A year after Vickie McLee was given a mandatory 22-year sentence on federal drug charges, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the sentencing statute as unconstitutional.
But when McLee was given a chance to be resentenced, her attorney, William Laws, showed up late for the court hearing and offered no legal briefs or arguments on why she should receive a shorter sentence. She was once again given a prison term of 22 years.
McLee finally received a reduced sentence three years later, in 2008, after U.S. District Judge Charles P. Kocoras ruled that Laws’ representation “fell below the threshold of acceptable professional conduct” because of his “failure to take any action” on her behalf during resentencing.
“He didn’t do the job at all,” McLee, 51, told Injustice Watch about her experience working with Laws.
Beginning on February 21, Cook County voters started heading to the polls to winnow down the field of 110 judicial primary candidates vying to fill 39 vacancies on the bench. For the majority of races in which there is no partisan contest, the primary elections serve as the final word in who will become a judge in Cook County. This article is part of Injustice Watch‘s continuing coverage prior to the March elections.
Laws is now running in the upcoming Democratic primary to become a judge on the Cook County Circuit Court. He, in fact, hopes to win the 2nd subcircuit seat being vacated by his recently retired wife, Marjorie C. Laws. All three major bar associations rated William Laws qualified, though the Illinois State Bar Association and Chicago Council of Lawyers noted that a federal judge had found his representation ineffective in a previous case. Those evaluations prompted Injustice Watch to review the record in McLee’s case.
Judge Kocoras ruled that Laws’ inadequate performance likely did not impact the finding that McLee was guilty, only her sentencing. But court records show there were also significant issues with his trial performance.
Laws failed to respond to a series of messages left at his campaign headquarters and law offices.
McLee was first arrested in 2002, along with her husband, Rodney McLee, and several others on federal charges in connection with a cocaine distribution organization on Chicago’s South Side.
McLee and her co-defendants went on trial in 2003. According to an affidavit later filed by Rodney McLee’s attorney, Nishay Sinan, Laws showed up with no notes or case files. Instead, he told attorney Sinan that he expected Vicki McLee to plead guilty and not go on trial. He was so unprepared that he had to borrow Sinan’s paperwork to use during the trial, according to Sinan’s affidavit. In that affidavit Sinan wrote Laws’ representation throughout trial “fell below prevailing professional norms.”
Attorney Kent Carlson, who represented another co-defendant, wrote in an affidavit that Laws “had no clear theory of defense.” Carlson wrote, “I am not even sure that he understood the entire scope of the case.”
In November 2003, a jury convicted McLee of federal charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, possession of cocaine and cocaine base with intent to distribute, and the use of a telephone in drug conspiracy.
At her sentencing hearing, McLee expressed dissatisfaction with Laws’ representation, but agreed to proceed. Judge Kocoras told McLee he understood she had not participated in the drug trafficking as much as her husband, but that the sentencing guidelines left him little leeway. He gave her the minimum: nearly 22 years.
“I did not set these numbers. Congress and the Sentencing Commission did. So, we have very little to deal with,” Kocoras said at that time.
When McLee was resentenced two years later, after the mandatory sentencing guidelines were found unconstitutional, Laws was still her attorney. When he showed up, he said he had not filed anything on McLee’s behalf and planned to adopt the same argument that attorney Nishay Sanan made on behalf of Rodney McLee.
“It was devastating,” Vickie McLee said. “It’s like as if he wasn’t trying, and that didn’t make me feel good at all.”
She again received the same sentence.
In 2007, McLee’s new lawyer, Alison Siegler of the Federal Defender Project, filed a post-trial petition on her behalf, alleging that Laws’ lack of preparation had impacted both her original sentencing and the resentencing two years later. Siegler cited a series of alleged failures, including that Laws had failed to interview McLee’s family before the resentencing hearing, had gone to that hearing without ever ordering the original sentencing transcript, and had failed to raise arguments about how the sentence should be calculated more favorably.
In September 2008, Kocoras ruled on McLee’s petition. He found that Laws’ representation had been ineffective, citing the affidavits and other evidence. He said that while it was unlikely that Laws’ conduct affected the outcome of trial, Laws should have raised numerous arguments that likely would have changed the outcome of the sentence.
Kocoras ordered McLee be resentenced. “There can be no doubt of the negative impact on [McLee] of missing the opportunity to present these arguments to this court by virtue of her attorney’s failure to act,” Korocas wrote. When the case was sentenced for a third time, McLee received a 10-year sentence.
Though both the Chicago Council of Lawyers and the Illinois State Bar Association referred to McLee’s case in their evaluation of Laws, neither thought it was enough to prevent him from getting a qualified rating.
“The Council must balance this case against a long career of being considered a solid practitioner,” the CCL wrote.
McLee, however, said she was surprised to hear Laws was running. “He wasn’t even a good lawyer, let alone trying to be a judge.”