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Court building that’s seen it all experiences something new: The sound of silence

Tuesday, March 17, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Megan Crepeau

A herd of sheriff’s deputies stood watch Tuesday morning in Cook County’s biggest criminal courthouse.

But the crowds they are usually tasked with wrangling — the scramble of jurors and spectators and defendants hoping to make it to court on time — were nowhere to be seen


So they guarded a largely empty lobby, rubbing sanitizer into their hands and giving any stragglers who wandered inside the news: Tuesday was the first day of a nearly complete court shutdown that left thousands of cases frozen in place and the normally bustling hallways of the Leighton Criminal Court Building at 26th Street and California Avenue in Chicago virtually abandoned.

Other than bond court, only two courtrooms in the hulking building will be open for the next 30 days, and those are only to deal wi

The coronavirus pandemic has left criminal justice authorities with the critical task of balancing the constitutional rights of defendants against a steadily deepening public health crisis. And when it all ends, there is only the looming untangling of the unprecedented court stoppage.

“They say this is going to last a month, (but) it’s kind of like dog years,” veteran attorney Jack Lanahan said. “We’ll be playing catch-up for seven months, or eight months, or a year.”


In the hope of mitigating the spread of COVID-19, virtually the entire Cook County court system has ground to a halt. Until at least mid-April, judges will not perform marriages, sign evictions, or preside over jury trials.

Social distancing is virtually impossible in normal courthouse circumstances. On a normal day, many hundreds of defendants and lawyers flood into Leighton, where lockups, jury rooms and courtroom galleries all keep people in close contact by design.

Only bond court was slated to continue as usual, as the question of whether someone can be released after they are arrested must be addressed.

Two fifth-floor felony courtrooms will also be open, but under special circumstances. A rotating group of judges will deal with urgent matters, as well as formally moving each day’s regularly scheduled hearings to a predetermined date in April or May.

Perhaps the most immediate issue court officials had to weigh had to do with defendants’ speedy-trial rights.

Once a defendant formally invokes those rights, a clock starts ticking: Prosecutors have 120 days by statute to go to trial if the defendant is in custody, or 160 days if they are out on bond.

A spokeswoman for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office said prosecutors will “file motions on this issue as appropriate,” but did not elaborate.

Under Illinois law, prosecutors can request more time if they need it to track down witnesses or evidence. Attorneys told the Tribune they expect judges to approve requests for extensions due to the shutdown, given the extraordinary circumstances.

But dragging out the court process is tough on defendants no matter the circumstances, said attorney Emmanuel Andre.

“Whenever (you’re) dealing with a felony case, it’s a traumatic event as it is,” he said. "People want to be done with this as soon as possible, that’s the whole concept behind due process. ... But now, because of the extenuating circumstances, that’s very, very difficult. And the effect it’s going to have on people is going to be very, very difficult.”

On Tuesday morning, Judge Peggy Chiampas took the bench in one of the building’s two open courtrooms, tasked with handling 16 judges’ dockets at once.

Clerks buzzed around the bench, talking to the few private attorneys who showed up as well as the handful of public defenders and prosecutors assigned to the room for that day.

“Everybody’s appearance is waived right now," Chiampas said to the nearly empty room, announcing to almost no one that defendants were not required to show up for court that day.

A courthouse staffer walked by wearing a cloth face mask and a single blue latex glove.

“Judge Sacks, Room 602, all matters continued to April 21, 2020,” Chiampas said. “Any of the attorneys here on Judge Howard’s call? Going once, going twice ... Judge Howard’s call, April 21, 2020, by order of the court.”

Most defendants were not brought from the jail to the courthouse, unless they were slated to appear in bond court or had a court order to appear, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office said.

Formal arraignments were largely delayed in Chiampas’ nearly vacant courtroom. Warrants for defendants on bond who did not show up in court were pushed off until the next court date.

After Chiampas ran through the court call, a few people were still in the rows of benches, waiting for clarity or direction. Clerks and attorneys rushed over to try and clear up the confusion.

“I don’t want to get no warrant issued, we were here,” one woman told an attorney.

In Central Bond Court a few hours later, sheriffs limited the number of spectators allowed in the gallery — only one per defendant — and people had to sit a few feet apart.

Some court staffers said they believe bond hearings could soon be conducted by video, a practice discontinued in Cook County more than a decade ago after a lawsuit alleged it was unconstitutional to deny defendants a chance to physically appear before a judge.

By Monday, clerk’s office workers had been given latex gloves to wear. Some courthouse visitors wore masks, or pulled fabric up over their mouths and noses as they moved through the halls.

That day, Judge Angela Petrone presided over what promised to be her last normal court call for at least the next month.

A prosecutor wiped her hands.

The occasional coughs in the small courtroom were met with wary smiles.

One defendant was not brought to court from the jail because he was in the new isolated receiving area Cook County Jail has set up to observe new detainees for COVID-19 symptoms.

Another defendant was told his psychological examination for fitness to stand trial had to be delayed. The office that conducts those evaluations will be closed during the shutdown.

Petrone’s courtroom was slated for the building’s only potential jury trial that day, an attempted murder case. More than 80 jurors had reported for duty, but in the end, the defendant decided to have his case heard instead by Petrone herself.

After the first day of trial, the proceedings were continued — until the end of April.




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