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Suburban Chicago mom of strangled teen: Why, after 10 years, has suspect still not gone to trial?

The number of people held more than 5 years in the Cook County Jail is sharply up, to 130, a Sun-Times analysis finds. Most are awaiting trial for murder.

Hallena Johnson is the mother of Kiara Windom, who was strangled in 2009. Sonny Pierce is charged with murder in the deaths of Windom and two other young women, Mariah Edwards and Kimika Coleman.
Hallena Johnson is the mother of Kiara Windom, who was strangled in 2009. Sonny Pierce is charged with murder in the deaths of Windom and two other young women, Mariah Edwards and Kimika Coleman.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Hallena Johnson replays the last time she saw her daughter over and over in her head.

It was August 2009, and Johnson had a pizza delivered to her home in Harvey for herself and her 18-year-old daughter Kiara Windom.

“I told her, ‘When the pizza comes, save some,’ ” says Johnson, who wasn’t feeling well and dozed off.

When she woke up, she found the pizza uneaten and her daughter gone. She never saw her alive again.

Sonny Pierce has been charged with murder in Windom’s strangulation death and that of 18-year-old Kimika Coleman. Pierce used phone chat lines to lure the young women to his ramshackle Blue Island apartment, and DNA evidence links him to their killings, according to prosecutors.

Sonny Pierce.
Sonny Pierce.
Cook County sheriff’s office

A third teenager, 17-year-old Mariah Edwards, went missing in July 2010, and police have said they recovered a recording of Pierce having sex with her “lifeless body.” They said he admitted he sexually assaulted Edwards and beat her to death. Her body was never found.

In 2010, then-Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said the young women’s lives were cut short in “yet another example of heinous crimes of violence against women.”

Saying he didn’t kill anyone, Pierce told reporters, “The only thing I am guilty of is having consensual sex with too many women.”

A decade later, Pierce remains at the Cook County Jail, still awaiting trial, at the extreme end of the growing number of murder suspects whose criminal cases have dragged on for years in Cook County. Nearly 500 people have been detained continuously in the Cook County Jail for at least three years, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis. Most are awaiting trial for murder.

More than 130 people have been jailed even longer — at least five years, records show.

Six have been there for nine years.

Pierce is one of two who’ve been in the jail for a decade.

Graphic shows the number of Cook County Jail detainees held for at least four years since 2003.
The number of Cook County Jail detainees held for at least four years has been rising since 2003.
Frank Main / Sun-Times

Johnson says the delays in prosecuting Pierce have robbed her of justice.

“It’s been a long time,” she says. “I wanted him to be convicted of what he did. I wanted to get justice. I wanted to be at peace. I’m not at peace.”

She says prosecutors regularly update her on when Pierce will be in court for a hearing. But she can’t bear to go because nothing ever happens.

“I don’t want to go to court again,” says Johnson, 52.

She thinks of her daughter often. “On her birthday, we will watch a clip of her,” she says. “I will talk to her. Pray. I know she is in a better place than I am. I know one day we will meet up. Until then, I want justice for her. I want him to suffer just like she suffered.”

Hallena Johnson, in a 2011 photo, holding a picture of her slain daughter Kiara Windom, who was 18 when she was strangled.
Hallena Johnson, in a 2011 photo, holding a picture of her slain daughter Kiara Windom, who was 18 when she was strangled.
Sun-Times file

The issue of long jail stays and delayed felony prosecutions is nothing new in Cook County. In 2003, finding that prosecutors and defense lawyers were playing the system and that judges weren’t standing in their way, the Sun-Times reported 29 people had been jailed then for at least five years. That’s about one-quarter of the number today.

In a 2002 memo, then-State’s Attorney Richard Devine’s office told Paul Biebel, who was the presiding judge, that complex murder cases such as those involving multiple defendants should take no longer than 2½ years to come to trial and more typical first-degree murder cases should reach a disposition within a year and a half.

Yet, over the past two decades, the number of detainees awaiting trial for more than three years has continued to rise.

In 2017, that prompted the National Center for State Courts to send out-of-state judges to Cook County to study the delays. The following year, the study resulted in standards being set for how long felony cases in Cook County should take.

“Our stated goal is to try to resolve murder cases in 24 months,” says LeRoy Martin Jr., presiding judge of the criminal division of the Cook County circuit court. “More complex cases will take more time to resolve.”

A case-management system is being rolled out to help judges set deadlines and keep cases moving. So far, about two-thirds of the judges in Cook County’s criminal courts are using the system.

Judges’ caseloads are declining as a result of the new system, court officials say. And none of the judges in the criminal courts has been transferred to another division because they were considered to be indifferent to the delays.

“We want cases disposed of as expeditiously as is practical, while, at the same time, balancing the defendants’ right to be prepared for trial,” Martin says.

Cook County Circuit Judge LeRoy Martin Jr., presiding judge of the criminal division.
Cook County Circuit Judge LeRoy Martin Jr., presiding judge of the criminal division.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times file

Delays in felony cases have an impact beyond postponing justice and the burden they place on victims’ families. According to the Cook County sheriff’s office, the cost to the county of housing a detainee in the jail is estimated conservatively at $189 a day. That’s based on 2015 figures.

Still, using that figure, the total cost of housing those who have been held continuously in the jail between three and five years has amounted to $94.5 million. And the cost of housing those held for more than five years is $59 million — for a total cost of $153.5 million.

“The sheriff has long spoken out about the need to address unnecessary delays, which interrupt justice and contribute to overcrowding,” says Matthew Walberg, a spokesman for Sheriff Tom Dart. “At a time where the COVID-19 pandemic has placed severe strain on financial resources and space, the sheriff’s office is again urging that we, once and for all, address this embarrassment.”

Prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and academics offer varying explanations for the delays.

One reason is that activity in the Cook County courts has slowed down during the pandemic. But that accounts for only six months of delays.

David Olson, a criminology professor at Loyola University Chicago, says Illinois’ truth-in-sentencing law, enacted in 1998, requires people convicted of murder to serve their full sentence. The minimum sentence for murder is 20 years, but most murder convicts get at least 40, Olson says: “In other words, most face de facto life sentences.”

So defendants who don’t think they have much chance to win have little incentive to plead guilty or demand a speedy trial, according to Olson. They might prefer to delay their case, he says, because that means they’re held longer in the county jail, closer to their families, and perhaps the case against them will weaken with time.

David Olson, an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Loyola University Chicago.
David Olson, an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Loyola University Chicago.
Loyola University Chicago

Outdated court practices and poor technology also are among reasons for the delays, according to a retired judge, speaking on the condition she not be named. She says the pretrial discovery process — in which prosecutors and defense lawyers exchange evidence before trial — is far more streamlined in other states and in the federal courts. Cook County’s courts also rely too heavily on paper records, the former judge says.

Cook County court officials say steps are being taken to speed discovery and to reduce the reliance on a seeming historic relic: carbon paper.

Celeste Stack retired from the Cook County state’s attorney’s office in 2017 after three decades as a prosecutor. She says of delays in felony cases, “It’s always been an issue.

“We used to have to submit lists of cases over a year old to see what we could do to move them along,” says Stack, now a defense lawyer in Peoria. “The local jail system is intended to hold people until their trials. If, for whatever reason, that goes on for years, it’s a burden on the whole system.”

Stack recently was involved in a Cook County murder case that’s gone on for more than nine years because of post-trial motions.

In 2014, Gerardo Servin was convicted in a 2011 fatal shooting. In 2016, Servin’s trial lawyer, David Wiener, was suspended from practicing law for “not taking the necessary steps to pursue his clients’ interests,” according to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.

Servin filed two unsuccessful requests for a new trial, citing ineffective counsel among the reasons.

In 2018, Stack prepared the second of Servin’s requests for a new trial. She says witnesses recanted testimony, and new evidence pointed to Servin being set up by members of his old gang.

On July 26, a judge rejected that request for a new trial. Servin awaits sentencing.

Celeste Stack, at the time a prosecutor, with then-Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine in 2001.
Celeste Stack, at the time a prosecutor, with then-Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine in 2001.
Sun-Times file

Kimberly Coleman’s daughter Kimika Coleman was killed in 2009 in one of the deaths for which Pierce, now 36, is charged. She’s resigned to how slowly justice moves.

“My daughter would be 30 years old today,” Coleman says. “She was a happy-go-lucky young lady. She was about to graduate from high school. I get a call every three or four months when [prosecutors] bring [Pierce] in for discovery. It’s irritating. I just can’t keep going there and looking at him.

“I went through such a depression,” says Coleman, 55. “I had to find some peace because I couldn’t function. My justice is that he’s still locked up, and he’s not able to do this to anyone else, even though it’s frustrating with this trial situation.”

Judge Martin says he understands.

“We care and are sensitive to the frustration that victims’ families may feel,” he says. “Oftentimes, judges feel the same sense of frustration.”

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