Married public defenders have 'the toughest job you'll ever love'
Defense attorneys Jim Mullenix and Julie Koehler make a pretty good team -- in and out of the courtroom.
Professionally, they're 11-2. Of the 13 cases they've tried together for the Cook County public defender's office, seven were acquittals, three ended with guilty verdicts on lesser charges and one was a hung jury.
Personally, they've been married for almost six years and are the parents of two young girls. The couple is expecting their third daughter next month.
During the day, they shared a defense table with clients like D'Andre Howard, charged with the 2009 stabbing deaths of three members of a Hoffman Estates family, and Mila Petrov, of Cook County near Des Plaines, who murdered her 5-year-old daughter.
At night, they share a dining room table in Evanston with their girls.
They have no trouble slipping into mommy and daddy mode, Koehler says. However, they have had to establish a couple of rules. First: Unless they're working together, only one parent can be on trial at a time. Second: Jury trials trump all, even major announcements. Which explains why Koehler waited until after her husband concluded the murder trial of Patrick Taylor, convicted in July of murdering aspiring Rolling Meadows rapper Marquis Lovings, to tell Mullenix she was pregnant.
But those rules likely will change since Mullenix retired last month after 30 years as an assistant public defender, including a quarter-century as a member of its elite homicide task force representing indigent defendants charged with homicide and facing the most severe sentences, including life in prison.
"He has been a wonderful public servant," says Cook County Assistant Public Defender Camille Kozlowski, division chief of the public defender's Skokie office and Mullenix's former supervisor.
"We're going to miss his experience," she says. "He always did the best for his clients. The client was in the best hands possible."
Mullenix, 59, says he might open his own legal practice. For now, he's a stay-at-home dad.
He couldn't be happier.
For 'the underdog'
A former Peace Corps volunteer from downstate Eureka, Mullenix never planned on a career in public service. He figured he'd spend five to 10 years as a public defender and go into private practice. Things didn't turn out as planned.
"I always root for the underdog," says Mullenix, who has spent his career representing underdogs and doing what he called "the toughest job you'll ever love."
Born into poverty and poorly educated, his clients typically existed on society's fringes. But each was a "human being deserving of respect," he says.
Of the hundreds of cases he tried, about 90 were murder trials. Of those, as many as half were death penalty-eligible, tried before Illinois ended the death penalty last year.
His clients included the volatile Taylor, sentenced in November to life without parole for Lovings' 2006 murder, and former attorney Paul Castronovo, found not guilty by reason of insanity two years ago for the 2008 death of his mother in her Mount Prospect home.
With Koehler, 42, an eight-year member of the homicide task force, he represented Howard, a 23-year-old man with a troubled past who Mullenix says was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at age 8.
Howard faces charges of first-degree murder in the 2009 deaths of the family of Amanda Engelhardt, his former girlfriend and the mother of his young daughter. Amanda's sister, 18-year-old Conant High School senior Laura Engelhardt, father Alan Engelhardt, 57, and maternal grandmother Marlene Gacek were killed in the family's Hoffman Estates home. Howard is also charged with the attempted murder of Shelly Engelhardt, Alan's wife and mother of Amanda, Laura and Jeff Engelhardt, who was at college at the time of the murders. If convicted on two or more counts of first-degree murder, Howard faces life in prison without parole.
Defending clients facing life in prison poses challenges. Chief among them is humanizing defendants accused of committing heinous crimes, Kozlowski says.
Compounding the challenge is the belief of some jurors that if a defendant didn't commit this crime, he or she probably did something else, Mullenix says. Then there's the matter of earning a wary client's trust.
But Mullenix and Koehler say the rewards offset the challenges.
"You can make a difference in someone's life," says Mullenix.
"Even when you lose," adds Koehler.
Koehler jokes that the couple met over a dead body. It's only a slight exaggeration. They actually met about 12 years ago during a murder trial.
Koehler, a native of downstate Henry who once performed non-singing roles with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, explains to their daughters that Mommy and Daddy help get people out of "time outs."
She's the showman. He's more nuts-and-bolts. She's vivacious. He's laid-back. Koehler defers to her husband in court because she says "he's been around the block more." Mullenix defers to his wife at home.
"He's my go-to guy," says Koehler, who typically gives the opening statement and questions lay witnesses in court. "She's my go-to girl," counters Mullenix, who delivers closing arguments and handles law enforcement witnesses.
'A great partner'
Mullenix and Koehler are realists. If they ever wore rose-colored glasses, they took them off long ago.
They've represented clients charged with unspeakable crimes. Some were career criminals. Some were sociopaths. Some were insane. Some were convicted.
Some were innocent, like Termariell Hicks, a Great Lakes sailor charged with aggravated DUI and reckless homicide after a 2004 crash on the Edens Expressway that killed three people. Hicks wasn't driving, the two lawyers say, but he told police he was because he feared his insurance company wouldn't cover him otherwise.
Mullenix and Koehler argued that the physical evidence indicated another person was driving. Eleven of the 12 jurors agreed. With jurors deadlocked in favor of acquittal, prosecutors dismissed the charges and Hicks returned to his home in Georgia a free man.
He and Koehler are Facebook friends. In fact, the couple keep in touch with several former clients. Mullenix ran into one at a fast-food restaurant where the man worked. The former client offered Mullenix a soft drink. "It's on me," he said. Taylor, who once tried to fire Mullenix, gave his former public defender a sketch of the couple's oldest daughter that Taylor commissioned from a fellow inmate.
Serving as a public defender isn't easy. It requires tenacity, a thick skin, fearlessness and an unwavering commitment to protect the client's rights and hold the state to its burden of proving him or her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
"You definitely have to have a good partner and Julie's a great partner," Mullenix says.
And having a sense of humor doesn't hurt, says Koehler.
"You laugh at things that are completely inappropriate," she says. "Jim told a horrible joke at a party and I was the only one laughing.
"It's nice to be married to someone who gets that."