Sunday, 1 April 2007

Defending the Damned

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Defending the Damned
Inside Chicago's Cook County Public Defender's office

March 31, 2007

Chicago writer Kevin Davis often wondered the same thing most people probably do about public defenders: How could they work so hard trying to keep some of society's most vicious criminals out of prison or off Death Row?

Davis said public defenders called the common query the "cocktail party question," and he wanted to get beyond the rote reply that they were performing the vital public service of protecting the constitutional rights of the accused.

A five-year search for a more meaningful answer resulted in Davis' book, "Defending the Damned: Inside Chicago's Cook County Public Defenders Office," which will be released in hardcover Tuesday by Simon & Schuster.

In an interview last week, Davis said the book will challenge the popular conception of public defenders as bleeding-heart apologists for nasty criminals.

"It's not as simple as that," he said. "They all have different motivations. I'm lucky these people let me into their world."

Davis, who went to high school in north suburban Highland Park, joined the South Florida Sun-Sentinel as a crime reporter after graduating with a journalism degree from the University of Illinois in 1984. He was immediately immersed in covering the notorious, cocaine-fueled crime wave that had radiated north from Miami in the 1980s to his stomping grounds around Fort Lauderdale.

"All of south Florida was affected," he said. "That crime beat ended up being the beat everyone wanted because there was so much going on."

After 10 years on the job, Davis published his first book -- "The Wrong Man," which chronicled the wrongful conviction of a mentally ill suspect coerced into confessing to a double murder he didn't commit. When the book came out, Davis quit his newspaper job and moved back to Chicago.

"I was kind of naive; I thought I'd go off and become a big, famous author," he recalled. "I ended up freelancing by necessity."

Fighting stereotypes

While writing for a variety of local publications, Davis was still searching for a topic of his second book. He was drawn back to the world of criminal justice he had covered in Florida -- and eventually honed in on the public defenders representing the constant supply of murder suspects in Chicago.

"I really wanted to see them from a different side," Davis said. "They've always been stereotyped and marginalized."

It was 2001, a year that saw 666 murders in Chicago -- more than in any other American city that year. Most of the suspects arrested in those slayings would end up being represented by one of the veteran public defenders assigned to a special task force based at the sprawling Cook County Criminal Courts at 26th Street and California Avenue.

Davis was given nearly unfettered access to lawyers on the task force who wanted to be part of project, and many did. They talked to him knowing full well their unvarnished words about the already unpopular profession would one day become public.

"I felt that they really wanted to tell me their story," he said. "I think they were ready for this."

No job for those seeking glory

The task force lawyers were routinely assigned to represent those accused of some of the most gruesome, despicable crimes in the city, and many of their clients faced seemingly certain trips to Death Row. Davis noted eight out of 10 murder suspects arrested in Chicago are represented by public defenders; the lawyers performed a function seen by most as distasteful, but one that's utterly necessary in the American justice system.

"These are people who are rarely celebrated except among themselves," Davis wrote in the author's note to the book. "It's not a job for those seeking approval. It's a job for those willing to rattle cages, make enemies and raise hell. By raising hell, these lawyers honor the law."

For the next five years, Davis became a regular visitor at the grimy courthouse known by most Chicagoans simply as "26th and Cal." He spent hundreds of hours shadowing public defenders there while juggling his freelance assignments to earn a living.

While several senior public defenders are profiled in the book, Davis focused on legendary courthouse fixture Marijane Placek. The veteran of several hundred murder trials, Placek was well known throughout the building for her audacious wardrobe, brash manner and attack-dog courtroom style.

Early on in the book's research, Davis watched Placek defend a suspect in one of the city's most gruesome murders in recent history: A husband and wife had killed their baby daughter, dismembered her body and disposed of much of it by dissolving parts in battery acid or tossing them in a blender borrowed from a neighbor. Some body parts were breaded, deep-fried and discarded in a South Side alley for vermin to eat.

"I thought it really showed how ugly things could get over there (at the courthouse)," Davis said. "But I had trouble even telling my wife about that one."

'Battered baby case'

Some time later -- over margaritas, chips and salsa at lunch with Davis and other public defenders -- Placek, in a mixture of gallows humor and impolitic candor, referred offhand to the slaying as the "battered baby case" and the "Kentucky Fried Baby case." They were the kind of comments many journalists would automatically treat as off the record, and Davis said he grappled with the decision to include that anecdote and others in the book.

"But I knew that if I started cutting things like that out of the book, the realism would be gone," he said. In the book, he asserted the off-color sense of humor and hard-hearted legal tactics were necessary components of the job.

"If you start thinking about how the victim's family feels, and how you would feel, you couldn't do it," Placek later confided to Davis.

Defending a cop killer

With Placek as the story's central character, Davis wound his narrative around the murder case of Aloysius Oliver, a convicted felon accused of killing Chicago police officer Eric Lee in an Englewood alley in summer 2001. Placek had been tapped to defend the alleged cop-killer, who had given police a videotaped confession and was identified by several witnesses as the shooter.

"The Oliver case really embodied what public defenders did, and it was the ultimate case of good versus evil," Davis said. "Plus, it seemed like an impossible case. I thought, 'How in the world are they going to keep this guy off Death Row?'"

As the years-long Oliver court case unfolds in the book, the story is interspersed with glimpses of other people involved in the case -- investigators, a defense expert witness and a so-called mitigator tasked with exposing the best qualities in Oliver in the event he was convicted. Davis also takes readers into the living room of Lee's parents for another perspective on the effects of the senseless slaying.

"I wanted to show things public defenders didn't see ... the book still celebrates Eric Lee's life and humanizes him," Davis said. But he acknowledged the story is primarily told from the perspective of the public defenders, and that police and prosecutors "may not like this book."

Davis wrote that he sometimes found himself rooting for the public defenders he spent so much time with to win in court, but admitted feeling queasy about it, knowing that their victory might mean a killer would walk free. Many of the lawyers he profiled didn't take such a nuanced view.

"To me, it's a fight," then-head of the public defender's murder task force Sheldon Green told him. "I'm not concerned whether they did it or not."

Another veteran public defender who won a rare victory in court later admitted he hated his client. The man was another alleged cop-killer who was acquitted of first-degree murder shortly before Oliver went to trial. The decision outraged police and prosecutors and even provoked criticism of the jury by Mayor Richard M. Daley.

"You're not winning for him," that lawyer, Woody Jordan, said of his client. "You're winning for yourself ... you're playing the game for yourself."

After Placek lost a big case, Davis rode along with her as she drove aimlessly through the city streets to cool off.

"If I lose, I'm devastated because it means I'm not good enough to win," Placek told him. "I win for me. My ego is on the line."

Davis also captured quieter moments: A former public defender's tears as he recalled not being able to save a murderous rapist from Death Row more than 20 years ago; Placek's smug joy when she learned one of her favorite clients -- a man she always insisted was innocent -- had been exonerated of murder when federal prosecutors caught the real killers.

As he awaits the book's release, Davis is still doing freelance writing as well as teaching a journalism class at Loyola University Chicago. He's searching for a topic for another book and initially said he thought he might take a break from the crime genre, but then predicted he may once again be drawn back into the realm of criminal justice.

"That's where all the interesting stories are," he said. "I'm not going to write a book about municipal government."

Chris Hack may be reached at

1 comment:

PD Stuff said...

You might be interested to know that Kevin Davis will be Monday's guest on Public Defender Stuff, in the blog's Monday Musings interview feature. There is also a subject tag on the blog for the book.