Stalled Justice: Delays in the Cook County courts

Another hearing. Another delay.

This is what passes for progress in the Cook County criminal courts, a system that a Tribune investigation found is failing at its most essential function: ensuring fair and timely justice.

In an unprecedented review of murder cases, the Tribune found Cook County’s courts are taking longer than ever to separate the guilty from the innocent — longer than courthouses in any city for which comparable data was available, including New York and Los Angeles. Delays here were growing before the pandemic, and have been getting worse since.

Part 1: Yearslong delays in murder cases break rules, inflict pain and gouge taxpayers

Michael Laster waits with other detainees in a holding cell in the basement of the Leighton Criminal Courts Building before court appearances in October.

Advocates nationally aim for murder cases to take no more than a year. Cook County’s goal is a little more than two years. But it’s now taking more than four to complete most of the county’s murder cases, with some lasting up to a decade or more.

“I think what you’re discovering is a crisis,” said Tom Geraghty, a Northwestern University professor emeritus who’s worked in and studied the county’s courts for decades. “I mean four years to wait for a trial is ridiculous. Two years is ridiculous.”

Experts and advocates agree that justice shouldn’t be rushed, but in Cook County the pace of prosecution for murder cases has slowed to a near standstill.

Murder defendants typically linger in jail longer than a presidential term. For those wrongfully accused, the process costs years with their families on the outside. Taxpayers are left to foot the bill for tens of millions a year in extra jail housing costs.

And victims’ families must wait years for justice.

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Part 2: From missing evidence to no-show cops, Cook County court machinery jams at every turn

The Leighton Criminal Court Building houses an enormous legal machine with dozens of interlocking parts. The machinery can get jammed at every stage of a case and often does.

To identify the underlying reasons for the courts’ slow pace, the Tribune conducted an in-depth review of more than two dozen randomly selected pending murder cases that had lasted four years or longer. Reporters pored over thousands of documents, observed dozens of hearings in those cases, and spoke with defendants, victims’ family members and attorneys.

What emerged was a series of breakdowns so common they barely register with courthouse insiders. They are baked into the culture, accepted by most as part of doing business in a calcified system.

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Part 3: Judges could push the pace on slow-moving murder cases. Most of them don’t.

The original lobby of the Leighton Criminal Court Building, which was constructed in the 1920s to hold the Cook County criminal courts.

It is a long-standing reality in Cook County criminal courts: Each courtroom is its own little kingdom, controlled by a judge with license to run their docket however they please. Every day, every judge gets to choose how aggressively to push for progress in a deeply dysfunctional system.

They can stay hands-off and work at an excruciatingly slow pace. At the other extreme, they can berate attorneys for every perceived misstep in an attempt to keep cases from dragging.

“Many people talk about there being one criminal justice system (in Cook County),” Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr.cq once told county officials. “Actually, there are probably hundreds of criminal justice systems.”

To see how these differences play out in court, the Tribune observed multiple hearings in two courtrooms on opposite ends of the spectrum.

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Part 4: As delays worsen, officials have failed to embrace reforms. Here are steps they could take.

Cook County sheriff’s deputies watch as they assist detainees onto a bus to head to court appearances from the jail.

A decade ago, the court systems in both New York City and Chicago were so backlogged that hundreds of people had been sitting in jail for more than two years while awaiting trial.

But only one of these places treated the situation like a crisis.

In New York, the state’s top judge stepped in, ordering teams of judges into slow courthouses to finish old cases, then announcing a plan with New York City’s mayor, police and court system to find out what led to the backlog and fix it.

And in Chicago? No teams of judges to address backlogs, no big interagency plans, not even any public acknowledgment from the courts of a serious problem that has only worsened in that 10-year window

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End-of-year review: Signs of progress, but decade-old cases linger

Shawn Jones, shown at Cook County Jail on Dec. 21, has been awaiting trial on murder charges for 12 years.

Since publishing the “Stalled Justice” investigation this spring, the Tribune has found some signs of improvement. Attorneys say evidence is being shared faster with the help of new technology, more staff members and stricter rules, while judges are questioning delays more aggressively and setting more deadlines to complete pretrial tasks.

But those changes have come in a court system still steeped in bureaucracy and resistant to acknowledging the need for change. Left lingering in the court system are more than 1,000 pending murder cases, hundreds of which predate the pandemic. Twelve people have been in custody for more than a decade with pending cases.

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Neighboring court system shows delays can be addressed

Kane County’s criminal courts are 40 miles west of Cook County and miles ahead of their larger counterpart in addressing problems that can slow the pace of justice to a near-standstill.

In just two short years, Kane County has reduced by half the backlog of people languishing in jail for more than a year. Meanwhile, in Cook, delays have only worsened.

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Criminal case in toddler’s death takes twice as long as civil suit

On a sweltering July evening 12 years ago, medics raced to a Midlothian apartment and found a bleeding and badly bruised toddler struggling to breathe.

The little boy was too far gone to save. Soon came questions of who was to blame. Two court cases were launched in separate courthouses, showing two very different versions of what justice looks like in Cook County.

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Update: Prosecutors take step to streamline evidence tracking

In a move that could help speed up prosecution of notoriously slow criminal cases, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office will more comprehensively store and track digital evidence, officials said.

The new system was set to be rolled out for adult felony cases not long after the Tribune published an investigation chronicling how long Cook County murder cases linger on the dockets.

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Update: Courts to begin logging the reasons cases are delayed

As the pace of justice in Cook County has grown slower and slower, leaders of the criminal court system have failed for years to implement a first step toward reform: collecting data on why cases get delayed.

Now that finally may be changing.

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How we reported this investigation

Defendant Michael Laster walks with a group through tunnels from the Cook County Jail to the Leighton Criminal Court Building for their court appearances on Oct. 3, 2022.

To document the problem, reporters obtained and analyzed data from several sources. They also interviewed courthouse attorneys, defendants, victims’ families and their advocates, while filing three dozen record requests, poring over more than 40 case files and attending more than 1,000 hearings.

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Timeline: Decades of studies, decades of inaction

For 50 years, study after study has documented serious problems. Yet judges show little alarm and won’t discuss the issues in a system that, by design, limits transparency and accountability.

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