Our Pledge To You


Public Defender Amy Campanelli: My clients ‘are not evil people’

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli: “I wouldn’t say my faith wavers . . . I just need more faith” at times. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

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.”

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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!’ ”

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“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.”

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli at a news conference last November. | Mitch Dudek / Sun-Times

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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.”

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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.”

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She’s had “innocent people convicted. I’ve had guilty people go free.”

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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.

Face to Faith appears Sundays in the Chicago Sun-Times with an accompanying audio podcast, with additional content, available at chicago.suntimes.com and on iTunes and Google Play.

Amy Campanelli: “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.” | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

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