About 10 times a year I will get a call from someone who is looking for a referral for an Illinois criminal attorney for a murder charge. I recently had a conversation with a brother of someone who was charged with murder earlier this year about what to look for in a lawyer and it lead to me writing this post.
First off, hopefully you never have to make that phone call. But if you do, the first thing to know is that unlike other criminal cases such as retail theft, there are really only a handful of attorneys that have the experience that you would want in defending a case like this. There are less than 1,000 murder cases brought in the state every year so logic dictates that not many lawyers can show a real track record in fighting those cases.
Because you don’t want the lawyer you hire to be handling a case for the first time in their career (let them practice on someone else), right away your choices are limited or they should be. Most attorneys who have handled these cases are current or former public defenders since most defendants can’t afford a lawyer (more on that later). Others are former prosecutors who have a resume of bringing these cases to trial on behalf of the State’s Attorney. But if you hire a lawyer for a charge like this and they don’t have a real track record you are asking to lose.
The caller to my office was considering a lawyer that is a former prosecutor and claims to have handled lots of murder cases. But a quick search on the internet shows that this lawyer also has a big divorce practice and tales on personal injury cases too. Beyond that, he’s not in Cook County where the charges are brought, but instead is in a collar county. So while he could handle the case, the reality is that isn’t the best choice (IMO) because he spends a lot of time out of the county and also isn’t dealing with criminal defense every day of the week. In many of these cases a lot of the value a lawyer can offer is a relationship with the Judge and current prosecutors. While no Judge or prosecutor is going to just roll over and dismiss a murder charge, if you have a really defendable case e.g. a potentially valid claim of self defense, then these relationships can ultimately help in getting charges dropped or lowered. This is true across all areas of criminal law, but especially true for something this serious.
Cost wise, a major felony like this is very expensive to hire the right private attorney. Since these aren’t the types of cases that get resolved with just a couple of court appearances and because to really defend you, a thorough investigation needs to be done, there is no such thing as a cheap lawyer to fight a murder case. I’d estimate that there are about 30-40 lawyers in Chicago who have real experience with something like this. Of the ones I know, the cheapest starts at about $50,000 and that price goes up if there is a trial. The more expensive ones will run you around $200k and there are a handful that would only represent wealthy clients and would want at least one million or more. The reality is that even the cheap ones are not affordable for most of the general public.
So if you can’t afford those high fees, the best thing to do is to ask the Judge to appoint you a Public Defender. It’s a crap shoot because you never know who you are going to get and how much passion they will have for fighting your case. Many PD’s are overworked and they are all underpaid. Some do a great job and some really don’t. Some care, some don’t. But you can’t fire one until you find one that you are comfortable with. So all things considered, your best chance of a good result is with a lawyer you can choose and pay, but I’d go with the PD over a lawyer that has no experience or charges such a low rate that they couldn’t possibly be willing to put in all of the work needed to get the best result. In other words, if a lawyer only asks for $10,000, I can’t see them doing the 200 hours or more worth of work needed to succeed. At $50 an hour they would lost their practice.
Finally, people ask me all the time about the won/loss record of an attorney. It’s an impossible thing to measure in any area of law because most cases don’t go to trial. But especially with a major felony like this, there is no way to tell you a lawyer’s record and it’s a bad way to make your decision any way. For most murder cases, the State’s Attorney has the goods on you. They have video or witnesses or a confession. In those cases, if you ever get out of jail, it’s probably a win for you (probably not for the public). Where a lawyer can make a difference is the times when someone is charged with murder, but is either innocent or was defending themselves. For someone who is innocent, a win might only be a complete dismissal of the charges or a not guilty finding at trial. But if you had a murder charge against you and two people that were saying they saw you (even if they are lying) and there is also a cop that said you confessed (after he beat the crap out of you), if your lawyer got the charges reduced to manslaughter and five years in jail would you take that over a trial that would put you away for life? Most would not want to, but if your attorney tells you that it’s 90% likely you’ll get convicted you’d have to think about it. That isn’t a win, but it’s not a full loss either. Other times we’ve seen a defendant beat a murder charge, but get convicted on reckless conduct. That’s technically a loss for the lawyer, but it sounds like a win to me.
So moral of the story is think about what your best and worse case scenarios is as well as your most likely scenario. And then hire the lawyer that gives you the greatest chance of the best result.
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