Friday, March 7, 2014

Defending the Damned: Inside Chicago's Cook County Public Defender's Office - Kevin Davis

Two days ago, I interviewed with the Cook County Public Defender's Office.  I was nervous about it because I want to be an Assistant Public Defender very, very badly.  I had come this close to obtaining the position at the Legal Aid Society in New York, but I felt like I didn't connect well enough with the interviewer in the final round.  This time, I decided I had to learn as much about the office as possible.  While searching on the internet for all the information available, I came across reviews for Defending the Damned.  I felt very lucky that such a resource was out there, and I took the book out of the library on Thursday, and finished it about 30 minutes before my interview the next Wednesday.  Did it help me?  I won't know for another two to three weeks.  But it's about as good a book as you will find about what it means to be a public defender.

My only complaint is that it focused squarely on the Murder Task Force.  I would have liked to read more about the work that entry-level attorneys do there (for obvious reasons), but in terms of interest to the general public, Davis is probably right to focus on the most shocking crimes out there.  Some of this book is really gruesome, so expect to get grossed out.  He opens up the book with the shocking testimony of a truly horrible incident, so the reader knows what to expect.  It is actually the first paragraph in the "Author's Note," but later it is treated in more detail:

"The defendant's name was Joan Tribblet, one of about twenty other clients Marijane was representing besides Aloysius Oliver at the time.  Tribblet was a thirty-year-old mother of five children who was charged with murder.  Sitting beside the judge and leaning into a microphone, Tribblet spoke in a steady, emotionless voice as she recounted how she and her boyfriend choked and beat their fifteen-month-old daughter because she wouldn't stop crying.  Tribblet admitted to holding her daughter in a stranglehold, and said her boyfriend smacked the baby with a ruler on the back of the head.  After the beating, the baby stopped crying.  When the couple realized the child was dead, Tribblet said they panicked and tried to conceal what they had done.  Tribblet blamed her boyfriend for coming up with the plan to dispose of their baby, whose name was Oncwanique.  'He said we had to cut up the body and get rid of the body parts,' she testified, not a hint of pain in her voice.  'I placed her in his arms and I told her I loved her and would miss her and then I kissed her.' As Tribblet said this, I heard sighs and snorts of disgust in the gallery.  Marijane nodded for her client to continue.
Tribblet went on to describe how her boyfriend went into the bathroom to slice up the baby's corpse.  As he went about the task, Tribblet said she was busy in the kitchen doing her part.  She prepared a flour batter and heated up a pain of oil on the stovetop.  She then coated the baby parts with the batter, fried it up, and gave it to her boyfriend to toss off in an alley where the dogs could eat it.  The courtroom was silent, the judge, the staff, the people in the seats stunned at what they were hearing.
When the smoke and stench from the cooking overwhelmed them in the apartment, Tribblet said she and her boyfriend decided to put the rest of the body parts in plastic bags and store it in the refrigerator for later disposal.  And if that were not awful enough, she borrowed a neighbor's blender to liquefy the rest of the remains and later returned the blender to the unwitting accomplice." (47-48)

Marijane Placek is the attorney representing Tribblet, and she "wins" because Tribblet accepts a plea bargain in which she is sentenced to sixty years in prison, and would likely serve half of that.  This is because the death was an "accident"--she didn't intend to murder the child--and what they did to cover it up may have been grotesque, but was irrelevant to the murder charge.

This is one of many stories that is told in Defending the Damned--but it is likely the most shocking one.  It's not a book that gets off on "shock value," but it's about how the attorneys work with their clients to achieve the best possible results.  This is just reality.

The "plot" of the book is the murder trial of Aloysius Oliver, who is accused of murdering Chicago Police Officer Eric Lee.  Lee was undercover on the night of August 19, 2001 in the Englewood neighborhood.  He was with several other officers.  Oliver heard a homeless man walk into his backyard to urinate, and he started beating the man with a friend and his cousin.  The officers heard the commotion and ran to investigate, and it ended with Lee being shot in the head.

Throughout the rest of the book, Davis reconstructs the scene several times as Placek attempts to mount a defense for Oliver.  A truly valiant effort is made, and every courtroom scene is excellently written.  The reader really will be on the edge of their seat waiting to see what the result will be.  Davis does a fantastic job of portraying the stakes in the case, and only revealing so much that the decision at the end is a surprise (I will not spoil it in this review, either).

I will say that the book is a tiny bit repetitive at points, and certain details are repeated as if to remind the reader.  But this is really a minor quibble (also there were about four or five typos in the book that distracted me).  Really one of the major triumphs of this book is how Davis answers the question, "how can you defend these people?" This is known as the "cocktail party question" and is at the center of Davis's motive in writing the book.  And he provides a very balanced view, listening to both the defendant and the victim, to make sense of the various crimes involved and how they should be resolved.

He was fortunate to follow Marijane Placek because she has such a commanding presence as a character.  There is one passage I particularly like that sums up her attitude about her work.  It is about as badass as you can get:

"To hate and to be hated was part of the job.  Marijane knew that parents, spouses, children and friends of murder victims despised her.  She felt they should despise her.  Marijane told me a story about one murder trial during which she had to teach the father of the victim to hate her because that's the way it was supposed to be.  She represented a client who was accused of tossing a Molotov cocktail into the man's home, an apparent act of retaliation over street drug sales.  Three children and their grandmother died in the fire, but the father was not home at the time.  One of the girls who escaped the burning house without her siblings was called to testify during the trial, and Marijane was unrelenting as she cross-examined the child, bringing the girl to tears.  During a break, the girl's father began walking toward Marijane full speed, as if he were going to attack.  Investigator Richard English saw him coming and stood in front of Marijane to protect her.  The father urgently wanted to talk to Marijane.  He yelled out, 'You're one of the best goddamn lawyers I've ever seen.  I want to take your card.' Marijane couldn't believe what she heard.  'He was a known drug dealer and had a case coming up.  And he wanted me to represent him.'  Marijane was enraged.  'I said, "Get out of here.  Get out of my way, you fucking bastard." I had such contempt for that man.  He broke my boundary.  You cannot come up to the person who represented the man who killed your daughter and say, "Will you be my lawyer?" Not in my ethic, not in my soul, not in my nationality.  You should want me dead.'  Marijane would have understood if the man had yelled or cursed or tried to attack her.  'I would have respected him, and I wouldn't have reported him for hitting me, or trying to hit me or trying to get in my face and call me a bitch or whatever,' she said.  'You don't praise me and say I'm good.  Don't do it.  That was the most appalling thing I've ever seen in the courtroom.'  Marijane stopped to underline her point.  She was not in court to make friends.  She was there to hate.  'I am that hard.  I am that cruel.  Get that right,' she insisted.  'I know what I am doing.  This is not any kind of soft thing.  I signed on, and I am doing it.'" (160-161)

While the trial of Aloysius Oliver is a good framing mechanism for the book, I found the random stories from the other public defenders featured in the book to be more compelling.  Davis gives a brief biography of each of the attorneys, and gives a little "where are they now" at the end of the book that is very nicely done.  Some of the attorneys stay, but for many it is simply too much.  For those that do stay, they usually need some kind of coping mechanism to remain sane.  For Placek, it is the thrill of the trial--she just finds the work fun as hell.  For another, it is a sports metaphor:

"The veteran lawyers who remained in the task force in Chicago were aware of the personal and psychological risks of being on the job for so long and struggled to balance their lives inside and outside the courthouse.  'I can shut off the misery I see here on a daily basis by looking at this job as an athletic competition and shut out the hell and the havoc," Bob Strunck told me.  'This is like the Notre Dame Fighting Irish versus the USC Trojans.  It's a game.'  Sports was Strunck's refuge and his own perfect metaphor [sic] what he did for a living.  The spirit of competition helped drive him in in the courtroom and gave him pleasure outside it.  He was a season ticket holder to the Chicago White Sox and every fall was glued to the television during college football season.  He went to the Indy 500 every year with a buddy.  Yet these diversions never completely released his mind from the madness he encountered at Twenty-sixth and California, the appalling cases he continued to see every day.  'It never fucking ends.  I've got a naked guy who was running through Uptown, wearing nothing but a sock and stabs a guy to death.  He just drank a half bottle of Kettle One [sic] and then stabbed this guy on the street,' Strunck said.  'Here's another one: This guy was having sex with his daughter and then he found out she was pregnant.  He took her down to some building, chained her to a fence and beat her to death.  I mean, this was fucking awful.'" (280-281)

Work in the Murder Task Force is understandably difficult--but I'm aware now of how bad it gets.  This work certainly isn't for everyone.  Still, after reading about all of the horrifying experiences that public defenders are likely to encounter, I want the job as much as ever.  The stakes aren't higher in any area of the law.  This is nicely summed up by a public defender who left to do civil practice:

"Musburger went on to become one of Chicago's best-known entertainment lawyers, representing television, film and radio talent along with former Chicago Bulls Coach Phil Jackson.  But he told me that what he experienced as a public defender, especially during the Williams trial, made much of his modern-day work seem unimportant by comparison.  A bankruptcy lawyer once hired Musburger to handle a case because of his trial experience.  'He said to me, "I'm really glad to have you  because you seem to be able to handle the pressure of this."  And I remember thinking, This is only money.  The only thing that can happen to us is that our client will lose money.  Until you sit next to someone who can lose his life, you don't know what pressure in a courtroom is all about.'" (278)

Defending the Damned has its flaws, but it's a wonderful resource to have.  This book should be in every prison library because there are few works that could be more relevant for inmates than this.  It should be required reading for students majoring in Criminal Justice and for law students interested in being public defenders.  It's both inspiring and troubling, and should make every reader see both sides of the equation that make up the justice system.

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