Login | November 26, 2020

Prosecutors block sex offense cases from Cook County judge

After Cook County Judge James Linn made an unusual ruling that reversed a jury’s verdict, prosecutors began using an obscure legal maneuver to remove Linn from sex offense cases assigned to him. (Illustration: Veronica Martinez for The Circuit)

Better Government Association
Injustice Watch

Published: November 9, 2020

CHICAGO (AP) — A Chicago teenager pleaded with Cook County Judge James Linn to impose the maximum prison sentence on the man who sexually assaulted her and her two sisters for several years and threatened to kill them if they told anyone.
"I just want justice to be served the correct way. With absolutely no leniency, because he didn't show us any," the woman, then 19, wrote in a victim impact statement read aloud at the sentencing hearing in 2011.
But in a huge break for the defendant, Joseph Fultz, Linn took the extraordinarily unusual step of reversing the jury's verdict and convicting him of a far less serious sex charge. Linn then sentenced Fultz to 18 years in prison, a far cry from the mandatory life sentence he faced if the jury's decision had stood.
For the Cook County state's attorney's office, the about-face marked the final straw following a series of what prosecutors viewed as unfavorable decisions by Linn on sex cases, according to internal office emails and interviews with several former prosecutors.
"What is his problem?" then-State's Attorney Anita Alvarez wrote of Linn in an email at the time. "This is getting out of hand with him."
The state's attorney's office soon began regularly using an obscure legal maneuver to remove Linn from any sex cases assigned to him, filing what's known as motions for a substitution of judge, or SOJ. No reason had to be given to boot Linn, and a new judge would be quickly appointed in his place.
In less than two years following his controversial handling of Fultz's case, Linn was bounced from at least 25 sex cases using SOJs, in excess of four times more than the next closest judge, according to an unprecedented analysis of criminal court data by The Circuit, a new investigative collaboration by the nonprofit news organizations the Better Government Association, Injustice Watch and The Chicago Reporter.
Then something yet to be fully explained happened: The number of felony sex cases randomly assigned to Linn by computer sharply decreased in following years, suggesting court officials, aware of the state's attorney's campaign, largely stopped assigning sex cases to Linn.
As a result, Linn hasn't presided over a sex case since November 2013, after having overseen more bench trials involving sex crimes than any other Cook County judge the previous 13 years.
Speaking out for the first time, several women who testified in Linn's court say the judge's lenient treatment of sex offenders left them feeling victimized twice over¬ — first by the sexual assaults and then by a judge who didn't fully believe them.
Linn "didn't really think about the emotional damages that (Fultz) left on me or my sisters or the full nature of how sick he was," said the youngest of the victims, now a mother of two who was just 12 at the time of his sentencing.
Linn, currently presiding over high-profile charges that actor Jussie Smollett staged a hate crime, declined to comment through a court spokeswoman.
Fewer sex crimes heading Linn's way
The Circuit's monthslong project, which includes a first-ever analysis of more than two decades of court data on nearly one million Cook County felony cases, examined SOJs because many attorneys consider a large number of such motions to be a potential red flag for a judge's fairness or temperament.
In reviewing the large number of SOJs filed against Linn by prosecutors for both State's Attorney Kim Foxx and her predecessor, Alvarez, The Circuit found a pattern in which the criminal division's presiding judge — who is supposed to randomly assign all cases to lower-level judges — largely stopped referring sex cases to Linn.
That pattern was reflected in an internal email from a top prosecutor in Foxx's office that was obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by The Circuit.
"We've been SOJing (Linn) on sex cases so long that the last two presiding judges do not even send them to him," wrote Joseph Magats, then-chief of the state's attorney's criminal prosecutions bureau and now Foxx's first assistant, to a higher-up in 2017.
But the analysis of the court data paints a more complicated picture than Magats' assertion. Since 2014, only a handful of sex cases were assigned each year to Linn but then quickly transferred by an SOJ to another judge. In both 2016 and 2018, however, the analysis of The Circuit's data didn't find that any sex cases had been randomly assigned to Linn.
That represents a stark contrast from the period 2000 through 2013, when Linn was randomly assigned by computer an average of almost 35 sex cases per year, the analysis found.
Despite the dramatically fewer sex charges going to Linn, Judge LeRoy Martin Jr., who presides over the criminal division, insisted that all cases are still assigned randomly to the division's judges, according to a statement released on his behalf by the Cook County chief judge's office. He declined through a court spokeswoman to be interviewed for this story.
Martin's predecessor, Paul Biebel Jr., who retired in 2015, also denied making any changes during his tenure to the computerized random assignment of criminal cases.
Magats did not return calls or emails, and Alvarez declined to comment. Foxx's office issued a brief statement saying that decisions to SOJ Linn on sex cases were "based on information available at the time."
'A slap on the wrist'
Before Linn's reversal of Fultz's jury verdict, his handling of other sex cases had drawn the ire of the state's attorney's office.
In 2011, Linn found Robert Rowels, a parole officer for the Illinois Department of Corrections, guilty of custodial sexual misconduct and official misconduct for threatening a female parolee in her 20s with prison if she didn't repeatedly have sex with him.
But the judge acquitted Rowels of more serious sexual assault charges despite what authorities said was DNA evidence implicating him. Rowels, who faced at least four years in prison if he had been convicted of the more serious charges, was sentenced by Linn to 120 days in the Cook County Jail and two years of probation. Rowels declined to comment for this story.
In a telephone interview, the victim in that case called the short jail sentence "heartbreaking."
"Basically, he got a slap on the wrist," said Kimeda McGinnis, who chose to go public with her name for this story in hopes of helping in her own healing and perhaps inspire other rape victims to come forward.
McGinnis, who moved out of state after the ordeal, doesn't regret coming forward with the DNA evidence despite the case's ultimate outcome.
"It can break your soul if you let it," she said.
Data analysis for this story was conducted by Forest Gregg and Hannah Cushman Garland of DataMade and Jared Rutecki of the BGA.
This story is part of The Circuit, a joint project of the nonprofit news organizations Better Government Association, The Chicago Reporter and Injustice Watch, in partnership with the civic tech consulting firm DataMade. The Circuit was made possible with support from the McCormick Foundation.