people don’t need anybody else judging them or their kids. I’ve had women come up to me crying, ‘My baby just got found guilty.’ I say, ‘He’ll be OK.’ You just try to be nice. Then they feel like they got a friend for a half hour or an hour.”
Monday, 5 PM: Public defenders are masters at finding silver linings. They get enough practice searching for them: 85 percent of the defendants at 26th Street are represented by PDs, and defendants here are convicted nine times out of ten.
Right now, four women and a boy of about 12 are gathered around a PD in the second-floor hallway. The PD’s client was just sentenced to life in prison for a murder. Had he been sentenced to death, the defendant would have had to take his appeal directly to the Illinois Supreme Court, where victory was unlikely, the PD is telling the group; but since he was given natural life he can appeal first to the appellate court, where “we have a very good chance,” the PD says. It will be two or three years before the appellate court rules on an appeal, he explains.
The lawyer turns to the boy. “What you have to learn from watching this is the you can’t do what everyone else is doing just because they’re doing it,” he tells the youngster. “Sometimes you just have to say, ‘No, I’m not going to do that’–even if it sounds corny. The other thing I hope you learn is the if you ever do get arrested–don’t talk to the police. Don’t tell them anything. Like the detective in this case here–did he look like the brightest guy in the world? He don’t want to be out there looking for clues. Policemen are lazy. Don’t ever talk to them. Tell them you want to talk to your lawyer, and that’s all. It’s hard. But it’s better than spending your life in prison.”
Monday, 5:30 PM: The jury just returned with its verdict on her nephew, Shaw tells me near the sixth-floor elevators. Guilty. “I had a feeling,” she says with a shrug.
Rake the custodian happens by before the elevator arrives. He asks Shaw what happened.
“Guilty,” she says.
Rake is quiet a moment–searching, like a PD, for the silver lining. “Well–at least you’ll know where he’ll be the next couple years,” he tells Shaw.
Monday, 5:40 PM: I’m riding an elevator down from the sixth floor. At the third floor, a man tows a stout boy of about 11 aboard, “Let me go!” the boy is hollering. “Let me go!”
The man has his arms wrapped around the boy, whose eyes are as red as his Michael Jordan T-shirt. The boy screws up his face and clenches his fists and tenses his arms, but the man keeps him in check. The pair are accompanied by a woman balancing a baby on her hip, another boy of about nine, and a bearded man in a suit. The stout boy continues hollering and struggling on the first floor, as the man restraining him moves him down the hallway toward the main lobby.
The deputies at the entrance eye the group warily but don’t interfere. As soon as they make it outside, the man lets go of the boy. The youngster bolts forward a dozen feet, then slows to a walk, undoing his belt, yanking it off, and hanging it around his neck, then marching away from the building, ahead of the others, muttering to himself.
The boy’s father, Jeffrey Binnington, was just sentenced to four years in prison, the bearded man–defense attorney Barry Spector–tells me a few minutes later. Binnington–Spector’s client–had been convicted a month ago of possession of cocaine with intent to deliver. A prison term was mandated with his conviction, so there was no question Binnington would be sent away today–even though he is 58 and had no previous record. But the reality hadn’t sunk in for the boy until the deputies led his father away. Then the boy “started hyperventilating, and ran out of the courtroom,” Spector says. “We caught him down the hallway.”
Spector had seen this coming; he had advised the boy’s mother to keep him home today. He always worries more about the family’s reaction at sentencing than the defendant’s. “It’s always the family that takes it the worst,” he says. “You see it especially when the defendant is a kid. The family can’t believe he could have done anything wrong; so they see the sentence as an unjust thing. They’ll be gasping in the back, while the kid’s just standing there–because he knows he deserves it. ”
Tuesday, 9:30 AM: Defendants–the ones free on bond–are hurrying to courtrooms throughout the building at 26th Street. They were instructed at their last court appearance to be here at 9:30 sharp, and they know it’s not in their best interests to irritate their judge. Most of them will have to wait awhile on the oak benches in the spectators’ galleries; judges don’t need to be punctual, and few of them are.
Relatives and friends of jailed defendants with court dates today are also filing into the courtrooms now. Many awoke early and took a train a and a bus or two to get here. For their efforts, they’re likely to see their loved one stand before the bench for a a minute or two, in his tan jail uniform, before his case is once again continued and he is ushered back to the courtroom bullpen.
A few of the people on the benches doze, most gaze around the courtroom silently, some chat softly, young mothers shush babies; it’s like Sunday morning in church, with the parishioners waiting for the reverend to get things started. Every so often the oak doors a the back wing open and a white man or woman in a pressed suit enters, toting a leather satchel up the aisle past the benches to the carpeted front half of the courtroom. The lawyers greet each other with smiles and small talk; those on the benches can easily sense that the prosecutors and defense attorneys have more it common with each other than with anyone in the gallery.
At 10:05, a young black woman with a baby in her lap stops a man in a suit as he walks up the aisle in courtroom 404. “Excuse me–when does court start?” she asks.
“Well, the court call is for 9:30,” the man says. “But it starts when the judge comes out. Whenever he’s ready, it starts.”
In most courtrooms here, that’s between 10 and 10:30. “All rise,” a sheriff’s deputy will boom. “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye, the Circuit Court of Cook County is now in session, the Honorable [whoever] presiding. Be seated. No talking.”
The clerk will then call a name, the first defendant will appear before the bench, and the lawyers will turn their backs on those in the gallery and go to work, conversing with the judge in jargon that, for the spectators, is often impenetrable even when it is audible.
Sometimes it’s obvious, from the perplexed look on the defendants face as he leaves the bench, that he himself isn’t sure what just went on. Judges have huge case loads, and watchdog groups monitoring their disposition rates; they tend to be evaluated not on how well they dispense justice but on how quickly. Treating a defendant courteously is more than some judges have time for.
But there are also judges who, despite the mind-numbing daily procession of pathetic and sickening stories before them, manage to retain their sense of humor and their ability to respect everyone in their courtrooms, not just the lawyers.
“Sheet five–Henry Rowe and Delmar Davis,” the clerk in courtroom 500 calls at 10:30 this morning.
The two defendants, charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, are led into the courtroom from the bullpen by a deputy. A defense attorney steps up next to Rowe.
“Mr. Davis, what are you doing about getting a lawyer?” Judge Thomas Durkin asks.
“I want to apply for a state’s attorney,” Davis mumbles.
Durkin, who has a ruddy round face and a deeply lined forehead, smiles benevolently. “Well, the states attorney will just ask you to plead guilty. You mean a public defender.”
“Public defender,” Davis says.
“State’s attorney will be happy to talk to you,” Durkin says, “but I don’t think you want that.” He asks Davis if he can afford an attorney; Davis says no; Durkin appoints the PD’s office. The case is continued to August 4. “Have a good day,” Durkin tells the defendants as they are ushered back toward the lockup.
“Sheet two, Raymond Wainwright and Emory Frost,” the clerk says.
Two more young black men are ushered out of the bullpen. They’re charged with armed robbery. The state is not ready for trial, and so Durkin continues the case until August 20.
Durkin realizes two witnesses for the defendant had been subpoenaed to testify today. He asks them to step forward from the gallery. A pregnant woman and a young man timidly approach the bench.
“I realize you have been inconvenienced, but obviously you are going to be inconvenienced again,” Durkin tells them. “You want to be here anyway to help them [the defendants] out. Your subpoenas are continued in full force and effect. The [defense] attorneys are answering ready and demanding trial. So each day comes closer to a point where the charges have to be either tried or dismissed. So you don’t have to come here forever.”
He asks the witnesses if they understand; they say they do.
The pregnant woman whispers something to the deputy, who then informs Durkin that she is due to have her baby August 25. Durkin studies her and smiles broadly “What a great opportunity, to participate in the workings of the criminal justice system right before the birth of your child,” he says. “Perhaps from the excitement of this, you’ll be able to rush right from here to the hospital.” The woman looks at the floor and chuckles, and laughter ripples through the gallery.
“Obviously, I don’t expect you to have a baby and come to court the same day,” Durkin says. “If something happens, contact the attorney who subpoenaed you. Congratulations, and good luck.”
“Thank you,” the woman says.
“Sheet three, Sheila Parham.”
Parham is charged with forgery–but she’s not in court today. A heavyset woman steps forward from the gallery and tells Durkin in a shaky voice that she is Parham’s sister. Her sister’s son was s hot a few days ago, she says, and that’s why Parham ham couldn’t make it today. “She’s at Cook County [Hospital] trauma ward 3212,” she says.
“She’s there or her son is there?” Durkin asks.
“Her and her son.”
“Well–that’s a pretty good reason,” Durkin says. “That’s where she should be. All right ma’am, tell her I hope everything is all right with her son. Her next court date will be July 21. And give her our best wishes for her son.”
Tuesday, 11 AM: The cabbie who testified before Judge Getty yesterday is back in court today–this time, as a defendant.
Peter Shagari is charged with possession of marijuana. On February 14, at about 1 AM, a squad car curbed Shagari’s cab on West Marquette Road–because Shagari was weaving through traffic, according to the police report. The report says that Shagari got out of his car “in an erratic and agitated manner” and refused to produce a driver’s license; that when an officer tried to search him for weapons, Shagari “became violent, repeatedly knocking R/O’s [the responding officer’s] hands away and wrestling with R/O”; and that after Shagari was subdued and placed under arrest, the officer and his partner searched his cab and found a paper bag with 98 grams of marijuana in it.
Shagari hired a prime attorney and pleaded not guilty to the charge. He tells me he was curbed a after he drove around two cars that were sitting at a green light, the drivers engaged in conversation. When he was pulled over, he got out of the cab to explain to the officer his traffic maneuver, but the officer wouldn’t listen, he says. Without provocation, according to Shagari, the officer pushed Shagari against his cab, kicked him, and hit him with his nightstick. The bag of grass that the officer found under the driver’s seat probably belonged to the fare Shagari had in the backseat when he was stopped, the cabbie says.
Shagari was locked up at the police station at 61st and Racine. At about six that evening, he was taken with other prisoners by paddy wagon to 26th Street. He was placed in a holding cell in in the courthouse’s basement until it was time for his preliminary hearing. The judge set bond at $10,000; but since he had no criminal record, jail authorities released him on an “I-bond”–an individual recognizance bond, which does not require the posting of any money. A cousin came down and picked him up some time after midnight. For Shagari, who says he had never been jailed before, being locked up “was the saddest moment of my entire life.”
This morning, when Shagari appears before judge John Crilly, his case is continued until August 6.
Shagari says he was furious at first about what the cop did to him, and determined to prove his innocence. Now, he is considering taking the state’s offer of a year’s probation, in exchange for a guilty plea. Judge Getty yesterday took his word over that of an alcoholic ex-con welfare recipient, who told a dubious tale. Shagari wasn’t as sure that a judge would believe him over a cop.
“And I want to get on with my life,” he says. “I’m tired of coming down to this place.”
Tuesday, noon: “Judge, I intend to file a full panoply of motions,” a defense attorney is telling judge Michael Bolan, in courtroom 306.
“Panoply,” Bolan says looking up from the papers in front of him. “That’s a big word. Nobody walks down the street saying panoply.”
An old, slight black man is sitting on the rear gallery bench, nervously turning a cap in his hands. His peaked bald head shines under the fluorescent lights. He has on blue jeans and black work shoes, and despite the courtroom’s stuffiness a flannel shirt over another shirt. Bolan continues the panoply case and two others in short order. Then he says he is ready to hear closing arguments in the trial of Ernest Drake, charged with armed violence, aggravated battery, and UUW. An attorney beckons the old man into the courtroom, and he takes his seat at the defense table.
It’s a bench trial. The prosecutor pulls two guns out of a zip-lock bag, clunks them down onto the podium in front of him, and summarizes the state’s case against Drake, 75, for the judge.
One hot evening last August, some neighborhood kids were having a water-balloon fight down the block from Drake’s home, near Perry and 55th. The frame building has been Drakes home since he was ten, and he maintains it with pride. Drake was sitting on the front porch with his 98-year-old father and his 11-year-old granddaughter. A 16-year-old boy named Leon came by with his brother Peter, 11 (their names an changed here), and two other boys. The boys threw two or three water balloons at Drake’s granddaughter. The balloons missed her, but they burst on the porch.
Drake went inside, came out with a .38 caliber gun, loaded it, and started firing at the fleeing boys, the prosecutor reminds Bolan. One bullet hit Leon in the right arm, breaking the arm. Despite surgery, he can’t move the arm as much as he used to; he needs another operation. The gun–the lawyer lifts the .38 off the podium–was found under a bathtub in Drake’s house. Then he holds up the other gun–a .357 Magnum; it was found under a couch in the defendant’s home, the prosecutor says.
Mr. Drake told you he was going to show the boys what all the other gangbangers in the neighborhood know already–not to mess with him,” the prosecutor says. “Mr. Drake compares children with water balloons to home invaders. But the kids were just children having a water-balloon fight.
“Judge, this was not self-defense. This was not defense of others. This was a man who used a disproportionate amount of force. The only difference between these charges and murder is where the bullets landed. And Your Honor–next time this might not end like this.”
Drake only wanted to scare the kids, his defense attorney tells the judge. The armed violence and aggravated battery charges require a finding that the defendant intended to cause great bodily harm, he says. But Drake “was standing close to the kids. If he wanted to shoot them he could have started picking them off right then. But he didn’t. He waited until they were about 30 feet away.” If he had really intended to hurt the kids he would have kept on firing, the lawyer says; but he only shot twice.
This is the kind of case that torments a judge. Drake’s guilt is plain. The victim, Leon, is in the gallery, along with his mother and brothers. They want Drake punished. ( “Like they say, ‘If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime,” Leon’s mother has told me.)
But what judge wants to send a 75-year-old man to the pen?
Bolan, a beleaguered expression on his face and his head in his hands, starts by calling the case “a sad state of events. Mr. Drake lived in this neighborhood a long time, and things have changed–not from these kids, but from other kids. Other kids have in moved into the neighborhood…and they’re tough on the old-timers. He [Drake] says the older people can’t sit on the front porches anymore because the gangs roll up on them. That means the gangs beat them up and take their money, and they rob them and kill the older people. That’s true. We know that.
“Mr. Drake is a retired gentleman,” Bolan say says. He has worked hard all his life. This is his family home for two generations. The two generations are sitting on the porch. It’s the most well kept home imaginable, neat as a pin. This is his land. The man wants to live in peace on his own land.
“If we didnt have any handguns lying around in Chicago, stuff like this wouldn’t happen,” Bolan says. “That’s the real bummer of it. Older people would yell at the kids or something like that.”
He turns and looks right at Drake, who is expressionless in his seat at the defense table. “I’m going to say to Ernest–look, I appreciate you’re an older man. I appreciate all you’ve done. You’re a guy who provides a home for himself and his family. You’re a hard-working guy–there’s no question about that. I also understand what older people go through. I represented a client years ago very similar to you. Unfortunately, he killed a person doing the exact same thing….Henry Hemingway even looked a lot like you. [One day in 1974, Hemingway, who was in his 70s, was sitting on the porch of his south-side home when a neighborhood tough came by and shoved his wife into a picket fence near the porch. Hemingway brought the bully down with a shotgun. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and was sentenced to a year in jail and five years’ probation.]
“But…there’s no excuse for it,” Bolan continues. “You don’t go off the porch with a gun. You know better. You really do know better. The young man damn near got killed….A guy lives a great life for 74 years, and then we’re here in a criminal court. You didn’t expect to see yourself in this court, given the kind of life you’ve led. But you did fire the gun. You did hit the young man. You took the law into your own hands. And I’ll have to have a sentencing hearing on that.”
He finds Drake guilty of aggravated battery and UUW, but he acquits him of the armed violence charge. Prison is not mandated for aggravated battery and UUW, as it is for armed violence; so Bolan can let Drake off with probation when he sentences him next month.
(Drake worked 10 years as a clerk and 23 as a factory foreman before he retired. But his “great life” also included three years in prison in the 60s for burglary and a year of probation in ’71 for discharging a firearm. He was arrested two other times for burglary, and once for murder, but those charges were dropped.)
“I’m very, very impressed with those young men who testified,” Bolan adds after announcing his verdict. “I’m very impressed with their truthfulness, their sweetness, their decency.
“I commend their mother for being supportive of them. She has brought the young men to the court, and her whole family, and they’re seeking justice under the law.”
He peers into the gallery, and spots Leon’s mother. “I commend you for being a fine mother,” he says, “and you have fine children.”
He asks Leon’s brother Peter to step forward. Peter is wearing a White Sox T-shirt and White Sox shorts. (The guards downstairs refused to let him into the building this morning became of the shorts, until the prosecutor intervened.) He approaches the bench meekly. “You were a wonderful witness, Peter,” Bolan tells him. “I want to commend you for coming to court. You’re a seventh-grader?”
“I’m very proud of you coming to court and testifying, and being an honest good citizen,” the judge says. “Good for you, and same with your brother Leon.”
Leon’s mother leaves the courtroom with a mixture of emotions. She’s disappointed that Drake probably will not do time, she will tell me later; but she’s glowing inside over the judges effusive praise of her and her kids.
It’s not a feeling she’s allowed to savor. When she steps out of the courtroom into the hallway, a deputy is waiting for her. He holds up one hand; pinched between his thumb and forefinger is a silver ring. “Ma’am–one of your kids took this ring when you were coming in downstairs,” he tells her.
A man who had entered the building behind them had put the ring on a table before he went through the metal detector. After he walked through, the ring was gone. The guards had suspected Leon, Peter, and a third brother. They followed them up to Bolan’s courtroom and found the ring sitting on the end of a gallery bench there. Whichever boy took it must have ditched the ring when he realized the guards were onto him, the guard is telling the boys’ mother. “We’re not going to do any more about it,” he says. “I’ll let you handle it.” Leon’s mother thanks him calmly.
Leon starts protesting his innocence as soon as the guard has departed. “Mama, I ain’t take no–”
“Leon, shut up,” his mother tells him.
“But Mama, I ain’t–”
“Leon, I said shut up. If I say it again, I’m gonna smack your face. Now he’s not gonna stand up there and tell no lie. That don’t make no sense.”
Leon’s brothers likewise plead innocent.
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” their mother says. “When we get home, I’m beating all three of y’all’s ass. Then I’ll know I got the right one.” She shakes her head. “That judge just gave y’all all kinds of compliments, and not two seconds later I find out you stole this ring, And now I’m standing here like a fool.”
Leon angrily protests one more time.
“Leon,” his mother responds, “I keep telling you–you keep talking smart to me? I will go to the penitentiary–because I will kill you. Don’t look at my shoes, Leon–I am not down there–I am up here. Look at me. You will not disrespect me. You not gonna run me. I’m your mother, you are not my father.”
Wednesday, 12.15 PM: A half-dozen friends and relatives of defendant Harris Jones are gathered in the hallway outside courtroom 600 during a recess. Jones, 26, is being tried for a triple murder that occurred in Stateway Gardens, a south-side housing project, in September 1990.
According to the state, Jones wanted his girlfriend to go out with him one night to get some money for cocaine. She didn’t want to go, because her two children–ages three and a half and two–were sleeping. He woke them up, and they went out. Later that evening, Jones and his girlfriend argued; the girlfriend told Jones he was disrespecting her family. So he stabbed her nine times. Then he filled a bathtub with water and held the kids under. If convicted, Jones could be sentenced to death.
Before the recess, Jones’s supporters listened and watched as a medical examiner, using diagrams and a pointer, detailed the injuries the three victims had suffered.
Jones’s sister, a small woman in a black dress, looks calm in the hallway; and then the next moment she is sobbing and wailing. A large woman next to her grabs her by the shoulders. “Praise God!” the woman booms. “Trust in the Lord! Trust in the Lord! All God’s children who believe in Jesus shall march to victory! March to victory!” Jones’s sister shivers in the womans grasp and quits crying. She breathes deeply. The calm returns.
Then another member of the group–a woman in a red dress who had been silent and composed–starts screaming, painfully, as if she had just been wounded, and crashes to the tile floor. The women around her reach down, touch her arms, shout “Praise God! Praise God!” But the screams persist, echoing up and down the hall. Deputies hustle out of 600 and the courtroom across the hall, 606.
And then her screams stop. The deputies stay on the perimeter of the group, poised for action but patient. The woman’s rapid breathing slows. Her companions help her to her feet. A deputy steps to the center of the circle. “Listen to me now. Listen,” she says sternly. “I don’t want to have to ask you to leave the building.” Her voice softens. “You’re gonna have to keep it down, You got a long my to go.”
The deputies return to their courtrooms. The woman in the red dress smiles ruefully, wipes her eyes with a tissue, and laughs lightly. “All that emotion,” another woman tells her. “Sometimes you just gotta let it go.” The woman in red nods.
Wednesday, 2 PM: Judge Thomas Dwyer may not be looking forward to the next couple of days.
A jury trial is about to begin in his courtroom, 301, this afternoon. It’s no banner-headline case: the defendant is charged with possession of a stolen motor vehicle. What promises to be a headache for Dwyer is the defendant’s attorney–R. Eugene Pincham.
When he walks through the hallways here, blacks regularly approach Pincham to shake his hand; and if they don’t approach him, he often approaches them. For years, he has been one of Chicago’s most popular figures–at least on the south and west sides. He was the Harold Washington Party candidate for mayor in ’91, and while he finished a distant second to Mayor Daley, he got 160,000 votes–seven times what the Republican candidate mustered. Pincham won 19 wards–all of them black-majority. He also ran for Cook County Board president in the ’90 Democratic primary. He carried Chicago, but Richard Phelan edged him out countywide.
He was an appellate court judge from ’84 to ’88 and a criminal court judge before that, presiding eight years in this building. He began practicing law in 1951 and earned a lofty reputation. “He is widely regarded as perhaps the most outstanding criminal defense attorney in Chicago, and particularly in state court practice his prowess as an attorney is near legendary,” the Chicago Council of Lawyers (CCL) noted when he ran for circuit court judge in 1976. In ’82, when the CCL urged Pincham’s retention as judge, it added that his “intelligence appears to be held in high esteem by everyone, including the judge himself.”
Pincham has never been one to sit on his opinions. It was Pincham who told an Operation PUSH crowd in ’87 that “any man south of Madison Street who cares to vote in the February 24th [mayoral primary] election who doesn’t cast a vote for Harold Washington ought to be hung…The state’s judicial Inquiry Board censured him for the speech, but Pincham never retreated from his remarks; judges have freedom of speech just like anyone else, he said.
Dwyer, 52, is a novice judge, having been appointed to the bench in 1991. But he is not likely to cower in Pincham’s presence. A prosecutor for 16 years, he was known for being diligent, knowledgeable, hard-nosed, and brusque. While deeming him qualified for retention in this year’s judicial primary, the Chicago Bar Association advised him to “work on dispelling the perception of poor temperament.” (His days on the bench were numbered; he lost in the primary.)
This is Pincham’s first trial at 26th Street since before he became a judge 16 years ago. He is 67, with sparse silver hair. “He tries to be retired, but he just loves the law so much,” his wife tells me in the gallery.
His client is new to 26th Street. Franklin Rice, a 53-year-old black man, is the owner of a large south-side nightclub. He has never been arrested before, let alone charged with a felony.
But one November evening in ’91, Chicago police officer Roy Visor noticed that there weren’t any plates on a gold 1990 Chrysler Fifth Avenue that was parked in the lot of a Walgreen’s on South State. Visor copied down the car’s vehicle identification number and punched it into the mobile computer in his car; he discovered the Chrysler had been stolen.
Moments later, Rice exited the Walgreen’s and approached the Chrysler. According to the state’s case, as prosecutor Ed Pacer now outlines it for the jury in his opening statement, Officer Visor asked Rice if the Chrysler was his, and Rice said yes. Viso asked him where he bought it, Rice said from an Al Piemonte dealership in Melrose Park. When the officer asked Rice why his computer showed the car to be stolen, Rice was silent. Visor placed him under arrest.
The defendant is 53 and has never been arrested before, Pincham tells the jury in his opening statement. Pacer objects, saying biographical information about the defendant is irrelevant. Judge Dwyer sustains the objection. Pincham proceeds to tell the jury that Rice and his wife have been married for 28 years and have lived in the same home for 19 years. Pacer is on his feet again, and Dwyer, irritated, sustains the objection again. Pincham starts to protest, and Dwyer orders the jury removed from the court.
When the jury box is empty, Dwyer tells Pincham he thinks the jury should base its verdict on the facts of the case, not on the defendant’s character. The issue isn’t character, Pincham responds, but credibility: the jury has the right to know Rice’s background in order to judge his truthfulness.
But it would be wrong, Dwyer says, for a jury to conclude a man is truthful just because, say, he goes to church regularly.
“That’s for the jury to decide,” Pincham says. “It’s not for you to decide.”
But arguing with a judge is like arguing with an umpire; it’s understood from the outset who will prevail. Dwyer advises Pincham to abide by his ruling, and not to further profile the defendant for the jury.
When the jury is back, Pincham tells them about a customer at Rice’s lounge who ran up a huge bar bill one evening in the fall of ’91. Because the customer couldn’t pay the bill, Pincham says, and because he was drunk, he agreed to leave his car–the Chrysler–in the lounge’s parking lot, and the keys with Rice. He said he would return turn in a few days, pay the bill, and pick up the car, Pincham says.
But he didn’t return, Pincham says. After several days, Rice, thinking the car was more likely to be stolen if it was left sitting in same spot in the same lot day after day, drove it off the lot one night, Pincham tells the jury. Rice stopped at a Walgreen’s on State Street that night, and that was when Officer Visor arrested him.
For the state to convict Rice, it must show that the Chrysler was stolen and that Rice knew it was stolen.
The state’s first witness, the former fleet manager for the Thrifty Car Rental Corporation, testifies that a 1990 Chrysler Fifth Avenue was shipped to the Thrifty location where he worked, near O’Hare Airport, in October 1989; that it disappeared in December 1989; and that it was returned to Thrifty by police in November ’91. 1. He tells the court the car’s vehicle identification number. When Officer Visor testifies later, he will give the vehicle identification number of the car found in the Walgreen’s lot, and it will be that of the same car.
It seems hard to dispute that the Chrysler was stolen. But with a defense attorney like Pincham, nothing is indisputable. In his cross-examination of the former fleet manager, Pincham seeks to establish that the Thrifty employee had no memory of this particular car.
“Are you telling the jury that you have an independent recollection of seeing this car on the premises in 1989?” Pincham asks.
“Tell us when you saw it.”
“Sometime after it was delivered.”
“At some time.”
“What time of day or night was it?”
“I don’t know what time.”
“What day of the week?”
“I don’t know what day.”
“What was the weather?”
“I don’t know the weather.”
“What month was it?”
“What did you say?”
“Did you my something before October?”
“I saw it in–”
“What word did you use before October?”
The witness sighs. “I said, ‘probably’ October.”
Pincham pads around the courtroom, quizzing the witness on the same points, again and again and again; you wonder if he gets paid by the question. (“The first time you ask a question, two-thirds of the jury didn’t hear it, and the one-third that heard it didn’t understand it,” Pincham, who has taught seminars in trial techniques a Harvard, Yale, and Cornell law schools, tells me later. “The second time you ask the question, one-third of the jury didn’t hear it and one-third didn’t understand it. The third time you ask the question, everyone heard it and everyone understood it.”)
After 45 minutes Pincham is finished, and the weary witness is excused.
“Wasn’t that fun?” an assistant gates attorney mks the witness in the hallway. The former Thrifty employee grimaces. “He twists everything you say.”
Next, Officer Visor describes his encounter with Rice in the Walgreen’s parking lot. After he read Rice his rights, Visor says, Rice told him a second story about how he had gotten the car: that a patron of his nightclub had left it with him and had never returned.
Cross-examining, Pincham probes every inch of Visor’s testimony for inconsistencies. He wants to know precisely where the Chrysler was parked in the lot, and facing what direction; he wants to know if Visor made a left or a right turn to get in the lot. He starts the cross-examination a 4:13 PM; it gets to be 4:30, then 5, then 5:15. Jurors are squirming and yawning; it’s not clear whether Pincham wants to persuade them or wear them out. At 5:25, Judge Dwyer, whose back cramps when he sits still too long, rises and stands behind his chair, rocking from one foot to the other. How much longer? he asks Pincham.
“I don’t intend to plow this road much farther,” Pincham assures Dwyer. “I have only one or two more questions. Or three. Or four.”
Eight questions and 15 minutes later, Pincham is finally finished with Visor. Judge Dwyer dismisses the jury and recesses the case until Thursday. “Mr. Pincham, you know that road you talked about plowing?” Dwyer says after the jury leaves. “I think you blacktopped it, and put in sewers and curbs.”
Thursday, 11 AM: The nine-year-old girl in the pink dress and pink shoes, with the pink ribbon in her hair, almost disappears when she sits in the witness chair in courtroom 602. The public defender, Jeffrey Ginsburg, steps up close and questions her softly.
“Charles Ashcraft your daddy?”
“How often do you see your dad?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you see him a couple times a month?”
The girl nods.
“How do you get along with your dad?”
“Do you love your father?”
“OK. And when you’re with your father, what do you and your father do?”
“We pick up my cousin, go to the movies or something.”
“OK. Does your dad pay for you and buy you things when he sees you?”
“Do you know if your dad sends your mom money for you?”
“OK. If your dad–how would you feel if your dad would be sent away for a long time, you wouldn’t see him?”
The prosecutor, Frank DiFranco, cross-examines.
“When is the last time you went out with your dad?”
“About a month ago.”
“About a month ago or two,” DiFranco says.
“Objection, Judge,” Ginsburg says. “She didn’t say ‘or two.’ She said about a month ago.”
The judge, Fred Suria, turns to the girl.
“Is that your answer? About a month ago?”
“Yes,” she says.
“Do you remember where you went?” DiFranco asks.
“We were going to get me some gym shoes. ”
“Do you remember the time before that you saw your dad?”
“Can you guess how long it was before that? You know what season it was or holiday?”
“A year ago,” she says.
“About a year ago,” DiFranco says. “Do you remember what you did that time?”
She shakes her head.
“How about before that? Before the year ago. Do you remember when you saw him?”
“Thanks,” DiFramo says.
The girl’s father, Charles Ashcraft, sits over a the defense table, a hand almost covering his eyes. He was convicted two weeks ago in this courtroom of the aggravated criminal sexual assault of a ten-year-old girl. According to the state, Ashcraft slept over at his girlfriend’s one evening in May of ’91. In the middle of the night, he slipped into the woman’s daughter’s room, and raped her. Ashcraft said it never happened. The jury reached its verdict in 15 minutes.
He faces 6 to 30 years. Before Suria rules at this sentencing hearing, the defense can present testimony in “mitigation”–in support of leniency–while the prosecution can push in “aggravation” for a stiff sentence.
Before Ashcraft’s daughter took the stand, his mother, Shirley Ashcraft, testified that Charles was a good son who helped her financially when he was able to. His twin brother testified that Charles was the first one he turned to for help with a problem. And another brother, Bishop Ashcraft, said the incarceration of Charles would have a “very devastating” impact on him and his siblings.
“I don’t believe this went down,” Bishop Ashcraft added, “and he just getting on his feet to make a decent life for himself with his career and everything, and you people about to ruin his life.” In the gallery, Shirley Ashcraft, who was afraid Bishop was only going to make the judge mad at Charles, lowered her head and shook it. “You shouldn’t have said that,” she said softly.
A friend of Ashcraft’s also testified that Charles offered her much emotional support “during a very trying time in my life.”
After Ashcraft’s daughter testifies, Prosecutor DiFranco argues in aggravation that while Ashcraft “certainly has devastated his family members and his friend…what this case is all about was someone else who trusted the defendant, someone else who depended on the defendant, someone else who the defendant lived with. He was the head of the household. He was the man of the house, Judge. And in that house there was a ten-year-old girl who lay asleep in her bed, Judge. And that’s why we’re here today, Judge. That’s the life that Charles Ashcraft has devastated. That’s the life that Charles Ashcraft has ruined. That life along with [the victim’s mother’s].
“Although the defendant does not have a prior background, Judge, I think there is great aggravatlon when you look at the facts of the case,” DiFranco says. “Judge, the state feels that 20 years is a reasonable sentence in a case like this–[considering] that the defendant has shown no remorse whatsoever for the victim, for the victim’s family, or for his own.”
Ginsburg, in response, points to the “outpouring of support” for Ashcraft “in a court system where in maybe 5 percent of the cases does anyone from the family show up on behalf of the defendant. And Judge, how many 28-year-olds before this court…have no prior convictions?”
There was evidence in the trial that Ashcraft had been drinking on the evening of the alleged assault, Ginsburg says. If Ashcraft did indeed assault the girl, it may have a been the result of “a drunken excessive evening” that probably wouldn’t happen again, Ginsburg says.
The PD says the General Educational Development (GED) certificate Ashcraft earned, his dependable work with an electric company for the past year, and his enrollment in an apprenticeship program at a junior college are evidence of the defendant’s “rehabilitative potential.”
When Ginsburg finishes, Judge Suria asks Ashcraft if he would like to address the court before sentencing. Defendants almost always decline this invitation. But Ashcraft wants to speak.
“First of all, Your Honor, I would like to say that I am totally innocent of this crime,” he begins from his seat at the defense table. “The jury has convicted an innocent man.”
He had really wanted a bench instead of a Jury trial, he says. His chances also were hurt because he couldn’t afford a private attorney “to investigate all the evidence.
“You know I am a productive member of society,” he says. “Now you are about to take off a chunk of my life. You are about to take away my daughter for a year or so, two years, five years, ten years. The one who will suffer the most”–his voice cracks–“is my daughter. She would suffer the most because I love her so much and I didn’t do this.” Now she is about to see me go away. See me in prison for something I didn’t do.” He asks Suria to “minimize the punishment that you are about to place upon me.”
Suria, who has been listening patiently, begins: “If I were to ask you if this had happened to your daughter, how much time should I impose on a party who had been found guilty of this conduct–I’m sure the figures that you would give me would be more in line with what the state is requesting in this case than what you had suggested.”
Had it been a bench trial, the Judge says, he would have reached the same conclusion the jury reached. “If your daughter had testified concerning such an incident and there had been no other evidence, the court would have found the same. I was not there. Of course, I don’t know what happened. It is obvious from your background you do not fit the profile of those that usually come to courts like this. There is no question, all other matters, you have been a responsible person.
“I have considered your lack of prior convictions in mitigation,” Suria says. “I have considered that you had in fact been drinking on the night in question. Considering all those factors and considering the nature and extent to which the crime invaded the privacy of [the victim], I would hereby sentence you to a term of six years in the Illinois Department of Corrections.” Ashcraft lowers his head and clenches his lips.
Suria denies Ginsburg’s request for a bond pending his client’s appeal, but allows Ashcraft to say good-bye to his family and friends. They gather quietly around Ashcraft in the middle of the courtroom. Five deputies surround the group, but keep their distance as Ashcraft’s wet-eyed relatives embrace him one by one. Ashcraft’s tears start when he hugs his daughter.
In the hallway moments later, the relatives encircle Ginsburg. Despite the Judge’s assertion that he, too, thought Ashcraft was guilty, despite the jury’s nearly instantaneous verdict, in the eyes of the relatives it’s the PD who’s to blame for their loved one’s plight. “He told you not to go for a jury trial,” Charles’s twin brother tells the lawyer.
“That’s a lie,” Ginsburg says. “That is a lie. It’s on the record, he asked for a jury. I told him several times not to take a jury trial. I’ve been doing this for seven years–I would never recommend that a defendant take a jury trial in a case like this.”
Ginsburg points out that Suria gave Ashcraft the minimum sentence, and that even if he doesn’t win an appeal he could be paroled in three years.
But the relatives aren’t soothed by that silver lining. Charles’s brother Bishop tells me near the elevators his brother might be free now if the family had had the money for a private attorney. One attorney told the family that “if we could come up with $10,000, Charles would walk right out the courtroom,” Bishop Ashcraft says. “But there was just no time to raise that. It seems to me now, if it’s just a matter of money, where is the matter of guilt or innocence? Ain’t no right or wrong–it’s just dollars.”
Charles’s mother, Shirley Ashcraft, adds: “These public defenders, they’ve got 50 million cases to handle–so why should this case be special? If you don’t have money to hire a lawyer, you’re out of luck.”
Thursday, 5 PM: “Man, you got to watch what you’re doing every minute here or you can get fucked up bad,” a deputy is telling me in the first-floor lobby. His breath is 80 proof.
“Motherfuckers getting 30, 40 years–what difference does it make to them if they jump on your motherfucking back?” he says. “Guy’s getting sentenced, his family and friends are here, there’s eight or ten of them–and they’re motherfucking pissed–you’d better keep your motherfucking eyes wide open.
“Too many motherfuckers with the devil in them. Too many motherfuckers on drugs. That’s the real problem.” He points to his head. “This ain’t a motherfucking thing you can replace. It ain’t like you blew no fuse. When you fuck this up, you fuck it up for good, man.”
He sometimes works in the courthouse basement, where prisoners are first brought from station lockups throughout the city, before they’re dispatched via elevators to the preliminary-hearing courtrooms. “Motherfuckers come in all the time, high as a motherfucking kite. Dont know where the fuck they are. Don’t know what they did. Motherfucking guys ask me, ‘What am I here for?’ ‘Murder.’ ‘Murder? Who the fuck’d I kill?’ Shit. Dumb motherfuckers.”
Friday, 11 AM: Through a door to the left of the judge’s bench, a sullen deputy herds 18 black men into courtroom 402. The prisoners have the unkempt look of men who have spent the night in cop-house lockups throughout the city. With insistent jabs of his forefinger through the air, the deputy wordlessly crowds the men into the jury box. There are no Naugahyde chairs in this jury box, as there are in the other courtrooms; just a pair of hard benches. After the men are corralled, six equally disheveled women–five of them black–are ushered into the courtroom and instructed to stand next to the jury box.
The state is not unnerved by a preponderance of black males in this jury box. Courtroom 402 is a preliminary-hearing court for those charged with drug offenses. The judge here has to decide whether there is probable cause to detain each prisoner.
He a also sets their bail. The men in the jury box, and the women next to it, will be called before the bench one at a time. It’s faster than hauling defendants one by one out of the bullpen down the hall.
The pulse of the criminal courts building is felt most easily in its four preliminary-hearing courtrooms, with their succinct and repetitive transacting of business. There are no lengthy cross-examinations or brilliant closing arguments here to obscure what 26th Street is all about: processing. In 402, clerk, prosecutor, PD, judge, and deputy are an up-tempo and well-synchronized quintet, strumming and blaring and tapping these shabby souls to oblivion, like the band on the Titanic.
A clerk to the judge’s right calls a prisoner’s name, and slides a stapled pink sheaf in front of the judge. The prisoner steps in front of the bench, reflexively putting his hands behind his back. The judge looks down at the papers–the arrest report–variably and almost instantly announcing a “finding of probable cause to detain.” The prosecutor rattles off in a monotone a series of abbreviations–the prisoner’s criminal background. The PD tells the judge where the prisoner has been staying and working, and mechanically requests “a reasonable bond.” The judge sets a figure, picks a date for another preliminary hearing, signs another document, slides papers back to the clerk; the clerk slips the papers inside file folders; a deputy escorts the defendant back to the bullpen. Each “hearing” takes two minutes max. Eighty to 140 prisoners are processed in 402 each weekday.
“The defendant has got, judge, BFW in January of ’92, PCS with intent to deliver from October of ’91,” the prosecutor is telling Judge Daniel Locallo this morning. “He has 11 prior BFWs and BF SOLs. Delivery of controlled substance, warrant, May of ’90, and we have no further information on that.”
“The defendant is 21 years of age,” the PD says. “He works at Continental White Cap company, makes bottles and jars. He’s been working there for half a year. He lives with his mother where he’s lived all of his life. We’ll be asking for a reasonable bond.”
“Thirty-five-thousand-dollar bond,” Judge Locallo says. “Motion, state, August the 11th at 9:30.”
“Wright,” the clerk bellows.
A frail black woman limps before the bench, puts her hands behind her back, and eyes her Nikes.
“Finding of probable cause to detain,” Locallo says.
“We show a BFW September of ’91,” the prosecutor says; “thirty months’ probation September of ’89, PCS with intent to deliver; two years’ probation December of ’86, delivery of controlled substance. That’s the extent of the background.”
“The defendant is 27 years of age,” the PD says, “lives on West Washington, supports herself with day labor. She’s been there for the last three years. We’ll be asking for the lowest bond possible since she is a working woman.”
“Seventy-five thousand dollar bond, motion, state, August 6th,” Locallo says.
After every two or three prisoners are called before he bench and escorted back to the bullpen, the deputy with the insistent finger directs those remaining in the jury box to squeeze together, as if spaces between them on the benches constitute a grave danger to the court.
Because of the overcrowding in County jail, most of the prisoners with no prior convictions who get a $50,000 bond or less here will be given I-bonds at the jail and released until their court date. The others have to come up with 10 percent of their bond to avoid sitting in the jail until their next hearing.
In setting bond, the judge is required to take into account the defendant’s residential and employment background, to gauge the likelihood of his showing up for court dates. But this morning in 402, the hard-luck stories from the PD seem to melt into each other:
“Your Honor, the defendant was recently laid off from a meat-packing concern, he told me, because he had an action against the company. He is on General Assistance. We ask for as low a bond as possible….Your Honor, defendant lives with his children and his children’s mother, and he supports them as best he can. He’s taking GED classes. We’d be asking for as low a bond as possible….Your Honor, he’s a cook in a restaurant…”
The defendants almost never question the judge’s rulings. Once this morning, though, when Locallo sets a bond at $60,000, the defendant has the audacity to repeat, in a stunned voice, “Sixty thousand dollars?”
“That’s what I said,” Locallo, without looking up, responds.
“Judge–” the defendant says. But a deputy has a hand on his back, and hustles him from the courtroom; and the rhythm of the place is not disturbed.
It takes 26 minutes to dispose of the crew of 24.
And then another two dozen are herded into the courtroom by the deputy with the jabbing finger.
Friday, 2:30 PM: “When the police officer stopped [you], did you try to run away?” defense attorney James Epstein is asking his client, Robert Pierce, on direct examination in 502.
“No,” Pierce says.
“Because I wasn’t that kind of a person that runs from others,” Pierce says. “I’m not going to run from nothing that I haven’t done…. I’m not that crazy to run away from the police and get my body shot.”
“Did you have any money with you at that time, Robert?” Epstein asks.
“Where did you have the money?”
“I had $858 in my pants pocket,” Pierce says, “and $17,000 inside my inside shorts in plastic sealed sandwich bags.”
“Why did you have money inside sandwich bags inside your shorts, Robert?” Epstein asks.
“Because I had basic people around the city that I can’t trust around me that are thieves, and I can’t trust the banks,” Pierce says.
Pierce, a 29-year-old white man with shoulder-length blond hair, wearing a gray suit, is testifying in his own behalf in a bench trial before Judge Thomas Cawley. He is charged with aggravated battery and robbery. His wife is the only person in the gallery besides myself.
He was arrested on a January afternoon in 1990, shortly after a 79-year-old woman had her purse snatched and was knocked down as she was about to enter her apartment building on Racine near Addison. The woman’s son, who lived on the second floor of the building, heard his mother’s screams, ran downstairs, and chased the culprit, but the man disappeared around a corner. The son called police. He described the offender as a medium-sized white man with blond hair, wearing a dark jacket and tan pants.
Ten minutes later, officers spotted a man matching the description on Clark Street, three blocks from the victim’s building. This was Pierce. The officers read him his rights. They took him back to the victim’s building, and showed him to the woman and her son. The woman hadn’t seen her attacker, and so couldn’t say whether Pierce as the person. All her son knew for sure was that Pierce’ clothes were similar.
The victim said she though she had had in between $100 and $200 her purse, including at least one $50 bill. When the officers searched Pierce, they found the $858 in his pants pocket–but no 50s; and taped inside his underwear–folded neatly in several baggies–12 $50 bills and 164 $100 bills.
A detective who testified earlier this afternoon said Pierce admitted he had taken the old woman’s purse and knocked her down.” Pierce said he pulled the money out of the purse and then ditched the purse in an alley, the detective told the court.
Two weeks after his arrest, Pierce had been examined by a doctor from the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute on the request of his lawyer. Because of a “severe thinking disorder,” Pierce was not fit for trial, but with proper treatment he might be in a year, the psychiatrist said.
Pierce, free on bond, was examined again in April ’91. The court-appointed psychiatrist found Pierce fit for trial. Pierce’s lawyer then asked that Pierce be examined further to determine whether he likely would have been able to understand the Miranda rights that were read to him before he talked to police. The two psychiatrists who subsequently interviewed Pierce said he would not have been able to. The lawyer asked the judge in charge of the case then, James Heyda, to suppress any statement Pierce made to police. The state presented a psychologist who said that Pierce could have understood the Miranda warnings, and Heyda denied the motion to suppress. When Heyda was transferred to a civil court afterward, Judge Cawley was assigned this case.
Epstein in tells me later he believes Pierce is “incapable of this kind of crime. He’s not a violent person.” He says he thinks the police were suspicious of Pierce, especially with all of that cash he had on him, and so jumped to conclusions and manufactured a case. “It was like that scene in Casablanca where they say, ‘Round up the usual suspects,'” Epstein tells me. “Robert has a sign around his neck that says, ‘One of the usual suspects.'” Through Pierce’s testimony this afternoon, Epstein hopes to show Cawley that Pierce had no idea what he was doing when he “confessed” to police. There are times when a defendant’s incoherence on the stand is a plus for him; and this is one of them.
“Did you ever tell Detective Gildea or Detective Elmore or anybody else that you had robbed this woman?” Epstein asks Pierce.
“Did you tell them that you were sorry for hurting the woman?”
“Yeah,” Pierce says. “I said, ‘I’m sorry for that woman, but I never stole anything from her.'”
“What did you say you were sorry for?” Epstein asks.
“For nothing. I didn’t even do what they grabbed me for. I was sorry about why they grabbed me.”
Cross-examining, prosecutor Joel Whitehouse asks Pierce if the officer who arrested him read him his rights. Pierce says she did.
“Did you understand that?”
“Mm-hmm,” Pierce says.
Was that the first time you ever heard rights? Did you hear them on TV before?” Whitehouse asks.
“I hear it all the time on Emergency One and all that, like Adam-12 and CHiPs,” Pierce says. “They used to have that on TV. They take it off every summer and winter and put put it back on in the summertimes.”
“Did the police ask you about if you knew how this lady got hurt or might have gotten hurt?”
“No. I asked them how did she get hurt because I didn’t even hit her. Because it upset me. I wouldn’t never hit a woman. I don’t have that basic in me of being violent.”
“Did you ever tell the police that you thought maybe the purse hit the lady in the face?” Whitehouse asks.
“That’s what he said. He said, ‘When you snatched the purse, it just hit her across the face, and then you pulled it and ran.’ That’s what the guard told me, the lieutenant…”
“You never told the two male policemen–”
“Not the basic, what the true story was about,” Pierce says.
“You never told the two male policemen that you accidentally ran by the lady, and you thought maybe the purse had swung up and hit her by accident?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said. I wasn’t even running, though. It wasn’t me running. It was somebody else that he said was a blondheaded guy that ran. He was basic thinking it was me, the guy that was five-eight and 159 pounds. I don’t weigh 150.”
“Did you tell the police maybe it was you that ran by the lady and hurt the lady with the purse?” Whitehouse asks.
“No. I wouldn’t hit no woman. I wouldn’t run by no woman. Because I walk. I walk. I don’t have to run.”
On redirect examination, Epstein asks Pierce to explain to him the rights that the officers read to him.
“Your rights is like if you’re guilty or not guilty of charges or insanity of charges, you would be told by the court of law by the 12 people or jury trial or over what the judge says, the basic trial,” Pierce responds.
“I don’t have any other questions, Judge,” Epstein says.
But Whitehouse hasn’t yet given up trying to show that Pierce understood the Miranda warnings.
“The first right is you don’t have to talk, right?” the prosecutor asks on recross.
“Right,” Pierce says.
“Your second right is you have a right to have a lawyer present when you talk to the police?”
“That’s why I did,” Pierce says. “I applied for to go get a lawyer downtown.”
“So you knew you had a right to have a lawyer there when you wanted to talk to him, just like on TV?” Whitehouse asks.
“And if you can’t afford a lawyer, you get a free one?”
“You get a public free defender here, which they don’t work right, which they don’t basic do their jobs. That’s no lie about that in America.”
Epstein, a former PD, is chuckling at the defense table. Whitehouse is frowning; this is not going well. But he continues: “They tell you [that] whatever you tell the police, the police can come into court and tell the judge and other people what you said, right?”
“The police don’t tell the truth either,” Pierce says. “They go in the doughnut shops every day. And that’s no basic lie. I write them up.”
“Listen just for one more second,” Whitehouse pleads, “and then I’ll let you go. What you tell the police, you knew that they would come and–”
“I told them them, I know they can come here and do their job here, but they can’t never do their job on the city road,” Pierce interrupts, “They’re always in the doughnut shops drinking them coffee beans, smelling them jumping julios. That’s all I think about them. They’re jumping out of the coffee machines like jimmy beans.”
Epstein is snickering again, as are other member of the courtroom staff. Pierce sees this, and starts laughing himself.
“Wait for a question,” Judge Cawley says.
Whitehouse says, “You know when you tell the police–if you tell the police officers that you robbed somebody or did something wrong, you know the police are going to come in and tell the judge, right?”
“They can come and tell the judge, but it’s not basic true what I don’t do,” Pierce says. “You don’t ever see me hit a cop.”
“You know that?” Whitehouse says.
“Yeah, I know that. I know my rights. I know I’m not supposed to hit a cop. I don’t care if she’s a lady cop by herself, I don’t hit her. I don’t hit anybody. I never hit my wife over there. You don’t see me hit her. She ain’t got no bruises.”
No further questions, Whitehouse says. Pierce is excused. Whitehouse is throwing in the towel: he waives closing argument. Cawley immediately finds Pierce not guilty on both counts, and discharges him.
After two and a half years, Pierce’s record is clean. But his shorts will be lighter: he’s out the $10,000 he had to pay his lawyer.
Friday, 3 PM: In final arguments in the Franklin Rice case, Eugene Pincham and his adversaries are arguing over cookies and sugar.
“The defendant’s situation is a little bit like that of a child and a cookie jar,” assistant state’s attorney Linas Kelecius–prosecuter Pacer’s assistant–is saying. “Picture a situation where mother has made some cookies, and they’re the most wonderful, sugar-coated cookies…multicolored granules of sugar on them…and she keeps them in the cookie jar. And she leaves to go to the store for a short while and she tells her son, ‘Don’t go into the cookie jar, I don’t want you to go in there because it’s for a special occasion.'”
Pincham stares at Kelecius with wide eyes and raised eyebrows. Then he chuckles. He used to rely on a sugar story in his closing arguments. Someone must have clued this young prosecutor to it, Pincham is thinking.
After the mother leaves home, the boy takes the cookies anyway, Kelecius tells the jury. But when the mother returns she sees some sugar granules on the floor, and so she knows what her son has done.
“That’s what we have in this case,” Kelecius says. “You have little grains of sugar.”
He runs through the states evidence in the case, calling each piece of evidence a “little granule of sugar.” When Officer Visor told Rice the Chrysler had been stolen, Rice said “‘All right. I have the cookies! He’s caught with the cookies. The whole car is his cookie!’ So instead he made up another story, Kelecius says, about a patron of his lounge leaving the car with him.
“Ladies and gentlemen, all these granules of sugar on the floor lead up to the defendant, who was caught with the cookies in his pocket,” Kelecius says, and sits down.
Pincham pulls the podium to a position directly in front of the jury. It almost topples over and prosecutor Pacer jumps up to help–but Pincham rights it and disdainfully waves Pacer back to his seat.
He begins with a discourse on the origins of the jury system. In medieval England, he says, kings appointed judges who ruled as the kings pleased. Finally the citizens tired of the corruption and revolted, forcing King John, in the Magna Charta, to agree to establish a jury system. “And it has been in existence ever since, unchanged and undisturbed,” he says, leaning on the podium. “And the reason it has remained in existence is because it is good.”
Then he turns and point at Kelecius. “He talked to you about some cookies. He didn’t get it right. It’s my story. It’s the first time I’ve tried a case against him. When I started trying cases he wasnt even–in the state’s attorney’s office.
“The reason he talked about cookies is he doesn’t want to talk about evidence. Cookies aren’t evidence in this case. But let’s talk about the sugar story.” He turns to Kelecius again. “I am going to ask you to listen carefully so you get it straight next time.”
Then Pincham launches into a yarn about his childhood days in Alabama–about how he and his brother and the other children he was raised with would sneak sugar out of an oak barrel in the family’s meat house. “We, like all children, had sweet tooths. We invented us a drink. We would go to the sugar barrel, and it was [his mother’s rule]–‘Don’t go in my sugar; don’t go in my sugar.’ We would go to the sugar barrel, take a look at how it was sitting on the top, make sure we take it off right, and put it back so she wouldn’t know we had taken it off.
“We would take the glass of sugar, go to the kitchen, put just a dab of cinnamon in the glass. Just a little bit of nutmeg. Grind it up real close, tight. We would then go to the creek where we kept the sweet milk in a pail of running water, and pour the sweet milk in the glass and stir it up and drink it. That was our milk shake. Delicious. I recommend it to you sometimes.
“When my mother would come home, she would immediately know, ‘Y’all been in my sugar.’ ‘How do you know?’ We didn’t know. Sometimes she would punish us. Sometimes she wouldn’t.”
Pincham was a grown man with children of his own, he tells the jury, when he asked his mother how she always knew whether they had taken any sugar, and which child to punish.
“She said, ‘First of all, son, I knew it because you wasted granules on the floor.’ ‘How was it that you decided when to punish and when not to?’ She said, ‘I wouldn’t punish if I wasn’t sure beyond a shadow of a doubt which one [did it]….I wouldn’t grab you, I wouldn’t do anything if I wasn’t satisfied.'”
The prosecution, not Rice, spilled the the sugar in this case, Pincham says, with the inconsistent testimony of its witnesses, the lack of records proving the Chrysler was stolen, the omission of information in police reports. “Granules on the floor,” he says. “As a matter of fact, the whole barrel is on the floor. I am standing in sugar now from the prosecution’s case.”
Pincham tells the jury that Rice “is a man who is 53 years of age, has worked hard to make a contribution, married to the same woman 28 years, living in his home for 20 years, trying to do the right thing”–despite Judge Dwyer’s earlier admonishments to stay clear of biography. The prosecutors let it go by without objecting. (“An old defense trick–tell the jury something when you’re closing even if the judge had excluded it before,” prosecutor Kelecius tells me later. Objecting would have just called more attention to what Pincham had said, according cording to Kelecius. “You can never unring a bell.”)
Rice runs a business in a high-crime area, Pincham says, an area “where murders and rapes and drive-by shootings and robberies are prevalent. And they bring this kind of a case in here.”
He finishes with a tale about an old wise man who was revered in his community. Pincham’s wife smiles knowingly in the gallery as he starts the story; she’s heard it innumerable times in his closings. A “young whippersnapper,” Pincham tells the jury, was jealous of the old man and wanted to embarrass him. He decided to hold a bird in his hands behind his back, and to ask the old man if the bird was alive or dead. “If he said the bird was alive, the boy was going to crush the bird in his hands, show the dead bird to everyone, and make a fool out of the old man,” Pincham says. “If he said the bird was dead, he was going to let him fly off.
“The boy appeared before the old man, and he told him about the bird in his hands. And then the boy said, ‘I want you to tell me–is the bird alive, or is it dead?'” Pincham pulls his glasses off and wipes his scalp with a handkerchief. “And the old man said, ‘Son–it’s in your hands.’
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, thank you very much for your service. I’m much obliged to you. It’s in your hands.” And Pincham sits down.
Since the state has the burden of proof, the prosecutors get to speak first and last in closing arguments. Prosecutor Pacer tells the jury the state’s witnesses withstood “tremendous cross-examination.”
Pincham rises to object. “Judge–there’s no evidence of that,” he says, and sits down; but he bounces to his feet before Dwyer can speak “I will withdraw the objection and accept the compliment,” he says. The jurors are fighting back smiles.
Pacer allows that Rice “is a successful man. And a good man. And that his wife wife is a good person and a nice person. But nobody is above the law. Just because you’re good doesn’t mean you’re above the law.
“This is a country where people render true justice, and it is not always easy,” Pacer says.
Friday, 5 PM: Pincham, his tie loosened, is leaning against a wall in the third-floor hallway, relaxing while the jury deliberates. I ask him how it felt to have tried a case again at 26th Street.
“It’d have felt better but for this judge;’ he says. “His unfairness made it an unpleasant experience for me. He was a goddamned rubber stamp for the prosecution.
“I am incensed at his erroneous rulings, deliberately designed to aid and assist the prosecution and to hurt the defense,” he continues, speaking slowly enough to make sure I get it all down. He calls Dwyer’s decision to limit the introduction of biographical information about Rice “asinine, ludicrous. Background has always been a factor. But this defendant had such an impeccable background, completely destroying the racist white myth about black males. That’s why the judge kept it out.”
He says he thinks Dwyer tipped the prosecutors to his sugar tale, and that that was how Kelecius came to the story in his closing argument. (“Absolutely false,” Kelecius tells me later.) “I think the judge quarterbacked the case all along, to tell you the truth,” Pincham says.
(Judge Dwyer later declines comment on Pincham’s criticisms, saying, “It would be inappropriate for me to get into a debate with a defense attorney.”)
“They had no business trying the goddamned case in the first place,” Pincham says in the hallway. “People are being robbed and raped and murdered, and they take up the taxpayers’ money trying a case like this? Disgraceful.”
The unfortunate thing, he says, is that a case like this is the rule and not the exception. “No, justice is not done in this building. It’s not done in [criminal courts in] Markham or in Skokie. You have a system where 90 percent of the defendants and 90 percent of the victims are black; that disparity inevitably causes injustices. I’ve been saying this for 40 years: the white community would not stand for a system where a white man was arrested by a black policeman and questioned by a black detective and fingerprinted at the station by a black booking officer and put in a cell that was watched over by black officers and driven to the courts building by black paddy wagon drivers and then taken to court where there were black lawyers and a black judge and a black court reporter and a black clerk. But the black community has to deal with a system where almost every authority figure over them is white.”
Pincham says he plans to maintain a modest criminal and civil caseload. I ask him why, at 67, he doesn’t just relax and enjoy retirement.
“We cannot afford to,” he says with a grin. “No–with the education and the talent that the good Lord has blessed me with, I feel I’m obliged to do it. People need service, and I’m going to render service. I intend to continue to ferret out injustices as long as I can.”
Friday, 7 PM: The jury returns with its verdict on Franklin Rice. Not guilty.
“It reaffirms my faith in the jury system,” an exuberant Pincham says. “Justice was done.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.