Every month or two, a mourning mother and the man accused of killing her son go to a Cook County courtroom for another seemingly pointless hearing. Corniki Bornds’ only child was shot in the head six years ago. Some 70-plus hearings into the 2017 case, each appearance instead fuels disgust and agony, like “pouring salt in an open wound.”
Zeron Moody was charged with the murder. He describes being jailed for much of his 20s with no trial date in sight for him or his co-defendant. The delay gets “harder as the years go on,” his depression so intense he threw himself down a flight of jail stairs.
This is the Cook County, Ill., criminal courts, a system that is failing at its most essential function: ensuring fair and timely justice. In an unprecedented review of murder cases, the Chicago Tribune found Cook County’s courts are taking longer than ever to separate the guilty from the innocent, longer than courthouses in any city for which comparable data was available, including New York and Los Angeles. Delays in Chicago were growing before the pandemic, and have been getting worse since.
Advocates nationally aim for murder cases to take no more than a year. Cook County’s goal is a little more than two years. Now it's taking more than four to complete most of the county’s murder cases, with some lasting up to a decade or more.
It is a crisis, says Tom Geraghty, a Northwestern University professor emeritus who’s worked in and studied the county’s courts for decades. “I mean four years to wait for a trial is ridiculous. Two years is ridiculous.”
Experts and advocates agree that justice shouldn’t be rushed, but in Cook County the pace of prosecution for murder cases has slowed to a near standstill.
Murder defendants linger in jail longer than a presidential term. For those wrongfully accused, the process costs years with their families on the outside. Taxpayers are left to foot the bill for tens of millions a year in extra jail housing costs. Victims’ families must wait years for justice.
To document the problem, reporters interviewed courthouse attorneys, defendants, victims’ families and their advocates, while filing three dozen record requests, reading more than 40 case files and attending more than 1,000 hearings.
Cook County judges and attorneys ignore official court timetables for tasks without punishment. Judges don’t enforce a state law requiring attorneys put requests for delays in writing, supported by sworn statements.
Court hearings can eventually number in the 50s, 60s and 70s for each murder case, with little accomplished.
From Chief Judge Timothy Evans on down, judges show little alarm and won’t discuss the issues in a system that, by design, limits transparency and accountability.
The Tribune says no one comprehensively tracks why cases are delayed. Its investigation revealed a system in which the people with the power to limit delays — including judges, police and attorneys — have little incentive to do so, while the people who pay the price — defendants, victims and witnesses — are largely powerless to speed up things.