How Can You Defend Those People?

How Can You Defend Those People?
Defender: Homicide Task Force veteran Robert Strunck outside Cook County Jail. Photo by Charles Barry.

ACT 1. City of big shoulders

February 2009. It’s a cold day in Chicago, and Bob Strunck is standing outside a coffee shop on Lake Shore Drive smoking a cigar. Instead of the suit he wears in court, today it’s a USC sweatshirt and Chicago Blackhawks ball cap. He’s telling me how he handled one client charged with killing four people. Prosecutors sought the death penalty. Strunck already had years defending murder cases under his belt. He told the man: “You’re a poster child for the death penalty. See, you’re a drug dealer. You’re clearing $7,000 a day from each of four drug spots on the West Side.”

Strunck’s goal: Wear the client down and plead him guilty to avoid the death penalty. “That guy finally came clean six years later, and he pled and took life.”

Strunck puts out his cigar, then stashes it in a potted plant. We go inside for more coffee.

“That’s another part about this drug culture and the culture of poverty,” he says. “Common sense would tell you, Gee, if there are drug dealers all over the neighborhood, why aren’t these people calling the police? Because that’s the damn economy. The drug dealers are out supporting a lot of people: gang members, fellow drug dealers, families, girlfriends, all their kids.”

“When you’re trying a death penalty case, you’re going to Stalingrad. And it’s not getting any better until it’s over.”

A few things to know about Bob Strunck. He’s five-foot nine and stocky, broad face, square glasses. He can steer you to every cigar store in the Windy City. With a flat-voweled, thudded-consonant growl he will tell you, “I’ve seen and heard it all.” Then he starts into the tales to prove it. Among colleagues his reputation is larger than life.

He grew up among the sons and daughters of policemen and firemen on Chicago’s northwest side, St. Francis Borgia parish. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father was an Illinois state senator before serving as a judge. “Then in seventh grade, we moved up farther northwest, into the 41st Ward, which still is like the Orange County of the city of Chicago politically.”

For high school he went to Loyola Academy in Wilmette, an upscale North Shore suburb. At Santa Clara he majored in history (and, as he’d be the first to admit, goofing off ) and was a radio announcer for baseball and basketball games. He’s prone to historical analogies like: “When you’re trying a death penalty case, you’re going to Stalingrad. And it’s not getting any better until it’s over.”

After getting his J.D. at the Chicago-Kent School of Law he started out defending shoplifters and prostitutes in branch misdemeanor court at State Street and 11th, an experience he describes as trial by fire and interesting as hell. In 1989 he joined the Murder Task Force, an elite team created in the 1970s to address shortcomings that came with public defender territory in Cook County: for the lawyers, crushing case loads and little or no training before handling a murder case; for clients, being shuffled from lawyer to lawyer as their case made its way through the system’s layers. Journalist Kevin Davis chronicled the task force (more recently known as the Homicide Task Force) in detail in the book Defending the Damned. Strunck is in there. One of the compelling stories he tells is of Ronald Macon Jr., a drug addict who confessed to raping and killing three women. Macon drank booze and smoked crack with his victims before he murdered them and left their bodies in Dumpsters. At sentencing, Strunck tried to save his client from execution. As is often the case, there was a horrific childhood: Macon’s father beat him and shot his mother in front of the boy. That, and as Strunck told the judge, Macon was already under a death sentence: He had HIV, which explained some of his rage. Was there any point in executing him sooner?

“I saved his life, and now it’s up to him to make something of it,” Strunck told Davis.

But Strunck is no bleeding-heart liberal. When he came to Santa Clara his politics were “pretty much to the right of Attila the Hun.” When he started lawyering, he thought the Coalition Against the Death Penalty folks were a bunch of Molotov cocktail-throwing Trotskys. A few years in the trenches changed the way he looked at things. “In this job, you become real humble, real quick. But I’ve always gotten along with prosecutors real well,” he says. The current district attorney for Cook County, Anita Alvarez, is a friend of his—and a fellow White Sox fan. Conversely, he doesn’t have patience for those he describes as “quasi-Marxist millionaires up in Pacific Heights. What I admire is people who can walk the walk.”

On his cluttered office wall hangs a pennant for legendary Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, alongside pennants for the San Francisco Giants and New York Giants, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Oakland Seals, photos of his 2005 World Champion White Sox, and a poster of the Rolling Stones. (He’s seen them 17 times.) Amid the piles of files on his desk stand figurines of the Three Stooges.

A few things Bob Strunck wants you to know about Chicago: “It’s the biggest hick town on Earth. Skyscrapers. When I’m on sports message boards, I call this place Hooterville. I mean, people treating the goofy Cubs like they’re a high school team. This place is real provincial.”

The Cook County court system is one of the largest and busiest in the world. When Strunck and I meet for coffee, one front page story is a federal investigation of former Chicago police officer John Burge, who was accused of leading a rogue group of detectives torturing confessions out of murder suspects in police Area Two, on Chicago’s far South Side, from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. The statute of limitations on the torture is past. The latest investigation is into perjury and obstruction of justice.

“These are the tales of the naked city,” Strunck says.

A few things Bob Strunck wants you to know about his clients: “Pretty much all of them have sheets. When you’re actually up close and personal with these people, you can understand why some of this happens: living in a four-block area, and selling drugs, and these stupid, senseless street shootings over revenge. A lot of these murders on the South Side and on the West Side, they’re like one paragraph in the paper, if you read about them at all. I’ve had a lot of cases where these kids are in fist fights. The one kid that loses goes back and gets a gun, and will shoot the other kid in front of five or six people. Or an old lady gets shot through her window, or a kid gets hit in the crossfire, or a kid gets shot on a bus.”

Back outside the coffee shop, Strunck retrieves his hidden cigar and relights it. He says, “People have the idea that most of these murders are well planned and that these people are inherently evil. The majority of these people aren’t evil.”


Gun“You’re always going to get the question, ‘How can you defend those people?’” Strunck says. “In this town, those people means the blacks. When I started doing this, we were on the wrong side of everything.” One judge, now retired, had sentenced more people to death than most states had. Another with a reputation for tough sentencing, Thomas Maloney, turned out to be taking bribes from local Mafia and street gangs like the El Rukns to acquit their guys—then hammering public defenders’ clients to cover himself. “In the last 15 years, 18 people have been exonerated—18 people. They weren’t legally not guilty; they were absolutely innocent. Because DNA’s the ultimate fingerprint. When you get to a situation like that, you realize the whole system’s broken.”

In 2000, then-Governor George Ryan, a Republican, agreed with that assessment and suspended executions. Investigations into the capital punishment system in the 1990s led to a string of exonerations of men who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to die. In 2003, Ryan commuted the sentence of all 167 inmates on death row to life in prison.

One of those men is Leonard Kidd. In 1980 he set fire to a building and killed 10 children, whose ages ranged from 17 years to 7 months.

“Because he was burned, they didn’t arrest him,” Strunck explains. “A few years later, he and his brother are involved in a quadruple homicide, over rock cocaine in a dope house: Two women, the guy that was supplying the cocaine, and a 9-year-old boy. A private attorney was representing both him and his brother, allegedly for only $200, on a quadruple murder. Two hundred bucks. And the attorney decided he’d represent the other guy. He told the cops and the state’s attorneys, ‘Well, maybe my guy knows something about a fire that killed 10 kids a few years earlier.’ Kidd kept pleading guilty and going to testify for his brother—the Frick and Frack defense—thinking his brother would win, and then the brother would testify for him. Stupid street law, okay? Just nonsense. When they first tried him on the 10 bodies, they introduced dream testimony into evidence. When that case came back to get retried, the client thought he was cute and he’d be his own lawyer. That way, he could tell the jury he didn’t do it, and the state couldn’t crossexamine him. Now, his IQ, when I had him tested, was 70.”

A lawyer is only as good as his facts. With Strunck defending him, Kidd was convicted by a jury and sentenced to death. Governor Ryan later let Kidd’s brother go, saying that the confession was obtained through torture.


Another of Strunck’s clients was Cinque Lewis, a native of Oakland, Calif., who, as a juvenile, went into a motel on MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland and killed a man with a sawed-off shotgun over a drug debt. He was sentenced to prison. “Then, every death penalty juror’s worst nightmare: He escaped,” Strunck says. “He got to Kansas City, where he had an uncle who was some sort of storefront minister and who gave him money and sent him to Chicago. He comes here and becomes an enforcer for the El Rukns.”

On Nov. 5, 1985, Lewis went to collect drug money from Yvonne Donald—a 31-year-old mother of two daughters who was five months pregnant. Lewis told the older girl, Brunell, age 10, “‘You go in the other room, I got to talk to your mother.’ She knew the guy,” Strunck says, “because he was always around collecting the money for the drugs. The mother didn’t have the money, so he stabbed her 31 times.”

Lewis went back to California and turned himself in. While he was in prison in Vacaville, his fingerprints were matched to the Chicago murder; he was brought back to Illinois for trial. Brunell—then 15—identified him.

“I cross-examined the girl—a textbook cross-examination,” Strunck says. “The defendant had a big, ugly scar from his ear to basically his mouth. She didn’t describe that to the police. So I figure, okay, I’m going to try to cast doubt on what she’s saying here.”

But Brunell wasn’t fazed.

Lewis was sentenced to death. Several years later, during a resentencing hearing, Brunell was on the stand again. “They asked her what she was doing now. ‘I’m in law school,’ she said.”

Strunck talked at length with Brunell Donald afterward. “That girl became a public defender,” he says. “She wrote a book and now she’s a motivational speaker.” She wanted to get Strunck on The Oprah Winfrey Show. “I think that’s the highest tribute to us that she became a public defender.”

Act II.
 The Fishbowls

The Cook County Courthouse stands at the corner of California and 26th Ave., next to the hulking Cook County Jail. The courthouse is grimed with history; its wood-paneled rooms were witness to the Black Sox trial and the filming of The Fugitive. The smaller, upper-story courtroom where Crystal Marchigiani tries a case on a gray-brown morning in February is a bit more prosaic; with sloping gallery windows, it is one of the rooms they call “the fishbowls.” Alongside the scuffs and streaks on the wall is a sign that reads Please Keep Your Feet Off the Walls. Marchigiani is chief of the Homicide Task Force—then composed of 33 lawyers currently handling 450 cases, a quarter of them capital. Marchigiani’s client, James Freeman, is accused of participating in the kidnapping and shooting of a known drug dealer, Robert Greene, in December 2002. The body was left in the trunk of Greene’s car, a black Chevrolet Caprice, and not discovered until May—after Greene’s sister, who owned the car, began receiving notices of parking tickets.

Freeman’s confession is on a police video, as is his brief biography at the time: 25 years old, five kids, an 8th-grade education. He and his girlfriend were arrested a year after the killing: It was night, they were in a white Mercury Sable parked in a visible area of an apartment complex parking lot, and a security guard got suspicious and called the police. Caribbean food, cannabis, and a 9 mm semiautomatic with hollow-point bullets were in the car. Freeman was charged with illegal possession of a weapon. He admitted that the Mercury was stolen.

When the judge calls a recess for lunch, Marchigiani eats an apple and sips a cup of soup in her office. In contrast to the exuberant clutter of Strunck’s, hers is spare, orderly; there is a framed print of scales of justice and a ceramic figurine of a girl with a pony tail at an easel, painting flowers. And there is a view: freight trains, freeway, bare trees, and stubby towers of the southwest city skyline.

A few things about Crystal Marchigiani: She is a true believer in what she does. As long as she can remember, she wanted to be a public defender. She has dark blond hair and is five-foot-five and projects a quality of force in the courtroom. (“I hope the prosecutors think I’m taller!” she says.) When she speaks, her sentences are well crafted and thoughtful; when she laughs it’s deep and melodic.

“Toughness for me is a strategy,” she says. “But it’s the humanity of the job that matters to me. Of course my client has done something heinous—or is accused of doing something heinous—or knows the wrong people, because here we stand. And it’s truly our negotiating skills that keep our clients alive.”

She grew up in a working-class family in Sacramento with a mother who waitressed and a father who had been sergeant-at-arms in the State Assembly but, for most of her childhood, was on disability. At Santa Clara she studied political science and worked at a temp agency. After earning her J.D. at U.C. Hastings, she joined the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office. “This place is so enormous compared to that,” she says. And, “But for love I never would have left.”

Antonyo Gibson newspaper
Not guilty: Robert Strunck defended Antonyo Gipson, 23, when
he was charged with a triple murder in 2006.

She spent 1990–97 on the Homicide Task Force and then needed a break; after a year in private practice, she was back as a public defender—this time as a supervisor in the juvenile division. “I realized that the stories these children had were the same stories that the adults charged with capital crimes in adult court had, but nobody had ever seen the 11-year-old that they had been,” she says. “The kids growing up in Chicago’s war zones—some of them may make it out. But it’s not just dangerous because they may be shot or killed, it’s dangerous because they grow up hardened, with a lack of empathy.”

In 2003, Marchigiani became chief of the Homicide Task Force. She has also taught trial advocacy at DePaul University for the past 20 years. And she, too, is a Sox fan.


Greene was killed in the Caprice with a TEC-22.

The version that James Freeman tells on the video goes something like this: He and three other guys decide to rob Greene. Freeman pretends to buy a bag of cocaine, the others drive up, guns flashing. There’s a tussle, Greene is shot in the leg, shoved in the trunk. They take him to a garage and demand that he tell them where his cash is. He tells: his girlfriend’s apartment. They get it: $60,000 stashed in a pink purse. But Greene has seen faces. “Gotta get rid of this nigger,” one of the others says.

They throw Greene back into the trunk of his Caprice, then with others in the backseat and another car trailing, Freeman drives the Caprice to 51st Street on the West Side. Shots are fired—four or five. Body and Caprice are left. Money is split up. Freeman heads for Memphis.

At first Freeman denied involvement in the murder. But police held his girlfriend on the same floor; she knew some of what had happened—what was she telling? By 4:30 a.m. a day after being arrested, Freeman led detectives to the garage where they’d held Greene and began a two-hour taped confession.

With ample evidence to place him at the scene, Freeman was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison. No one else has been charged.

Act III:
 Survival of the fittest

Bob Strunck says that in his junior year in college he and his buddies received a letter from the University informing them that they were incompatible for dorm life. So they rented a house next door to The Hut, a bar just off campus. In those hell-raising days he figured himself for a future prosecutor, “somebody asking for the death penalty. I’d be merciless. And then become a judge and just whack everybody.” But if Strunck could talk to his 19-year- old self now, “It would be a stern lecture. Like, ‘Hey, smart-ass, you don’t know everything and you’ve got a lot of learning to do. Shut your mouth and listen to people because you’re going to learn more from listening than by talking. The world doesn’t revolve around you and your friends. And no matter what you think your life is gonna be, it’s not.’”

In a nod to the persistent question—How can you defend those people?—he says, “I didn’t need to see all this misery and mayhem and murder. But then again, maybe it’s God’s will that I did see it, because I can understand it. It opened my eyes. I became a lot more compassionate. And that’s not in defense of homicide or anything like that. I’m not the most devout Catholic, but if you have any kind of conscience at all, you understand what the Jesuits are trying to tell you. I am not arrogant or self-delusional enough to say that the people who are against capital punishment—or public defenders, or defense attorneys in general—are doing God’s work. Because conscientious prosecutors are doing God’s work. I respect the hell out of a lot of them. Conscientious judges are doing God’s work. I just think we’re on the right side of this argument, if they’re arguing at all, up at the Pearly Gates. But in that courtroom, I know how it’s perceived: They’re wearing the white hats, and I’m wearing a black hat. And that’s the way it is.”

He also acknowledges that, while he has worked with a sense of obligation to both his clients and the taxpayers of Cook County, 95 percent of those taxpayers weren’t happy when he won. “Which is understandable,” he says. “For having me do this job, it must’ve been the Jesuits’ gotcha moment.”

Strunck recounts a seminar on the death penalty in New Orleans. “One of these half-wit liberals was up there saying, ‘Oh, Colorado’s such a beautiful place. But it’s such a rough jurisdiction for our clients.’ And I yelled out from the back of the room, ‘I guess they don’t like crime in Colorado, either!’ This guy sitting behind me was from Florida. He almost fell out of his chair laughing.”

In contrast, Strunck says, the Death Penalty College run by Ellen Kreitzberg at Santa Clara is “the best death penalty program in the nation. Nothing is close. It’s actual simulated courtroom stuff.” Strunck came out for that in 1998.

Being pragmatic and seeing all angles has served Strunck and his clients well. He estimates that he got the results he wanted more than half the time—well above the curve. Marchigiani credits him for being particularly adept at assessing how a defense story is going to be perceived, how to work a prosecutor, and when it’s wisest to arrange for a bench trial—whereby a judge, not a jury, will make all the decisions. “He has had a lot of clients acquitted, or acquitted of the more serious charges, or sentenced to life instead of death, because he made that decision correctly,” she says.

“A lot of folks get in personal battles with prosecutors or the judge,” Strunck says. “No, you’re not the defendant. You have to be effective. You can’t sit here and listen to a sob story which may or may not be true. You have to look at the law, and you have to look at the facts. And you have to investigate the hell out of these cases.”

And you have to stay sane. One of the ways the public defenders do that is with true gallows humor. “We talk about a lot of these cases in a comical way,” Strunck says. “You know, if you want to be offended by stuff, you’re in the wrong place. When I was trying the arson case, I’m walking up to the podium in the courtroom one day and I catch a couple of my buddies in the gallery. They’ve got their hands low, so the judge can’t see them, and they both had lighters lit.”

Act IV:
 End of an era

December 2010. Strunck is outside the courthouse in the early evening dark, smoking a cigar and freezing. He’s called to share some news: Illinois’ House Judiciary Committee has voted 4-to-3 to abolish the death penalty. “This is all about money,” he explains. The deficit is nearly half the budget; unfunded pension obligations are four to five times the deficit. Ending the post-conviction process for death penalty cases would save millions of dollars.

The House votes to abolish in January. Marchigiani is on her way home and hears the news on her car radio. She has to pull over to catch her breath. The Senate votes a few days later. And the company that manufactures the lethal injection cocktail used in Illinois’ executions announces plans to cease production.

Ash Wednesday, 2011: Patrick Quinn, the governor of Illinois, signs the bill abolishing the death penalty. Strunck stops off to buy some champagne on the way to the office. The timing couldn’t have greater symbolic value for him; come summer, he will retire from the task force and join a friend’s private criminal practice.

“I feel about this like when the White Sox won the World Series,” he says. “‘What? This is really happening?’ Of course the Coalition Against the Death Penalty and all these people take credit, but that doesn’t bother me. We were the ones ducking the bullets at D-Day.”

By March, Marchigiani is no longer at the Homicide Task Force. She’s been transferred to Bridgeview, a suburban courthouse, where she supervises the public defenders. She has one client for whom the change in the law alters the landscape completely.

The day after the death penalty is abolished, the state appellate defenders downstate are laid off. At the Homicide Task Force, the public defenders need to submit their job description for review.

For Strunck’s retirement party in July, District Attorney Anita Alvarez comes to see him off. It’s a tribute to him and the work of the task force. “I’ve been doing this job so long and I’ve been doing it honorably, so I can walk in their circle like an esteemed opponent,” he says. “But if you would’ve told me when I was a junior at Santa Clara, sitting in Candlestick Park, on my fifth beer—that someday I would’ve been personally involved, even being a little cog in the machine, in the abolition of the death penalty in the state of Illinois, I would’ve said you were flat-out crazy. There was some greater purpose here.”

Marchigiani is more circumspect; yes, the death penalty has been abolished—for now. But ask her if she might not want to do anything else after all she’s seen, she says she can’t imagine not doing this work.

Strunck, on the other hand, professes, “Oh, I would have loved to have been a sports writer, before the collapse of the newspaper industry. Obviously, I would have loved to have been Sandy Koufax. But that wasn’t in the cards.” mag-bug

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