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Former Cook County Judge Ronald J.P. Banks dies at 76

Ronald J.P. Banks, the Cook County judge behind a landmark 1985 murder conviction of three chemical company supervisors in the death of a factory worker, died on New Year's Day. | Family photo

Ronald J.P. Banks, the Cook County judge behind a landmark 1985 murder conviction of three chemical company supervisors in the death of a factory worker, died on New Year’s Day.

Mr. Banks, who died from heart complications at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park, was 76, his family said.

Once a candidate for chief judge of the county, he was one of three politically influential brothers from Chicago’s Austin neighborhood who rose to prominence.

His younger brother, former Ald. William J.P. Banks (36th), headed the City Council zoning committee until he retired in 2009.

His older brother, Samuel V.P. Banks, was a Cook County prosecutor who later defended some of Chicago’s most colorful — and purportedly mobbed-up — characters in court. He died in 2010.

“My dad kept our family as normal as it possibly could be,” said Samuel W. Banks, a zoning specialist for Cook County, who is one of Mr. Banks’ six children. “We grew up knowing our dad was a judge . . . but if I didn’t cut the grass for him, I’d get in trouble.”

After graduating from DePaul law school in 1968, Mr. Banks started his public career as a Cook County prosecutor, said another son, Ronald Banks Jr. He eventually supervised traffic court and served a stint as an associate judge, before he was elected as a circuit court judge in 1982.

His entree into the legal world came only after he dropped out of dental school.

“He got to the part where they were making bridges and dentures. He had trouble, gave it up and went to law school,” Sam W. Banks said.

In Mr. Banks’ courtroom in 1985, Steven J. O’Neil, president; Charles Kirschbaum, a manager; Daniel Rodriguez, a foreman, were convicted of murder in the death of a factory worker for a now-defunct Elk Grove Village company Film Recovery Systems.

Stefan Golab, 61, an undocumented Polish laborer, dropped dead in 1983 after inhaling cyanide fumes from a solution used to recover silver from exposed X-ray film at the company’s factory.

The prosecution was brought by the then-state’s attorney Richard M. Daley, a law school classmate of Mr. Banks, Sam W. Banks said.

The conviction was one of the first in its kind in the U.S., though it was overturned by a state appeals court.

O’Neil and Kirschbaum were eventually sentenced to time in prison after they pleaded guilty to manslaughter during a retrial. Rodriguez also pleaded guilty but was spared prison time in favor of home confinement, 30 months of probation and 500 hours of community service, the Sun-Times reported at the time.

After 17 years on the bench, Mr. Banks announced his candidacy for chief judge in 1994. During the closed-door proceedings, local judges vote one of their own to oversee the whole county court system.

Though Mr. Banks was promoted by influential Democratic politicians, he was defeated handily by Judge Donald P. O’Connell. The loss came amid criticisms from legal watchdogs who said Mr. Banks’ had an unremarkable record and would be susceptible to political pressure.

“If his family wasn’t politically connected, it is doubtful that Banks would be in contention,” Sun-Times political columnist Steve Neal wrote at the time.

After he retired in 2000, Mr. Banks enjoyed golf, playing cards and vacationing in Jamaica, where he and his wife, Donna, honeymooned, his family said. He was a longtime fan of cinema.

He also enjoyed his growing family, which includes five grandchildren, his sons said.

Like many other men in his family, one of Mr. Banks’ middle initials was “P.” To avoid anti-Italian bigotry, Mr. Banks’ father, currency exchange owner Vincenzo Giuseppe Panebianco, anglicized his name to James Joseph and added “Banks” to their surname. His sons used “P” or “Panebianco” in front of “Banks.”

Sam W. Banks, one of the few in his family not to have “P” for a middle initial, said his father instilled in his children a sense of propriety and decorum.

“We were a representative of our family and we should act in that manner and give our family the respect it deserved,” Sam W. Banks said.

Survivors also include a sister, Marlene Panebianco; and daughters, Kimberly Banks, Heather Banks, Lynn Banks and Hope Jaeger.

Services were scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday at St. Giles Church, 1045 Columbian Avenue in Oak Park.