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Judge who now faces state inquiry after gun acquittal got a break most don’t

Cook County Judge Joseph Claps leaving the Maywood branch courthouse in Maywood after a hearing in July on a misdemeanor charge accusing him of bringing a gun in to the Leighton Criminal Courthouse.

Cook County Judge Joseph Claps leaving the Maywood branch courthouse in Maywood after a hearing in July on a misdemeanor charge accusing him of bringing a gun in to the Leighton Criminal Courthouse. | Matthew Hendrickson / Sun-Times

When Cook County Circuit Judge Joseph Claps was found not guilty in October of a gun charge, it was because another judge gave Claps the benefit of the doubt in a way that typical defendants aren’t given, an Injustice Watch investigation has found.

Will County Judge Edward Burmila ruled that prosecutors failed to prove that the object Claps accidentally dropped in front of sheriff’s deputies in the lobby of the Leighton Criminal Courts Building on July 3 was a gun.

That was even though what happened was caught on video. And sheriff’s deputies testified they saw the object as it dropped and that it was, in fact, a gun.

After the incident, Claps, 70, was placed on “non-judicial duties.” According to Pat Milhizer, spokesman for Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans, “The matter was referred to the Judicial Inquiry Board” — the state panel that investigates allegations of misconduct by judges.

Other defendants have been convicted of gun charges based on less evidence than there was against Claps, Cook County court records show. A review of court cases on defendants charged with gun violations since 2015 turned up 14 cases in which there was a conviction even though no gun was found.

And the Illinois Supreme Court has upheld convictions twice since 2012 that involved the use of a firearm even though no gun was recovered by police.

In the case of James Washington, the state’s high court upheld the conviction based on the testimony of the victim that Washington held a gun on him during a carjacking on the South Side, though his lawyer argued there was no evidence the object wasn’t actually a toy.

Then, last year, the court upheld the 2017 armed robbery conviction of Eugene Wright based on the victim’s insistence that Wright had a gun when he robbed a Rogers Park restaurant, though no firearm was recovered and the police found a BB gun near the crime scene a week later.

Since then, appellate judges have repeatedly upheld convictions involving gun charges based on the testimony of witnesses or on video recordings showing an object that appears to be a gun, even in cases in which no gun was recovered.

Among those cases:

• In November 2017, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed Keleen Bishop’s conviction for home invasion in a 2012 break-in at a home on the South Side while armed with a firearm after a victim testified he saw Bishop with what looked like a .22-caliber gun but could possibly have been a toy. No weapon was admitted into evidence.

• In 2016, an Illinois Appellate Court panel upheld the conviction of Dwayne Burke for armed robbery based on the testimony of an Evergreen Park gas station cashier that Burke pulled a gun on her and demanded money. The cashier said the gun was “black” and “looked real to me.” And surveillance video showed a black object in Burke’s hand during the robbery. The court rejected Burke’s argument that it could have been a toy or a BB gun, writing that “there is no evidence in the record to suggest that the gun was anything other than a real firearm” despite the police not recovering a firearm.

• In August, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld the conviction of a minor identified as “Jose A.” of armed robbery and battery after the victim said he saw a silver gun in his hand as he was being robbed in Wicker Park. Surveillance video appeared to support that, though no firearm was admitted into evidence.

All but one of those cases involved defendants who are black, the review found. In the other case, the defendant was Hispanic.

Two legal scholars who study race in the criminal justice system, interviewed about Claps’ acquittal, say Burmila’s decision reflected a double standard that benefits the few even as typical defendants don’t get the same breaks.

“Surely, Judge Claps is not being treated like the average defendant, and the average defendant is black,” says Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware and author of the book “Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court.”

Samuel Jones, a law professor at John Marshall Law School, echoes that, saying, “There’s just a long history in the United States of African-Americans being treated differently by law enforcement.”

Those other gun cases stand in contrast to what happened after Claps was hit with a misdemeanor gun charge after he dropped an object that Cook County sheriff’s deputies said was a gun as he walked through the lobby of the courthouse at 26th and California.

The object fell near a deputy, video released by the sheriff’s office shows.

No one stopped Claps as he picked up the object and left. But deputies immediately reported the incident to their supervisor.

The judge — who has a concealed-carry license — was later charged with carrying a concealed weapon in a prohibited area, which carries a maximum sentence of 180 days in jail and a $2,500 fine.

The two deputies testified they didn’t arrest Claps because they weren’t sure whether judges are permitted to carry a gun in the courthouse. Only law enforcement officers on duty are allowed to bring a gun there.

But both deputies testified there was no doubt that the object Claps dropped was a gun.

“It was a firearm,” Deputy Patricia Scott testified. “lt was a gun.”

The other deputy, Vanessa Williams, testified: “I turned around and looked, and I observed a weapon on the floor of the lobby…. I knew that it was a semiautomatic, and it was silver. It was a gun.”

The prosecution also entered the courthouse video as evidence.

Cook County Judge Joseph Claps (left) leaves the Maywood courthouse with his lawyers Todd Pugh and Thomas Breen after being found not guilty. | Andy Grimm / Sun Times

Cook County Judge Joseph Claps (left) leaves the Maywood courthouse with his lawyers Todd Pugh and Thomas Breen after being found not guilty. | Andy Grimm / Sun Times

Claps’ lawyer, Thomas Breen, argued that the deputies could have been mistaken: “We know full well that something can look like and appear to be a gun and not, in fact, be a firearm … There are replicas out there. There are cap guns out there. There are water pistols out there. There are BB guns out there that might look like a firearm.”

Burmila, who was brought in to handle the case because it involved a Cook County judge, considered the testimony given at the trial in Maywood and found Claps not guilty. The Will County judge said in court that he thought the deputies would have responded with more alarm if the object was a gun.

Injustice Watch logoAlecia Richards reports for Injustice Watch, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit journalism organization that conducts in-depth research to expose institutional failures that obstruct justice and equality.

CONTRIBUTING: Abigal Bazin, Abigail Blachman, Mari Cohen, Rachel Kim