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After Poor Defendants Denied Free Lawyers, Chief Judge Speaks Out

By Erin Meyer | September 23, 2013 6:56am
 Cook County Circuit Chief Judge Timothy Evans is calling on judges to grant defendants a proper hearing before denying access to free legal counsel.
Cook County Circuit Chief Judge Timothy Evans is calling on judges to grant defendants a proper hearing before denying access to free legal counsel.
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COOK COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTHOUSE — A 53-year-old homeless man allegedly caught with drugs stood before a Cook County judge arguing that he did not have the money to hire a lawyer.

Another defendant, also accused of possessing drugs, pleaded with the court: “I can’t afford it. I can’t,” he said, according to court transcripts.

But the judges in those two separate cases, brought by the Cook County State's Attorney Office earlier this year, refused to appoint public defenders to represent the men. The judges apparently justified the denial solely on the fact that the two men had posted cash bonds in order to get out of jail, court reform advocates claim.

“Sir, you have a thousand dollars posted in bond. You do not qualify, and you will not get a public defender from this court,” Judge Ann O'Donnell told one of the men.

But Timothy Evans, chief judge of Cook County Circuit Court, has called for a halt to such treatment of defendants who say they can’t afford to hire a lawyer.

“The law is crystal clear. Counsel must be made available to the indigent,” said Evans, who recently issued an order condemning the practice of denying free legal help to the poor.

In an interview, Evans said our entire "system of justice” is at stake if the practice continues, as is the freedom of the defendant. 

"If a defendant is forced to represent himself, his liberty is at stake in that particular instance," he said. "If his liberty is at stake, then all of our liberty is at stake.”

The year 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of U.S. Supreme Court decision guaranteeing criminal defendants who can't afford to hire an attorney access to free legal counsel. By law, the income level of someone accused of a crime is not supposed to affect the treatment he gets in the justice system or his right to legal counsel.

The Office of the Cook County Public Defender, which has an annual budget of $55.6 million, was appointed to represent defendants in about 223,000 cases last year.

Judges in Illinois have the authority to refuse to appoint public defenders or seize bond funds to repay the county for the public defenders’ services, but only after the court conducts an assessment of the defendant’s finances through indigency hearings. A defendant could be ordered to pay up to $500 for misdemeanor cases, and as much as $5,000 in felony cases, to recoup the county's costs.

Evans' order came in response to an investigation by the justice system reform group Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, which it said found judges refusing to appoint public defenders in cases without a fair review.

Chicago Appleseed attorneys randomly selected courtrooms in Cook County branch court. They said they observed a troubling number of instances in which judges refused to appoint a public defender without holding a compulsory hearing to measure defendants' financial situation. The advocates obtained transcripts to help illustrate the problem and forwarded them to Evans.

“Defendants were being denied a public defender simply for the fact that they've posted bond,” said Ali Abid, staff attorney with Chicago Appleseed. “It's against the law and a violation of the Sixth Amendment.”

O'Donnell did not return calls for comment on her case, one of a handful highlighted by Chicago Appleseed.

Another judge, Marvin Luckman, who refused to appoint a public defender to represent the homeless man, apparently was not familiar with the recently issued order by Evans.

But in an interview, Luckman balked at the suggestion that he failed to follow rules for appointing a public defender.

"I couldn't care less about the transcripts," Luckman said. "I have been a lawyer for over 50 years. I have given public defenders to defendants who are indigent."