This is what it will be like when you get fingered for murder. You will call Kathleen Colton — she has a simple entry in the phone book, but you have probably heard of her by word of mouth. That’s how she gets most of her business. So you will call her office. You are shopping for lawyers.
First you will speak to Tom Colton, who works for her (p.s. they are also married), and he will fill out a client intake sheet for you. If his wife is in, he’ll pass you off to her and you can talk. Her first job is to quote you a fee, which she will point out is hard to guess exactly at this early stage. There are some choices: a general flat fee for your case, and then several possibilities depending on whether you go with a plea, a bench trial or a jury trial.
If it sounds like you can afford a private lawyer, you will meet her for a consultation — probably an hour for a murder case — to talk facts, go over your rights and possible penalties and explain the procedure for a case. She will never, ever, ask you if you did it. If you like her, you’ll pay the retainer; if you don’t, you’ll look elsewhere. But by the end of this first meeting, chances are, you will have decided what you think of her.
Well? What do you think of her?
There is a case against Kathleen Colton. For starters, she defends a lot of people you don’t like. Her office handles everything from speeding tickets to murder cases and all that falls in between. Maybe you don’t think she should defend those people. Maybe you think they should be punished.
There are other things, too. Prosecuting attorneys have told Colton to her face they don’t like the tactics that she uses, the motions that she files. She is outspoken with her opinions and not shy around the press; Colton once told a reporter the Kane County grand jury “could indict a ham sandwich.” Not everyone thought that was appropriate. A former mayor once telephoned Colton, she recalls, to tell her she was a piece of scum. A Kane County prosecutor once filed to have her held in contempt of court. Not everyone likes Kathleen Colton.
There is also a case for Kathleen Colton. She is necessary. This is America, where the accused have rights and not all lawyers are eager to make a living standing up for them. Kathleen Colton is eager.
When you or someone you love gets in trouble, she is quick to point out, you will be glad for defense lawyers. Not everyone hates Kathleen Colton.
This is a look at why you will not care for Kathleen Colton — or, perhaps, at why you will. It is a look at what you will or will not like. It is not a search for guilt or innocence. Kathleen Colton is not on trial here.
Call this a friendly cross-examination.
She grows potatoes in her compost bins. She is afraid of water. She manages her husband’s band by night. She worked as an insurance underwriter until she was 31, then raced through college in three years and law school in another three. It was a promise to her dying mother. The pond in her yard in St. Charles is ringed by fishing wire because a heron — Hank Heron is his name — likes to visit her and eat her fish. They are now third-generation fish. The father fish is Moe.
She rents office space in Batavia from an accountant. The Latin Kings call her a tarantula. She doesn’t know what that is in Spanish. The two tigers, one toy, one tapestry, that populate her office are from clients. The brown-leaf lettuce that populates her garden is descended from that grown by Thomas Jefferson.
There is a picture in her bedroom of her dad, who died when she was 12 and he was 42. Her 42nd birthday came and went. She was relieved. There is also a framed drawing of two fighting trolls; the first one has the second’s head beneath its foot. She jokes she used to think they were state’s attorneys.
There is, she says, some kind of in visible beacon over her head that attracts controversial and interesting cases.
Her favorite part is speaking to the jury. It’s performance art. If she can give a closing argument and bring at least one jury member to the point of tears, she’s having a good day. She has eight framed newspaper clippings in her office waiting room from trials she’s won. She needs to frame some more. They’re for potential clients. And her ego.
Here’s Exhibit A, a picture on her desk of Willie Rodriguez at his high school prom. Willie’s not the only former client on her desk, but he’s probably the one that’s meant the most. When he was 15, Willie shot and killed a gang member in a car outside Willie’s house, preventing what he believed would have been a drive-by shooting. His little brother was in the back yard; his mother and grandmother were in the house. Willie asserted self-defense. He was found not guilty. To protect him, he and his family had to move away.
You had to meet this kid to know what kind of character he had, Colton says. Willie Rodriguez grew up around gangs. His cousins were in gangs. He was totally over- whelmed by his situation. He was trying to get out, to save himself through school rather than violence, Colton says. He really didn’t want to do what he did. You hope you never find yourself in that position.
Sometimes, Kathleen Colton gets to give out second chances. Maybe even first ones.
But what about the really guilty ones? Doesn’t she defend bad people, too? The ones who did it on purpose? Let’s not go making any heroes here. How can she defend the nasty people?
You see, she is part of a system. Kathleen Colton never asks them if they did it. She doesn’t want to know. For starters, a trial isn’t really about innocence and guilt. A trial is about burden of proof and reason able doubt Is the evidence strong? She will argue no. “Guilt” doesn’t re ally matter in the courtroom.
It is also not her job to have opinions. Her job is defense.
That’s not to say she doesn’t care. It’s a tightrope that you walk as a defense attorney, holding a part of yourself back for objectivity and thrusting a part of yourself for ward to be a human being. She must be human. She has not forgotten yet, in almost seven years of having her own practice that she goes home every night. It is a privilege some of her clients don’t have. She remembers that the risk is theirs, not hers. She thinks about their mothers.
There have been cases, usually when she’s perceived a real injustice, over which Kathleen Colton has gone home and cried. She lives it 24 hours a day. She thinks about cases when she’s gardening on the weekends. She thinks about them when she’s running at 5 a.m. with her big dog. She feels. If you don’t feel for these people, you’d better be doing something else for a living.
Usually she doesn’t have much contact with the victims. It’s not her place. She has asked, from time to time, that the state-provided victim coordinator express her sympathies to a family. That doesn’t happen very much, but sometimes you express your feelings as a human being. It’s a tightrope you walk.
Justice does not fall on that tightrope, justice is also not her place. She isn’t even sure that it exists, though she can recognize in justice when she sees it but her job is not justice. Her job is defense.
Kathleen Colton is part of a system. She looks out for the accused, feels for them, does her best to defend their rights and get them the best treatment possible. Someone else makes the case against them, and someone else looks out for the victims. The judge or the jury will weigh them both and find the whole; they look for justice. Her job is bias.
Kevin Sebastian was accused of theft. His company fired him for stealing computers. Some guy fingered him to let himself go free, Kevin says. His case never went to trial. It was thrown out for lack of evidence.
The process took two years. He figures it cost him fifty thousand dollars. He lost his job, he lost his references. Now Kevin brings in twelve grand less each year. There is power in an accusation.
Ask Kathleen Colton’s other clients; they might be skittish about telling you what they were accused of, but they’ll tell you how it affected their lives. Or call some other attorneys to get the dirt on Kathleen Colton. They don’t want to be caught talking about her, or about anyone. Hey, it is almost election time. And accusations carry consequences. There is a presumption, Kathleen Colton says, that if you get charged with a crime you must be guilty of something. That’s contrary to the innocent-until-proven-guilty rule, but that’s the way it is. She thinks her job is the most important type of lawyering there is. She’s lucky to be doing it. She is the only thing between a person accused of a crime and the power of the state. It’s the right thing to do. It makes the system work.
It doesn’t make you like her. Do you? Have you made your mind up yet?
She will admit it’s not a popular position. People like Kathleen Colton, most folks think, are at the bottom of the food chain. Then one day you’re driving to work to do some overtime after dinner and a couple beers, and someone on marijuana and a motorcycle hits you out of nowhere and they don’t get up. Your blood alcohol level is under the old limit but over the new one, and suddenly you’re going in for reckless homicide. Suddenly Kathleen Colton climbs up a few notches.
This is what it will be like when you get fingered for murder. You will want someone who feels for you and takes it home and likes performance art. You will want someone to use whatever tactics they can use to help you out. You will want some one like Kathleen Colton.
Kathleen Colton is not on trial here. Defense attorneys are. If you are lucky and you make good, legal, choices, then you might not like them. If you’re not so lucky or you’re not so wise or — let’s be honest here you’re not so well- behaved, perhaps you will. Which will it be? Shall we call a recess while the jury—that’s you — comes to its decision?
Well? What do you think of her?