By Dustin Seibert
The Cook County offices of the State's Attorney and Public Defender are rivals by design. But it doesn't take much digging to unearth their many similarities.
Among these similarities perhaps none is more striking than the sense of loyalty these offices' attorneys have to their jobs. For many, these are the jobs they've had since law school.
Both offices are full of attorneys who started in junior divisions before climbing up the tenure track to work felony murder cases at the Cook County Criminal Courthouse and other county municipal divisions.
Senior attorneys and supervisors closing in on three decades' worth of service for their respective offices are common; many started practicing law for Cook County in the 1980s and earlier, paying their dues and developing experience in cases where lives are at stake.
These veterans are also positioned to mentor or supervise junior attorneys, who weren't even born when they started. Though their familiarity with their jobs makes them excel at what they do, not one will ever submit that their jobs aren't subject to changes and challenges that keep them alert and prepared.
This summer, the attorneys will navigate one of the greatest changes yet: Thanks to new legislation abolishing the death penalty, divisions like the state's attorney's Capital Litigations Task Force will disappear, leaving a question mark over some attorneys' futures.
Ask the "lifers" what motivated them to become lawyers and you'll see a lot of hesitation as they attempt to recall their mind-set from many years ago.
For some, like Maria McCarthy, the seed was planted when they were still young children. The supervisor of the state's attorney's office's 3rd Municipal District in Rolling Meadows said it was reading Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" as a 13-year-old that motivated her to get into law.
She majored in Russian studies during her time at the University of Illinois — a result of her fascination with the Cold War — but transitioning to law school was always Plan A. She clerked with the state's attorney's office during law school before graduating and beginning her career in the office.
"I was fascinated by the criminal mind and those who pursue justice on behalf of the victim," she said.
Rodney Carr discovered his calling to law at an age when boys still idolize astronauts and firemen. But whatever it was that drove him to Southern Illinois University School of Law and a brief stint in private practice before joining the public defender's office in 1992, he can't quite put his finger on it.
"It was probably old Perry Mason episodes," he said, laughing.
After law school, Carr spent just under a year as a solo practitioner, which he said was a far cry from the six-figure entry salaries at many private Chicago firms.
"I needed the stability and I liked the work that was going on at the public defender's office, so I made the move," he said.
For Kristina Yi of the public defender's Homicide Task Force, practicing law came by way of serendipity. She studied psychology and speech communications at the University of Illinois with the short-lived intention of getting into psychology as a profession.
A glint of curiosity guided Yi inside a Champaign courthouse, where she witnessed part of a robbery case; the resulting fascination resulted in her enrolling in DePaul University College of Law in 1991.
She gave birth to her first son two weeks before starting law school, forcing her to make ends meet by cocktail waitressing while also clerking for the public defender.
Yi said it was the socioeconomic and racial issues she endured as a native Korean who moved to Chicago at age 10 that prompted her to join the public defender's office. She has worked in the Homicide Task Force for five years.
"I'm a minority, I'm an immigrant, and I've experienced both sides of the economic equation. I think there are issues involved with poverty that are difficult to understand and these issues affect all of us," she said. "The opportunity to be a voice for someone who needs a voice … that's what attracted me to the office."
Jim McKay, the state's attorney's office Capital Litigations Task Force chief, worked for a bank during his junior year at DePaul University, where he impressed his managers to such a degree that they offered to pay his tuition for a MBA. Because he knew he wanted to attend law school, he declined their offer.
The second oldest of nine children, the St. Gregory Parish native didn't have a huge bank account to draw on for law school. As a result, he tended bar and worked as a janitor to make his way through Chicago-Kent College of Law.
Despite loans that took him 10 years to pay off, McKay said he has no regrets.
"Perhaps if I'd gone into the financial world, my own financial situation would've been a bit different," he said, laughing. "But right now I know I made the right decision and I'm lucky enough to work in the finest prosecutor's office in the country."
Practicing law wasn't in the cards for Felony Trial Assistant Supervisor Frank Marek when he entered undergrad at DePaul University. He said it was an upbringing from a Chicago police officer father who motivated him to do anything but become a police officer.
"It wasn't unusual for poli-sci majors to apply to law school," he said. "It seemed like a good idea at the time and it wasn't like I had other opportunities presented to me. I always knew lots of police officers."
Marek worked for a civil firm after finishing law school at DePaul, but moved to the state's attorney's office before long.
"I knew being a defense attorney would not be for me and I realized civil practice wasn't for me," he said. "I took something of a pay cut to come here, but it just was what I wanted."
Stephanie Hirschboeck, chief of the public defender's office Homicide Task Force, was unsure about her career when she studied political science and French at Northwestern.
A lawyer friend convinced her to go to law school at DePaul, after which she joined the public defender's office in 1986.
"I wanted a job in which I'd never get bored and I knew as a public defender I'd never be bored. And I never have been," she said. "If you want to do criminal defense and represent poor people, there's no better job for it."
Hirschboeck worked in appeals for 5½ years — longer than most junior attorneys on that level — because she wanted to try a case in the Illinois Supreme Court and accomplish goals that would enhance her career.
"When I came into the job, I only had some idea about what public defenders do, but you don't have the full scope until you actually get into the job," she said.
Balancing supervisory roles
The attorneys that move into supervisory and administrative positions with either office almost never stop trying their own cases, but the number of cases on their dockets drops to match their administrative roles.
Hirschboeck has been in supervisory roles with the public defender's office since 2003, but only in January did she take over the role as chief of the Homicide Task Force, overseeing 32 attorneys with the help of two supervisors and a deputy chief.
Her own caseload balance, when combined with her supervisory roles, gets dicey, especially late nights and working weekends. She said hard days go easier thanks to the support of her husband, David, who retired from the public defender's office as a felony trial supervisor after 30 years.
"It all manages to fit … you just make time for it all because it's worth it," she said. "I do miss having a full-time caseload, but I'm fortunate that the office lets me do both."
McKay supervises three attorneys in his division, but said there wasn't a change in the amount of time he spends chairing cases: He's in the courtroom almost daily.
"It requires a lot of time and effort," he said. " A lot of us are used to it — we've been doing it for years."
Marek admitted to missing the caseload of his earlier days. But he said the intellectual stimulation of training committees and work with the attorneys he supervises makes up for the tasks he did for so many years.
"I'm still dealing with issues vicariously through other people," he said. "It's different but you have to adjust to it. I just try to pattern myself after the fine supervisors that I see in the office."
Longevity doesn't dim fires
When Marek started working with the state's attorney's office in February 1982, Ronald Reagan was still in his first term as president and the first Indiana Jones movie was still raking in big box office money.
As he enters his 29th year, his drive to prosecute and win cases has not wavered, thanks to the ever-changing nature of the job.
"Certainly [veterans] bring a certain level of experience to a case, but there are always new things to learn and you always have to be ready to accept a new challenge," he said. "The moment you start to slack off, that's when you won't be doing your best and the consequences are someone who is guilty getting free to commit more crimes."
The possibility of getting burned out due to routine work is nonexistent when regularly dealing with heinous felony cases, Marek said. He cited the 1999 case of Rafael Valderrama, a Chicago man charged with sexually abusing and murdering his 8-year-old half brother.
"The judge said to us, 'just when you think you've seen it all, something like this comes along,'" Marek said. "You have to fight the 'I've seen it all' mentality, because you really haven't."
Maintaining enthusiasm for the job is crucial because it must be transmitted to junior attorneys, Hirschboeck said.
"Part of our job is to be mentors, teaching young lawyers," she said. "Hopefully they benefit from our experience and we benefit from their energy and creativity. But our passion does not die … you can't do this work without the commitment."
The many years with the state's attorney's office temporarily caught up with McCarthy, who left the office in 2002 to work in a private civil firm. She returned in less than a year to what she sees as her true calling. McCarthy has now been with the office for more than 20 years.
"I realized I could make a lot of money at private practice, but driving a Mercedes to work on Monday morning doesn't mean anything if you don't love going into the office," she said. "I realized that what I really loved to do was prosecute cases and have people held responsible for their crimes."
Hearing about young attorneys excited to move up the ranks reminded McKay of how he approached the job as a junior attorney. He said that enthusiasm has not left him, even after 26 years.
"I love trying new cases; I love giving closing arguments," he said. "I'm as comfortable in a courtroom as I am in my living room."
Death and division
Despite his long career that invites praise from co-workers and opponents alike, McKay may soon lose his job.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law on March 9 legislation abolishing the death penalty in Illinois. As a result, attorneys in both offices for whom capital cases take up the bulk of their workload will likely have their job titles reassigned when the law goes into effect July 1. Layoffs are the worst-case scenario.
Job security aside, the divisive death penalty issue makes for the most contentious ideological and professional battle lines between the two offices. McKay becomes passionate when asked about his feelings.
"Obviously it's extremely disappointing and frustrating for me personally and for prosecutors and victims in general," he said. "[Quinn] gave a break to the worst criminals of our state at the same time sticking it to victims and their families."
Quinn signed the bill — making Illinois the 16th state to end capital punishment — against the wishes of Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, who has publicly spoken out against his decision.
Alvarez said the 2003 reforms to death penalty procedures made it significantly more reliable in terms of seeing that the wrong people are not put to death, a sentiment McKay echoes.
"State's attorneys today do not seek death unless there's overwhelming evidence of guilt, absolutely no evidence of mental retardation and overwhelming evidence of aggravation," he said. "Is the system perfect? Well, it wasn't back in 2003, but in my opinion it is now. And if it isn't perfect, you gotta concede it's pretty damn close."
McKay said Quinn apparently ignored two significant facts: Illinois residents — including outgoing Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and incoming Mayor-elect Rahm Emmanuel — are split regarding the death penalty. Also, as governor, Quinn has the singular power to overturn any death sentence.
"We have new Supreme Court rules and statutes that benefit the defendant more now than ever before," he said. "No prosecutor wants an innocent man to be sentenced to anything. We're there to do justice, not to win, and certainly not to put someone on death row just because."
The process of capital cases is too often misrepresented for laypeople, McCarthy said.
"What bothers me so much is the constant sentiment that our system is broken," she said. "Our media has no idea what it takes to prepare for and try a capital case."
The conventional argument from public defenders is that the death penalty can never exist to the point where the state could not possibly condemn the wrong person to die.
"We're all human beings, we're all fraught with errors and we do the best we can," Yi said. "For us to say that there's no room for error at all is to overestimate our resources and capacities."
Carr said a significant downside to the capital punishment process exists in the state's attorney's ability to use subjective means to determine who will be tried for the death penalty. He cited his own cases which contained identical sets of facts, yet the state's attorney's office chose only one to prosecute for a capital case.
"The biggest flaw comes at the outset, when the state's attorney determines whether a case is capital or not," he said. "It's not always a fair or objective process. They have their roundtable process and make those decisions. … not the judge, not the people."
Hirschboeck said the abolishment is still surreal for many of the veteran attorneys.
"It's extraordinary and it sort of takes your breath away," she said. "The folks that practice in my generation, never, ever thought we'd see it in our lifetime and especially in our careers."
Like McKay, Carr will likely see his title in the public defender's office change. But the Grade 4 attorney — who handles cases equivalent to the Homicide Task Force attorney at the 6th Municipal District in Markham — still strongly supports Quinn's decision.
"There's more at stake than just my livelihood. I can go out and get a job doing other things. But to make my living on the back of someone's death is reprehensible," he said. "I don't want to know that a client will get the death penalty just so I can keep my job."
Regardless of their ideological opinions, the average public defender is relieved that clients with whom they develop meaningful relationships won't get the irreversible penalty.
"When your heart is really in the job, you get a perspective that most others don't. You see them in a different light," Carr said. "The public gets to know them based on the worst day of their lives, but we get to know their families and friends and their high and low points."
Long days and nights at the office are prerequisites for both offices — especially when an attorney is on trial. When combined with the often depressing nature of murder cases, even veteran attorneys require some balance.
McKay finds his balance as a golfer and die-hard Chicago sports nut, complete with a "Da Bears" Chicago accent. He speaks proudly of his children — a son and daughter in college and a 17-year-old daughter in private school.
"All I do is write checks to schools," he said with a smile.
Yi said it's the creature comforts — "eat, drink, smoke, run, travel" — that allow her to escape. But it's her husband and children that are the center of her life..
"There's nothing like going through a horrible case that affects you mentally and physically and then going home to have your child tell you how horrible his day was because he has three pages of math homework and got into a huge fight with his best friend because recess didn't go so well," she said.
Yi said she's "not graphic, but candid" when talking to her 10-year-old son about work. Her 19-year-old son, a student at University of Colorado-Boulder, was curious about his mother's work at a time when she was still figuring the job out herself.
"He went through periods where he struggled in terms of what mom does, [wondering] 'is it a good thing or bad thing?'" she said. "I think it's perfectly healthy for a child to have those questions."
McCarthy's version of "family time" is retreating to a secluded cottage out of state "whenever I just need to get away."
Her interests include golfing, true crime books and television shows.
Though she admits her own interests aren't terribly exciting, she stressed that even a relatively dull life of minor comforts represents a far cry from perception of prosecutors that the public absorbs from films and television shows like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."
"A lot of people think that all prosecutors care about is charging people with as many offenses as possible. Nothing could be further from the truth," she said. "The overriding similarity among all prosecutors is that we want to do everything possible to see that justice is done."