Judge Kay Hanlon usually grills defendants who come before her bench at Cook County’s Third Municipal District Courthouse in Rolling Meadows. But on Wednesday, she found herself on the opposite side, as freshmen at Saint Viator High School grilled her.
She came near the end of the semester, when every freshman had read the book, “Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago,” and debated its many themes about growing up in the ghetto.
Prominent in the book is the story of the 1994 case of the two boys who threw 5-year old Eric Morse out a 14th story window, to his death. Hanlon was the prosecutor on the case, which eventually found them guilty and sentenced to prison.
Freshman Cody Weigand invited Hanlon to address his classmates. His parents are former colleagues of Hanlon’s, and they knew of her connection to the case, which dominated the news just over 20 years ago.
“I wanted her to discuss her role in the case and how difficult it was to prosecute,” Cody said. “And I wanted her to describe what she does and her role as a prosecutor, and now a judge.”
Right from the start, Hanlon put the case in perspective: During the 1990s, serious crimes committed by juveniles in Chicago were at an all-time high, with 1994 being the highest, with more than 900 murders committed overall that year.
Hanlon put forth many of the mitigating factors in the case: from the backgrounds of the 10 and 11-year olds who committed the murder, including their family situations and their criminal backgrounds, to and their IQs.
She also described the civil case which followed, during which the Eric’s parents sued the Chicago Housing Authority for wrongful death, and eventually settled for $2.175 million.
“As the prosecutor, I felt they had an intent to kill,” Hanlon said. “They wanted to get back at him, they wanted to hurt him. They tried once and his brother saved him. But then they did it again.”
In their defense, their lawyers argued that they were boys, whose brains had not fully developed and consequently, they did not fully understand what they were doing.
Freshman Jack Austin asked a question of Hanlon that many in the audience were wondering.
“Did you ever feel bad for putting them in jail?” he asked.
Hanlon admitted that 20 years later, and after re-reading the book, her perspective had in fact changed. But back in 1994, she had no doubt that she was doing the right thing, she said.
“My role as prosecutor was that I represented the state of Illinois—and the victim,” Hanlon said. “They did it, there was no question about that.”
Some students in the audience thought she could have recommended a different sentence to the judge.
“I think residential treatment might have helped them learn right from wrong,” freshman Peter Lambesis said.
In the end, Hanlon said, that the judge weighed all of the mitigating circumstances and she sentenced them to jail.
The debate came to an abrupt end, as the dismissal bell rang, but students walked away still thinking about the case, the book and meeting the prosecutor.
“It was interesting to hear all the different perspectives that went into the case, that we didn’t necessarily read in the book,” freshman Jill Nuelle said.
Her classmates agreed.
“It was just cool to meet someone we read about in a book—in person,” freshman Ava Pretto added.
The presentation by Judge Hanlon culminated an inquiry-based project for freshmen English students and underscored Saint Viator’s commitment to promoting intellectual independence, rooted in Catholic principles.
“This book was exciting for them to read and certainly opened their eyes to a world quite unfamiliar to most of them,” English Department Chair Nancy Kieffer said.
“It also got them thinking about the responsibility we all must assume for those not given as much as we have been given,” she added. “In the end, most of the students felt that ‘Our America’ is really not as united as it should be.”