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Why did it take five years for the Hadiya Pendleton murder case to go to trial?

Hadiya Pendleton

Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in January 2013. | Associated Press photo/Courtesy of Damon Stewart

It has been more than five years since two South Side men were arrested for the murder of Hadiya Pendleton, one of the most high-profile shootings in a city known nationally for gun violence.

The hunt for the killers had been going on for less than two weeks when Micheail Ward and Kenneth Williams were arrested. So why did it take so long for them to go on trial?

The Cook County criminal court system has one of the most crowded dockets in the U.S., with nearly 12,000 cases pending at any given time. The Leighton Criminal Courts Building, where the trial is set to begin this week, is the busiest in the county. The chief judge has set guidelines for how long cases are expected to take to work their way from filing charges to a case’s conclusion, laying out a schedule for evidence to be exchanged and pre-trial motions. The most complex cases are expected to be disposed of within two years, and most are.

Kenneth Williams (left) and Micheail Ward

Kenneth Williams (left) and Micheail Ward are charged in the January 2013 fatal shooting of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton just days after she performed with her high school band at then-President Barack Obama’s inaugural festivities. Jury selection began Friday. | Cook County Sheriff’s Office photos, distributed by the Associated Press

About 600 murder cases are pending in the courts, and these cases are typically among the most complex on the docket. Of those, about half will take longer than the Pendleton case to come to trial. In all, fewer than 100 cases are on the court’s docket for longer than four years, court officials said, and many of those cases involved defendants who were charged and then spent months or years on the lam before their arrest.

Ward and Williams were in police custody within about two weeks of Pendleton’s murder and were charged after about 48 hours in custody. What happened to drag out their wait to go to trial? The most common cause of delay: one of the defendants switched attorneys – and very late in the case.

Ward’s original private attorney dropped the case after nearly two years; that meant essentially restarting the case with a court-appointed attorney from the Public Defender’s Office, Julie Koehler.

Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton (left) with Michelle Obama

Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton (left) mother of teenage shooting victim Hadiya Pendleton, with Michelle Obama in the joint congressional box of the U.S. House of Representatives before the 2013 State of the Union address. | ABC Network News

Since taking on the case, Koehler has filed a flurry of motions and hired expert witnesses to analyze the 17-hour interrogation that led to Ward’s confession — a rare (and ultimately futile) move for the defense. The exchange of briefs and in-court argument added months to trial preparation.

And not including the two-year delay caused by swapping lawyers, the case was on track to go to trial within the two-year window — a start date had been set for April — only to have a scheduling conflict with an expert witness force a move to mid-August.

The trial itself might take longer than usual, because of another rare-but-not-unusual factor: proceedings may pause frequently as two sets of jurors are shuttled in and out of the courtroom. Williams purportedly told friends he and Ward had “done a drill” — slang for shooting at someone — and that friend’s testimony constitutes hearsay against Ward. So, two sets of jurors will decide the fate of Ward and Williams, sometimes sharing space in the courtroom and sometimes not.