Most every month for the last 4½ years, Ebony Ambrose made her way to the Cook County Criminal Courts Building at 26th Street and California Avenue.
She would walk through the metal detector, always careful to leave her cellphone in her car because she wasn’t allowed to bring it into the building. She would head up to Courtroom 206, where she would take a seat on one of the hard, wood benches.
And she would wait. Sometimes for 10 minutes. Once, for more than four hours.
Then Jerome Brown would appear. He was the man who shot and killed her son, Kevin Ambrose, who was 19. A darkened glass partition separated the defendant from a mother of three who was seeking justice for her first-born child.
Usually, the lawyers and judge would discuss a motion, with Brown standing silently nearby. After a few minutes, he would disappear, gone from his side of the glass partition, only to reappear the next month at yet another status hearing.
As time ticked on, Ebony Ambrose grew inpatient and frustrated.
“It’s nobody’s fault,” an assistant prosecutor told her once. “It’s the system.”
As if that were consolation.
“Any ideas I had about justice went out the door at Year 2,” Ambrose said a few months ago, as she approached her fifth Thanksgiving and Christmas without her son. “I’m sick of being here.”
Rarely were the actual facts of her son’s murder case discussed at these monthly hearings.
There was little talk about how Kevin had been a theater major at Columbia College Chicago and was finishing his freshman year. Or about how he was shot by someone who didn’t know him as he walked to the 47th Street stop of the Green Line L. Or about how his plan for the night had been so normal, just to meet a friend and hang out at his family’s Bronzeville home.
It was not until last month, when Brown pleaded guilty to 1st degree murder, that the focus turned for a few minutes, finally, to the young man whose life was snuffed out on May 7, 2013.
“Kevin’s potential for greatness is immeasurable, and now, sadly, unrealized,” his mother told Judge Erica Reddick moments before she handed down the sentence: 27 years in prison – minus 1,670 days already served.
“He was determined to be anything and anyone he wanted to be,” Ambrose said. “Kevin talked about living life to the fullest. He made friends all over the city. He loved to try new things. He was goofy, happy, moody, self-conscious, excited for life, and looking forward to his future. He was so very alive.”
But perhaps the most forceful part of Ambrose’s statement – during the one and only time she was allowed to speak in court in all these years – focused on the word “deserve.”
“You can’t make peace with the situation and maintain your sanity while going through this judicial process if you hold on to the word ‘deserve,’ ” she said. “I know my son didn’t deserve to die, yet the court spends so much time considering what his killer deserves. . . . I’ve had to redefine what justice means to me because this process has been so disheartening.”
Different attorneys being assigned to the case, the same questions about evidence being asked over and over, few hard-and fast-deadlines – Ambrose seemed to take all this in stride. It was the seemingly small things – like never knowing what time the case would be called and struggling to hear what was happening in the courtroom – that wore on her and those who came with her.
While Ambrose read aloud her personal statement on that final day in court, her daughter Kristen did not. Kristen asked the judge to read silently what she had written about how her older brother’s death had affected her and the whole family.
Since that night when the police came to her door, telling her that her son had been shot, Ebony Ambrose has wanted to know why. Finally, 1,686 days later — on Dec. 19, 2017 — Brown spoke.
Ambrose could barely hear him. There was no microphone, and his back was turned to her. And there was that darkened partition still separating them. But she heard him ask for forgiveness and say, “It’s hurting me, too.”
Finally, also, Judge Reddick acknowledged “how slowly the wheels of justice” had turned for Ambrose and her family.
“Justice is not a word I use to describe this process,” the judge said. “It is the process, however imperfect it may be, that we have.”
In the end, Ebony Ambrose did not get the justice — or the answers — she was seeking. But she would never again have to return to Courtroom 206.
“I can’t believe I don’t have to come back here,” she said.
Then she, her daughter and her fiancé headed for home.
Suzanne McBride is chair of the Communication Department at Columbia College Chicago and an editor at the Sun-Times.
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