Defending the Goners

Kulmeet Galhotra

In 2011 and 2012, while more than 900 people were being murdered on the streets of Chicago, creative-writing students from DePaul University fanned out all over the city to interview people whose lives have been changed by the bloodshed. The result is How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence, an extraordinary and eye-opening work of oral history.

Told by real people in their own words, the book contains the extraordinary stories of 34 Chicagoans. This is one of them.

Kulmeet Galhotra is an attorney supervisor for the Homicide Task Force for the Cook County Public Defender. He was born 7,741 miles from Chicago in Allahabad, India, in 1966. When he was 6 years old, his parents moved to the United States, inspired by the progressive images of the civil rights movement. During his childhood, the family moved into a two-flat house in the Austin neighborhood before settling in Bucktown on the Near West Side. Originally on the path to become an engineer, Galhotra graduated from Illinois Institute of Technology as an English major and went on to attend Chicago Kent College of Law. At age 24, he began his career at the Public Defender’s office representing juveniles, before moving to the adult division after 5 ½ years.

At the Homicide Task Force, Galhotra and his fellow attorneys face an incredibly challenging workload, as 8 out of 10 people arrested for murder in Chicago are represented by public defenders.1 Candid and quick with a wry observation or joke, Galhotra speaks with a nasally Chicago accent that would make any native of the city proud. Nonetheless, he believes his background as a member of a minority helps him identify with his clients.

To me, there is nothing more important than a person’s liberty. So it was pretty easy to decide to become a public defender. I wanted to walk into court and do things that didn’t have a price tag on them. It didn’t seem meaningful enough to just do it for the money. I think I’d have a real conflict with representing people, especially in criminal law, if I had to wonder, where does a client’s money come from? You know, if Grandma just had to put up her house, I kind of feel bad about that. I don’t know if I want Grandma’s money. If the client just sold four kilos of cocaine to come up with the retainer, I’m not so sure I feel good about that, either. So it’s nice not to deal with that whole business end of being a criminal defense lawyer, and to just deal with the law.

It seemed like, okay, if I went through all this trouble to get a law degree, I want to do something really important. And I thought the job was interesting. There’s sort of the cops-and-robbers aspect of it, which is pretty cool. I have this fascination with thinking about why people do things, what makes them tick. Then there’s just the absolute love of walking into a court room and arguing in front of a jury or in front of a judge, and cross-examining police officers and witnesses. So that’s why I became a public defender. I get a kick out of doing it. I still get a kick out of doing it.

My first case—I don’t remember the name but I remember what happened. It was this little kid. At juvenile court you either get sentenced to the Temporary Detention Center for up to 30 days, you get put on probation in addition to that, or you go to the Department of Corrections. So the kid had pled in a juvenile court, and I think he got something like 10 days—and I was devastated. I wanted him to get nothing. Now, of course, it seems like kind of a joke—10 days. Now, my clients, most of them are looking at 45 years to life on shooting murders and 20 to 60 years for murders without a firearm.

The youngest person I ever defended was 9 years old. This was, of course, 15 to 20 years ago. This was from a south-suburban area. This 9-year-old was in the kitchen and his grandmother was, I don’t know, I think she was cooking bacon or something like that, and somehow an apron string caught on fire. And the kid threw the apron string behind a couch and ran out of the house. And the house caught on fire, and Grandma succumbed to smoke inhalation, and she was in the ICU for months, and the whole place was destroyed, so they charged this young man with arson. Not really the brightest thing to do. And this kid had post-traumatic stress disorder. He couldn’t even talk to me about what happened. So he was found unfit to stand trial. Eventually, I think he was found guilty of criminal damage or something like that. But it was just a very sad story all around.

The really young clients are fairly easy to deal with—when they’re 12, 13, 14, they are kind of bewildered by what’s going on. They’re not very talkative; they’re just trying to get out. But as they get older, as they’ve been through the system, they start becoming a little more skeptical. They start questioning you. If you’re working with somebody who has got at least a reasonable amount of intelligence—can read and write—there’s a lot of time that they’re spending in the jail with nothing to do. So they start trying to bone up on legal matters. It’s absurd to me how they don’t go to school, but when it comes to their own case, they’ll be happy to look up laws and try to understand them. And usually, they have no concept of what the hell they’re talking about.

Typically, I would say that when I first meet them, my clients are at a very self-destructive phase—at a very defiant phase in their life. I work with individuals who have basically spent a whole life making poor decisions. When they meet me, they don’t suddenly start making good ones. I mean, there was one client—I had to put Band-Aids on his face every day at trial because he had teardrop tattoos; and he got them while he was in the jail. It’s like: “Oh God, why did you do that?” But a lot of these young people just have a track record of being unrealistic and making bad decisions. It’s very frustrating as a lawyer to give advice to somebody and then watch them not follow it. That’s their prerogative—you can’t live their life; it’s their decision.

And there are certain decisions that have to be made by your client. Whether they want to plead guilty or not guilty, whether they want to be tried in front of a judge or a jury, whether or not they would like to testify on their own behalf, whether they would like to be considered to be found guilty on lesser charges, or if they want to go for all or nothing. Those are their decisions. So, many times I’ve advised people to plead guilty to a reduced charge or to a lesser sentence. You know, you have a young man who’s 15, 18, 19 years old, and you would think this is the guy you can sell something like 25 years to, because they’re gonna get out when they’re 40-something, and they’ll still have a life. And they say, “Fuck it. That’s like the rest of my life. I’ll roll with it; let’s go to trial.”

I suppose there is a level of attention that they get by going to trial. There is this whole idea of: “Are these people actually going to come in and say this shit about me? Let’s see what my brother really does. Let’s see if he really comes in and testifies against me.” Or: “Let’s see if my fellow gang member will actually come in and testify against me.” Or: “Let’s see if these witnesses actually come in here and stare at me and say I did that.” And it usually happens. And the poor guy winds up getting 75 years after turning down something like 20. But at that point it doesn’t make any difference to them.

The kids that I grew up with—we didn’t want to fight each other. We wanted to play baseball, and we wanted to play Frisbee football, and we wanted to ride our bikes. So it just wasn’t normal for us to always be engaged in some kind of fight. But it almost seems like that is the norm on conflict resolution now. There’s almost an expectation now that fighting is the way you deal with conflict.

I think the violence comes from a lack of social skills, it comes from the inability to deal with conflict, and it comes from learned behavior. Unless you’ve got people who are providing some sort of structure for children, some sort of model on how to deal with conflict, they’re going to learn the wrong way to deal with it. I think that happens a lot. It is very intergenerational— learning the wrong ways to deal with conflicts.

I had a case a few years ago, from the West Side. One of the guys got his teeth knocked out—he got beat up, jumped by these guys, got his teeth knocked out. So four months later, his buddies see the guy who they think was responsible. So they chase him down, stop him, broad daylight, summer afternoon—4 o’clock in the afternoon. They beat him with tire irons and a baseball bat, until he’s just lying there like mush. Six guys on one guy. You know, that kind of brutality, it’s just…there’s just too much rage.

And obviously there are a lot more guns out there. I mean, they’re usually coming from other states and straw purchasers.2 My clients don’t tell me how they got their guns. I’ve got cases now where people were using AK-47s—allegedly. In the old days, I don’t remember any cases with machine guns. My perception is that there are more guns now than there used to be. There are a lot of gang guns, secreted in various areas, and everybody has access to them. I would say 20 to 30 percent of the firearms that show up in my cases have the serial numbers etched off of them. You know, there are a lot of states in this country where you can buy a lot of guns whenever you feel like it and those get into the supply stream and they wind up in the wrong places.

I recently started working with some schoolchildren with the Constitutional Rights Foundation and the Lawyers in the Classroom Project. We did this exercise called “Martians from Space,” or something like that. The scenario is that these Martians come in from space and basically tell you that you can only keep 5 of your 10 constitutional guarantees within the Bill of Rights. So which ones are you willing to give up? Of course, I explain what the rights are and try to make them relevant to the kids, and then the kids talked about which five constitutional rights they’d want to keep. They all kind of caucus with each other, and I was stunned to find out that they thought that the most important right was the Second Amendment: the right to bear arms. I couldn’t believe it. I was speechless. I really was. The Second Amendment? I think it’s because they don’t feel safe.

A few years ago, I represented a young man who was charged with two homicides. One was the involuntary manslaughter of his brother—they were playing Russian roulette and the gun jammed, so he struck it down onto the table to unjam it and it fired and went through his brother’s torso and severed a major artery. They lugged the kid in a car to the hospital and told the police that he’d been shot by rival gang members. Eventually the police investigated it and noticed the trail of blood coming from the house. They spoke to some of the other participants, who not only said that it was an accident but also implicated him in a shooting that had occurred five months before, of a rival gang member whom he had shot to avenge the death of one of his friends. So this poor kid, who was under 18 and basically raising himself on the streets and getting affirmation and reassurance and a sense of being from these gang members, gets charged with first-degree murder and also gets charged with involuntary manslaughter of his brother. At the sentencing hearing, the father of the victim—who had given a victim-impact statement aloud in court—shook my hand with this look of reassurance, like, “I’m not holding against you what you do for a living. I appreciate what you do for a living.” There really wasn’t a whole lot to say to him, you know? I said, “I’m sorry for your loss.” As a parent myself, it doesn’t matter if your son is a gang member who gets killed by another gang member. It’s still the death of your loved one, and it’s still a loss no matter how you look at it.

Being a parent gives me a lot more perspective on my clients. I’ve represented parents as well as children who were charged with crimes, and that shows you the full cycle of things and how people get to be where they are. Why did this person turn out to be this person who goes around strangling and murdering women? You know? What happened in his life to make him this way? Well, maybe it was because his mother was a prostitute and would put him in the hallway when he was 3 ½ years old while she turned tricks, and maybe it’s because women never really paid attention to him and always neglected him, and maybe he’s angry because he never had a mother.

There are a lot of aspects to how I do my parenting that have evolved after seeing what other kids have gone through. When I think about my own children, I think about some of the children that I’ve encountered during my years as a public defender and how they got to be my clients and what it was that was lacking in the parents who were supposed to be taking care to train, protect and discipline them.

My clients—as they get older, especially if they’ve had a checkered past— they’ve had their mother come to court for them so many times, it gets to be to the point where the mom just can’t do it anymore. Or it becomes shameful—here is a grown man for whom a mother may have gone to juvenile court over and over, perhaps even sharing her frustration with the juvenile judge, saying: “I can’t control him.” A lot of parents will fess up to that: “I can’t control him; he’s supposed to be in bed at 11 o’clock, but at 2 o’clock in the morning, he’s running the streets with his buddies, hiding guns under the bed, bringing drugs into the house.” So parents get burned out, and a lot of parents stop coming to court. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times it’s almost like, friends of the bride, friends of the groom. On one side of the courtroom you’ll have all the cops, and the victims’ family, and the victim witness coordinator, holding the hands of the victim’s loved ones. But oftentimes, the defense side of the courtroom is empty, except for maybe a couple of people.

The victims usually have a few more resources. If you’re unfortunate enough to have a loved one who was murdered, the prosecutor’s office has somebody who will inform you about the next court date. If you come to court, they will sit next to you in court and explain to you what’s going on, provide you with a lunch, perhaps even provide you with transportation expenses, give you reassuring hugs and things like that. I don’t really have anybody in my office that does that for the defendant’s families. My office doesn’t have any social workers that will sit with my clients’ families and hold their hand.

Losing a loved one is very difficult. It’s very easy to focus that anger on the person that’s been charged. It’s really difficult to try and overcome that—and I’ve seen it over and over again, where I’ve walked into the courtroom for trial and the friends of the victim—you’re getting the dagger eyes from them because they’re still not over it.

The most fulfilling aspect of what I do is hearing the words “not guilty” from a jury. Somehow, it’s addictive, you know? Just hearing those words is intoxicating. I mean, that’s what makes me keep doing this. Even though I know I’ll hear “guilty” far more often. We’re just fierce competitors. It sounds kind of cruel for me to say this: Everybody thinks the law is a search for the truth, but that’s not what the law is. At some point, I don’t really care what happened. It’s about strategy, it’s about tactics, and it’s about skill and advocacy. Maybe the truth gets lost. I don’t know. But it’s not a search for the truth. As far as lawyers are concerned, it’s about whether the prosecution can meet its burden of proof. That’s what it’s about.

There have been times when I wasn’t feeling very good about being a lawyer, and it took me a long time to have some kind of faith in the system again—that there is some redemption out there. Maybe there is a way to right wrongs. But if I had stopped being a lawyer after nine or ten years I would have never found that out.

There have been a lot of people that have come in and out of my life. Right after my juvenile court years, I would sometimes walk into a grocery store and get: “Hey, you represented me,” or something like that. Some of my clients I really, really like, and it’s like: “Oh my God, how did we wind up here?” But others are just set in their ways, and they’re just not going to change. They’re just damaged. What I’ve realized—what I’ve come to learn—is that once someone is about 16 or 17 years old, it becomes really difficult to rehabilitate them. You really have to get them at a young age—to try and disabuse them from acting out. Because, after a certain age, they are basically goners.


1 See Kevin Davis, Defending the Damned: Inside a Dark Corner of the Criminal Justice System (New York: Atria Books, 2007), 34. This book offers a compelling and insightful look into the Cook County Public Defender’s Office.

2 According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a straw purchaser is an individual who buys guns for people who are legally prohibited from possessing a firearm or for individuals who do not want their name linked to the gun. Straw purchasing is an illegal firearm purchase and is a federal crime that can result in a felony conviction. People can serve up to 10 years in jail and incur fines of up to $250,000. For more information on Illinois gun laws, or gun laws in other states, see:

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