Public Defender Amy Campanelli: My clients ‘are not evil people’
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
Amy Campanelli, Cook County’s public defender, represents criminal suspects, always finds “something redeeming,” raised Catholic, says “moral compass” critical for cops, prosecutors.
Criminal defense lawyer for 30-plus years. Grew up in Western Springs, lives in west suburbs.
Related to beer-brewing Busch family.
Attended St. John of the Cross grammar school.
As a kid, “I lived about maybe four blocks from the school . . . I came home for lunch every day.”
Still remembers one of her “first sins.” Kindergarten lasted half a day. When she got to first grade, not realizing it was all day, she went home at recess.
“My mother said, ‘What are you doing here? . . . No, no, this is recess, you don’t come home.’ ”
Campanelli hurried back to school, where a nun asked, “Amy, did you go home?”
“I said ‘no.’ And, of course, she knew.”
* * * * *
Around 1970, the Archdiocese of Chicago decided to bus black children from the inner city to suburban parochial schools “so they could get a Catholic education.”
There was a “packed” meeting one night at her school gym, with a priest and nuns explaining to parishioners what was going on. Campanelli, maybe 8 at the time, was brought by her mom.
A white man stood to speak and said, “ ‘If you bring those’ — and you know what word he said — ‘into this school, I’m taking my family out.’
“And other families started to say that.
“And my mother stood up, she didn’t hesitate, with her flaming red hair, and . . . said, ‘Shame, shame on you!’
“After the meeting, I remember we’re walking to the car, and she pulled me hard on my arm, and she turned me around, and she said, ‘Amy, did you see what happened in there? . . . That was hate. Don’t you ever let me see you hate like that!’ ”
* * * * *
“Our house got egged that night. My parents lost friends — or people they thought were friends.”
“My family, I can truly say, was colorblind. I think that’s probably the reason I’m a public defender. My parents cared about social justice issues . . . equality . . . not judging people until they stood in their shoes” — attitudes she says stemmed in part from their Christian values.
Campanelli’s office, funded by taxpayers, has nearly 500 attorneys representing defendants — many young, poor and of color, some accused of horrific crimes. The agency faces off against police and prosecutors. How does faith intersect with her job?
“I think my faith guides me on trying to do the right thing.”
* * * * *
News reports in recent years have highlighted vast problems with the criminal justice system — wrongful convictions, police abuses, prosecutorial misconduct, inept judges, racial bias, inadequate mental health care for the accused.
“It isn’t fair right now . . . I call it the ‘criminal court system.’ When it becomes ‘just,’ I’ll start calling it the ‘criminal justice system.’
“I know the clients. I know that they are not evil people . . . Maybe that’s my faith. I don’t believe that there is true evil out there.
“I’m sure I’m in the minority . . . And I’m not saying that people don’t do evil things.” Some should be locked up — but “you’re not born that way.
“I’ve never had a client that I didn’t find something redeeming . . . Human beings are flawed to begin with . . . but we need help along the way to get rid of our flaws . . . Some of my clients never had a first chance.”
* * * * *
“I wouldn’t say my faith wavers . . . I just need more faith” at times.
Police should treat people respectfully but also “individually . . . You can’t treat someone differently just because they live in a certain neighborhood, or “look a certain way.”
“It’s not a war out there. They want to say it’s a war. I’m not going to say it’s a war.”
* * * * *
She’s had “innocent people convicted. I’ve had guilty people go free.”
* * * * *
A program Campanelli started puts ministers in bond court to help defendants — free on bail while their cases are pending — “stay out of trouble” and find work or other support.
Many clients “find God” while incarcerated.
“God isn’t Catholic. He isn’t Buddhist. He isn’t Muslim.”
A “moral compass” is important for everyone, suspects and cops included.
Listen to previous Face to Faith podcasts:
- James Lovell: ‘We go to heaven when we’re born,’ May 21, 2017
- Michael Magnafichi: One-time ‘rising star’ in Chicago mob: ‘I do say prayers,’ May 14, 2017
- Ald. Ameya Pawar: ‘There’s always the opportunity for redemption,’ May 7, 2017
- Sir the Baptist: ‘I want to be the first hip-hop chaplain,’ April 30, 2017
- Shemekia Copeland: ‘Hell, yeah’ God loves the blues, April 23, 2017