Seventeen years ago, my husband and I bought our first – and as it turned out, also our only – house. Shortly after we moved in, we met the Lefkow family. Joan and Michael and their four daughters lived three blocks from us. Our children followed their children from preschool to high school. Their children babysat for our children. We drove by their house every day.
On the afternoon of February 28th, Michael was murdered in that house, apparently because of a court ruling made by his wife, Judge Joan Lefkow.
I am the Deputy Director of the Chicago Federal Defender Program. I represent people who can’t afford to hire counsel, people who have received not just the short end of the stick, but often no stick at all. People who were tied to radiators as children, who became addicted to drugs at the age of 10, who espouse racist views like those of Michael’s suspected murderer. Part of my job is to make sure that every one of these people gets both appointed and effective counsel, giving them at least the opportunity to receive justice. People ask me all the time: “How can you represent those people?” But I have always loved my job.
So when a friend wondered how I would feel if I had to find counsel to represent the person arrested for Michael’s murder, I shrugged. That’s what I do, I said, that won’t bother me.
Turns out, I was wrong.
I found that out when I received a call from an out-of-town colleague. He asked me to find a lawyer for his friend who was being questioned about Michael’s murder. My mind began racing. I couldn’t speak. I could barely breathe. I started telling him about my friendship with Michael and how hard his death had been on all of us here in Chicago.
My colleague didn’t want to hear it. He expressed no sympathy. Just an impatience to get on with the job of helping his friend. I am sure he wondered how this person who called herself a dedicated public defender could hesitate to find a lawyer for someone who needed help. It must have been inexplicable to him. And, before Michael’s murder, it would have been inexplicable to me too.
Ironically it is who Michael was, what he stood for in his life, that helped me get on with mine. Michael was a lawyer in his own right. He spent his life speaking for those with no voice. His life was a model of how to speak truth to power.
In the end, it was Michael’s courage, his willingness to stand up and speak out, even, especially, when no one was standing with him, that finally allowed me to answer my colleague’s question about finding a lawyer for his friend:
“Of course I will,” I said, “that’s what I do.”