COOK COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTHOUSE — After almost four years of repeated treks to the hulking Cook County Criminal Courthouse, Myrna Roman is finally going to have her day in court.
Like many mothers who have lost children to Chicago violence, Roman could be called to testify about her first born when the trial of his accused killer gets underway next week.
She knows sitting through the trial, let alone taking the stand, will be difficult, but she also knows she will not be alone.
Roman's personal trials in the wake of her son's murder — the flurry of loss, rage and confusion that define her odyssey through the criminal justice system — have united her with a group of mothers bound by similar tragedies.
Formally named Chicago Citizens for Change, the group is made up mostly of mothers whose children have been murdered.
They cry together, pray together, march in protests together, eat and sometimes dance together, and go to court together.
For Roman, a 52-year-old hospital administrative worker, navigating the criminal justice system has been a painful and impossibly fraught experience. If not for the other mothers, Roman would have been lost, she said.
“It’s so much easier to have people who can tell you the way it really it is,” Roman said. “It would be horrible to try to do this by yourself, especially when you consider how long the criminal justice system takes.”
Slow Road to Justice
It can take years for murder cases to go to trial.
More than four years after her oldest son, Manny Roman, 23, was allegedly slain in an unprovoked attack by a paraplegic gangbanger in Humboldt Park, Roman is praying that she will finally see justice served.
Andrew Ruiz, 32, the man charged in the killing, is expected to stand trial starting Monday. Jury selection in the case begins Friday.
To attend his many pretrial hearings, Roman has made the trip to Cook County Courthouse more than 50 times, usually with a small brigade of mothers in tow.
Some of the mothers liken the hulking fortress of crime and punishment to "hell."
Its campus, also home to the sheriff's office and jail, spans more than eight square blocks smack dab in the middle of a gang-ridden portion of the city's West Side.
Barbed wire stretches around much of the perimeter until jail watch towers give way to the great limestone columns of the courthouse, constructed more than 80 years ago.
Cellphones are prohibited inside, so the mothers have to leave their phones in the car every time they visit.
They wait in snaking lines outside a bank of metal detectors to take off their belts and empty their pockets and then march together to the designated room, one of building’s 30-plus courtrooms where several hundred cases are heard daily.
"Going to the courthouse still makes me physically ill," said Yolan Corner, who found her daughter and infant granddaughter shot to death in their South Loop home by a jealous ex-boyfriend in 2009. "I felt like I was serving time there, like I was a prisoner."
Corner found herself in the media spotlight after the murder because 10-month-old Ava was also the daughter of former Chicago Bull Eddy Curry. The man who shot them in a fit of rage was convicted and sentenced to life in prison last year.
Media attention, she said, can be both good and bad for families devastated by murder. When the TV cameras inevitably move on to the next big story, there's nothing to take their place but grief.
"It's like teetering on the edge of a cliff, and it just pushes you right over the edge," she said. "You fall and keep falling."
'I Was Desperate'
In addition to constant trips to the courthouse, the mothers have to go to the coroner's office to identify their children's remains, arrange funerals, seek mental health counseling and apply for state financial assistance, and they have to learn to work with police.
Manny Roman's family posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest when, a year after Manny's murder in 2010, police still had not filed charges.
The news of an arrest made Roman's heart soar. But her elation turned quickly to bewilderment when she realized the long road ahead.
“I was desperate,” she said. “You twiddle your thumbs, just waiting.”
She stumbled across Chicago Citizens for Change soon after Manny's murder and found more purpose for her grief.
The organization was founded by Joy McCormick, the mother of Francisco “Frankie” Valencia, a 21-year-old DePaul University student who was gunned down at a Halloween party in Humboldt Park in 2009.
The shooter, a purported Maniac Latin Disciple gang member, was mad he had been asked to leave the party when he unleashed his misplaced rage on Valencia and snuffed out his bright future with a bullet in his chest, prosecutors said.
One of Valencia's best friends, Ricky Pike, 24, met a similarly senseless fate in August 2012.
Pike, an aspiring chef, was driving his car in Logan Square when a man later identified as Arcadio Davila pulled up along side him, said, "What's up?" and opened fire, prosecutors said.
Pike and Valencia met in high school on the football field.
Their mothers met in mourning.
'I Cannot Give Up Hope'
McCormack saw her son’s killer sentenced to 90 years in prison in 2011. Pike’s mother is still waiting for Davila's case to go to trial.
"There is no one else in this world who can understand the loss of a child more than someone who has also lost one, and the trust starts from that point," Maria Pike said.
While the wheels of justice turn slowly for all the cases that make it to court, for some of the mothers, the wheels don't turn at all.
Many learn quickly that there are no guarantees; cases fall apart, witness recant their testimony or disappear before trial.
Leon DeaKyne, 17, was hit in the back by a single bullet when a gunman opened fire into a group of people he was with in Albany Park on Dec. 12, 2011.
His mom, Becky DeaKyne, denies her son was in a gang, but cops said Leon was a member of La Familia Stones street gang. She believes that because he was labeled a gangbanger, the case is a low priority.
“I know I may never see my son’s killer face trial, but I cannot give up hope,” she said.
She often goes to the criminal courthouse to support other moms — even though no one has been charged in her son's murder.
“It was just my son and I. Now I have this family and that’s it,” Becky DeaKyne said of the moms' group, which she connected with a few months after Leon’s murder.
They showed up at her Ravenswood home one afternoon in July and offered to help her take down the long-dead Christmas tree still standing festooned with ornaments in mid summer.
“My Christmas tree, that was the last thing my son and I did together,” she recalled. “The needles went all over the floor. It was just branches and trunk.”
The other mothers carried the tree out and put it in the dumpster. Now they're trying to help DeaKyne keep her case alive.
DeaKyne says she'll never give up and continues to ask questions and hand out fliers in the area where Leon was gunned down. Sometimes she's alone, other times she has backup.
"How many moms are going to go out in the street infested with gangbangers? We search and destroy," DeaKyne said. "But some of us still end up just being another number, another casualty of Chicago. Once it becomes a cold case, it's over."