By Dustin J. Seibert
Tabloid magazines splashed with high-profile celebrity trials and proceduraltelevision dramas driven by the discovery of fingerprints and DNA at crime scenes have morphed the judicial process into a business of entertainment fit for layperson consumption, and business is good.
But the reality of courtrooms - the push and pull of criminal cases; the long hours, the mundane paperwork - is decidedly sobering and unglamorous, if not less dramatic and tense at times. It's a reality found in the day-to-day work of the Cook County state's attorney's office and the Cook County public defender's office - two signature pieces of the world's largest unified court system.
Popular portrayal of the two offices' courtroom battles is recognizable only on the surface: The state's attorney's prosecutors on one side, fighting to convince 12 jurors that the accused should be brought to justice; the public defenders on the other side, fighting just as hard to see that their client is not put to death or incarcerated for a very long time.
It's a fight for justice from two different frames of thought - both the accused and the victim. Both jobs are miles from private practice for many different reasons, though not necessarily in the ways that fit public perception.
Defending the accused
State's Attorney Anita Alvarez and Public Defender Abishi C. Cunningham share much of the same office space: Their administrative offices are downtown on Washington Street just across from the Daley Center and both have offices scattered throughout Cook County. Most of their staff attorneys are stationed at the Cook County Criminal Courthouse on 26th Street and California Avenue.
The public defender's courthouse offices are decidedly modest; drab yellow walls complete with cubicles and corner offices that can be mistaken for any generic white-collar space in the country. Boxes of case files fill the floors and desks. Taped outside of several office doors are printouts celebrating successful cases with client names and the dates they were acquitted. Above a coffeepot in one office reads a sign written in bold, black marker: "WE NEED COFFEE!!!"
On an early December morning, a fax sat on an otherwise empty desk in a communal office. On the bottom of the page was a quote from legendary basketball coach John Wooden, who died in June: "You cannot live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you."
Wooden's quote underlines why many public defenders take this professional path. The attorneys in the office, numbering about 500, have made it their duty to represent those who the media and public opinion have often deemed guilty before they ever step in front of a judge. Many public defenders acknowledge that they repeatedly get asked the clichè question: "Why do they defend the bad people of the world?"
It's a question that flatly offends Jennifer Gill, who celebrated her 10th year as a public defender on Dec. 18. When asked, she said she takes a deep breath and either kills her questioner with a kind response or directs them to the book: "Indefensible: One Lawyer's Journey into the Inferno of American Justice," an account of author David Feige's time as a New York public defender that she said perfectly explains why she does what she does.
"I tell people it's not as simple as they make it out to be. It's so much more complicated than just 'getting people off,'" she said. "Everyone deserves their constitutional right to be represented. And good people do bad things sometimes. It doesn't mean that they're bad people."
Gill works for the office's Felony Trial Division. Part of her job involves entering lock-up, the holding facilities behind each of the criminal courthouse's 34 courtrooms, to interview the clients she represents before they're brought out to face the judge. Lock-up - separated by gender - contains dozens of men packed on floors and benches in an area the size of a large bedroom. In most cases, the men all must share one bathroom.
"It can be daunting at first, but it's something you definitely get used to," she said. "My clients yell my name a thousand times a day from that place."
Deputy of Criminal Operations Kendall Hill has a nuanced, philosophical opinion regarding the "why do you do it?" question, based on more than 28 years of working for the public defender's office.
"It's one thing to look at a book and at its cover. It's a whole different thing to read it," he said. "The media tells us that we should hang them by their throats right away. But if somebody doesn't protect their rights, what is there to prevent them from coming to knock on your door next?"
Hill acts disarming in his joviality and self-deprecation. But he has an eagle eye for the subtleties of litigation, like his ability to surmise the dedication of a public defender team to their clients by their physical proximity to them in the courtroom.
He greets everyone in the courthouse - from judges to those sitting in lock-up - with the same "ma'am, sir" level of respect necessary to do his job. On one day, he diverts from his day's schedule to engage several women in lock-up with a litany of questions for almost 10 minutes.
"When you see people going away for life or an extended period of time, and they've become a part of you, you're affected by them. There's a great deal of pain," he said. "But when you grow and they grow to be better people, then you can't concede to losing."
Despite their dedication to their clients, attorneys in both offices are frequently overworked: The American Bar Association standard caseload for criminal defense lawyers is 150 felony cases a year, but Cook County public defenders average 235; the yearly standard for misdemeanor cases is 400, but public defenders average 2,200. That's why, when the public defender's Homicide Task Force Chief Crystal Marchigiani receives a big case that makes the morning news, she gets a lot of turned backs in the office.
"Whenever a big case comes in like that, you wanna get a lawyer on it right away," she said. "People who are really friendly people wouldn't talk to me all morning!"
Hill insisted the attorneys' reluctance to take new cases has nothing to do with their lack of dedication.
"When that case comes in, you're looking at beginning a five-year relationship and you probably just got through with a five-year relationship with someone else," he said. "So when you see another coming, there's a natural resistance, like, 'here we go again.'"
Making victims whole
Working to send people to prison might seem like a depressing business. But the down-to-earth feel of the state's attorney's courtroom offices belies that idea: On each of its four floors are bulletin boards covered with stapled neckties that have been cut in half - a rite of passage for rookie prosecutors who win their first felony trials.
Posted in Criminal Prosecutions Bureau Chief Shauna Boliker's office to the right of her desk in December is a tongue-in-cheek sign that reads: "SEX CRIMES CHRISTMAS PARTY" above a jolly picture of Santa Claus. She laughed when acknowledging the irony of the sign.
With 21 years into the office and 12 as a full-time prosecutor, Boliker now spends most of her time overseeing about 500 of the nearly 900 state's attorneys. (Editor's note: Boliker was promoted to first assistant state's attorney on Jan. 4, just as this issue was going to press.)
She speaks with just as much conviction about the importance of her work as those on the "other side." She said her upbringing in Gary, Ind., to civic-minded parents - including a mother she called a "consummate volunteer" - fueled her desire to go down the path of a prosecutor instead of private practice.
"I still get excited about what I do every day - we get to solve situations and help people have better lives," Boliker said. "It's important that we are there for them, not just in a legal way, but spiritually. Certain things drive certain people, but this is what drives me - going home at night and feeling like I did something for somebody."
As one might guess by the boxes of files and manila folders surrounding her desk, Boliker still gets in front of a judge from time to time to try cases. She's preparing to join the prosecution team for the trial of 19-year-old Timothy Herring in the murder of Chicago Housing Authority officer Michael Flisk, who was gunned down in late November alongside Chicago police officer Stephen Peters.
Perhaps the highest profile case of Boliker's career is the criminal trial of R&B singer R. Kelly, who was tried and acquitted on charges of child pornography in June 2008. Material from the trial still sits on her desk today.
"The toughest part [about that case] was the lengths we had to go to to convince the world when the victim didn't seem to care. We felt like we were behind the eight-ball from the beginning," she said. "Children are the most vulnerable victims; we had to do what we could to show the world that children do get victimized."
Like Boliker, Joseph Magats also stepped out of the courtroom years ago to become an administrator; he now serves as the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau deputy chief. He has participated in one trial over the past year, compared to the 15 or 20 annual trials tried by the attorneys he oversees. He admits to missing the courtroom on occasion.
"I get antsy sometimes not standing in a courtroom on a regular basis, but that's just the way I'm wired, I guess," Magats said. "[The move to administration] was like pumping the brakes, but my day is still filled and moving fast in so many other different ways."
By design, the state's attorneys exist to trump the public defenders, and vice versa. Yet Boliker always keeps in mind the importance of the public defenders' role.
"I truly think the other side needs good representation and I'm not going to say that our way is the only way," she said. "We should not go to trial to prosecute someone we know isn't guilty, and shame on those of us who do. I went to law school because I wanted to represent victims and people who needed representing. It's incredibly important and I hope I live my career like that."
The first stop
Sterile, white walls and worn, wooden pews speckled on the underside with wads of gum make Cook County's Central Bond Court (CBC) on the first floor of the Cook County Courthouse stand in stark contrast to many of the regal-looking courtrooms on the floors above.
Every day, the recently arrested are brought in from lock-up to the courtroom in an assembly-line fashion, where the public defenders and prosecutors present two sides to each individual before the judge determines how much bond is to be posted for their freedom, if any at all. The process often takes less than one minute per person; typically, anywhere between 60 and 100 arrestees go through the process daily.
Each case in Cook County - from petty larceny to the high-profile, media-attracting capital cases - starts in this courtroom, which operates seven days a week, including holidays. Assistant State's Attorney Erin Antonietti spends the middle of her day in this room five days a week as one of a group of attorneys that work in the office's CBC Division.
"You go upstairs to the pretty wood-paneled rooms and you kinda silence yourself when you walk in, but here it's no less important," Antonietti said. "It's not the fanciest digs, but we like what we do, so you get used to it."
This past summer, the courtroom's drop-down ceilings leaked water for months from bathrooms on the upper floors, which made Antonietti's already fast-paced job just a bit more complicated.
"There were days we had to come in and had to deal with puddles on the tables," she said. "But the state's attorneys getting dripped on certainly won't stop court. There are too many other things going on to stop what we do, so we just had to move stuff around."
Antonietti has been with the state's attorney's office since 1994 and with CBC since 2000. She was hired a few years after receiving her law degree from DePaul University College of Law, where she clerked for the state's attorney's office during an internship.
"I always liked the work I did here [when I clerked],"Antonietti said. "They want you to actually learn here, not just go off and photocopy this and research that. It's just a great environment I wanted to be a part of."
She acknowledged that she inadvertently brings work home with her at times.
"What I see on a daily basis is so different from what most people see," she said. "It factors into how I think about things that happen around me. If a neighbor's car gets broken into, I'm thinking about looking at arrest reports and documents pertaining to my own neighborhood."
Because the CBC is the first stop of what can be a potentially lengthy trial, there are often many friends and family in the courtroom, awaiting the news of how much bond money they will have to come up with.
On one day, however, CBC attorney Lorraine Scaduto had a conversation with a woman who her colleague Antonietti admitted was a rare brand of bond court attendee: She was allegedly shot by her ex-boyfriend, one of the accused on the day's docket. The judge denied him bond.
"She was just very pleased to know he's being held without bail so that she can sleep easy tonight knowing that he won't return to finish the job," Scaduto said.
Fiction versus reality
Highly popular television shows like "Law and Order" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" have done much to bring the work of prosecutors into the public eye, but the prosecutors for the state's attorney's office are quick to shun those shows as sensationalistic tripe. Many roll their eyes when they're brought up.
"It's not just the evidence that we're fighting for anymore. It's, 'well, I saw that on television last Thursday. There could be some DNA on that tinfoil you dropped,'" Boliker laughed. "That's just not reality, that's not our world. Still, you welcome the burden if you believe in our system. [We] still have to say, 'I'm going to do the best job I can.'"
The shows also depict private defenders as being a more viable option for the accused than public defenders - the more expensive, the better. Gill said perception sometimes exacerbates the difficulty of her work.
"Our jobs are often based on public perception, so we end up having to defend ourselves to clients a lot more," she said. "It takes a bit more time to establish relationships with clients because they have that 'you get what you pay for' attitude."
Gill said whenever she wins a case for a client, she wants nothing else but word-of-mouth as thanks.
"I tell them, 'You can't bring me anything, but you can tell people that you had a public defender and what a great job they did,'" she said.
Hill, along with several of his colleagues, insisted that, contrary to popular perception, having the salaried public defender in your corner can be far more beneficial to a client than using a private attorney, whose work on the case could be driven by billable hours instead of quality.
"It's a great joy when you don't have to worry about a poor woman mortgaging her socks or her underwear so she can get $10 to pay you," Hill said.
Breaking down the realities of courtroom drama isn't just for clients and cocktail parties, agreed the parents of young children in both offices who admit to mulling over how they will ultimately explain to them the darker aspects of the job.
Scaduto, who has two children, ages 11 and 8, found that she has to curtail local news-watching in the house when they're around.
"The questions are starting," she said. "They'll see something on the news and ask, 'Mommy who is that guy? Are you gonna see him in court? What's he gonna be charged with?' I haven't yet felt that I should bring them here, but at some point, they'll probably come to observe and learn about what's going on in the world."
Not for the money
Downtown Chicago is packed full of sleek, high-rise law offices with majestic views of the skyline and Lake Michigan that evoke the rich, powerful lawyer stereotype.
In contrast, the views out the windows of the courthouse offices poetically mirror the work that both offices do: The Cook County Jail on the West Side; the city's less-glamorous industrial neighborhoods - with the skyline in the distance - to the east.
Opulence doesn't exist within either of these government jobs. The starting pay for an assistant public defender is $50,000 and just under $56,000 for assistant state's attorneys. In contrast, the starting salary for associates at Kirkland & Ellis is $160,000.
"It was never a conscious choice to give up [private firms] or make less," Antonietti said. "It was never about the money. I liked the work I did here."
Antonietti's husband is an English instructor and football coach for a Catholic high school. "We both chose professions where we could go other places and make a lot more money," she said. "But we both love where we are and we consider ourselves fortunate."
Attorneys for both offices are, in many ways, representative of America's economically struggling proletariat: Constantly concerned about staving off budget cut-driven layoffs while handling an ever-increasing workload.
"They are overworked and they are stretched thin at times; in a perfect world, it wouldn't be that way," Magats said. "But they work their behinds off and make sure each case is at a level it needs to be."
Still, there are highly esteemed attorneys at both offices who made a conscious decision to pass on the big bucks and don't regret it.
"If I was in private practice and you walked in the door with a capital case, I'd ask for $100, $150 [thousand] just to get started. Just a handful of cases like that and I would've been able to retire in a couple years," Hill said. "But the reality is no one can afford to do what we do as well as we do."
Marchigiani left for a private firm after her first seven years as a public defender because she "needed a change," she said. Just a few months of playing the billable hours game underlined the reason she called Hill requesting a return.
"Every time someone handed me money that was meant to go back to the office and be part of the retainer, I felt like, 'What am I doing taking this guy's money?' she said. "I thought, 'What am I doing letting grandma put up her house?' Having been a public defender all those years, I couldn't get used to what is essentially taking people's savings."
First Assistant Pat Reardon, a former priest who represented the Catholic Archdiocese in private practice before following Cunningham to the public defender's office last year, viewed the public defender station as a service industry. He never charged clients by the hour even during his time in private practice because he didn't want clients to make the wrong decisions based on financial concerns, he said.
"People we interview for this office have that passion and zeal to work with poor people and serve. It's what we look for when we hire," he said. "Even in private practice, sometimes you're doing indigent defense whether you want to or not. And sometimes an O.J. Simpson comes along and you make a lot of money."
Above and beyond
Gill said her job as a public defender doesn't stop in the courtroom and requires a degree of social work that extends beyond the requirements of her 9-to-5 position.
"Legal problems almost always stem from other problems and, if they aren't fixed, then there's a chance you'll see your client again," she said. "So you have to get them the treatments they need so they can get back to life."
Gill has a current client with mental health issues whom she's trying to get placed in a drug and alcohol treatment program, but she said she's encountered hurdles.
"Maybe 70 percent of people in the jail have mental health problems, but Illinois just doesn't have the money to deal with them," she said.
Perhaps the dedication of attorneys in both offices is most reflected in Boliker, who keeps up with administrative work and the occasional trial despite battling cancer, which requires her to undergo chemotherapy sessions.
She minimizes the impact of her illness when it's brought up.
"I'm blessed by Joe [Magats] and everyone here is like my family. They are wonderful to me; the days I do have treatment they take care of me," she said. "[Anita Alvarez] is tremendous to all of us. I wouldn't think twice about being at home in my pajamas if necessary."
Hill stays turned on and pulled in many directions throughout the day, but he insists he turns his work phone off the moment he walks through the door of his house to greet his family. With an already accomplished career under his belt, he's still not satisfied - likening his journey to protagonist Oskar Schindler's.
"He was in remorse at the end because he felt like he didn't do everything he could have, which is sort of how I feel," he said. "I wish I were 29 again instead of 56, because I'm now over the hill, so to speak."