Hundreds of files missing from Cook County clerk`s office - FOX 32 News Chicago

FOX 32/BGA Investigates: Hundreds of files missing from Cook County Clerk`s Office

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News & Better Government Assoc.) -

Imagine sitting in prison, trying to appeal your conviction, but you can't because the records are missing. That's the situation facing dozens of Illinois inmates whose cases are based in Cook County. That's because their files have apparently been lost or misplaced by the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk.

Clerk Dorothy Brown's office is in charge of maintaining, storing, and retrieving the hundreds of thousands of case files in Cook County, but FOX 32 and the Better Government Association has learned the Illinois Appellate Defender's Office has blasted Brown over the past few months, complaining her office isn't able to supply crucial files they need to do appeals.

DePaul University Law Professor Len Cavise says there's been frustration in the legal community for years about the office of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown. The problem? Files containing critical records and court transcripts are sometimes missing, incomplete or misplaced inside the huge storage warehouses used by the clerk's staff.

"I think it's amazing that this agency, the state appellate defender, has to go begging to the clerk's office to produce files," says Cavice. "The clerk's office in Chicago has always been pretty much of a bottomless pit. There's all kinds of files that just disappear there."

Now, that frustration has boiled over in a series of letters from the Illinois Appellate Defenders Office, which represents indigent prisoners.


In the first letter to Clerk Brown last April, Deputy Defender Alan Goldberg calls it a crisis in the making: 132 unfilled requests for records, including 13 requests over a year old "which led to an unprecedented delay in the appeals process."

In a follow-up letter in July, Goldberg says while there had been some improvement, "it seems that your office waits until a problem is beyond a crisis and only then works feverishly to correct it. However, no new system is implemented to make sure the problem does not recur."

"The basic function of this office is to maintain court records," Pat McCraney with the Better Government Association explains. "That's what they have to do. That's their job and they're not doing their job. That's really troubling."

FOX 32's Dane Placko caught up with Brown as she testified at a county board meeting on improving technology in the Cook County courts, which in some respects remains stuck in a time warp.

Brown says she assigned a "SWAT team" of top managers to find the missing files and says she's also taking steps to make sure it doesn't happen again.

When asked if she's finding the files, Brown told FOX 32: "Yes, yes. We're working with the state appellate defender every week and we've been able to locate them."

"The process by which we track the files is very important for us to look at that and make sure that practice was tightened up," she continues.

Yet even after months of searching, the appellate defender says there are still 86 unfilled requests for files, ten of which have been out for more than a year, and 25 for more than six months. That means, in a state infamous for wrongful convictions, the missing files continue to slow the process of appeal.

"We need an office where people work a full day, where they work to the best of their ability, where there's adequate supervision, where the files are monitored so they go to the right place at the right time," Cavise says. "And that's not something that has ever really happened in Chicago."

Brown's spokeswoman acknowledged that at least part of the problem traces to the work habits of Brown's clerical employees at the various warehouses that store old records.

"It appears that in many instances the staff had not initially done a very good job of searching for the files," the spokeswoman said.

This is not all Dorothy Brown's responsibility. Some of the cases under appeal date back to the 1990's, before Brown took office.

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