New Public Defender Comes Out Swinging, Cites ‘Broken Justice System’

By Steve Schmadeke
Chicago Tribune.


Amy Campanelli says her blood pressure began to rise on a recent Monday as she read that Cook County prosecutors had sought a $1 million bail for a father whose 6-year-old son had killed his younger brother with his dad’s gun.

For Campanelli, the new head of the county public defender’s office, in the past a relatively low-profile position, the case marked just the latest example of prosecutorial overreach, she told the Tribune.
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“A million-dollar bond?” Campanelli said incredulously, drawing out each syllable, as she explained such bonds are typically reserved for gang members who kill innocents on the streets. “I was fuming.”

The father had told authorities he bought the gun for protection for himself and his family. A former gang member, he was forced to testify by prosecutors against a gang member in a double murder trial, court records show. The father had left the gun on top of a refrigerator, warning his oldest son not to touch it. A judge ended up setting the bond at $75,000.

Campanelli took aim at State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who is in the midst of a re-election fight.

“I should’ve called her and said, ‘Who the hell do you think you are? This is outrageous. You want to talk at these panels, you want to say all this stuff you’re doing and then your (assistant) state’s attorney asks for a million-dollar bond on this case?'” she said.

“‘Because you don’t think this guy should go to the funeral for his 3-year-old? You think he should be locked up and not working his job because his own child is dead? What kind of human being are you?'”

Just six months in her appointed post, Campanelli has burst onto the scene, taking a much higher profile than any Cook County public defender in decades, speaking out on behalf of her office and the importance of public defenders everywhere, as well as what she calls the county’s “broken” criminal justice system.

In a recent interview, she laid out her plans for a new direction for the public defender’s office while letting loose with sometimes-pointed criticisms of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois secretary of state’s office in addition to Alvarez and her office.

A spokeswoman said Alvarez would have preferred that Campanelli called her with her concerns about the $1 million bail request before going public.

In the interview, Campanelli announced ambitious plans for the office, saying she wanted to establish a presence in the Illinois state capitol to lobby for a legislative agenda that includes repealing controversial mandatory minimum sentences in certain cases.

She also talked about making those convicted on low-level heroin and burglary charges eligible for probation, reducing all Class 4 felonies, typically thefts and drug cases, to misdemeanors, and easing the process to expunge records on certain convictions.

In addition, she wants to hire a spokesperson to highlight her office’s successes, launch a mental health unit with a staff psychologist and psychiatrist to evaluate defendants, increase training for her attorneys and start support services for families of defendants.

Colleagues say Campanelli, 53, represents a refreshing change for an office used to taking a beating from judges in the courtroom and being held in low regard by the public and often even its own indigent clients.

“With the other public defenders, sometimes you got the idea they were ashamed of what they were doing,” said Marijane Placek, an assistant public defender for more than four decades who works in the elite Homicide Task Force. “She’s a real breath of fresh air. Just the fact that she cares means something, and she’s able to infuse this in the troops.”

A diver in high school while growing up in suburban Western Springs, Ill. Campanelli graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before obtaining her law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law. She started off as a law clerk for the public defender’s office and has spent almost her entire career there.

A mother of three and married to Patrick Campanelli, a defense attorney and former prosecutor, she starts her day making breakfast for her youngest daughter, the older two no longer live at the family home in La Grange, Ill., feeding the family’s pets and taking care of laundry or dishes before leaving for work early in the morning.

In conversation, ideas pour out of her at a frenetic pace and, like many courtroom lawyers, she sometimes emphasizes ideas by repeating them.

Sipping from a blue coffee mug labeled “Wonder Woman,” Campanelli said she and her top deputy, Keith Ahmad, plan to make more of a presence at high-profile trials or other important court hearings at the city’s Leighton Criminal Court Building and suburban courthouses to support the work of her attorneys.

With more than 500 attorneys and nearly 60 investigators, Campanelli said she wants to spend more money on training for the staff and intends to “empower” assistant public defenders to take more cases to jury trials instead of accepting plea deals.

“Maybe we win a few jury trials and the offers (from prosecutors) start getting better,” she said.

She clearly doesn’t shy away from a fight.

Campanelli ripped how the secretary of state’s office handles first-time drunken-driving offenders and how she said Chicago police make arrests on nearly every domestic call.

“That’s bad policy!” she said. “Bad policy!”

Campanelli also took issue with Emanuel over his recent comments that Chicago police officers have gone “fetal” amid increased scrutiny of their work. She said her office has seen no sign that police have slowed down their efforts or arrests.

“The only way things will change is if we hold police accountable,” she said. “You’re damn right they’re going to be watched, and they should be watched every single minute to stop what has been decades and decades of abuse in the Chicago Police Department. And obviously very failed leadership.”

Campanelli recalled several encounters she, as an assistant public defender rising through the ranks, had with Detective Michael Kill, an underling of the disgraced police Cmdr. Jon Burge, who she said put a rubber band on his belt for every person he sent to prison. (Burge was convicted in 2010 of perjury for lying about torturing more than 100 black prisoners after the statute of limitations had expired for those crimes. He served 3 1/2 years in prison before being released to a halfway house.)

“He walked around with his belt full of rubber bands,” she said of Kill, the recent subject of a front-page Tribune article.

“He was proud of putting people in prison. Proud. That’s a detective who never should’ve made it out on the streets. That’s a guy who tortured people.

“Just think if he’d had to wear a body camera. Just think if someone was videotaping him,” she said. “And the mayor says they’re afraid, of what, being transparent? Being accountable? When a police officer’s out on the street, every minute of what he’s doing should be viewed.”

She reserved some of her harshest remarks for the secretary of state’s office, citing a case handled by her husband in which a union electrician, unable to get his license back despite a single DUI conviction 18 years ago, was pulled over and charged for driving on a suspended license. He was sentenced to three years in prison, she said.

“What are we doing here? Because of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving you want to put people away for a suspended license?” she said. “I say put them in a class and help them get their licenses back. Why do they have to go to prison? That’s absurd. I can’t tell you how many clients are going to prison on suspended licenses. And again, what kind of client is it?

“The secretary of state, forget them, forget them. They’re not helping anyone. … I don’t know what they’re doing over there, but they’re not helping our clients get their licenses back. Those hearing officers, it’s a joke. Nobody’s getting their licenses back. Nobody’s waiving fees for the indigent. Nobody’s thinking outside the box to solve these problems.”

Campanelli, though, praised how some long-sought criminal justice reforms, ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, for one, are finally winning bipartisan political support.

“It’s amazing!” she said. “I step back and I think about the last 30 years I’ve been doing this and I think, I’m shocked that people are talking about this. I mean we’ve been doing this every day in court, saying our client has a drug problem, please give him drug treatment. And the judge says, no, he’s going to the penitentiary. Years and years and years of this.”

“Fabulous!” she exclaimed as she read a press release on a reporter’s phone about Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, at a news conference with police chiefs from around the country, calling for major changes in how the criminal justice system handles low-level offenders. “This is spot-on!”

Others hope her enthusiasm will spread.

“It’s so nice and so refreshing to hear a stakeholder in the justice system understand that justice isn’t about how many people we can put away for how long,” Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey told Campanelli after she testified earlier this month about the city’s heroin epidemic, according to video of the hearing. “There’s a passion when you make these comments that’s evident, and I hope it’s a passion that’s going to spread to other people.”

Attorneys in the public defender’s office said it has already spread there.

“We practice the purest, highest form of law, and nobody ever says that,” said Placek, tossing a pen on her desk. “And nobody ever points that out to clients. And I think we finally have a public defender who’s a cheerleader for us.”

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