Scott Slonim always believed in the judicial system.
He believed in it as a young reporter covering courts in New Mexico. He believed in it as a Cook County assistant public defender. And he believed in it on that terrible day in 1995 when he learned his younger sister Regina, a night auditor at a Baton Rouge hotel, had been murdered by a co-worker.
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At the time, Slonim was defending a man on armed robbery charges at the Cook County courthouse in Rolling Meadows. He got a continuance and left for Louisiana to identify his sister's body, wondering if he'd be able to stomach returning to his career defending people charged with serious crimes. When he returned to Rolling Meadows, his client extended his hand and offered his condolences.
"When I shook his hand, I knew I would be OK," said Slonim, of Buffalo Grove, who retired last month after 30 years as a public defender, eight as division chief at Rolling Meadows Third Municipal District.
In an interview with the Daily Herald seven months after the murder, Slonim pronounced himself "satisfied" with a jury's imposition of the death penalty on his sister's killer. Admittedly, his feelings about capital punishment were conflicted. He argued against the death penalty for his clients, yet said at the time that in the case of the man who murdered his sister, he'd be willing to carry out the execution himself.
"Nobody knows how they feel about the death penalty until they're in a position to know," Slonim said recently, adding that Regina's murder gave him a deeper understanding of what victims and their families endure.
One thing that never wavered was Slonim's commitment to indigent people accused of crimes, whose right to legal counsel the Supreme Court established 50 years ago in Gideon v. Wainwright.
"We're here to represent the poor," he said. "In that sense, we do God's work ... fighting for the preservation of an ideal, that the system only works when everyone has representation."
For all his passion, Slonim is no firebrand, said Judge Hyman Riebman, who has known him for 25 years.
"Scott is soft-spoken and he's careful with the words he chooses. That's what makes him such a good lawyer," Riebman said.
Calling his retirement a "huge loss," Cook County Public Defender Abishi Cunningham praised Slonim's meticulousness, eloquence, passion for the law and compassion.
"Scott realizes all of our clients deserve respect and deserve to be treated as human beings," Cunningham said. Slonim also "helped mentor and train many fine lawyers," Riebman said.
"I like to think there are people I've helped along the way," said Slonim, who was known around the office as Papa Smurf.
"He's got the beard. He's got the suspenders," said Assistant Public Defender Salvatore Spaccaferro, who described his colleague of 14 years as a legal expert and mentor wrapped up in one.
"We all rely on him. He's a brain, he really is," Spaccaferro said.
Born and raised in New York, Slonim attended Tulane University in New Orleans. After graduating, he enrolled in Tulane's law school but left after a year for a reporting job with the Albuquerque Tribune. He returned to law school a few years later and in 1978 headed to Chicago to work for the American Bar Association Journal, where he met his wife Nancy. They have two children, one of them a Cook County assistant public defender.
Joining the office in 1983, Slonim worked in the juvenile and professional development divisions, where he helped establish continuing education training. He wrote handbooks on ethics and tenant/landlord law for the ABA and traveled around the country conducting training sessions for defense attorneys. But most of his career was spent in the courtroom, "fighting for the underdogs."
"I knew being a public defender was what I wanted to do," said Slonim, who has spent virtually his entire career in the suburbs, mostly in the Rolling Meadows courthouse that opened in 1989.
"I came with the building," jokes the 63-year-old, who has tried thousands of cases, including more than 100 felonies, some of them capital. Among his most notorious clients were Karl Sneider, of Palatine, found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 2003 decapitation murder of his mother, and Tonya Vasilev, of Hoffman Estates, found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 2005 murder of her two children. Slonim also represented Robert Koppa, who received a life sentence in 2000 for kidnapping and raping a 16-year-old Bloomingdale girl while on parole for murder.
People always ask criminal defense attorneys, "How can you defend those people?" said Riebman, a former defense attorney. "The answer is: 'That's my job.'"
"That's never been a problem with Scott. He recognizes evil exists," Riebman said. "But even those charged with terrible crimes are entitled to a defense."
Slonim is serious about that responsibility, pointing out that not everyone charged with a crime is guilty. Case in point: a client from Arlington Heights whose kidnapping and sexual assault charges were dropped after the complaining witness admitted she lied.
"If there's anything better than a not guilty at trial it's when the state drops the charges," he said.
Or when the state commutes a sentence. In 2008, Louisiana authorities asked Slonim's opinion of reducing the sentence of the man who murdered his sister, from death to life in prison. Slonim agreed.
He called the decision liberating.
"I decided I was no longer going to live with the hate," he said.