Her clients range from those accused of drug-dealing to murder. But that doesn’t stop Cook County Public Defender Rosa Silva from working hard to ensure they get a fair trial
By Jonathan Black
Photography by Callie Lipkin
The building where Rosa Silva, MS ’98 LAS, ’95 UIUC works is set in a remote stretch of south California Avenue, the area pocked with dilapidated stores and blighted streets. Take the elevator down from her 7th floor office, cross the lobby to the elevators that lead to courtrooms, and life can look a lot bleaker. The people here rarely come willingly. Most are led in by guards. They shuffle in dressed in brown jumpsuits with “DOC,” for “Department of Corrections,” stenciled on the back. Those that aren’t shackled clasp their hands behind them as if they were. Many have trafficked in guns and drugs. Some have committed murder.
Silva defended one such person last year. His name was Bennie Teague. He shot and killed his employer, the owner of a South Side plumbing store. Then he opened fire on police with an AK-47 when they tried to arrest him. “Things are not always what they seem,” argued Silva in her opening statement. But what they seemed, she knew, was plenty bad.
“Somebody was dead. You had three police officers ready to testify. There were witnesses who saw my client leaving the scene. The minimum for the murder was 45 years. The [attempted murder of the] cop was consecutive to that. I presented my mitigation, but he got a lot of time. You do the best you can,” she says with a shrug.
Silva works in the Felony Trial Division of the Cook County Public Defender’s Office. Her job is to represent people charged with serious crimes—people who can’t afford a private attorney. She looks at the evidence. She cross-examines witnesses. Occasionally, she’s convinced her client is innocent, but it doesn’t affect how she operates in court. “I treat everyone the same. Everyone has the right to a fair trial, they all deserve some kind of justice,” says Silva. “Just because a person’s guilty doesn’t mean the police can trample all over their rights. Everyone should be treated with respect and dignity. That’s what I’m here to do—I like to help people who are in a bad situation.”
It’s a challenging job that requires long hours. Last year, she handled more than 100 cases. The hardest part may be when she leaves “26th and Cal”—as the historic courthouse at 2650 South California is known—and heads to her home in Little Italy. “You’ve got to have a tough personality,” says Silva, “and not let things get to you, because people will say things about you. Like you’re trying to get them to go to jail or you’re working with the state to send them away. You can’t let that affect you. You have to move on. If you’re prepared and lose a trial, you have to believe you did the best you could. It’s nothing about you.”
That’s not always an easy attitude to maintain. One client was so angry he spat on her—that was the worst. But other clients can be difficult, too. She handled a home invasion once. The accused was the man’s ex-boyfriend and he’d been stalking her. “He was a vile human being who hated women,” says Marcos Reyes, who was Silva’s supervisor at the time. “He was terrible to her. Rosa came to me for advice. But she never asked me to take the case. Those words would never come out of her mouth. Instead, she was totally professional. She knew that’s what she’d signed up for. In the end, she got his sentence knocked down from 20 years to seven or eight. She’s a phenomenal lawyer.”
A true advocate for her clients
Silva didn’t start out with plans to become a public defender—or even a lawyer. She planned on becoming a dentist, like her mother and grandmother in Mexico. Her parents had moved to the Chicago suburb, Flossmore, when Silva was nine. When she didn’t get into a chosen dental school, she enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a sociology major and then earned a master’s degree in the subject at UIC “because I wanted to do something to help people.” Ultimately, Silva decided that the field of sociology “wouldn’t be the right route for that” and decided to attend the Chicago-Kent College of Law and become a lawyer.
Silva worked briefly as a solo practitioner in Pilsen, then got her first job in the public defender’s office in Will County. It was a small office, 15 or 20 attorneys, and Silva handled misdemeanors, mostly traffic violations. Attorneys there typically waited six or seven years to move to the big time—Cook County. Silva got a break when a group of Cook County public defenders left all at once, and landed a job in the “Drug Room.”
“It was hard at first,” recalls Silva. “People were facing [stiff] penalties and jail time. These were felonies, and it was a really heavy case load. I must have had 150, 200 cases. But you get used to it; you learn to manage your time.”
Unlike Will County, where the PDs work in a pool, at Cook County, each attorney is teamed with a partner and gets assigned to a particular judge and courtroom. In Silva’s case, for the last four years that’s been Room 604 and Judge William Lacy. Lacy, a veteran of the Cook County Circuit Court, is in a unique position to observe Silva in action.
“She’s always prepared and diligent,” Lacy says. “This is a very stressful job, and I’ve seen my share of difficult, obnoxious attorneys. But Rosa’s got a great personality, she gets along with everyone—clerks, attorneys, me, the people she represents. I’ve never seen her lose her temper. She’s very effective, a true advocate for her clients.”
Silva prides herself on her preparation, to the point of memorizing all the reports and evidence. For her opening statements, she often comes up with what she calls a “trilogy”—three reference points. “It could be inconsistency, unreliability, irrelevance. Then at the closing we’ll say, ‘It was inconsistent because of this…it was unreliable because of this…”
Silva and the other PDs rehearse their arguments with one another or bounce ideas around. She practices arguments with her husband, a financial analyst, and occasionally gets ideas from him. Once, when he suggested she tie her opening to a shopper inspecting a case of eggs, she followed his advice and told the jury: “‘You don’t just go to the grocery store and put a carton of eggs in your cart and take off. You open the carton and make sure each egg is perfect. This case is like a carton of eggs. The cell phone my client supposedly stole—where was it? He was stopped within three minutes, but didn’t have it on him.’ Then I pretended to break an egg. It was a good idea,” says Silva, “and I used it one more time. Then I stopped; you have to switch everything up. People talk.”
Even with the best preparation and openings, she has to contend with the evidence. In June, she had back-to-back appearances in Lacy’s courtroom. A client on probation for drug possession was stopped for a traffic violation and immediately had his probation revoked. His family sat stony-faced in the courtroom, but afterwards, in the hall outside, the bewildered mother dissolved into angry tears and Silva had to explain the law was the law, there was nothing she could do. Half an hour later, she was back in court arguing a motion to suppress evidence for another client who’d been stopped on suspicion of drug possession. Cross-examined on the witness stand, the arresting police officer testified that he’d seen the man reach into his pocket and handle several small white envelopes. It didn’t matter that the officer was 10 feet away on a dark street—or that he’d somehow seen inside the pocket of a heavy winter coat. Lacy ruled the evidence was admissible.
“We lost the motion,” said Silva with a philosophical shrug, back in the office she shares with her partner, Marie Toussaint ’85 LAS. Toussaint calls Silva “my best partner ever.” The two swap details of every case; they fill in for each other when needed; they maintain an easy banter, often defusing the disturbing reality of their job with jokes. “We have a different perspective on the world,” acknowledges Silva. “What we think is funny may not be funny.” In her office, in the elevator, Silva’s a buoyant, cheerful person, greeting colleagues with a quick smile. In the trenches, in Lacy’s courtroom, wheeling her cart of documents or rising to face a witness, she’s got her game face on—focused and always intent. A week after the motion to suppress evidence, she was back in Room 604 for the bench trial of a client accused of armed robbery.
According to the state, her client had stolen an older man’s bicycle at gunpoint one night in the company of three friends, then rifled the man’s pockets for $65. He was spotted with the bike an hour later while the victim rode around in a cop’s SUV. Silva cross-examined the victim on the stand. Her client had been wearing pajama pants and a red T-shirt; hadn’t the victim testified that all his attackers were wearing shorts? She called an alibi witness—her client’s girlfriend—who said she’d been with him at the time of the robbery. Another witness, her client’s sister, testified that she’d seen him on the porch. Silva questioned the accused, who testified that he’d been home when a friend dropped off the bike, and he was riding it to the store when he was stopped and arrested.
“My client was home at the time of the robbery,” Silva argued. “He has an alibi. The evidence only shows the victim spotted the bicycle. This is a case of mis-identification.”
Lacy didn’t buy it. He found the man guilty of robbery and scheduled sentencing for the following month.
“Personally, I don’t think he did it. I thought we’d win,” said Silva afterward. “But at least the judge dropped the armed-robbery charge. That’s 21 years at the bottom. Now he’s looking at three to seven.”
A ‘40 Under Forty’ attorney
Getting a charge reduced can make a big difference to a client. Many have thanked Silva for her efforts. She gets phone calls, even the occasional Christmas card, from people she’s defended. The ones found innocent, or at least those freed, may by the most appreciative, but even those convicted have been known to express their gratitude. “They may not be grateful at the time they went to jail and that wasn’t the result they were looking for,” says Silva. “But later they tell me, ‘You really helped me.’ A lot of them end up in drug treatment and tell me, ‘You helped turn my life around.’”
She has her outright victories, too. The hall outside her office is papered with congratulatory notes from a supervisor, not a few directed to Silva. “Rosa Silva and MT do it again!” proclaims one. “Jurors incensed that this was ever taken to trial!! Congratulations, ladies.”
Silva is also much appreciated beyond 26th and Cal. She’s active in any number of community organizations where she does volunteer work. She was Secretary of the Women’s Bar Association in 2009 and continues to serve on its board. The Illinois Bar Association named her one of the “40 Under Forty” Attorneys to Watch in 2012, a prestigious honor. Silva was president of the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois, received its Special Recognition Award in 2012 and remains extremely committed to its work. Beatriz Santiago ’93 UIUC, a fellow HLA member and former colleague, calls her “very respected and incredibly hard-working. She’s one of those people who, if she says she’ll do something, she’ll do it.
“Rosa’s very active in everything. She’s chair of this and chair of that. She volunteers for fundraising events and food drives. She’s always trying to recruit people to the Hispanic Lawyers Association. How does she find time? I have no idea,” exclaims Santiago. “I’d find it exhausting.”
Aside from clients, the one who may appreciate Silva most is Lacy. Four years, he says, “is the longest I’ve ever had someone—and I’ll be very disappointed when she’s reassigned.”