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Excerpt: 'Defending the Damned'

Defending the Damned Book Cover

"The odds," Assistant Public Defender Marijane Placek said as she gathered her files for a morning court hearing, "are completely stacked up against us."

It was just after nine on a brilliant blue Tuesday morning in late April 2003, unusually pleasant and warm for Chicago this early in spring. Outside the massive, gray stone Cook County courthouse at Twenty-sixth Street and California Avenue, a stream of government employees, cops, corrections officers, lawyers, social workers, investigators, jurors, witnesses, felons, petty crooks, drug addicts, gangbangers — the guilty and the innocent — all converged for another day in the administration of justice. Buses disgorged clusters of people out front, and at the corner near the Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits. Waves of others marched across California Avenue from the five-story parking garage, some stopping at the stainless steel paneled lunch truck for coffee and pastries.

"Everybody saw him do it," Placek continued. She was telling me about her client Aloysius Oliver, a twenty-six-year-old unemployed ex-convict charged with fatally shooting an undercover Chicago police officer. "He did it in front of God, country, and four cops." Soon after his arrest, Oliver gave a videotaped confession. It seemed as if the state couldn't have asked for a better case. Placek couldn't ask for a more difficult one. But she knew that in every case, all was never as it seemed.

Placek was briefing me on the case in her eighth-floor office, a 9-by-12-foot windowless room designed in bureaucratic government drab, with carpeting the color of cherry cough medicine, dull off-white walls, beige metal furniture and stacks of cardboard boxes with words and phrases she scrawled in green ink that said "dope," "keep mouth shut" and "sick."

Atop her desk was an old twelve-inch black-and-white television set tuned to Divorce Court, and next to the antenna sat a round purple plastic mirror in which Placek, who was fifty-four years old, could see herself when she spoke on the phone. Her bobbed hair was dyed golden blond with streaked highlights. Her eyes were large and menacing, emboldened by dark mascara, her full lips colored bright red. Taped to the wall were movie posters from The Road Warrior and The Usual Suspects. Behind Placek on the floor was a wire shoe rack, jammed with flats and pumps, boots and tennis shoes; a pair for any occasion, available to match her outfits and moods. The snakeskin cowboy boots were reserved for when she wanted to look like a gunslinger, a nickname she earned in court from her readiness to do battle and shoot up the young state attorneys she liked to intimidate. That morning she decided on a pair of beige pumps to complement her black and brown herringbone outfit, which was comfortably draped over her large frame.

Placek was getting ready to argue a motion, along with cocounsel Ruth McBeth, in which they would try to get Oliver's confession thrown out, a confession she contended that never should have happened. "Why did he confess? Because the police beat the shit out of him." That was one of her theories, anyway. She knew of course that the police would contend that Oliver was injured while resisting arrest, and offered his confession voluntarily. "That's bullshit," Placek said, her tone sounding angry and a little too loud this early in the morning. "But we probably won't win the motion. Do you know how far you have to go to prove the police have lied?" She paused and waited for me to answer, then rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Pulheese!"

As she talked, Placek took a pair of scissors from her desk and cut out the crossword puzzles from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. She would carry them with her to court, as she did every day, so she had something to do while waiting for her cases to be called. There was a lot of waiting in the courtrooms as a never-ending supply of criminal suspects and lawyers lined up to stand before judges to make motions, offer plea agreements and ask for continuances. She slipped the puzzles into her appointment book so the judge couldn't see them. Judges prohibited reading of newspapers while court was in session.

It was a newspaper headline that initially alerted Placek to the Oliver case, which became one of Chicago's most highly publicized killings during the summer of 2001. Oliver was charged with shooting Officer Eric Lee, who had tried to stop Oliver from beating a man in an alley behind Oliver's house. Lee was the fifth plainclothes Chicago Police officer slain in the line of duty in the past three years. The shooting rocked an already deflated department that felt it was losing control in a city where they were powerless over criminals who had no respect for the badge. The state's attorney vowed justice and declared that Oliver would pay for his crime with the ultimate penalty: death.

At his first court appearance, Oliver told the judge that he couldn't afford a lawyer, and the judge assigned his case to the Public Defender's Office. A few days later, Placek walked into the office of her supervisor, Shelton Green, and demanded to be put on the case. This was the kind of case she loved best — high-profile, seemingly impossible, full of land mines, epic battles and headlines. She smelled blood and savored the idea of taking on the cops and prosecutors. Green told Placek that Ruth McBeth, another lawyer in her unit, was already assigned to represent Oliver. Placek wanted in, and let Green know she was going to be on that case, too. It turned out that McBeth already planned to ask Placek to join her, knowing they'd make a perfect fit for this case. Their styles complemented each other — like good cop, bad cop. Placek was a roaring, in-your-face intimidator, a dominant figure who relished the spotlight, commanded the courtroom and drew attention to herself in fiery rhetoric and in florid clothing. McBeth, who was forty-two years old, was low key, more conservative in style and in dress, her wire rim glasses giving her a studious appearance. She tended to wear earthy, more muted colors than her counterpart, and had curly brown-gray hair that fell just below her shoulders. As a lawyer, McBeth was stealthy, steady and cool, preferring a quiet, straightforward approach to her cases, and avoided the media spotlight.

Placek knew the case was going to be tough. But for her, there was an inverse relationship between the difficulty of a case and how much she wanted to try it. That Oliver confessed didn't matter. It made no difference that there were plenty of witnesses. Placek was not intimidated that the State's Attorney's Office would surely put everything it had into prosecuting Oliver and assign their best lawyers to the case. Bring 'em on, she would say. The more hopeless, the more she liked it. "The challenge is why I want it," she explained. "It's going to be fun."

Fun. That seemed like an odd way to describe defending a cop killer. But that's what it was to Marijane Placek who spoke of cases as if they were chess games, horse races or jousting matches. Like most of her clients, Aloysius Oliver was poor, black and out of work. He was another of hundreds of accused murderers she had represented in her twenty-four years as a public defender. Placek was part of an elite, highly experienced team of lawyers assigned to the Murder Task Force of the Cook County Public Defender's Office, a group of lawyers that operated in the dark corners of the criminal justice system. They were the lawyers for the damned, paid by the people to represent the enemies of the people, working to thwart prosecution of those accused of some of the most vile, repulsive and cold-blooded killings in Chicago, and in doing so were to seek justice for those defendants who were innocent, and to ask for a measure of mercy for those who were not. Placek took on the Oliver case even though she already had an overbooked schedule of clients, including a woman charged with killing her baby and, with her boyfriend's help, dismembering it to conceal the crime, and a man accused of raping and killing a two-year-old girl. She would handle those, and a few other murder cases, simultaneously. More would pile up; it was virtually guaranteed. Just a few steps outside of Placek's office, tacked to a bulletin board, was a newspaper clipping with the headline, "City's Homicide Rate on Rise." Next to the headline, someone wrote in red ink, "We have job security" and drew a little smiley face.

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 Twenty-sixth 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.

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, carnicerías 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 minidonuts, 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.

Excerpted by permission from Defending the Damned: Inside Chicago's Cook County Public Defender's Office by Kevin Davis . Copyright © 2007 by Kevin Davis.

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Kevin Davis