Cop brutality case among Judge Nicholas Ford’s many reversals

Editor’s note: Most Cook County voters in the Nov. 8 election will have no personal knowledge of the 57 Circuit Court judges who are seeking retention. Even the most informed voters will rely on the ratings by one or more of a dozen bar associations that evaluate candidates. Major newspapers struggle to independently review judicial performance. Thus, Injustice Watch undertook a review of one of the most controversial judges seeking retention—Nicholas R. Ford, whom the Chicago Council of Lawyers found not qualified but who was recommended for retention by other bar groups. Read our second article on Ford here.

Judge Nicholas R. Ford twice threw out the case against a Park Ridge police officer over a 2006 incident in which he was accused of chasing down and beating two teenagers. Prosecutors also contended that the department engaged in a conspiracy to cover up the misconduct even as the city paid one of the teenagers $185,000 to settle a lawsuit.

The criminal case against officer Jason Leavitt dragged on for almost a decade before Ford this June found him not guilty after a non-jury trial, finding the accusers not credible. It was the second time that Ford had acted to end the case in Leavitt’s favor; in 2012, Ford had dismissed the case based on his finding that the state’s attorney had delayed too long in bringing the case to trial.

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That first ruling was reversed by the Illinois Appellate Court. An Injustice Watch review found it was just one of 16 reversals by the appellate court since Ford was last retained in 2010. Following that reversal, the case was sent back to Ford to retry, leading to the not-guilty verdict.

The officer was represented by Thomas Needham, former general counsel to the Chicago police who was a friend and former business partner of Ford’s wife.

Ford did not return calls seeking comment.

How it unfolded:

At about 2:00 a.m. on Oct. 28, 2006, two teenagers with a slingshot launched a projectile that flew into and shattered the rear window of a car traveling east on Touhy Avenue in northwest suburban Park Ridge.

The driver of the car happened to be off-duty officer Leavitt, who summoned backup and gave chase on foot to the youths who ran from the scene.

Jason Leavitt

Park Ridge Police Department

Park Ridge police officer Jason Leavitt

Prosecutors contended that Leavitt hit 15-year-old Westbrook Pegler on the back of the head with an object and punched him after tracking him down. As more officers came to the scene, the second 15-year-old, Gavin Farley, was handcuffed laying face down on a driveway while Leavitt kicked him in the back of the head, according to prosecutors. When Farley was placed in a police vehicle, Leavitt reached into the car and began hitting Farley again, prosecutors contended.

Farley sued Leavitt, the city and other officers for the incident, contending he suffered serious injuries including facial bruises, damage to his right eye and a concussion.

Prosecutors contended in court that shortly after the lawsuit was filed, an attorney hired by the city gathered together all officers who worked the night of the incident, along with the command staff. The attorney asked if anyone had an issue with Leavitt denying that he assaulted the youth, prosecutors would later contend.

Though Park Ridge police sergeant Eric Hilderbrant told prosecutors that several officers told him that Leavitt had beaten the teenagers, the officers contradicted the sergeant when they were called before a county grand jury.

Officer Lisa Smith invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Officers Anthony Raitano and Noel Rehana denied Hildebrand’s version of events. Mahoney said in court he believed they had perjured themselves.

At some point, it “became pretty clear to everybody that there was a cover-up conspiracy going on,” Mahoney said at one court hearing, and so he enlisted the help of the FBI beginning in September 2009.

The city settled the civil lawsuit by Farley for $185,000 on Oct. 22, 2009. Four days later, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office indicted Leavitt on seven counts of official misconduct and three counts of aggravated battery against Farley and Pegler.

Prosecutors won Cook County Circuit Court Judge Paul Biebel’s approval to keep the indictment sealed while the FBI continued their investigation.

The indictment was unsealed and the case was assigned to Judge Ford. The conspiracy investigation was closed without further indictments.

Leavitt had hired attorney Thomas Needham to represent him during the civil lawsuit in the event that criminal charges were brought. Needham had left his post as chief of staff to the Chicago Police Department superintendent in 2001 to form the law firm Baird & Needham with Callie L. Baird, a longtime friend. The law firm dissolved in 2003 when Baird moved into public service, first running Cook County Jail and, since 2007, as an associate judge.

Baird is Ford’s wife, a fact that the assistant district attorney’s office said last week that Ford acknowledged in court; prosecutors waived any conflict.

In February 2012, Ford held a hearing on Needham’s motion that the case should be dismissed because the state’s attorney had waited too long to bring charges. Mahoney and a second prosecutor explained in court their evidence of a cover-up by Park Ridge officers, which caused the delay while conspiracy charges were investigated.

Ford granted Needham’s motion and threw the case out. But in 2014 the appellate court reversed Ford and sent the case back for the judge to try.

Almost 10 years after the incident, Ford held a trial without a jury over three days in May and June 2016. Park Ridge detective Leonard Garcia testified that while he was at the scene of the alleged incident, he saw Leavitt leaning into a police car as the car shook from side to side. When Garcia returned to the police station, he said, he saw blood on Farley’s forehead, according to court records.

Garcia was one of four prosecution witnesses; the defense did not call anyone. Ford found Leavitt not guilty; according to news reports, the judge called Farley and Pegler “liars.”

Farley’s mother, Maureen Gleason, said the ordeal has greatly impacted both her son, who did not respond to a request for an interview, and the rest of her family. They decided to move out of Park Ridge after her seven children were continually pulled over by Park Ridge police officers on their way to hockey practice.

The Park Ridge Police Department is still conducting an internal investigation looking into the incident, according to police chief Frank Kaminski. Leavitt is still working for the department.

“If you want justice,” Gleason said in an interview, “don’t go to court.”

Coming Monday: A Nicholas Ford reversal sampler.