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Star investigator may be threatened by Cook County cuts
Public defender's employee was named nation's top investigator 2 years ago for helping to free man wrongly imprisoned for murder

Friday, February 25, 2011
Chicago Tribune
by Andy Grimm

Two years ago, Noel Zupancic was named the nation's top investigator for her work on the case that freed Alton Logan after he had served 26 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. In a few weeks, Zupancic could be out of a job.

The Cook County public defender's office has been targeted for a 10 percent budget cut as County Board President Toni Preckwinkle tries to close a $487 million deficit. The office said the proposed cut means half of the 200 investigators and other support staff in the office, including 17-year veteran Zupancic, have gotten notice they will be laid off if the budget passes as is.

Investigators like Zupancic play an integral role in the work of the office. Zupancic spent years tracking down reluctant witnesses, serving subpoenas and even cajoled a McDonald's corporate employee to turn over the floor plans of the restaurant where the murder took place.

No one knows that better than Logan — Zupancic was the first person he called when he walked out of the Cook County Courthouse in 2008 a free man.

"I had my family there, and I expected her to be there too. But she wasn't so I had to call her first thing," Logan said this week.

Logan last week spoke at a public hearing before the County Board Finance Committee on behalf of the public defender's office.

"It was all I could do. You have to help out the people who have done right by you," he said.

Zupancic's plight and Logan's story highlight the conundrum county officials face as they try to cut payroll without reducing services. Negotiations are ongoing with county and union leaders. The board's Finance Committee is scheduled to vote on the budget Friday, and the full board has a budget vote on its agenda. The deadline for the board to approve a budget is midnight Monday. As many as 1,750 jobs could be on the line.

The public defender's office represents 90 percent of the defendants in the Cook County criminal courts, clients who have no where else to turn. Cook County, like court systems across the country, is constitutionally required to provide adequate legal defense for the indigent.

What counts as "adequate" is often undefined until a public defender's office is so overburdened that a class-action lawsuit is filed against the municipality, a scenario that is playing out in New York City even now, said Locke Bowman, an attorney at the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University.

"(Adequate defense) is a requirement of the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution," Bowman said. "I don't think this is discretionary spending. This is the one area where, constitutionally, the county has to provide funding."

Although he recognizes the perception that the county payroll is bloated, Patrick Reardon, first deputy public defender, said unlike some other county departments, the public defender's office can't reduce its services because it has to represent every eligible defendant facing charges in criminal courts.

"With the caseloads we have, I would say this isn't an area where we have a lot of people, as they say, leaning on shovels," Reardon said.

According to the office, staff attorneys in the felony division average 235 cases a year, nearly 60 percent more than the 150 recommended by the American Bar Association. The numbers are similar for public defenders who handle juvenile and misdemeanor cases.

Preckwinkle has already compromised with the public defender's office and State's Attorney Anita Alvarez on the cuts, said Preckwinkle spokeswoman Jessey Neves. The 10 percent reduction mandated for those offices is less than the 16 percent cut Preckwinkle mandated for other county departments, and the shift spared the office from having to lay off any staff attorneys, Reardon said.

Negotiations with labor unions are ongoing, with the possibility of all county employees taking 10 furlough days to reduce the number that will need to be cut.

But even with 17 years with the office, Zupancic still faces the prospect of unemployment. Worse still, she said, clients like Logan might face the prospect of serving jail time they don't deserve.

"Obviously, Alton's case was not the result we get every time, but we work just as hard for every client," Zupancic said. "I'll never forget the day he called me from the courthouse. He just said, 'Girl, I'm free.'"

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