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Killer Defense: Part 3

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

- Part 1: Fun. That seemed like an odd way to describe defending a cop killer.

- Part 2: Oliver's confession might save his life.


About 9:30 a.m. Placek and McBeth left the office to catch an elevator down to the main courthouse. They wheeled a television monitor and videotape player, along with a cart containing the case files, into the hallway outside the elevator bank. On the west side of the hallway was a picture window overlooking the old Cook County Jail and the newer Department of Corrections lockups that made up a vast campus of brick and stone buildings surrounded by coiled razor wire fencing. Beyond the jail complex was a view of Chicago's sprawling West Side and the impoverished and crime-plagued neighborhoods from which many of Placek's clients came. Along 26th Street were the mostly Mexican businesses, the supermercados, carnicerĂ­as and fruterias, clothing stores and shops that lead to an arch marking the Little Village neighborhood and gateway to the "Magnifico Mile," a nickname for the Mexican version of the city's opulent Magnificent Mile on North Michigan Avenue. Farther out were the smokestacks of the manufacturing plants and warehouses that helped drive Chicago's blue-collar economy.

As Placek stepped out of the elevator and walked through the halls of the courthouse, people couldn't help but look at her. She demanded attention, and her presence was as large as her self-described ego. She was heavy and walked with strained gait, slowed by her large frame and the deteriorating cartilage in her knees. She wheeled the case file cart past a bank of metal detectors where deputy sheriffs wearing latex gloves patted down visitors, barking orders, frisking for weapons and contraband, instructing them to take off their belts, hairpins, jewelry and shoes before entering. On the other side of the metal detectors, the men hiked up their drooping pants and looped their belts back on, their buckles clacking in a chorus. On a wall next to the snack shop, which reeked of cigarettes and the sweet smell of frying mini-donuts, were computer printouts with the daily court calls. The printouts were tacked in fifteen rows and were three pages deep. Defendants gathered at the wall to look for their courtroom assignments. Placek and McBeth continued to another set of elevators and went up to the sixth floor.

The last time Placek came to court to appear on Oliver's behalf, the courtroom was filled with cops, some fifty or more. For Placek, it was like walking onto a stage before a hostile audience for which she could not wait to perform. That's how it was much of the time. If it were not a courtroom that demanded respect and decorum, she might have been booed by the police and victim's family as if she were a villain making her entrance onto a scene. Every time she walked into a charged room like that, she felt tension, a surge of energy ran through her body, and she primed herself for the fight. "You look out there and you just smell blood," she told me. During that early hearing, Placek recalled overhearing a cop whisper to Oliver, "We should have fucking killed you when we had the chance." That was the kind of thing that excited her.

But on this April morning, only a handful of cops was gathered in the hallway when Placek and McBeth emerged from the elevator. They wheeled their carts into courtroom 606, presided by Judge John J. Moran Jr. The lawyers took their seats at a long and well-worn oak table and laid out their case files and legal pads. Placek flipped open her appointment book and removed a crossword puzzle. The courtroom felt old and stately, with high ceilings, brass and metal latticework and leather-backed chairs for the lawyers. The wooden benches in the spectator gallery were worn smooth by the bottoms of thousands who sat in them and defiled by scratched graffiti of gang symbols, names and initials.

About a dozen people were in the courtroom on other business, mostly defendants waiting for a calendar call and the lawyers who were there to offer plea agreements, ask for continuances or file motions. Placek was surprised that only a few police officers were there. A middle-aged black couple walked in and sat in the front row to the right of the judge. They were the parents of Officer Eric Lee, the man Aloysius Oliver was accused of killing. A man in a blue suit walked up and introduced himself to the couple, saying he was the representative of the Fraternal Order of Police, and handed them his business card.

Placek worked on her crossword puzzle at the defense table. Francis Wolfe walked into the courtroom and took a seat beside Placek. He whispered something, and she whispered back much more loudly, revealing that even though she planned to put on a great argument to suppress the confession, she expected to lose. "This motion is going to be denied because it's the murder of a cop," she told him, her voice reaching beyond her intended audience into the first few rows where the public sat. "What we're trying to do is like playing a chess game. You're looking ten moves down the road."

More members of Officer Lee's family trickled in: his widow, Shawn, his partners, a few cops and the victim's advocate from the State's Attorney's Office. Other cops walked in, some in uniform, others in street clothes, some in uniform with Chicago Cubs or White Sox baseball jerseys worn over their blue shirts - an indication that they were off duty, but members of the brethren. Assistant state attorneys David O'Connor and Joe Magats made their way toward the bench. They were well dressed in dark suits, white shirts and ties, and wore their hair short and neat. Their files were in organized piles, and they used three-ring binders to keep everything in order. They did, after all, represent law and order.

Finally, about noon, Moran was ready to hear the motion to throw out Oliver's confession and called for the bailiff to bring Oliver into the courtroom. The bailiff escorted Oliver to a chair and he sat next to McBeth. He looked small in his loose-fitting jail khakis with large black letters on his chest that said XL and DOC. His hair was cropped short and his face was thin with the beginnings of a mustache and beard. He appeared nervous and withdrawn, and sat silently as Placek nodded in his direction. She looked over to McBeth, who stood up to give the opening statement.


Panel Appearance: Kevin Davis will join members of the Cook County Public Defender's Office Murder Task Force TODAY 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 25, 2007

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