Chicago’s harshest judge seeks retention with 34 decisions undone in 6 years

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A version of this article appears online in the Chicago Sun-Timesand appears in the Sunday print edition.

Thirty-four times in the past six years, the Illinois Appellate Court has upended decisions by Cook County Circuit Judge Maura Slattery Boyle based on her errors, overturning her decisions at a pace far higher than that of other judges.

Slattery Boyle is one of the six Cook County criminal court judges who will be on the ballot in November, seeking retention. The other five have had their verdicts reversed or cases sent back for new hearings a combined total of 38 times during the same period.

Five times the appellate court assigned Slattery Boyle’s cases to a new, impartial judge when they sent the cases back. In three of those instances, the defendants were subsequently exonerated.

Slattery Boyle also imposes harsher sentences than her colleagues. An Injustice Watch review of data from the State’s Attorney’s office shows shows Slattery Boyle issues the most severe sentences compared to the 23 other Criminal Division judges who have presided over 1000 or more cases in the past six years.

Slattery Boyle declined an interview, but provided a written statement defending her record in response to questions from Injustice Watch. She wrote the appellate court had upheld her rulings in the “vast majority of cases,” and also defended her sentencing practices.

Her statement also notes that attorneys have asked for her cases to be reassigned to another judge only a small percentage of the time, which she called “a clear indicator that defendants, defense attorneys, and the State’s Attorney’s Office do not view me unfair, harsh, or difficult.”

The review of her record was undertaken as part of an examination of the 61 Cook County judges who are seeking retention this November.

Political roots

Maura Slattery Boyle grew up in Bridgeport, two blocks from the home of former Mayor Richard J. Daley.

She graduated from John Marshall Law School in 1993 and went to work for the State’s Attorney’s office. In 2000, at the age of 33, Slattery Boyle ran for judge with the backing of John Daley, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s brother. “I’ve known her all my life,” he said at the time. “She has a very good background.”

The alliance of bar associations that rates Cook County judicial candidates has an agreement not to favorably rate any candidate with fewer than 10 years of court experience. Slattery Boyle did not bother seeking the endorsement, and was given negative ratings as a result.

She won nevertheless. Six years later, as she ran for retention, her brother, Patrick Slattery, was convicted of felony fraud for giving city jobs to former campaign workers of Mayor Richard M. Daley. The Chicago Council of Lawyers that year concluded that Slattery Boyle possessed “good legal ability” and said lawyers praised her for “being even-tempered but firm.”

In 2012, the organization again rated her “qualified,” writing that attorneys praised her for “her improved knowledge of the law, preparedness and diligence, integrity and fairness on the bench.” The Council added, “attorneys on both sides of the aisle appear to think that she is fair.”

But in recent years her work has drawn criticism, both from the appellate courts and from several defense lawyers, most of whom declined to be quoted by name. One who did not decline was Jennifer Bonjean, who called it “a miserable experience” to be in front of Slattery Boyle: “I knew from the minute we walked in that courtroom we would not get a fair forum.”

A series of reversals

Serrano, Montanez, and Rodriguez, three men falsely imprisoned whose petitions for freedom were denied by Slattery Boyle. Sketches by Nora Toner Gosselin.

 

Bonjean represented Armando Serrano, who had been convicted along with Jose Montanez of murder in connection with the 1993 death of Rodrigo Vargas. The two had been sentenced to 55 years in prison largely on the statement of an alleged eyewitness, who years later recanted and said that a disgraced former officer, Reynaldo Guevara, had encouraged him to give a false statement.

Both Serrano and Montanez challenged their convictions following the recantation. But at 2013 hearings, Slattery Boyle sharply restricted the testimony she would permit and then dismissed the case before the hearing was complete, saying their evidence “entirely fails to support their allegation” that Detective Guevara forced the witness to falsely implicate them.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the Illinois Appellate Court called that decision “truly puzzling.” The decision, written by Appellate Judge John B. Simon, states Slattery Boyle “turned a blind eye to much of the evidence, and also refused to admit probative, admissible evidence that, when evaluated under the proper standard, is damning.”

The following month, after the appellate court sent the case back for a new judge to handle, both men were freed after the State’s Attorney’s office elected not to contest the case further.

In 2015, the Illinois Appellate Court found Slattery Boyle had “abused her discretion” by disqualifying attorneys from the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago from handling the post-conviction proceedings of Ricardo Rodriguez, who contended he, too, had been wrongly convicted based on evidence fabricated by Guevara.

Expressing concern that the pro bono attorneys had unethically stepped into the case while Rodriguez was represented by a private lawyer, Slattery Boyle referred the attorneys for possible discipline and removed them from representing Rodriguez in his efforts to overturn the conviction.

The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission found no wrongdoing by the attorneys. A panel of the Illinois Appellate Court reversed her ruling, restored the attorneys from the Exoneration Project, and ordered the case assigned to a new judge.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office agreed in March to support overturning the verdict without the hearing ever taking place.

And in 2016, the appellate court found fault when Slattery Boyle allowed a jury to hear that defendant Joe Rosado had been previously charged with a crime, but did not allow the jury to hear that he had been acquitted by a jury of that earlier charge. Slattery Boyle had been the trial judge for the prior charge, and said the prosecution “did not handle that case correctly because the evidence…was quite clear.”

In reversing the conviction, the appellate court panel opinion authored by Judge Michael B. Hyman states, “Outward appearances would suggest that the trial court changed its evidentiary rulings in the second case to ensure that Rosado was not acquitted again.”

Harsher sentences

Slattery Boyle also sentences more harshly than her colleagues, a review of data made public by the State’s Attorney’s office shows.

She overwhelmingly favors prison time over probation, especially for minor offenses. And more often than not, she sentences defendants to prison terms longer than the median given by other Cook County judges.

Slattery Boyle took issue with Injustice Watch’s analysis, writing, “Your assessment that I impose harsh sentences is based on incomplete data,” because the analysis failed to consider that some judges are assigned to courtrooms in which they tend to hear less serious cases.

That response is in error. The Injustice Watch analysis factored in the category of crime, to ensure judges are evaluated equitably. Using this method, the analysis showed that Slattery Boyle issues more severe sentences compared to all other criminal division judges who also have issued more than 1000 sentences in the past six years.

A contentious retrial

In 2014 an Illinois Appellate Court panel overturned the conviction of Oscar Flores on murder and attempted murder charges, ruling that Slattery Boyle had wrongly permitted a videotaped confession to be introduced at trial even though detectives obtained the statement after Flores had invoked his right to remain silent.

In addition, the panel cautioned about using, at retrial, social media posts by a user named “Little Rowdy,” who appeared to brag about the shooting; police contended Little Rowdy was Flores’ moniker. The appellate panel wrote that the captions accompanying the posts “should not be admitted at trial,” since the state could not show that Flores had been the author.

Assistant State’s Attorney Eric Leafblad called to the stand Robert Macias, who had been separately tried and convicted as the driver, though Macias’s attorney said her client would not testify. Slattery Boyle then permitted Leafblad to ask Macias, over objection, a series of questions about the murder and his association with Flores.

She then permitted Leafblad to ask a detective whether Macias had identified Flores as “Little Rowdy,” as well as questions about the captions that the appeals court had found inadmissible.

The jury convicted Flores a second time, after which assistant public defender Julie Koehler filed a motion asking that the case be reassigned, contending Slattery Boyle could not be “fair and impartial in the case.” Koehler’s motion added of the judge, “her prejudice was evidenced throughout the trial.”

The motion included a juror’s statement that Slattery Boyle had gone into the jury room after the verdict and told the jurors that Flores had previously confessed on videotape, but the appellate courts had suppressed the evidence based on a “loophole.”

Koehler’s motion was denied, and Slattery Boyle sentenced Flores to 80 years in prison. The state appellate defender is preparing an appeal.

Notable Slattery Boyle cases

People v. Rosado, 2017

The issue: Joe Rosado was on trial for selling drugs to an undercover Chicago Police Officer. He had recently been acquitted of an almost identical crime. The prosecution wanted to present testimony about his other charge.

The judge’s decision: Slattery Boyle, who was also Rosado’s judge in the other case, allowed the prosecution to present testimony about the other charge, but did not allow Rosado to say he had been acquitted. She stated in the former case the prosecution “did not handle that case correctly, because the evidence...was quite clear.”

The appellate court: In the opinion, Justice Michael Hyman wrote, “Outward appearances would suggest that the trial court changed its evidentiary rulings in the second case to ensure that Rosado was not acquitted again.” He also wrote, “Both in terms of logic and fairness, the trial court's decision was ‘unreasonable’ and an abuse of discretion.”

The fallout: The Appellate Court reversed the decision and sent the case to a different judge.

People v. Serrano, 2016

The issue: Armando Serrano contended in a post-conviction petition that he had been wrongly convicted of murder based on false evidence developed by the now-disgraced Chicago police detective, Reynaldo Guevara.

The judge’s decision: Slattery Boyle limited the evidence Serrano could present and then cut short a hearing on his petition, ruling that the evidence “entirely fails to support” Serrano’s claim.

The appellate court: A panel of the Appellate Court called that decision “truly puzzling,” adding the judge had “turned a blind eye to much of the evidence, and also refused to admit probative, admissible evidence that, when evaluated under the proper standard, is damning. Even where the court gave lip service to the standard it was supposed to apply, the court clearly did not adhere to that standard.”

The fallout: The State’s Attorney’s office elected not to contest overturning the conviction, and charges were dropped on July 20, 2016.

People v. Montanez, 2016

The issue: Jose Montanez’s post conviction petition in the 1993 murder of Rodrigo Vargas also alleged Detective Reynaldo Guevara coerced false statements against him and Armando Serrano. The judge’s decision: Slattery Boyle blocked key witness testimony implicating Guevara.

The appellate court: The Appellate Court reversed her decision in 2016 and sent the case to a different judge. In the opinion, Justice John Simon wrote that Slattery Boyle ignored two pieces of evidence “which provide direct evidence of misconduct in this case.” He concluded, “The interests of justice would be best and most efficiently served by the case being assigned to a different judge on remand.”

The fallout: Charges against Montanez were dropped on July 20, 2016.

People v. Rodriguez, 2015

The issue: Ricardo Rodriguez was pursuing his claims that Detective Reynaldo Guevara had told a witness to falsely implicate him, resulting in Rodriguez’s murder conviction. Without funds to employ a private lawyer for any longer, Rodriguez’s family reached out to the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago, who agreed to represent Rodriguez free of charge.

The judge’s decision: Slattery Boyle filed an ethics complaint in response, explaining the Exoneration Project attorneys had stepped into the case while Rodriguez was still represented by his private lawyer. Though the Illinois attorney disciplinary agency found no need for disciplinary action, she disqualified Rodriguez’s new lawyers from representing him.

The appellate court: An Appellate Court panel reversed her decision and sent the case to a different judge. In the un-published opinion, Justice Margaret McBride wrote that Slattery Boyle had “abused her discretion.”

The fallout: Rodriguez was released March 27 after his conviction was overturned at the request of the State Attorney’s office; he was then taken into custody by immigration officials, as his permanent residence status had been revoked while he was in prison.

People v. Kimbler, 2015

The issue: Tracy Kimbler was arrested in 2012 after police found him at a bus stop with a purse that had, minutes earlier, been taken from the woman’s apartment. He was tried before Judge Maura Slattery Boyle, in nonjury trial. After his conviction, he filed an appeal.

The judge’s decision: The judge convicted Kimbler of both burglary and theft, and sentenced him to two 10-year concurrent prison terms followed by three years of supervision. The judge also ordered Kimbler to pay $500 for the costs of court-appointed representation.

The appellate court: A panel of the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the burglary conviction, noting there was no evidence that Kimbler had been inside the victim’s apartment and was the person who took the purse. The court ordered resentencing, saying the sentence imposed was unduly harsh. And the panel said that Slattery Boyle had wrongly assessed attorney fees without establishing Kimbler’s ability to pay.

People v. Williams, 2013

The issue: Slattery Boyle found Clarence Williams guilty of murder, in the shooting of a 10-year-old bystander Arthur Jones during a gang dispute. Williams had fired a gun once in the air, which he told authorities he did to disperse the crowd. The evidence at trial was that another man fired the shots that killed Jones, who was on his way to buy candy.

The judge’s ruling: Slattery Boyle ruled that although Williams was not part of the gang, he was convicted under the theory of accountability for the murder by another. She sentenced Williams to 43 years in prison.

The appellate court: An appellate panel wrote that “the evidence was so unreasonable and unsatisfactory as to raise a reasonable doubt of the defendant's guilt.” The court overturned the murder conviction and upheld a conviction of unlawful discharge of a firearm. In addition, the court wrote, “we direct the trial court to conform to the requirements of the Sex Offender Registration Act before requiring defendant to register as a sex offender for a seemingly non-sexual crime.”

The fallout: In 2017, Slattery Boyle resentenced Williams to 15 years in prison. While she said she stood by her original conviction, she told the courtroom she was bound by the appellate decision.

People v. Harbin, 2018

The issue: Patrick Harbin was on trial for armed robbery, aggravated vehicular hijacking, and possession of a stolen motor vehicle. He chose not to testify. Despite being about a foot shorter, and 40 pounds lighter than the victim’s original description, Harbin was found guilty by a jury based largely on one eyewitness’s testimony.

The judge’s decision: During jury instructions, Slattery Boyle did not inform jurors Harbin’s decision not to testify could not be held against him, a violation of a Supreme Court rule.

The appellate court: An appeals court panel found Slattery Boyle’s error “had especially prejudicial effect” because the evidence against Harbin was questionable. “Where jurors may well have thought that Harbin's failure to testify meant he committed the crime, we cannot ignore the trial court's violation,” Justice P. Scott Neville, Jr. wrote.

The fallout: The appellate court ordered a new trial, which is pending.

People v. Baldwin, 2017

The issue: Derrick Baldwin was convicted of home invasion, burglary, unlawful restraint and two counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault. Baldwin had filed a motion in the first 10 days asking that the case be assigned to a different judge. He also was permitted to represent himself at the trial.

The judge’s decision: Slattery Boyle turned down the motion to substitute judges, saying the request was not presented to her within the 10-day period — though it was filed within the period. And she permitted Baldwin to represent himself, without giving him the required admonitions to ensure that decision was an informed choice.

The appellate court: An Appellate Court panel reversed all five convictions, ruling that Slattery Boyle had both wrongly ruled that the motion for a substitute judge was not timely, and had wrongly failed to properly admonish the defendant about representing himself. Both errors, the court wrote, required the conviction be dismissed.

The fallout: The appellate court ordered that the case be assigned to another judge for retrial.

Click on any of the cases above to learn more about some of Judge Slattery Boyle's most significant reversals in the past six years.

Injustice Watch reporter Jeanne Kuang and interns Abigail Bazin and Rachel Kim contributed to this report.

The methodology for Injustice Watch’s Sentencing Analysis can be found here, and the code used can be downloaded here.