In an era of email, text messaging and cellphones, Google, and online legal databases, the two dozen lawyers on the Cook County Public Defender’s Homicide Task Force often conduct a large amount of research by shouting questions at each other from across the office.
Usually, the toughest inquiries have been yelled in the direction of supervisor Kulmeet “Bob” Galhotra, known for his encyclopedic knowledge of case law and, more importantly, the temperament and taboos of the judges who decide the fates of the 400 or so indigent murder defendants on the team’s case roster.
But when Galhotra’s peers head into 2020, they’ll have to pick up the phone to pick his brain.
Galhotra, 53, retired this week from his duties at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue.
“Oh my God, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Assistant Public Defender Julie Koehler, who met Galhotra as a law school clerk and this year sat second-chair with him during the trial of Kamel Harris who was acquitted in the murder of a 2-year-old.
“I usually don’t have to move from my desk. I yell, ‘Hey, Bob!’ across the hall and he yells back exactly what I need. He’s seen everything.”
Born in India — where he’d already been nicknamed “Bob” by family members, for either Bobby Kennedy or the Bollywood film “Bobby” — Galhotra moved to Chicago with his family at age 5.
“I think there was snow on the ground the day we got here. There isn’t even a word for snow in Punjabi,” recalled Galhotra.
Galhotra’s brother became a doctor, and his hard-working immigrant parents were concerned when Galhotra switched his college major from engineering to English. After an internship writing technical manuals, Galhotra realized writing about engineering was too dull for his tastes, and signed up for law school. He pictured himself doing corporate law, drawing up contracts and litigating disputes.
“The first time I walked into a criminal courtroom when I was with the law clinic, that was it for me. It was just so interesting,” said Galhotra, who was hired as an assistant public defender just two days after he took the bar exam in 1990.
Galhotra has since taken on 30 murder trials in front of juries, and nearly 100 others in bench trials.
“He really does an amazing job of connecting with juries,” said Kathryn Lisco, a Task Force lawyer who met Galhotra when they both worked in Juvenile Court. “The story of the case you have to tell is what it is. It’s the way you tell the story.”
Galhotra, who ran for 29th Ward alderman in 2015, is leaving the Criminal Courthouse on something of a hot streak, having won acquittal in Harris’ case this summer, and brokering a plea deal for Andrew Warren, who was charged with former Northwestern University professor Wyndham Lathem in the murder of Lathem’s boyfriend.
Over the years, Galhotra — who intends to keep practicing law as a private attorney as well as taking on adjunct professor duties at his alma mater, IIT Kent Law School — has become known for his diplomatic, pragmatic style, something of a throwback among some of his younger, more combative peers. But he also draws praise for his deep knowledge of the increasingly technical aspects of criminal law in an era when defense lawyers have to be experts in everything from DNA to cellphone technology.
But his skill managing the at times large egos of a staff of smart, opinionated people sets him apart, said longtime Assistant Public Defender Marijane Placek.
“You could compare the job to herding cats,” Placek said, “but he’s also a lion tamer.”