Monday, February 17, 2014

Putting legal process on trial? ‘Hurry up and wait’ takes longer these days

It has been more than a couple of decades since I regularly hung around courthouses in my reporter-type person duties. Yet the general rule of thumb I remember was that it usually took a court case about two years to make its way through the legal procedure.

The Criminal Courts building looks similar in some ways. But the legal process seems to be getting more and more drawn out.
Back in 1989 and early 1990 when I was a regular reporter at the Criminal Courts Building, or roaming around the various suburban courthouses, I covered many a trial of events that took place in 1987.

SO IT IS with that memory in mind that I noticed a Chicago Tribune story that previewed the upcoming trial of Allan Kustok, which is scheduled to begin Tuesday at the courthouse in suburban Bridgeview.

Kustok is a man who has the image of a respectable pillar of society. Except that he now faces criminal charges for the slaying of his wife.

Back on Sept. 29, 2010!

The case is going to get its share of attention in coming weeks because Allan and his now-deceased wife Jeanie had two children who became athletes of some prominence at area universities.

BUT TO ME, the idea that this case took three-and-a-half years to get through the process so that a trial could be held is what is truly notable about this case.

I realize that criminal trials are not something to be rushed into – even though I’m sure the people who view themselves as “law and order” types (they’re really borderline fascists who want a justice system to bully others) wish they could be.

Delays can be just as lengthy at the federal complex
I also recall one of the most humorous moments I ever experienced in a courtroom was once hearing a woman tell someone else “We’re going to have a trial today” because her brother had been killed the day before.

Actually, it was just a bond hearing that day, and if I recall right, the defendant in question pleaded guilty about a year-and-a-half later. Which means there never was a trial.

BUT IT JUST seems like cases are taking longer and longer to work their way through the process. It was last month that Roy Valle, a former village clerk in suburban Lynwood, pleaded guilty to criminal charges for a February 2011 car collision that killed another woman.

He’s now a man in his mid-60s serving a six-year prison sentence. Not a pleasant experience for him, I'm sure. But it took nearly three full years for that case to get through the legal process – and it ended in a plea.

No trial necessary.

It’s not even just the Cook County Circuit Court system that has the delays. As I wrote last week, state Rep. Derrick Smith, D-Chicago, faces charges in U.S. District Court based on claims by prosecutors who say he was bribed for his government actions.

IF HE IS found guilty, he will have to give up his legislative post.

Yet Smith is now on the ballot for his third term in the Illinois House of Representatives, even though he was indicted in his first term. This is now becoming the ongoing joke of the local election cycles – that an indicted legislator will continue to get himself re-elected (because the opposition can’t come up with a credible candidate)!

I find the delay to be more troubling than the re-election of an indicted goof (who, theoretically, is innocent until proven otherwise).

And yet it isn’t just these three cases.

THE CRIMINAL COURT facilities truly are nothing more than a factory these days, watching as cases creep their way through the process of discovery (by which attorneys for prosecution and defense exchange information so that everybody is properly prepared for a trial – should a case come to that).

And with many people facing the process of sitting through hours of time every time they have to show up at a courthouse, the idea that a case can get endless continuances after just a few minutes goes so far as to create the idea that these cases linger on indefinitely.

Which makes that whole legal concept of how people are entitled to a speedy trial seem like a bigger joke than the idea that the Chicago Cubs will someday win something of significance.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Currently, I do some work for one of the daily newspapers in the suburbs, and occasionally have to show up at courthouses in Cook County. My superficial observation about change is that they seem not to. In that they look grungier as if they haven’t been cleaned since the days I was a courthouse regular, and sometimes I sit in a busted courtroom seat that I could swear was busted all those decades ago too.

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