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'Supergang' Trial Puts Chicago Court on High Alert

8 September 2016
The National Law Journal

A metal detector outside the courtroom. Upwards of 10 U.S. marshals inside it. The possibility of defendants wearing shackles. And an anonymous jury.

There was little normalcy in the 14th floor federal courtroom in downtown Chicago on Wednesday as jury selection kicked off in a high-profile trial of six defendants facing racketeering, murder and drug charges for their alleged roles in a violent South Side gang known as "The Hobos."

Security in the courtroom will be on high alert for a trial expected to last three months. But luckily for most lawyers headed to federal court in the upcoming months, it was business as usual Wednesday in the lobby and elsewhere outside U.S. District Judge John Tharp's courtroom.

The government says the so-called "supergang" comprised of members from disparate Chicago street gangs terrorized neighborhoods from 2004 to 2013, allegedly committing a total of nine murders. At least two of those murders, U.S. attorneys have alleged, were committed to silence witnesses or others cooperating with authorities building a case against the defendants.

That's led to anxiety around the trial and an extra layer of security—though not quite all the precautions for which prosecutors had asked.

Last week Tharp denied a request to keep the defendants in shackles, but said he might revisit the decision if the defendants are restless. For now, there are skirts hanging from the counsels' tables so the jury won't notice if the defendants begin wearing shackles.

Although shackling is more common in Illinois state court, it is rare for federal defendants to appear bound due to concerns about prejudicing the jury, said Allan Ackerman, a criminal defense attorney in Chicago well known for the cowboy hat he dons and work he did representing members of the Chicago Outfit.

"In reality, the jury doesn't see the shackles unless the apron or curtain on the defense table permits that viewing or the defendant himself decides that he wants the jury to see he's being shackled prior to conviction," Ackerman said.

The government had more success in its rare quest for an anonymous jury.

The government had argued that the case met five criteria: the defendants are members of an organized crime group; the group has the capacity to harm jurors; the group has previously interfered with the judicial process; the sentence facing the defendants is severe; and the jurors' names are likely to become public due to attention paid to the case.

"The anticipated evidence in this case shows that the Hobos are all-too-willing to violently interfere in the judicial process by, among other things, murdering witnesses and threatening witnesses, including law enforcement officers," U.S. attorneys said in a motion requesting the "extreme" step of empaneling an anonymous jury.

"Particularly probative of the danger the Hobos present to the judicial process and witnesses, and by extension, jurors, … is the murder of two persons who were cooperating with law enforcement," the filing says.
John T. Thies, an attorney for one of
the defendants, argued the anonymous jury violated the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial and said the government showed no evidence of a threat to the jury in this case.

Tharp agreed to withhold the names, addresses and employers of jurors as a security precaution.

It's rare for an anonymous jury to be employed in gang cases, said Reid Schar, a former assistant U.S. attorney and the co-chairman of Jenner & Block's white-collar practice. "Most don't go that way, but when you have significant allegations of murder, and particularly allegations of murder of people who are confidential informants or people working for the government, that's when you tend to see those kinds of precautions taken," Schar said.

Jury selection was serene on Wednesday and the courthouse itself was undisturbed.

"It was pretty much business as usual to get through security," said Andrew Marovitz, a leader of Mayer Brown's global litigation practice who had a 9:30 a.m. court call Wednesday.

But if there is violence in the courtroom during the Hobos trial, it won't be the first time Tharp has dealt with it—and defendants should be on notice.

In 2013, Tharp sentenced Lavelle Watts Jr. to five years in prison for throwing a chair at a police officer during a civil rights trial. (Watts claimed the officer used racist taunts against him during an arrest and threw the chair when he lost his case.)

But Watts' sentence would pale in comparison to what the Hobos are facing. Each of the six defendants has the possibility of facing life in prison, and four of the six would face mandatory life sentences if convicted.

Reprinted with permission from the September 8, 2016 edition of The National Law Journal © 2016 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

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