Nine years before his arrest for allegedly gunning down Chicago police Cmdr. Paul Bauer in the Loop, Shomari Legghette appeared before a Cook County judge poised for a trial on gun and drug charges — serious felonies he had been charged with while on parole two years earlier.
Instead, at the last minute, prosecutors offered a deal, allowing Legghette to plead guilty to the least serious charge in return for a three-year prison sentence. Since he had already been in custody for more than a year, he walked free just a few weeks later.
Veteran lawyers say the deal handed Legghette in 2009 wasn’t anything particularly unusual. For decades, in fact, the Cook County court system — indeed, criminal courts in big cities around the country — has faced a crush of felony cases every year, leaving little choice but to plea bargain the vast majority to keep the system from collapsing.
“They’re looking to get rid of cases,” said longtime criminal-defense attorney Barry A. Spector. “Most judges’ attitude is, well, if the parties think this is right, who’s going to complain? Until you (allegedly) shoot a cop.”
For the 3,378 unlawful use of a weapon cases resolved last year in Cook County, about 70 percent ended in a guilty plea, compared to just 14 percent that went to trial, according to data recently released by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office.
In some more serious cases, that rate fell. For instance, guilty pleas in homicide and attempted homicide cases made up about 53 percent of the dispositions, while 37 percent went to trial.
The rest of the cases were resolved in a combination of ways — many thrown out, some found unfit for trial.
In the days after Bauer’s killing outside the Thompson Center on Feb. 13, Legghette’s record was scrutinized from every angle. Critics said a four-time felon such as him shouldn’t have been out on the street in the first place. A Police Department chaplain at Bauer’s funeral compared Legghette to a leper, too toxic to be among the public.
At a news conference after Legghette was charged in Bauer’s slaying, Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson called the shooting “a devastating reminder” that too many repeat gun offenders remain on the streets.
Johnson also cited Legghette’s arrest in 2007 — the same charges that ended in his enviable plea deal two years later — as evidence that he was a dangerous person who should be locked up.
Legghette was still on parole after completing about half of a 16-year prison sentence for armed robbery when Chicago police stopped him while he was driving the wrong way on a one-way South Side street in November 2007, according to an arrest report.
Police alleged an officer spotted Legghette put a chrome revolver on the floor of the car and a plastic bag full of heroin under the driver’s seat. A search of the van also turned up a black bulletproof vest, according to the report. He was charged with unlawful use of a weapon by a felon with body armor, possession of heroin with intent to deliver and possession of a weapon with a defaced serial number — all felonies.
For two years, the case dragged on at the county courthouse in south suburban Bridgeview — another common byproduct of a seemingly overwhelmed court system.
Over that time, Legghette was in and out of custody. He was returned to state prison for a time since his arrest violated his parole. Then after his release from custody, he was arrested on a drug offense — a violation of his bail bond that sent him back to jail. However, he was released again after the drug charges were dropped.
Finally, on Oct. 8, 2009, his drug and gun case was set to go to trial in Judge John Wasilewski’s Bridgeview courtroom, records show.
The transcript shows Wasilewski ready to go to trial that day because of how long the case had been lingering and because other trials set to go that day had already fallen through.
But a prosecutor told the judge, the transcript showed, that a new lawyer was set to defend Legghette, likely signaling that the trial would need to be continued. Worse, the new lawyer had told the prosecutor that he was unable to make it to court because he was on his way to a chiropractor after hurting his back, according to the transcript.
The judge then passed the case to presumably deal with other matters on his court call.
When the case was called again that same day, Wasilewski announced a dramatic change in plans: In the interim, prosecutors had reached a plea deal with Legghette. There would be no trial.
Without further delay, Legghette was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to possession of a weapon with a defaced serial number, the least serious charge he faced. The weapon and heroin charges were dropped.
Legghette was given credit for the year and three months he had already spent in custody on the charges. Within a few weeks, he was released on parole, records show.
While lawyers interviewed by the Tribune said there were too many variables at play to predict what sentence Legghette realistically could have faced if he had been convicted of the most serious charges at trial, those Class X felonies potentially carried sentences of as much as 30 years in prison or more.
In an interview with the Tribune, Wasilewski, who retired from the bench in 2010, did not recall the charges against Legghette — one of as many as 1,000 cases he said he routinely disposed of annually at the time.
After reviewing a transcript of the guilty plea, Wasilewski said the record clearly showed he was fine with the case going to trial but that the lawyers suddenly reached a plea deal.
The judge acknowledged, though, that he had an incentive to move cases toward resolution, and if the trial was delayed, the case would have likely been further delayed, perhaps for many months.
“I used to use the analogy, it’s like an airport, either you land today or you’re going to the back of the line,” he said.
“I’m not going to give a continuance on the day of trial to bring in a lawyer who says they’re not even going to be ready for trial,” Wasilewski said. “So then we’re going to try the case four years (after it was charged)?”
“If they’re not guilty, they should get out. If they’re guilty, they should start serving their sentence. I’m trying to move my call. It’s a very heavy call.”
Multiple attorneys agreed, saying that in a high-volume courtroom, all the parties might be inclined to end a 2-year-old case still lingering on the docket.
They also said it isn’t particularly unusual to work out a plea deal on the day of a scheduled trial.
Any number of developments could have caused the about-face.
Sometimes, attorneys feel waiting to work out a plea deal until the eleventh hour strengthens their hand.