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Killer Defense: Part 1

The first of a three-part excerpt from Kevin Davis' Defending the Damned: Inside Chicago's Cook County Public Defender's Office.


"The odds," Assistant Public Defender Marijane Placek said as she gathered her files for a morning court hearing, "are completely stacked up against us."

It was just after nine on a brilliant blue Tuesday morning in late April 2003, unusually pleasant and warm for Chicago this early in spring. Outside the massive, gray stone Cook County courthouse at Twenty-sixth Street and California Avenue, a stream of government employees, cops, corrections officers, lawyers, social workers, investigators, jurors, witnesses, felons, petty crooks, drug addicts, gangbangers - the guilty and the innocent - all converged for another day in the administration of justice. Buses disgorged clusters of people out front, and at the corner near the Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits. Waves of others marched across California Avenue from the five-story parking garage, some stopping at the stainless steel paneled lunch truck for coffee and pastries.

"Everybody saw him do it," Placek continued. She was telling me about her client Aloysius Oliver, a twenty-six-year-old unemployed ex-convict charged with fatally shooting an undercover Chicago police officer. "He did it in front of God, country, and four cops." Soon after his arrest, Oliver gave a videotaped confession. It seemed as if the state couldn't have asked for a better case. Placek couldn't ask for a more difficult one. But she knew that in every case, all was never as it seemed.

Placek was briefing me on the case in her eighth-floor office, a 9-by-12-foot windowless room designed in bureaucratic government drab, with carpeting the color of cherry cough medicine, dull off-white walls, beige metal furniture and stacks of cardboard boxes with words and phrases she scrawled in green ink that said "dope," "keep mouth shut" and "sick."

Atop her desk was an old twelve-inch black-and-white television set tuned to Divorce Court, and next to the antenna sat a round purple plastic mirror in which Placek, who was fifty-four years old, could see herself when she spoke on the phone. Her bobbed hair was dyed golden blond with streaked highlights. Her eyes were large and menacing, emboldened by dark mascara, her full lips colored bright red. Taped to the wall were movie posters from The Road Warrior and The Usual Suspects. Behind Placek on the floor was a wire shoe rack, jammed with flats and pumps, boots and tennis shoes; a pair for any occasion, available to match her outfits and moods. The snakeskin cowboy boots were reserved for when she wanted to look like a gunslinger, a nickname she earned in court from her readiness to do battle and shoot up the young state attorneys she liked to intimidate. That morning she decided on a pair of beige pumps to complement her black and brown herringbone outfit, which was comfortably draped over her large frame.

Placek was getting ready to argue a motion, along with cocounsel Ruth McBeth, in which they would try to get Oliver's confession thrown out, a confession she contended that never should have happened. "Why did he confess? Because the police beat the shit out of him." That was one of her theories, anyway. She knew of course that the police would contend that Oliver was injured while resisting arrest, and offered his confession voluntarily. "That's bullshit," Placek said, her tone sounding angry and a little too loud this early in the morning. "But we probably won't win the motion. Do you know how far you have to go to prove the police have lied?" She paused and waited for me to answer, then rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Pulheese!"

As she talked, Placek took a pair of scissors from her desk and cut out the crossword puzzles from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. She would carry them with her to court, as she did every day, so she had something to do while waiting for her cases to be called. There was a lot of waiting in the courtrooms as a never-ending supply of criminal suspects and lawyers lined up to stand before judges to make motions, offer plea agreements and ask for continuances. She slipped the puzzles into her appointment book so the judge couldn't see them. Judges prohibited reading of newspapers while court was in session.

It was a newspaper headline that initially alerted Placek to the Oliver case, which became one of Chicago's most highly publicized killings during the summer of 2001. Oliver was charged with shooting Officer Eric Lee, who had tried to stop Oliver from beating a man in an alley behind Oliver's house. Lee was the fifth plainclothes Chicago Police officer slain in the line of duty in the past three years. The shooting rocked an already deflated department that felt it was losing control in a city where they were powerless over criminals who had no respect for the badge. The state's attorney vowed justice and declared that Oliver would pay for his crime with the ultimate penalty: death.

At his first court appearance, Oliver told the judge that he couldn't afford a lawyer, and the judge assigned his case to the Public Defender's Office. A few days later, Placek walked into the office of her supervisor, Shelton Green, and demanded to be put on the case. This was the kind of case she loved best - high-profile, seemingly impossible, full of land mines, epic battles and headlines. She smelled blood and savored the idea of taking on the cops and prosecutors. Green told Placek that Ruth McBeth, another lawyer in her unit, was already assigned to represent Oliver. Placek wanted in, and let Green know she was going to be on that case, too. It turned out that McBeth already planned to ask Placek to join her, knowing they'd make a perfect fit for this case. Their styles complemented each other - like good cop, bad cop. Placek was a roaring, in-your-face intimidator, a dominant figure who relished the spotlight, commanded the courtroom and drew attention to herself in fiery rhetoric and in florid clothing. McBeth, who was forty-two years old, was low-key, more conservative in style and in dress, her wire rim glasses giving her a studious appearance. She tended to wear earthy, more muted colors than her counterpart, and had curly brown-gray hair that fell just below her shoulders. As a lawyer, McBeth was stealthy, steady and cool, preferring a quiet, straightforward approach to her cases, and avoided the media spotlight.

Placek knew the case was going to be tough. But for her, there was an inverse relationship between the difficulty of a case and how much she wanted to try it. That Oliver confessed didn't matter. It made no difference that there were plenty of witnesses. Placek was not intimidated that the State's Attorney's Office would surely put everything it had into prosecuting Oliver and assign their best lawyers to the case. Bring 'em on, she would say. The more hopeless, the more she liked it. "The challenge is why I want it," she explained. "It's going to be fun."

Fun. That seemed like an odd way to describe defending a cop killer. But that's what it was to Marijane Placek, who spoke of cases as if they were chess games, horse races or jousting matches. Like most of her clients, Aloysius Oliver was poor, black and out of work. He was another of hundreds of accused murderers she had represented in her twenty-four years as a public defender. Placek was part of an elite, highly experienced team of lawyers assigned to the Murder Task Force of the Cook County Public Defender's Office, a group of lawyers that operated in the dark corners of the criminal justice system. They were the lawyers for the damned, paid by the people to represent the enemies of the people, working to thwart prosecution of those accused of some of the most vile, repulsive and cold-blooded killings in Chicago, and in doing so were to seek justice for those defendants who were innocent, and to ask for a measure of mercy for those who were not. Placek took on the Oliver case even though she already had an overbooked schedule of clients, including a woman charged with killing her baby and, with her boyfriend's help, dismembering it to conceal the crime, and a man accused of raping and killing a two-year-old girl. She would handle those, and a few other murder cases, simultaneously. More would pile up; it was virtually guaranteed. Just a few steps outside of Placek's office, tacked to a bulletin board, was a newspaper clipping with the headline, "City's Homicide Rate on Rise." Next to the headline, someone wrote in red ink, "We have job security" and drew a little smiley face.


Coming Wednesday: Oliver's confession might save his life.


Panel Appearance: Kevin Davis will join members of the Cook County Public Defender's Office Murder Task Force this Thursday for a discussion of their work and lives, at the Chicago Bar Association Building, 321 S. Plymouth Court, in the Philip H. Corboy Room from 5-7 p.m. The panel discussion is from 5-6 p.m., with a reception and book signing to follow. The event is free and open to the public.

Several of the public defenders whose stories are told in Davis's book will take part in the discussion, including Marijane Placek and Ruth McBeth.

For more information, contact Mary Butterton at 919-260-4863 or Kevin Davis at 773-743-4186. You can also learn more at Kevin's website.


Excerpt reprinted by permission of the author. Copyright 2007 By Kevin Davis. Excerpt also appearing at Simon Says.


Posted on October 23, 2007

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