What I Learned About Guns Working at the State’s Attorney’s Office
by Michelle Togut
The summer after my first year in law school, I worked as a law clerk in the Criminal Appeals Division of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office cranking out briefs to ensure that a variety of miscreants, mostly drug offenders, mostly minorities, remained behind bars. The odds were highly stacked in our favor. Defendants rarely win appeals. Although I briefed several cases and visited several trial and appeals courts that summer, two compelling stories from my internship stand out some ten years later.
As part of our education in the workings of the Cook County criminal justice system, my fellow clerks and I met one morning at the county’s main criminal court, located in a less than savory Chicago neighborhood. One of the speakers that day was the head of the Office’s Gang Division, an impeccably dressed and vigilant soldier in the War on Drugs, convinced that he was doing G-d’s work. Let’s call him Joe Justice. Joe explained to us that, while gang violence had long been a problem in Chicago, its prevalence had drastically increased when gangs became involved in drug trafficking, a development that had lead to an uptick in nasty territorial wars. Many of victims in these wars were kids, teen-aged boys a little older than my stepson was at the time. As an example, Joe passed around a picture of a recent victim, an African-American 16-year old, who’d been gunned down by rival gang members. The kid was lying facedown in the grass. From the picture you could tell that one of his eyes had been blown out of its socket by the force of the gunshot; it lay on the grass near his head, still dangling from the socket.
The picture, while deeply disturbing, was not the only surprise Joe had in store for us. Of major concern to the Chicago Police Department and the State’s Attorney’s Office were the size of the arsenals local gangs had begun to assemble, fitted with the kind of firepower suitable for guerilla warfare. Of course, Joe had a prop for this part of his talk, a huge assault rifle, one of many confiscated in a recent raid. My fellow clerks and I let out a collective gasp when he passed the thing around. It was big enough to blow a gaping hole in the side of an elephant. Such weapons, Joe told us, were fairly common among gangs. The police and State’s Attorney longed to remove them from the streets because of the dangers they posed to not only police officers, but also the general public.
If you live in Chicago, Los Angeles, or any other large American city, then you know that drive-by shootings in the seedier parts of town happen with relative frequency. While the perpetrators usually kill their intended targets, there’s often collateral damage. Every few weeks some grade school kid gets caught in the crossfire, or some elderly woman crossing the street, or a father walking home from work. Innocent victims in the wrong place at the wrong time. For most of us who lead middle-class lives out in the suburbs, gun violence remains a distant threat. But for people who live in “bad” neighborhoods because they happen to be poor, it’s part of life, a tragedy repeated all too often. Although I always recognized this at some level, my summer in the State’s Attorney’s Office drove home the point that violence, like income, is not equally distributed. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to encounter it either as victim or perpetrator.
The second story that remains with me from that summer is one of love gone terribly wrong and derives from an appeal based on ineffective assistance of counsel to which I wrote the response brief. Danny and Melanie had been dating for about two years. Melanie assumed the two shared an exclusive relationship. When Danny’s grandfather died, Melanie showed up uninvited to a family gathering held at his mother’s home to celebrate his grandfather’s memory. What Melanie didn’t know was that Danny had a fiancée, the mother of two of his six children, and that she had arrived at the event a bit earlier with their kids. When he saw Melanie, Danny freaked. Afraid that his fiancée would discover that he’d been seeing Melanie on the side, he reacted in a torrent of profanity, calling Melanie a bitch and telling her to pretend she was with his cousin. Danny then headed outside, picked up his two-year-old daughter and took her to his truck, waiting for his cousin to remove Melanie from the scene. The cousin did his best, trying to convince Melanie that David would meet her at a nearby deli. But Melanie wasn’t listening.
Fueled by anger and humiliation she stormed after Danny. As she approached his truck, she pulled the gun she carried for protection from her purse and pointed it at Danny’s head. Melanie later told the police that she was only trying to scare Danny. She had no recollection of pulling the trigger. Yet she did, sending a bullet through his brain while his two-year old child sat in the car seat next to him. Melanie shattered several lives, including her own, that day. A hard-working woman, who’d never before had any problems with the law, she ended up sentenced to a minimum of 22 years in prison for first-degree murder. The gun she’d bought to protect herself from potential assailants ended up being her undoing. If only she weren’t carrying a gun, she might have channeled her anger into telling Danny and his fiancée what scumbag he was and left the gathering with her dignity and life intact. Instead, a moment of blinding rage combined with access to a readily available firearm had left a man dead, a family broken apart, and an otherwise decent woman on her way to prison.
I mulled over the facts of the case long after I turned in the brief. How easily can anger turn deadly given quick access to a gun? It’s one thing to know on an intellectual level that guns bought for protection are far more often used against an intimate than an intruder. But to pore through trial transcripts describing real lives destroyed, to read autopsy reports and see pictures of the damage a single bullet can inflict, drove home the point in a way no news story, crime novel, or movie ever could.
As a nation, we react in horror to the violence of our gun culture every time a tragedy like Sandy Hook occurs. Then we go back to our business. Yet such tragedies occur everyday on a smaller scale across the country, especially in our poorer, darker communities. If my summer at the State’s Attorney’s office taught me nothing else, it’s that these types of tragedies are far more common and deserve the same careful attention the media pays when some disturbed angry suburban white male gets his hands on an assault rifle and takes out his rage a group of kids.