A Year With No Jury Trials Has ‘Exposed Every Weakness That Exists’ In The Cook County Court System

empty courtroom
An empty courtroom at Cook County's Leighton Criminal Courthouse. There have been no jury trials in Cook County since court closures took effect in march during the early days of the pandemic shutdown. M. Spencer Green / AP
empty courtroom
An empty courtroom at Cook County's Leighton Criminal Courthouse. There have been no jury trials in Cook County since court closures took effect in march during the early days of the pandemic shutdown. M. Spencer Green / AP

A Year With No Jury Trials Has ‘Exposed Every Weakness That Exists’ In The Cook County Court System

Defense attorney Cathryn Crawford said there’s no question her client is innocent, and, besides that, the armed robbery case against him is weak. She’s certain they’d be able to prove his innocence at trial.

But her client wants to plead guilty. He’s tired of waiting on a court system that has been mostly shut down for more than nine months because of the pandemic.

Crawford didn’t want to name her client, for fear it could hurt his case, but she said he’s been on electronic monitoring, itching for his day in court, for more than a year and a half.

“He is just tired, because he can’t engage in the social activities that he wants to. He’s stuck in an apartment with a number of other people. And, two weeks ago when I told him that the court was shutting down again he said, ‘I just want to plead guilty so that I can get off electronic monitoring,’ ” Crawford said. “And I said, ‘I don’t want you to do that because you are a young person. You don’t have any felony convictions and this will compromise your future significantly.’ ”

Crawford’s client is one of nearly 9,000 people in jail or on electronic monitoring awaiting trial in Cook County right now, according to data from the Cook County sheriff. That’s almost 1,000 more people in custody compared to the same time last year.

“My clients are in limbo, and they are frustrated. They’re dispirited,” Crawford said. And she added that a number of her clients are ready to give up and just plead guilty. “It’s really, really disheartening.”

There hasn’t been a jury trial in a Cook County courtroom in nine months. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Constitutional right to a speedy trial is suspended statewide.

The result, Cook County attorneys say, is thousands of people whose lives are basically on hold, victims and the accused alike. They describe clients who were weeks away from trial before the pandemic and who will end up waiting an extra year or more for their day in court. People locked up in Cook County jail are at greater risk of contracting a potentially deadly disease, and pandemic precautions make it hard for them to participate in their own defense.

With trials suspended and COVID-19 spreading inside Cook County jail, there’s been an effort from all sides to resolve cases with plea deals if possible.

But Crawford, who is an attorney with the nonprofit Lawndale Christian Legal Center, said prosecutors are “inconsistent” in how they approach the process, and justice in Cook County has become more uneven.

Crawford’s practice represents about a hundred juveniles and young adults, most of them she said are facing gun possession charges. She said some assistant state’s attorneys will “look at the facts of the case and assess the strength of the evidence, the circumstances of the offense, the actions of the police officers and who the young person is.” But others she said just look at the charge and nothing else.

“And in those cases we’re given really awful plea offers that we have to take to our clients, and in normal times we’d say, ‘no, let’s just go to trial,’ ” Crawford said. “But now we’re having to engage in a very different calculus.”

And she said there’s a vast disparity in how individual judges are working during the pandemic, giving leeway to prosecutors or canceling hearings in ways that keep her clients in custody.

“There is a sense of urgency when it comes to locking our clients up or putting our clients on restrictions like 24 hour curfew [or] electronic monitoring,” Crawford said. “But when the defense lawyers have the same sense of urgency in trying to get discovery from the prosecution and trying to litigate issues, pretrial issues, some judges are very angry at us and are … saying you need to have patience. There’s a pandemic.”

State’s Attorney spokeswoman Sarah Sinovic said she “vehemently” disagrees with Crawford’s claim that prosecutors are inconsistent in their approach to plea deals during the pandemic.

“Each of our [assistant state’s attorneys] take an oath to be fair and just in considering all the facts of each case while ensuring the public’s safety,” Sinovic said in a statement. “We share the frustration expressed by defense attorneys that in-person trials are not available during the pandemic, and are looking forward to when courts are fully operational for in-person trials again.”

State’s Attorney spokeswoman Sarah Sinovic said she “vehemently” disagrees with Crawford’s claim that prosecutors are inconsistent in their approach to plea deals during the pandemic.

“Each of our [assistant state’s attorneys] take an oath to be fair and just in considering all the facts of each case while ensuring the public’s safety,” Sinovic said in a statement. “We share the frustration expressed by defense attorneys that in-person trials are not available during the pandemic, and are looking forward to when courts are fully operational for in-person trials again.”

For the defendants locked up in the jail, there is the constant fear of contracting the coronavirus, on top of the angst of a criminal case suspended indefinitely over their heads.

Defense attorney Adam Sheppard says he has clients waiting indefinitely for trial inside the jail. He recently wrote an article arguing that the Illinois Supreme Court’s suspension of the speedy trial right was unconstitutional.

Sheppard said he’d like to see defense attorney organizations start making more noise challenging that order, even though he admits any challenge would be unlikely to succeed because it would ultimately be decided by the state supreme court.

Attorney Brendan Shiller, chairman of the West Side Justice Center, said he doesn’t think it’s worth it to challenge the order. He said with the vaccine here, “it’s just going to be a matter of getting through the next five or six months and moving on.”

Shiller said the most important thing is getting as many people out of Cook County jail as possible in the meantime and limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus inside.

“If we can’t figure out a way to safely do trials and hearings, then people who are in jail simply because they can’t afford a bond … should be let out,” Shiller said. “And if we’re not going to do that, then we should find a way to do hearings safely. And there’s got to be a way to do that. There’s other jurisdictions that have figured that out, and we should be able to do it as well.”

Other Illinois counties have managed to hold jury trials during the pandemic. Sheppard said he tried one in McHenry County.

But attorneys agreed that’s a lot more difficult in Cook County because of the size of the court system — the second largest in the country.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said the court-system slow down has been “incredibly painful.”

“The grinding to a halt means that there are people who are awaiting trial in jail innocent until proven guilty,” Foxx said. “There are victims who are traumatized by the fact that they want to move on with these cases. … All of that being said, you know, we are in the middle of a deadly global pandemic and are doing the best to alleviate the situation to the degree that we can.”

Attorney Mallory Littlejohn with the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation said it’s “stressful” for survivors of sexual assault to just be “sitting there waiting for trial.”

I think they understand because everything in the world has kind of stopped a little bit, but also when does this end?” Littlejohn said. “As a victim, [the waiting] can have implications on your rights and on your emotional well-being.”

Besides victims waiting for justice, the court slow-down has also made it harder for victims of domestic violence to get protective orders. And Littlejohn said the uneven way that different judges and courthouses are handling the pandemic has made the court system even harder to navigate than usual for survivors of sexual or domestic violence.

There is no streamlined system. Every courthouse, every judge is doing things differently,” Littlejohn said.

It’s also exacerbated the inequality baked into the justice system, Littlejohn said. People lucky enough to have a court advocate or who can afford an attorney are able to navigate the system. For those who don’t, it can be a “s**t show.”

“As a whole, [COVID-19 has] just exposed every weakness that exists in the system,” Littlejohn said.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.