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What’s next for Highland Park shooting defender? It’ll be a long road, Gacy’s attorney says

With the suspect in custody and reportedly facing a mountain of incriminating evidence that includes a confession, you might think the case against the suspect in the mass shooting at Highland Park’s Independence Day parade would sail through the criminal justice system.

In reality, there may be some bumpy months, if not years, ahead. Lawyers must work through stacks of reports, prepare dozens of witnesses and address numerous pretrial issues — ranging from the admissibility of evidence to questions about a potential insanity defense and the suspect’s mental fitness to stand trial.

For some insight on what to expect, we turned to someone who knows all about trying a case involving a heinous crime under the intense glare of the national spotlight.

Des Plaines attorney and retired Cook County Judge Sam Amirante found himself in that position more than 40 years ago when he represented serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who faced charges he murdered 33 teens and young men in the 1970s, most of whom were found buried under his Norridge-area home.

what’s next

The likely next step in the legal process is a grand jury indictment that formally charges the suspect. For now, the 21-year-old Highwood man faces seven counts of first-degree murder — one for each person killed — but Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart has promised dozens of additional counts, including attempted murder charges involving the injured survivors .

After the indictment, the suspect will appear in court for an arraignment, when he’ll almost certainly plead not guilty.

Amirante told us that begins the discovery phase of the process, during which prosecutors and defense lawyers will exchange reports, videos, witness statements and any other evidence they might present during a trial. In a regular murder case, the process might take months. In one this high profile, with these many victims and witnesses, months seems a bare minimum.

“And the defense probably wants the proverbial heat to die down,” Amirante said. “It comes around again once the case starts going to trial, but generally the defense likes to wait. So I anticipate it will be quite a while before the case goes to trial.”

As the discovery process winds down, attorneys gear up for pretrial motions asking the presiding judge to hear arguments and rule on a host of potential issues surrounding what evidence will be allowed at trial. Motions and arguments can take place up to the day of trial, and sometimes even mid-trial.

At the same time, Amirante said, the two sides also likely will be in talks about the potential for a plea deal.

Insanity and mental fitness

While the two sides trade evidence and prep for trial, defense lawyers will be trying to answer two key questions: Was the suspect in legally sane when the crime occurred, and is he mentally fit to stand trial now?

While those questions may sound similar, they mean different things in the courtroom.

As Amirante explained, mental fitness deals with the defendant’s current mental state, and specifically whether he is able to cooperate with his defense and understand the legal proceedings against him.

If a defendant is found unfit for trial, a court typically orders the person moved to a secure mental health facility to receive treatment aimed at making the person fit. Such a finding could delay a trial by months, if not longer.

The question of insanity concerns the defendant’s mental state at the time of the offense, specifically whether he suffers from a mental illness that made him unable to understand his actions were criminal.

“For trial purposes, if a person is found fit, they could still be insane at the time of the offense,” Amirante said.

However, Amirante added, he already sees challenges for an insanity defense in the Highland Park case.

“From what I’ve read in the newspaper, he was dressed in female garments to hide himself; he was hiding his guns,” he said. “It’s kind of difficult to put on an insanity defense when somebody’s trying to hide.”

A great on everyone involved

While a murder trial is challenging and grueling work under the best of circumstances, Amirante says doing so with the world watching only increases the pressure on everyone involved. That includes the victims’ families, the survivors, police investigators, attorneys on both sides, the judge and even members of the media covering the case.

“It takes so much time away from family life, away from social life,” he said. “It really affects everybody and everything around you. There’s a lot of fallout.”

And that fallout may be harshest for those representing the accused, as Amirante knows from his time defending Gacy.

“You get threats from people everywhere. I got letters, hate letters, from all over the world,” he said. “It’s just a real tough, tough existence, because people associate you with your clients. People just really don’t like you.”

Domestic violence calls up again

Incidents of domestic violence continue to rise in Illinois, according to a new report released this week by a Chicago-based advocacy group.

The Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline received 32,363 calls and texts last year, a 9% increase from 2020, according to the “Measuring Safety” report from The Network. That hike follows a 16% increase in contacts from 2019 to 2020.

The increase was seen across the state, with many counties receiving substantially more contacts over the past two years, the report indicates. DuPage County contacts went from 984 in 2019 to 1,509 last year, a 53% rise. In Lake, contacts rose from 614 in 2019 to 1,067 last year, a 74% spike. And Kane County had a 47% increase, from 342 in 2019 to 503 in 2021.

Cook County was an outlier, according to the report, as contacts there fell about 1.4% from 2020 to 2021 — but were up 19% from 2019 to 2020.

Despite the growing number of calls to the hotline, calls to police regarding domestic violence dropped about 5% from 2020 to 2021. The study’s authors suggest that may be a result of adverse experiences survivors can face with law enforcement and the legal system.

To reverse the trend, The Network says leaders need to boost investment in services and prioritize those that are community-based, use awareness campaigns to connect survivors with resources, and increase data collection, and make what data is collected more accessible.

To read the full report or its executive summary, visit https://the-network.org/measuring-safety-2022/.

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