In the Name of Justice: Chicago's Legal Crusaders

In a town where the topics of the day revolve around sports, politics, corruption and the rising toll of gun violence victims, most of our news soundbites are coming from the attorneys that represent the families of these victims.

Attorney Larry Rogers, Jr.
Attorney Larry Rogers, Jr.

Larry Rogers, Jr.

Power, Rogers & Smith, P.C.

Victims: Bettie Jones and Sandra Bland

Last month, on the morning after Christmas, 55-year old Bettie Jones received a phone call from her upstairs neighbor to let Chicago police officers enter the building due to a domestic dispute with his 17-year old son, Quintonio LeGrier.

Upon entering the West Side residence, Chicago police officers shot LeGrier six times, killing him. They alleged he charged at them with a baseball bat. In the process, they also accidentally shot Jones in the chest, killing her as well.

What happened next would shake an already fragile city, forcing two families to plan funeral services for their loved ones during the holiday season.

Larry Rogers, Jr. is not your ordinary attorney – his reputation as a trial attorney is as prodigious as his record for winning cases for his clients.

Bettie Jones fatally shot by Chicago Police officer on December 26, 2015.
Bettie Jones fatally shot by Chicago Police officer on December 26, 2015.

In addition to being a part of the legal team on the Sandra Bland case, he was brought on as co-counsel with Sam Adam Jr. to represent the family of Bettie Jones in filing a civil lawsuit against the City of Chicago for her accidental death, caused by the fatal shots from a Chicago police officer.

Although Rogers has worked on previous police misconduct cases and other cases challenging the City of Chicago, the Jones cases is a delicate situation coming on the heels of the Laquan McDonald videotape released to the public just a month before Jones was killed.

Rogers said, “It’s generally my practice to avoid filing suit before a funeral. I don’t like to do that because the family is grieving. But when we didn’t get information as timely as I thought we should and when another lawsuit was filed, I didn’t want something to happen in that situation that would impact their case. So, I filed that Monday and the funeral was Wednesday. That way I could be sure that nothing was occurring that would impact the case, that I wouldn’t be able to interject.”

Before Jones was laid to rest, Rogers spoke with the mayor’s office and the city’s general counsel because it was important to look at key evidence, such as 911 dispatch calls, police audio and video footage as well as neighborhood surveillance.

Rogers said, “I think it is important that they reached out to me in the context of the mayor wanting to meet with the family to relay condolences. I told them what I wanted, which was some information. So, they gave me some information – verbally. I had requested written information, which they had not produced before that meeting and still have not produced. I think largely it’s because of the FOP contract.

“My investigation at this point is requesting things from the department and also doing an independent investigation of witnesses, going to the scene, hiring expert witnesses,” he continued. “Again, there is evidence of bullet entry points on both sides of the door, which suggests the officers are a distance away from the door. The bodies were found inside the door with her lying on her back, the boy lying face down.

“There is factual indication that she was summoned by a doorbell or knock. There are factual witnesses that established that the officer was as far back as the parkway beyond the sidewalk. As well, there are factual indications that the shell casings from the officer’s weapon from the bullets that he fired are as far back as the sidewalk.”

Rogers broke down the process of seeking fair damages when representing the family of Bettie Jones against the City of Chicago. It’s not just about cutting a check, but understanding the nature of the relationships of the children, along with the value of worth earned by the deceased, he explained.

“There are different divisions within the court system, one of which is referred to as smalls claims court,” Rogers says. “Cases under $15,000 go into the municipal division of the courts. The cases that are in the law division are a minimum of $50,000 and you have to sign an affidavit attesting to the fact that the claim is worth $50,000 or more and you have to plead that.

“The plea actually says that the claim is valued well in excess of $50,000, but the press read that we’re asking for $50,000. You can’t identify the value of the claim until you get through the discovery process to identify the nature of the liability, then the nature of the relationship that you’re claiming.

“That requires you to look at the income that was earned, and how much income would’ve been earned over a lifetime, which would require engaging an economist.”

Through the medical examiner’s report, the Chicago police officer Robert Rialmo was identified as the officer who accidentally killed Bettie Jones. Although neither the Chicago Police Department or IPRA has confirmed the officer’s identity, having it released through the media is a testament of the system’s ongoing non-transparency.

Attorney Sam Adam, Jr.
Attorney Sam Adam, Jr.

Sam Adam, Jr.

Sam Adam, Jr. Law Office

Victim: Bettie Jones

Sam Adam, Jr. has become one of the most familiar faces on the legal and media landscape, representing high-profile clients like music superstar R. Kelly and former Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich.

Currently, he is co-counsel with Chicago attorney Larry Rogers, Jr. for the family of Bettie Jones. His style of staying in front of the camera may be considered vain to some, but Adam considers it strategic.

“The media should be a tool to show what is going on with the government and citizens,” Adam maintains. “This should be brought to light. The greatest disinfectant in the world is sunlight. That is what I’m trying to use the media for in all of these cases – to bring in sunlight to root out all of the evil that is taking place in the areas of the government.”

The ongoing continuous delays by the city’s law department, the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) have created multiple delays in the process of getting answers for victims’ families, Adams believes.

He says, “They are interacting with citizens and using that interaction to their own advantage instead of for the citizens they should be protecting. Bettie Jones is that case.

“This is a 55-year-old woman who did everything right – she was a good mother, she was a good grandmother, she was the type of woman who went to the door to answer the call of duty so that she could let in some police officers. She was shot down for it.”

Attorney Brian Coffman
Attorney Brian Coffman

Brian Coffman, Coffman Law Offices, P.C.

Mark Smolens, Mottweiler & Smolens, LLP

Victim: Cedrick Chatman

Last week, a federal judge ordered the release of the videotape of another fatal police shooting, that of 17-year-old Black male Cedrick Chatman.

The shooting took place three years ago, across the street from South Shore High School as the victim was running from police officers. Officer Kevin Fry fatally shot the unarmed teenager, who was carrying a black iPhone case.

Brian Coffman and Mark Smolens are the attorneys representing the Chatman family in the wrongful death lawsuit against the city.

Coffman, who has represented similar police misconduct cases in Chicago and around the country, is disturbed by how a fistfight with a man trying to sell a stolen phone to Chatman and his associates could result in senseless death.

Cedrick Chatman, 17-year old fatally shot down by Chicago Police officers on January 7, 2013.

Coffman said, “Mr. Rankin, the alleged victim that was beat up in this case, was in the neighborhood to sell a stolen cell phone to Akeem Clark and Martel Odom. During that process, a disagreement occurred as far as the price or what was going to happen.

“They got upset and started beating him up with their fists and their feet, no knives, no guns. They told Mr. Chatman to take his car because they felt it was some type of neighborhood justice,” Coffman continued.

“Mr. Chatman jumped in his car and started driving away. Mr. Rankin himself even told the 911 operator that these guys didn’t have any knives or guns, that they kicked and punched him. That was the extent of it. He was able to run away, but that was never communicated to another officer or anyone else.”

Although both Clark and Odom were 10 blocks away from where the crime occurred, under Illinois law, anyone who sets in motion a chain of events that results in the death of another individual is to be charged with murder.

It is clear on the videotape that both Officer Fry and Officer Toth shot at Chatman, bringing him down in broad daylight at the busy intersection of 75th and Jeffrey Blvd.

“This is a case that could potentially effect every other case across the country,” Coffman says. “You have a federal judge making comments how this investigation has been handled. How the City of Chicago has handled practices of filing a motion and opposition three years ago, not wanting the video to be released.

“It can have a ripple effect on how they handle police misconduct cases. Times have changed. The same thing that we’re doing is not going to work anymore and people are not going to stand for it.”

As for the next steps in the case, Coffman says his team is in the process of scheduling the deposition of Lorenzo Davis, the former IPRA investigator fired as a result of his findings in this case by Scott Ando.

“Once his deposition is complete, we’re going to be back in court in March and at that time, we’ll be getting a trial date set,” Coffman said.

“The unfortunate thing in our case is that we have numerous levels of cover-up, from the inaccuracy of the police report to even the medical examiner’s report. How Mr. Chatman was stopped in the streets, pointing a black object at the officers. The video is proof of what you see. We have issues of how these cases are reported. You have Pat Camden of the FOP making statements that are entirely baseless, but FOP takes it as word,” Coffman said. “The police officers need to be re-trained on when and how to use deadly force and when that’s necessary.”

As Coffman and his co-counsel, Attorney Mark Smolens look forward to a court date in March–his frustration apparent. “When you look at cases like Laquan McDonald and Ronald Johnson, was it really necessary to use deadly force? In this case, you have a kid running away and it wasn’t clear that he had anything in his hand as he was running away.  The police officer to use deadly force was totally irresponsible. That’s the real problem with this case.”

Attorney Cannon Lambert
Attorney Cannon Lambert

Cannon Lambert

Karchmar & Lambert, P.C.

Victim: Sandra Bland

A month ago, a Waller County, Texas grand jury did not return any indictments against any officers in the death of Sandra Bland. It’s been seven months since Bland was found dead in her jail cell where she had been detained for three days, arrested for allegedly assaulting Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia.

Since then, Sandra Bland’s voice of advocacy continues to ring loud from the grave and her legal champion proudly continues to fight for her family in seeking justice.

Attorney Cannon Lambert and his family attend the same church as members of the Bland family. A mutual friend first contacted him when the Bland family was contacted by Texas jail officials about Sandra’s death.

“They had made contact with Ms. Geneva and had made a series of assurances to her,” Lambert says. “I went down there to be her eyes and ears. I was relying on the follow through on those assurances.

“Preliminarily, the rangers met with us and they were cooperative in terms of communicating with her. They told us that they were going to see what happened to her. We came with more questions than answers.

“They did help us in the way of letting us see the dashcam video ahead of when it was released to the media. Once that happened, then things kind of shut down,” Lambert said.

“Once we got Sandy back home, the day we got her back for her home-going, we got correspondence from the Waller County District Attorney saying that we needed to preserve her for additional medical tests to be run on her.  That is unheard of because you don’t release a body until they needed to what they had to do.”

Sandra Bland found dead in a Waller County, TX jail cell on July 13, 2015.
Sandra Bland found dead in a Waller County, TX jail cell on July 13, 2015.

Though Officer Encinia was charged with misdemeanor perjury and fired, that is not enough justice for the family.

Lambert said, “We’re trying to obtain as much information as we can that would help support the theories that we have in our case. It has to do with the facts. There are certain things that we’re looking for, like the police reports.

“These would contain investigations that have been done already by people that were looking into this situation right after it happened. They would’ve arguably spoken to witnesses and we’re going to want to know what those witnesses said so that we can dispose them,” Lambert said.

He strongly affirms this case was tainted by the actions of Waller County attorney Darrell Jordan, who was one of five special prosecutors appointed by the Waller County District Attorney to launch an independent investigation into the case.

“It was not an independent special prosecutor body that was put together for us, it was a farce,” Lambert says. “Darrell Jordan, before he was appointed a special prosecutor on Sandy’s case, was on Facebook making all kinds of posts that were pro-establishment.

“How is that something that suggests independence? It’s not when the District Attorney of Waller County said that Sandy was not a model person, before he appointed these folks. It was all for show.”

Lambert says he has grown close to the Bland family and admires their strength in fighting for truth and justice. Both Bland’s mom, Geneva Read-Veal, and sister, Sharon Cooper, continue to publicly speak out in light of the latest developments.

Lambert has worked on previous police misconduct cases and understands all too well the cultural disconnect law enforcement has had with the Black community.

“When you have an attorney that can relate to what your experiences are because either they’ve gone through it themselves or their father, son, daughter or relatives – we talk about these things at the table – we prepare our children on how they need to interface with the police because of the risks,” Lambert said.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re gender is – that’s what this case is about. The final frontier. They’ll do anything to anybody; that’s the case in this particular circumstance, that’s the fear that people have. You see how she got treated on the streets – you just see that they don’t care.”

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