Even When Chicago Police Solve A Murder, Justice Is Not Always Served
Chantal Mulumba remembers everything about the morning in 2017 when her son was killed.
She remembers the exact time she last spoke to him on the phone, 6:53 a.m., and the street where she turned around to head back home because of a sinking feeling in her stomach.
The year before, Nkolomoni had been shot in the leg. He told his mom he was scared that people were after him. That’s why, when she heard her son on the phone, breathing heavily like he was being chased, she was terrified.
“He sounded like somebody [running],” Mulumba said, mimicking her son squeezing out words through panted breaths.
Nkolomoni was shot to death around 7 a.m., just a few minutes after he hung up the phone. He died less than a block from the Rogers Park apartment where he lived with his mother, sister and grandma.
“Since then, my life changed forever,” Mulumba said.
Chicago police identified the man who killed Mulumba’s son, one of the rare cases solved by CPD. But the alleged killer was never charged with a crime. According to a WBEZ analysis of Cook County state’s attorney data, Nkolomoni’s death is one of hundreds of cases that were solved by Chicago police detectives but never charged in court.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me”
Just a week and a half after her son’s murder, Mulumba said a detective called her down to the police station and played a video for her that he said showed the moments leading up to her son’s death, but the blame soon turned to her son.
Mulumba said while the video played, the detective pointed at the screen and said her son had a gun in a park near their home. He said Nkolomoni and another person exchanged gunfire, but no one was hit. Then, Mulumba said, the video showed another man come out of a nearby apartment building and take off running after Nkolomoni.
Nkolomoni was killed about five blocks away.
News reports from the day of the shooting quote neighbors describing Nkolomoni being chased from behind and shot in the head.
A police source said detectives presented the case to prosecutors, who declined to file charges, citing the fact that the suspect claimed self defense and there were no witnesses to contradict him.
Tandra Simonton, chief communications officer for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, said they reviewed the case and “concluded that based on the evidence and the law, we could not meet our burden of proof to file criminal charges.”
Mulumba said she didn’t see her son shoot a gun on the video, but even if he did, he should have been arrested and punished for it, not killed.
“Darlis run, he hide and then the person follow my son to shoot my son. It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Mulumba said.
Chicago police have made an arrest in just 25% of the murders that happened in 2017, according to city data. Nkolomoni’s death is one of those cases.
But according to data from the Cook County state’s attorney, his is one of 281 homicide cases between 2011 and 2018 in which Chicago police identified the killer, but prosecutors declined to file charges, further depressing the already low level of accountability for murderers in Chicago.
“We are bringing charges on cases that we believe we can meet our burden on in court,” said Risa Lanier, the head of the Cook County state’s attorney’s Criminal Prosecutions Bureau. “There's a legal standard that we are trying to meet and that's the beyond a reasonable doubt standard, as opposed to just arresting someone which is a probable cause standard.”
Once Chicago police detectives believe they’ve solved a murder, they contact the state’s attorney’s office for something called felony review. Prosecutors go to the police station, talk to the detectives, review case files and interview potential witnesses. Then prosecutors decide whether they’ll bring charges against the suspect.
“There are two requirements: First, we have to believe that we have the right person. Secondly, there has to be enough evidence,” Lanier said. “If those two requirements are not met then we will have to reject the case, ethically.”
Former Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine said homicide cases are handled by the best and most experienced detectives and prosecutors, all driven to get justice for victims.
But he suggested police can feel pressure to close murders and move on.
“Detectives working a case in a city like Chicago, they have a caseload that they have to deal with, and they want to do what's necessary and then pass it on to the prosecutors,” Devine said. “The prosecutors very often want a stronger, better case, understanding that once they get the case, as prosecutors, it's difficult to beef it up too much.”
Devine said that tension is nothing new. He said the number of homicide cases rejected by prosecutors this decade sounds roughly the same as when he was in charge of the office, from 1996 to 2008.
Devine said prosecutors give murder cases an extra level of scrutiny before bringing charges.
“Number one, the penalties are so severe,” Devine said. “Number two, I think there's a recognition on the part of both police and prosecutors that the families of victims have gone through so much and have suffered such a tremendous loss that you want to be sure.”
Of Chicago murders between 2011 and 2018, prosecutors declined to bring charges in about one in every five murder cases brought to them by Chicago police. That includes cases that were rejected outright and cases that prosecutors kicked back for further investigation and, at least so far, no charges have been filed.
“They only want the slam-dunk winners”
Cook County State’s Attorney Chief Deputy Jennifer Coleman said prosecutors have a responsibility to take a hard look at police cases before filing charges.
“You know we always have to think about the worst case scenario,” Coleman said. “So it's not just our job to look at the case as it is that night at the police station. But we need to think about what it's going to look like down the line when it comes to trial.”
Coleman disputed the one-in-five number, saying it’s not accurate to include cases deemed “continuing investigations” because those cases may wind up in court someday.
But most of those continuing investigation cases are at least three years old, some more than eight years old, with no charges filed.
Former Cook County prosecutor Darren O’Brien, who spent 10 years in charge of the felony review unit, which makes decisions on murder charges, said he’s heard claims that prosecutors are too reluctant to take on difficult cases.
“It’s something the police will talk about, ‘Oh, they only want the slam-dunk winners,’” O’Brien said. “That never was a consideration. No one ever asked me, you know, ‘How many cases have you won?’ or ‘How many have you lost?’ or ‘Don’t charge that it might be a not guilty.’”
The cases that don’t get charged combined with all of the unsolved murders and the glacial pace of Cook County’s criminal court system mean that only 12% of all Chicago murders between 2011 and 2018 have resulted in a conviction of any kind.
Another 14% of those murders have been charged but are still making their way through the courts. That leaves about three quarters of the murders in that timeframe for which there will likely never be any justice.
The biggest factor is the Chicago Police Department’s dismal record solving murders.
The vast majority of cases never make it to prosecutors at all.
Police officials refused interviews for this story — and responded to a list of questions with a one-sentence statement saying the department is committed to conducting thorough, comprehensive criminal investigations.
O’Brien defended police detectives, saying they rely on community cooperation to solve crimes, and all too often, witnesses won’t come forward.
“So I don't blame the police, it's not the police’s fault they aren't solving crimes,” O’Brien said. “It's not like they're choosing to sit behind a desk saying, ‘Well, there’s a murder here, but I don’t think I’ll go out and investigate it.’”
Nkolomoni’s death is a case that Chicago police did solve, which is why his mother is in disbelief that his killer was never charged.
Mulumba wants justice for her son.
But she also believes the man who killed him is “dangerous.”
Whatever her son may have been or done, Mulumba believes it makes the city less safe to leave a man on the streets who is willing to chase down a teenager and shoot him to death at 7 in the morning.