People’s Law Office: 50 years of fighting the good fight

A Chicago law firm for the past 50 years has worked to protect civil liberties and oppose government oppression. That firm is the People's Law Office, and in honor of its milestone Rob Warden reflects on its history.

Some Chicagoans are Cubs fans, some are Bears fans, or both—but me?

I’m a fan of civil rights lawyers—especially the People’s Law Office, which I’ve been cheering for since its beginning back when Leo Durocher managed the Cubs and not long after George Halas retired as head coach of the Bears.

All that doesn’t seem quite like yesterday, but it’s hard to believe that the little firm that could—a team of progressive lawyers known as the PLO (not to be confused with the Palestine Liberation Organization)—has been championing civil rights, fighting police, prosecutorial, and judicial lawlessness, and redressing the wrongs suffered by its otherwise powerless clients for all of five decades.

The golden anniversary of its founding in a former sausage factory on North Halsted Street on August 1, 1969, will be celebrated slightly belatedly on Saturday with a symposium and dinner. In advance of the invitation-only events, I thought it would be worth recounting, for those who haven’t followed the PLO as closely or for as long as I have, a few highlights of its 50-year history.

The first PLO client was Fred Hampton, chairman of the Black Panther Party of Illinois, who had been charged in July 1968 with robbing a Good Humor driver of $71 worth of ice cream and giving it to kids in west suburban Maywood. Hampton denied committing the robbery, claiming that he arrived at the scene after the crime occurred. But in April 1969, despite the best efforts by a defense team comprising lawyers in the process of founding the PLO—Dennis Cunningham, Francis (Skip) Andrew, and Jeffrey H. Haas—a jury found the 20-year-old Hampton guilty based solely on cross-racial identification testimony by the white driver.

The trial judge, Sidney A. Jones, allowed Hampton to remain free on bond pending appeal, even though Hampton had done nothing to endear himself to the judge, including testifying at a pretrial hearing that he was committed to armed revolution and admired the teachings of Mao Tse-tung (as Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong then was known in the West).

Jones had all but announced that he would sentence Hampton to probation. But that changed when Jones came under intense public vitriol from Cook County State’s Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan. Jones wound up banging Hampton with an indeterminate term of two-to-five years in prison.

That was a sentence Hampton would not serve—because on Dec. 4, 1969, eight days after the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed his conviction, he and fellow Panther Mark Clark were shot to death in their beds in a Panther “crib” on West Monroe Street by Chicago cops under Hanrahan’s supervision.

In a stunning but ill-conceived propaganda ploy, Hanrahan and the cops suckered the Chicago Tribune into publishing a false narrative of the raid. The Panthers had died in a shootout they had initiated, proclaimed the Tribune, which bolstered its phony “exclusive” with photographs provided by Hanrahan purporting to show shotgun pellets embedded in doorframes—the supposed result of Panther fire.

After the photos proved to be not of shotgun pellets but of nail heads, a famed special prosecutor, Barnabas F. Sears, obtained indictments charging Hanrahan and 13 others with conspiracy to obstruct justice in what was increasingly viewed as cold-blooded murder. The indictments, not surprisingly, were thrown out in October 1972 by Circuit Court Judge Philip A. Romiti, who, like Hanrahan, was a patron of Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Romiti’s decision might have ended the case, except that PLO lawyers Jeff Haas and G. Flint Taylor Jr. had brought a federal civil suit seeking damages from Hanrahan, the police raiders, FBI officials, and an FBI informant-provocateur named William O’Neal Jr., who received a $300 bonus for making the raid “a success.”

The civil trial, known as Hampton v. Hanrahan, opened in January 1976 before U.S. District Court Judge J. Sam Perry and a jury; the trial would stretch on for nearly 18 months, becoming the longest in U.S. history, during which Haas and Taylor subsisted on $75-a-week PLO salaries (less than a third of the beginning salaries at major law firms).


Judge Perry, an 80-year-old Alabama-born World War I veteran appointed to the court by President Harry S. Truman, was hostile toward the PLO lawyers throughout the 18-month trial, as exemplified by an exchange that occurred on May 11, 1977:

Perry: “You’re not going to have your way.”

Haas: “I know. My way is a fair trial, and I know I’m not going to get it.”

Perry: “You bet your life you’re not going to get it.”

Indeed, Hass didn’t get a fair trial. After the jury deadlocked, Perry directed verdicts in favor of the defendants, found Hass and Taylor guilty of contemptuous conduct, and assessed costs totaling $100,000 against the plaintiffs.

That the trial was unfair—as Perry averred in a perhaps quintessential Freudian slip—was not only my opinion or that of the PLO lawyers. It also was the considered opinion of Judge Luther M. Swygert, who wrote a Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals opinion reversing Perry, awarding legal fees to Haas and Taylor, and paving the way for a $1,850,000 settlement for the plaintiffs in late 1982. In a separate opinion, the Seventh Circuit ordered that Perry never again preside over a case involving more than 25 hours of trial time.

Also in 1982, the PLO won two other significant victories—the acquittal of George Jones, an 18-year-old African American honor-student who had been on trial for his life for a home invasion and murder he hadn’t committed, and freedom for Maxine Smith, a middle aged former nurse, also an African American, who had been in prison a decade for murdering her physically abusive boyfriend.

In the process of prevailing at the George Jones trial, Jeff Haas and PLO lawyer Peter J. Schmiedel exposed a Chicago Police Dept. practice of keeping a double set of files—one set of which, called “street files,” contained potentially exculpatory information that was concealed from defense lawyers in violation of federal case law.

Haas and Schmiedel learned of street files from Frank Laverty, a whistle-blower detective whose honesty led to his reassignment to the unenviable task of personally observing the taking of urine samples from officers for routine drug testing. But he could take satisfaction in his role in saving Jones from a possible death sentence and, five years later, enabling Haas, Schmiedal, and PLO lawyer John Stainthrop to win an $800,000 federal civil judgment from the taxpayer-indemnified cops who had concealed the truth in the case.

Flint Taylor and his lawyer-wife Patricia Handlin, a former PLO intern, had championed Maxine Smith’s cause long before persuading the Illinois Prisoner Review Board to parole her in March 1982.

When Smith was arrested a decade earlier for killing her boyfriend, there were fresh bruises on her body, but she apparently had been in an alcoholic stupor when she killed him and didn’t know what happened, preventing her from pleading self-defense. She was convicted and sentenced to 20 to 60 years in prison.

Smith, who had no prior criminal record, soon emerged as an inmate leader at the Dwight Correctional Center. With Warden Robert Buchanan’s encouragement, Smith became a jailhouse lawyer—the best Buchanan said he had ever seen. She became the Dwight law librarian and was allowed to live in a minimum-security honors cottage.

But in 1974 Buchanan’s successor, John Platt, instituted severely restrictive policies, sending prisoners into segregation for minor infractions. After Smith filed a grievance against Platt on behalf of 25 prisoners, he barred her from visiting the segregation unit.

In 1975, her cottage was searched and she was charged with possession of contraband—a camera with film, a tape recorder, cassettes, and microphones. Although those items had not previously been considered contraband, Smith was thrown into segregation in 1976. There she languished for nearly two years, losing nearly 40 pounds, before Taylor and Schmiedel persuaded the Seventh Circuit in 1978 to order her release from segregation and return her to her librarian job.

A year after Smith was paroled, a federal jury awarded her $100,000 and change for violations of her rights and awarded the PLO legal fees of just over $83,000—awards unanimously affirmed by the Seventh Circuit in 1985.

In 1987, the PLO took on its biggest challenge since the Hampton case—launching a crusade that continues to this day to expose and redress torture of more than 100 African American murder suspects by now-deceased Jon Burge, a white Chicago police commander, and a group of white subordinates.

The torture—now internationally infamous, largely as a result of the PLO’s efforts—included electrical shocks to ears, nostrils and genitals, smothering with plastic typewriter covers, shackling to hot radiators, gun barrels in mouths, and cigarette burns to arms, legs and chests.

Since the facts  have been widely reported, I won’t go into them further here, but I recommend reading Flint Taylor’s excellent book on the scandal—“The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago” (Haymarket Books, 2019, $27).

PLO lawyer Michael Deutsch also enjoyed remarkable success in cases with international ramifications—including winning a $12 million settlement for survivors of prisoners slain following the 1971 Attica prison riot in New York, clemency in 1979 for Puerto Rican nationalist prisoners Lolita Lebron and Rafael Cancel Miranda, and a federal jury acquittal in 2007 for Muhammad Salah, a Chicago grocer of Palestinian dissent arrested in Israel 13 years earlier and charged with running a terrorist-recruiting and financing cell.

The foregoing is far from a complete accounting of PLO victories, but I would be remiss to leave the impression that PLO outcomes invariably have been positive. They, of course, have not.

An especially disappointing example, for me, is the case of Ronnie Carrasquillo an 18-year-old member of a Puerto Rican street gang, who in 1976 fired several pistol shots into the air in an effort, he asserted, to break up a brawl with a rival gang.

One of the bullets, or a fragment of one, struck and fatally wounded Terrence Loftus, a 36-year-old off-duty Chicago police officer who—courageously—was trying to stop the melee. That Loftus’s death was an unintended consequence of an unquestionably reckless act seems beyond question; the facts warranted serious charges—involuntary manslaughter or armed violence—but surely not murder, of which Carrasquillo was convicted and sentenced to 200 to 600 years in prison.

After losing several bids for parole for Carrasquillo, the PLO filed a petition seeking a sentence reduction to time served—an action that seemed well warranted. But, after an evidentiary hearing that dragged on for months in 2017, against a pervasive backdrop of police pressure, Cook County Associate Judge Alfredo Maldonado denied relief.

When I join other PLO admirers this weekend in toasting its extraordinary success, it will be with sadness that Frank Laverty, Maxine Smith, and Ronnie Carrasquillo won’t be there. Laverty died in 2006, Smith in 2009, and Carrasquillo, now 51—having spent more than two-thirds of his life in prison—will be at the Dixon Correctional Center, where his projected release date is 2270.

Rob Warden is co-founder of Injustice Watch. Since the People’s Law Office began in 1969, he has followed it closely—first  as a reporter covering civil rights and legal affairs for the Chicago Daily News, then as editor and publisher of Chicago Lawyer, and finally as executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. In 2017, Warden was an expert witness in the Carrasquillo case.