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A Mugging on Lake Street

FROM SEPTEMBER 2009: A veteran investigative reporter looks into his own beating and finds himself confronting harsh and lingering questions of race

(page 3 of 6)


After the assault, the author was taken to a hospital and treated for the wounds to his face. Damage to his knee would require surgery and a painful rehabilitation.


The Illinois legislature passed hate crime laws in 1990, essentially adding additional punishment to a criminal offense under the theory that the impact of the underlying crime is far greater—that many more people are affected than just the targeted victim. Loosely stated, a hate crime in Illinois is committed when the perpetrator is motivated by prejudice against a certain listed group. Thus, for prosecution, evidence of the state of mind of the perpetrator is paramount. (Those who object to hate crime laws often argue that they are designed to punish thought and expression and that criminal laws already on the books provide sufficient punishment for the underlying offense.) In 2007, Illinois reported 191 hate crime offenses, categorizing the bias as being based on race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, national origin, gender, age, or handicap. Of the crimes counted as racial, 86 were categorized as “anti-black” and 26 as “anti-white.” For all categories of hate crimes, 131 offenders were identified as white, 125 as black, one as “Asian/Pacific Islander,” and one as “unknown.” (Some of the crimes had more than one offender.)

I was interested in how the state’s attorney’s office was going to interpret my case. I expected I’d hear from a prosecutor, certainly by Monday or Tuesday after the attack. But the phone didn’t ring. A call to the state’s attorney’s press office would probably have netted a prompt reply—they’d know me, and might respond quickly to something that could make their office look good or bad in print. But I’d decided to see how the process would play out for a citizen who didn’t have a journalist’s influence. A week passed, and then two. My doctor removed the stitches from my face; the pieces of pavement worked their way out; the scabs healed.

I decided to wait three weeks, and on a Friday, 21 days after the beating, I called the Cook County state’s attorney’s Automated Victim Notification line. The operator said she couldn’t help me without the name of the suspect or a case number. She offered the phone number of the Cook County sheriff’s office. I told her the Chicago police handled the crime. She explained that she didn’t know the particulars regarding jurisdiction as she was located in Kentucky.

When I tried the police, a helpful detective at Area 5 dug around in the computer and found the case file. “The guy’s name is Larry Johnson.” (I’ve changed the name here because he is a juvenile.) “He’s 16. Let’s see when his court date is. May 30th. That’s today.” The matter was being handled in juvenile court, typical for a case of this sort committed by someone Larry’s age.

It never occurred to me that the case might play out without the victim. I quickly called the state’s attorney’s office in juvenile court, got the general voice mail, and left a message.

After the weekend, an assistant state’s attorney, Nicole Lucero, called back. She told me that West Side juvenile cases were her responsibility. “However, it takes a few weeks to get into our system and get to me,” she explained. She seemed surprised that nobody had come to take photos and was glad that my wife and son had.

She didn’t know what had taken place in court on the 30th—the first court date, she said, is to inform the offender of the charges against him—but a second date was set for June 20th.

She also gave me a little more information about the case. The white Samaritan was an off-duty cop who had witnessed the attack. Larry Johnson had punched me, Lucero said. I found that hard to believe. I’ve been knocked out with a punch twice, but both times it was in close quarters in a boxing ring by a guy whose feet were well planted. I couldn’t see a flying punch thrown at someone moving at speed on a bike having the same effect. But I let it pass.

As for what to do with Larry, she said, there were two alternatives. He could be charged with aggravated battery, I’d have to come to court to testify, and, if convicted, he would “probably be facing 12 months probation.” Or, because he had no previous convictions, he could be put into a diversion program, which would involve, among other things, admitting guilt, performing community service, and submitting to drug screening. If he completed the program, he’d have no criminal charge on his record. One advantage for me, Lucero said, was that I wouldn’t have to come to court.

Neither of these possibilities really spoke to what I wanted, which was to hear him explain why I’d been attacked. “Is there any way I could meet the kid?” I asked.

Lucero said that could be arranged, that the county had a restorative justice program in which victims and offenders came face to face. She said that he’d get to bring a representative to the meeting, that I could bring one too, and that a mediator would guide the discussion. “A lot of the time, the kid realizes there are consequences to what he did.”

I didn’t immediately jump on that option. I explained that in my search for a reason for what took place, the idea of a hate crime had been put to me from both sides of the racial divide.

She pointed out that she couldn’t claim this had been racially motivated since I’d heard no racial threats. “I think this is probably a case of robbery,” she said. “I think they were going to try to steal your bike, but there were witnesses who scared them off.”

“I don’t know why six or seven kids would try to steal one 25-year-old bike,” I said.

“I don’t know why either,” Lucero said. “I know that a lot of our victims have this question: Why did this happen? Why me?” Often, she said, “it is simply random. . . . Youth are stupid sometimes.” She added, “Because this was fairly violent, I want to caution you that I don’t know how that meeting will go between you and him. If he sits there and denies it, it could easily upset you and you would feel like you weren’t getting anywhere.”

I decided I’d risk it. Lucero thought Larry would have to complete all the requirements of the diversion program in addition to meeting me, but she wasn’t sure. But once we chose this option, she said, the case would leave her office and become the province of the probation department. With the die cast, she said I shouldn’t expect to hear anything until after June 20th.

* * *

Photograph: Colette Davison


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