EDITORIAL: Justice delayed 16 months — until a reporter starts nosing around

SHARE EDITORIAL: Justice delayed 16 months — until a reporter starts nosing around
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Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

When Dorothy Brown does her job poorly, other people pay the price.

Consider the case of James Allen, an inmate at the Pontiac Correctional Center who claims he was wrongly convicted of two murders.

EDITORIAL

For 16 months, Allen’s lawyer asked Brown’s office, the Cook County circuit court clerk’s office, for a copy of Allen’s full trial record so that he could mount a proper appeal. But Brown’s office couldn’t find the files.

Then last month, just three days after a reporter for the Chicago Reader contacted Brown’s office to ask about the case, the files miraculously popped up.

Funny how that happens.

We don’t know if Allen’s appeal, said to be based on new evidence, has merit. That’s for a court to decide.

But for the legal process to be delayed simply because Brown’s office couldn’t locate the files — until a reporter started asking questions — is unconscionable. Were they up in the attic beneath some old school yearbooks? Or maybe down in the basement behind the dryer?

For several years, the U.S. attorney in Chicago has been investigating allegations of job-selling in Brown’s office, resulting in criminal charges being filed against two of her employees. Brown hasn’t been accused of committing any crimes.

RELATED: More job-selling allegations emerge in Brown investigation $10K ‘going rate’ for job in Brown’s office, employee tells feds Brown wants accusers prosecuted for lying to feds

But Brown’s office’s other problem is that it does a chronically crummy job. Lawyers have complained for almost two decades that Brown’s office misplaces and even loses records, forcing long delays.

Allen is just one of many defendants whose post-conviction appeals have been stalled because of Brown’s office. Some 25 other defendants represented by the Office of the State Appellate Defender are in the same situation, reports Maya Dukmasova of the Chicago Reader, and some delays have dragged on for more than a year. Another 600 or so cases, according to the appellate defender’s office, are being held up because of delays by Brown’s office in scanning and transmitting digital files.

Brown’s response always is to blame forces beyond her control, such as staff reductions and the challenge of converting to electronic appeals. So it’s important to stress that none of this is new. The Better Government Association first investigated the office’s failings in 2013, and lawyers were complaining long before that.

“Historically, it seems that your office waits until a problem is beyond a crisis and only then works feverishly to correct it,” a public defender wrote to Brown in 2013.

That sounds about right. It certainly would explain why Brown’s office took 16 months to find James Allen’s trial record — and finally got the job done only after a reporter started nosing around.

Did we mention that Dorothy Brown is running for mayor? Yes, she is.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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