STEINBERG: Kokoraleis already free to wander back into mind, bringing his horror
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Violent crime is down, yet we don’t feel safer.
Homicides dropped 15 percent in Chicago in 2017; shootings down too.
Why? Many reasons. First, our murder rate is still very high — 664 people killed in Chicago last year, more than in New York and Los Angeles combined.
Second, Chicago has become a punching bag, our crime problem as a presidential punchline.
Third, the media is more attuned to crime. Racism used to prompt the mainstream press to ignore entire neighborhoods, places it now tries to do a better job of noticing.
Fourth, crime is so awful it resonates, echoing in ways that have nothing to do with statistics. If there were one shooting in Chicago last year, that would be a lot if the person shot were you. Were there just one murder, the world would still become a tragic and dangerous place for hundreds of friends and loved ones of the victim.
Lastly, not only do we have this last year’s crimes to ruffle our sense of security, but crimes from the past have a way of wandering back to disturb us anew.
“They’re letting Kokoraleis out,” I said grimly to my wife over the breakfast table.
“Who?” she replied. Because she never worked at a newspaper. Never, as I have, filled in for the beat reporter at the Cook County Criminal Court, 26th and California. Never sat in the grubby press room, at a little metal desk. Never idly pulled open a drawer and noticed a manila folder labeled “Kokoraleis.” Never flipped the folder open and began to read.
Thomas and Andrew Kokoraleis, two Villa Park brothers, and two other men, drove around Chicago in a red Dodge van in the early 1980s, kidnapping women off the street, raping and torturing them, mutilating them with knives or piano wire, murdering at least 17.
The crimes … I won’t go into sickening detail. Trust me, you don’t want it in your head. Andrew Kokoraleis was the last man executed by the state of Illinois, put to death in 1999.
Thomas Kokoraleis, however, confessed, so got life in prison, reduced to 70 years, then, with time off for good behavior, 35 years. He was supposed to be paroled Sept. 29. He wasn’t, as authorities struggled with the prospect of putting such a fiend back on the street. Now his release is imminent.
Crimes like these are the on-the-other-hand part of the capital punishment argument. Look at executions in our country in general, how innocent men are condemned and then later set free, the racial imbalance of the system, and it’s easy to see capital punishment as contrary to a supposedly compassionate society — the state using a pretext of justice to commit the cold-blooded murder it supposedly condemns.
But without capital punishment, you get Richard Speck partying behind bars, Charles Manson grinning goofily for the cameras.
Enjoying life as best they can, an opportunity denied their brutalized victims.
Supposedly there is rehabilitation. People change. But for some crimes, redemption is impossible. Nobody cares whether Kokoraleis got his G.E.D. behind bars. Some crimes are beyond forgiveness.
It isn’t so much that Kokoraleis, now in his late 50s, is a threat. The fear isn’t that he’ll kill again, necessarily. Instead his freedom disinters the horror — for the public, and of course, 100-fold for the families of the victims. His bloody deeds wander into mind, passing easily through locked doors. We glance out the barred window and see a red Dodge van cruise slowly by.
Though we have a choice. Not to let the horror unleashed by Thomas Kokoraleis terrorize anew. We must close the folder, put it back in the desk and shut the drawer and think of something else.
For every Kokoraleis there are 10,000 good people, including those who deal with his sort as part of their jobs. The cops arriving at the scenes in the middle of an ordinary day. The medical examiner’s office technicians pulling back the sheets.
The assistant state’s attorneys carefully numbering crime scene photos. The court reporters tapping at their stenotype machines. The correctional officers ushering the human garbage in and out of cells as the days crawl and the decades zip past. That should count for something too. They should also linger in our minds.