Cook County Circuit Judge Thomas R. Allen had one case from his days as a defense attorney that always bothered him.
A young man whom he represented, Omar Saunders, was convicted of murder and sentenced to prison for life without parole in 1988. The evidence in that case just didn’t stack up to a guilty verdict. Allen, who normally didn’t hold onto case files, kept Saunders’ file in a desk drawer for more than a decade.
The next time Allen saw Saunders, he was as a free man who had been exonerated by DNA evidence. By then, Allen was a Chicago alderman representing the 38th Ward on the Northwest Side. He remembers the day Saunders appeared before the council seeking to settle a lawsuit against the city for $4 million.
“It was my guy Omar, the guy I represented 19 years ago, and I voted to approve his settlement along with the others,” he said. “Talk about a circle.”
Allen, a judge in the Chancery Division, has been on the bench since 2010. In addition to time on the bench and in City Hall, his career has included work as a public defender.
Taking the difficult cases
An orange construction helmet with some scratches and dirt sits on a shelf above Allen’s computer in his chambers on the 23rd floor of the Daley Center.
Growing up on the city’s Far Northwest Side in a family of eight children, Allen’s father was a union official and bricklayer. His five younger brothers also joined the building trades later in life; his brother James is a leader with Local 21 of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, and his late brother Terry was the former head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 134.
Allen graduated from Holy Cross High School in River Grove in 1970 and went to what is now Benedictine University in Lisle to study political science and social studies.
Over the summers during college and law school in the 1970s, Allen worked road construction jobs rebuilding the Dan Ryan and Kennedy expressways. Laboring outdoors in the sun working 12-hour shifts on some days, moving concrete forms, Allen said he made enough money to pay for school.
The orange hard hat is the same one he wore back in those days.
“The guys that I worked with side-by-side, digging in a hole all day, working on a jackhammer, that was their life,” he said. “I’ve always had great respect for people who did physical labor and worked with their hands.”
Allen graduated from IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1977 and became a Cook County assistant public defender. From 1982 to 1986, he was in the Homicide Task Force and handled felony murder and capital cases.
At the time, attorneys in that division had a caseload of 20 to 25 cases at a time and went to trial six or seven times a year, said Assistant Public Defender Michael J. Morrissey. Morrissey said Allen took on some difficult cases.
“In many cases, you would have a death-penalty case go from arrest to trial in a year, sometimes less,” Allen said. “There was no discovery, no access to experts, very little money that went into the defense side of death penalty cases back in the ’80s.”
Morrissey said Allen was respected by his colleagues and was a hardworking, fearless trial lawyer who had no hesitation about walking city streets to talk to people and do his own investigations. He was always willing to help others with legal research and try cases with them.
During trials, Morrissey said Allen was adept at building a rapport with juries. Allen’s former law partner in private practice and longtime friend, A. Fredrick Chapekis, now a partner at Chapekis, Marcus & Chapekis, said Allen has a great sense of humor and would often include current events and sports references in his arguments, invoking names like former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon.
“Some lawyers are a bit stilted and speak in legal terms. Tom spoke in common-sense terms with juries,” Morrissey said. “Juries liked him. He was very personable.”
Allen had a real empathy for his clients, he said, and saved their lives on several occasions with his advocacy in capital cases.
The one case that always stuck with Allen was the Saunders’ conviction for the murder of Lori Roscetti in 1986. Roscetti was a 23-year-old medical student who was raped and murdered on the West Side.
Saunders and three other teenagers were arrested and charged with the crime.
Aside from a person who claimed Saunders told him about the murder and then later recanted and testimony from a Chicago Police Department crime lab technician on a hair found at the crime scene, Allen said there wasn’t much evidence. He filed a motion for DNA testing, which in 1987 was new technology in the criminal justice system.
The judge denied the request and Saunders was convicted and sentenced to life in prison with no parole. Allen said the evidence never added up and it bothered him so much that he kept the case file.
About 12 years later, Allen said a Chicago Tribune reporter contacted him to discuss the case. The case was reopened and this time DNA testing was allowed. It exonerated Saunders and the other men convicted of the murder.
The DNA evidence led to the arrest and conviction of two other men. Allen said the technology “changed the whole complexion of the criminal justice system overnight.”
“In the early ’80s, nobody even wanted to contemplate the fact that somebody may be innocent and on death row,” he said.
Allen was also one of the defense attorneys in the Stephen Small murder trial in Kankakee. Small, who was heir to the Mid America Media Group empire and a great-grandson of a former governor, was kidnapped for a $1 million ransom. He was buried alive in a wooden box, and although kidnappers had a makeshift ventilation system in the box, Small died.
Allen represented defendant Danny Edwards, who was convicted and sentenced to death. After Gov. George Ryan commuted death sentences in 2003, Edwards received a life sentence.
Allen has kept the courtroom artist’s sketch from the Edwards case in his office, which depicts a packed courtroom and the box Small died in, which was there for the trial.
“It reminds me of my courtroom work in the public defender’s office and in the criminal system which I think were the best years of my life as a lawyer,” he said. “At the time, I knew they were the best, I knew I would never be able to practice law like that again, ever.”
Standing up for the little guy
In 1993, Allen became the alderman of the city’s 38th Ward, encompassing Portage Park, Jefferson Park, Old Irving Park and Dunning. He ran for re-election four times and served on the City Council for 18 years prior to joining the bench. Allen also ran unsuccessfully for state’s attorney in 2008.
Allen said he went to law school because he wanted a career where he could help people. When he was asked to fill the 38th Ward seat vacated by the death of former Ald. Thomas W. Cullerton — a relative by marriage — he saw it as a different opportunity to serve.
“As an alderman, helping people every day, that’s your job. Some people think it’s to draft lengthy position papers on complicated government issues, but in Chicago if you’re an alderman your job is to help people,” he said. “That’s what I tried to do. And sometimes it gets you in trouble.”
The trouble Allen is referring to was the time a woman hired a hitman to kill him in 1995.
Allen said Delores Arnold was a hoarder and her neighbors had complained for years about the piles of trash and squalor that built up on her properties. He was fighting her in court and Arnold tried to pay a hitman $500 to kill him. The hitman, it turned out, was an undercover police officer.
Arnold was charged with solicitation of murder for hire and, for a while, she remained in the neighborhood after posting bail. Allen said he recalls that she pleaded guilty to a reduced charge, received probation and was forced to sell her properties.
Chapekis remembers the incident as a scary time and thought it was “amazing he would put his life on the line” to help ward residents.
He described Allen as a humble, thoughtful person who goes out of his way to listen to people’s problems, no matter how big or small.
“Tom is a modern day George Bailey in every respect, with family, his friends and business,” Chapekis said, referencing the lead character in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“He’s always looking out for those who need help.”
During his time on the council, Allen created a housing task force to address the high number of single-family homes that were being illegally converted into multiunit buildings. He often took cases to housing court himself to prosecute owners involved in the act.
Following the lease of the Chicago Skyway and the city parking meter privatization, Allen authored an ordinance requiring a minimum 30-day public review period on future privatization deals.
In 1997, Allen was the lone dissenting vote against former mayor Richard M. Daley’s proposal to create the Department of Administrative Hearings for ordinance violations. He said the system didn’t seem equitable and deprived people of their day in court.
When asked if he considered himself an outspoken member of the council, Allen said he wouldn’t characterize his tenure that way.
“I try to speak for the little guy — that’s what I’ve always tried to do with my life,” he said. “So if that translates to outspoken, so be it.”
In 2010, Allen was appointed to a circuit judgeship and won election to a six-year term in 2012. In the Chancery Division, Allen said it’s important to try to give relief to parties that have been wronged but only if a claim can be supported with sound legal reasoning and evidence. Allen said he tries to keep his decisions brief and to the point.
“I like to be practical and just get down to the simple issue that the lawyers have asked me to decide without volumes of paper,” he said.
Cook County Circuit Judge Mary Ellen Coghlan, presiding judge in the Probate Division, said that Allen started in her division when he first took the bench. He managed a high-volume call and was always willing to pitch in with whatever was needed.
“He sees the big picture and he’s very thoughtful and well-prepared,” she said. “He was one of those judges willing to accept any assignment. … Although he makes it look easy, he works very hard.”
His team-player mentality stretches outside of the courtroom as well. Morrissey and Chapekis both said Allen is a skilled athlete who played ice hockey and basketball. He played softball for 30 years, including on the public defender’s office team, and Morrissey said was always one of their toughest players in the annual football game between their office and the state’s attorney’s office.
Allen still plays handball three times a week and competes in tournaments. He won a national title in his age division last year at the U.S. Handball Association’s 2014 3-Wall National Championships in Toledo, Ohio.
“I love one-on-one competition,” Allen said. “Handball is like the ultimate because you can’t blame anyone else if you lose. You’re playing by yourself, so if you lose it’s your fault.”
Allen said he also spends a lot of time with his wife of 37 years, Janis, and his four adult children, Tom, Sarah, Kevin and Claire. His eldest son, Thomas R. Allen, is an attorney with the Illinois Labor Relations Board.
“He works in labor law,” he said, cracking a grin. “It’s in the family genes, I guess.”