Cook County prosecutors routinely jail witnesses for ducking ‘prep’ meetings: lawsuit
Latoya Ware, a 20-year-old mother, spent more than a month in jail after she defied what her lawyers say was an unlawful subpoena.
A federal lawsuit claims Cook County prosecutors routinely have witnesses jailed ahead of trial, based on allegedly unlawful subpoenas for “prep” sessions.
Latoya Ward, a 20-year-old mother of a toddler, was jailed for more than a month after she didn’t show up for a meeting with prosecutors who intended to have her testify against the man charged with killing her brother in 2016, according to the complaint filed Wednesday, the day after Ward took the stand as a prosecution witness in the trial of Eric Black.
“When it was time for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to try the person who was accused of (her brother’s) murder, the office should have provided Ms. Ware with the support that victims of crime and their families need,” the lawsuit states. “Instead (the office) victimized her all over again.”
The lawsuit alleges a pattern of prosecutors serving witnesses with subpoenas to meet with prosecutors at their offices on dates when there are no hearings in the case scheduled in open court, a practice that — while often signed off on by Cook County judges — is illegal. Under state law, witnesses can only be subpoenaed for dates when they are to testify at a hearing or trial, the lawsuit states.
Ware’s attorneys at the Loevy & Loevy law firm canceled a news conference Thursday. A spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said the office could not comment on pending litigation.
Ware was subpoenaed for a date in August 2021, and Judge Peggy Chiampas issued a warrant for her arrest at prosecutors’ request. Ware was arrested in February and held for a month without bail before Chiampas granted her release under electronic monitoring, according to court records.
At a hearing in March, Chiampas refused a motion by Ware’s attorney to quash the subpoena.
“My client has a right not to speak to anybody about this case except when sworn to testify before a jury or a judicial hearing,” Assistant Public Defender Douglas Stoll said, according to court transcripts.
Assistant State’s Attorney Kimellen Chamberlain retorted that prep subpoenas are “done every day in this building,” and noted Chiampas had granted her permission to subpoena witnesses for trial preparation.
“It’s in order to get trials ready to go to trial so that we’re not waiting until the date of trial,” she said.
The subpoena, issued in July 2021, ordered Ware to appear before Chiampas on Aug. 20, 2021, a date when the court docket lists no hearing in the Black case, and instructed Ware to “please come to Room 12B32 before going to court.” That room is among the state’s attorney’s offices on the 12th floor of a building adjacent to the courthouse.
The lawsuit claims the practice is commonly used by Cook County prosecutors and cites a 2012 case in which an investigator for the state’s attorney said he routinely served “prep subpoenas” to witnesses during his 10-year career with the office.
Such subpoenas are common and seldom challenged, said April Preyar, who was appointed to represent Earl Moore, a witness in the 2020 trial of three men charged with the murder of 10-year-old Tyshawn Lee.
Though Moore had shown up in response to similar subpoenas during the five years it took for the case to go to trial, when he was summoned in the spring of 2020 he called the state’s attorney’s office and asked to reschedule so he could register for his first semester of college in Arkansas.
Three weeks before the trial, Moore was arrested by local police outside his dorm and spent six days in jail in Arkansas before flying back to Chicago in handcuffs and ankle shackles, spending two more days in the Kendall County Jail awaiting a hearing.
“This kid was so nice and had tried so hard all his life to stay out of trouble, he had never even been pulled over,” Preyar said. “He told me he got on the plane and he was sure everyone thought he was a serial killer.”
Moore was one of four witnesses ordered to jail by Judge Thaddeus Wilson for failure to honor subpoenas for dates that were not docketed hearings in the case. All three defendants were found guilty, and one of the witnesses was never called to the stand.
Prosecutors have issued similar “prep subpoenas” in most of the murder cases Assistant Public Defender Julie Koehler has handled during more than 20 years of working in Cook County courts. The subpoenas are illegal, Koehler said, but witnesses typically show up, and if they don’t prosecutors don’t hesitate to ask a judge to enforce them by issuing arrest warrants.
“Prosecutors say that they have so many cases, they don’t have the time to track down these witnesses,” she said. “[Public defenders] have a lot of cases, and we don’t have the police to go grab witnesses for us. They have plenty of other options, like setting up appointments, calling them up, just asking them to come in.”
Preyar said her clients have told her when they show up at prosecutors’ offices, they typically spend hours waiting for a “prep” session that is cursory at best.
“There’s no point but to scare them. This is judges and prosecutors working together to bully witnesses,” she said. “Even when the witnesses are compliant, when they show up time after time, the way the state’s attorney treats them is appalling.”