Contenders for Cook County public defender appointment include some high-profile names

Megan Crepeau, Chicago Tribune
·3 min read

Several marquee names in Chicago criminal-justice circles are in the running to become Cook County Public Defender, the Tribune has learned.

Among the contenders: the director of a reform-minded statewide justice advocacy group; a longtime defender once dubbed the “angel of death row;” and the county’s current Public Defender, Amy Campanelli, who is seeking a second six-year term.

Campanelli or her replacement will take the helm at a particularly weighty time for the office, which is tasked with representing defendants who cannot afford an attorney.

A wide-ranging reform bill signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker this week will change the criminal-justice landscape profoundly over the next few years. And the whole system must deal with a looming case backlog thanks to yearlong pandemic-related shutdowns.

Campanelli’s term expires at the end of March; she announced in December that she would be seeking reappointment.

A selection committee headed by retired judge Patricia Martin is in the process of interviewing candidates, a spokesman for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle told the Tribune. The committee will soon recommend its top three choices to Preckwinkle, who will make the final decision and present her selected candidate to the board next month.

The spokesman did not answer specific questions about who is being interviewed. But several marquee names in the criminal-justice arena are being considered, sources said.

Among them are:

Aaron Goldstein, a manager in the Public Defender’s office with private-practice experience who previously has campaigned for state representative and Attorney General on progressive platforms, and who represented former Gov. Rod Blagojevich at his second federal corruption trial.

Andrea Lyon, former head of the public defender’s Homicide Task Force and former dean of Valparaiso University Law School. She has been called the “Angel of Death Row” for her record as an advocate in capital-punishment cases.

Sharone Mitchell Jr., director of the Illinois Justice Project, a nonprofit group that helped push for the justice-reform bill. Mitchell was a longtime Assistant Public Defender before coming to the Justice Project

Tony Thedford, a longtime defense attorney and onetime head of the Illinois Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. Thedford got his start as a Cook County Assistant Public Defender, and said he would be eager to return. “It is an office that I love and, more importantly, I love the work,” he told the Tribune. “And I think I have the energy at the point in my career where I’d do an effective job in leading the office.”

After her appointment in 2015, Campanelli cut a much more public figure than many of her predecessors, becoming well-known for herenergy and fierce advocacy of indigent clients both in and out of the courtroom.

She and others sued the city of Chicago last summer over allegations that they routinely denied suspects access to phones. She has been an outspoken advocate for bond reform and other policy changes. Campanelli herself came to the Leighton Criminal Court building last year to urge a judge to speed up pretrial release for detainees as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

But she found herself on the other end of a lawsuit in 2017, when female assistant public defenders — her own staffers — sued her, alleging she and Sheriff Tom Dart had not done enough to curb an epidemic of male detainees from exposing themselves, masturbating and threatening attorneys in courtroom lockups and the county jail.

Cook County commissioners in November approved a $14 million payout to settle the suit.

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com