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Killer Defense: Part 2

The second of a three-part excerpt from Kevin Davis' Defending the Damned: Inside Chicago's Cook County Public Defender's Office. Part 1 is here.


Ten minutes before Placek had to leave for court, Assistant Public Defender Francis Wolfe walked in to her office, flopped down in a beige tweed stuffed chair and slowly exhaled.

Placek looked sympathetically at Wolfe. "Hi, honey. What you got going today?"

Wolfe, who was seventy-two, was the oldest public defender in Cook County. A former commodity trader, he decided to get a law degree while in his sixties. This was his first job as a lawyer. Placek immediately took a liking to him, became his mentor and brought him along to assist on several cases during his training. Now they were close friends. Wolfe had been paying his dues in a misdemeanor court and was recently assigned to a bigger courtroom at 26th and California. He was wearing a tailored navy pinstripe suit and red bow tie, and looked like a white-haired Gregory Peck in his role as lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

"I've got a fraud and embezzlement case," Wolfe said. "The guy is guilty as hell. I don't know what I'm going to do." He sighed in frustration.

"You doing all right?" Placek asked with concern.

"I'm kind of stumbling around." Wolfe adjusted his hearing aid. "In misdemeanor court, they were kind of nice to me. But here, here they're so mean."

"This is the big time."

"Everyone is so egotistical," Wolfe complained.

"You got it," Placek said. "We have to be."

Placek was interrupted by a phone call. "He already has a costume," she barked into the receiver. "He's coming as the Great White Hope."

She was talking about her dog, Spartacus, who would be marching in a suburban pet parade in the coming weekend. "Yes, Spartacus is a boxer. Get it? No, he's not coming as Tyson. He'll be wearing a towel and gloves."

When she finished the call, Wolfe continued. "I've also got a marijuana case today," he told Placek. "She was caught with more than twenty grams. She claims she's self-medicating."

"Honey, dear," Placek shot back. "Ask her for her prescription."

Wolfe laughed. "She doesn't have one."

"I think you're shit out of luck."

Ruth McBeth joined Placek and Wolfe in the office. As McBeth sat down, Joseph Runnion, their law clerk, peeked in. Runnion was scheduled to be a witness for the hearing that morning. He planned to testify about his meeting with Oliver at the jail after Oliver was released from the hospital, offering support for the argument that Oliver was beaten at the police station before he confessed. "He looked like he hadn't slept or eaten in days," Runnion told me when I asked about Oliver's condition at the jail. "And he looked like he had been worked over."

Placek and McBeth planned to argue this morning that Oliver's confession was the result of physical and psychological coercion, and obtained out of the bounds of his constitutional rights. McBeth would deliver the opening statement, and Placek would make the closing argument. Placek knew that getting the confession tossed out was unlikely, but it was a motion she filed in case after case because sometimes a judge would find cause. "It takes a very, very brave judge to throw out a murder confession," Placek explained. But filing the motion had another purpose. By forcing the state to respond to her claims, Placek would get a glimpse at her opponent's case and witnesses, a strategic move before trial, which could be months down the road. Whether the confession was admitted into evidence probably wouldn't matter much anyway. "Some confessions you can live with, others you can't. This one I can live with," she said.

The reason she could live with it was because Oliver said something at the end of his confession that might save his life.


Coming Thursday: A cop whispers to Oliver, "We should have fucking killed you when we had the chance."


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 24, 2007

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