Defense attorney tried for allegedly letting client use cellphone

Suspect in cop killing was in police custody and under investigation for murder when lawyer allowed calls, prosecutors say

November 27, 2012|By Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune reporter
Timothy Herring was under arrest in the slayings of a Chicago police officer and another man two years ago when a police lieutenant leading the investigation heard something as he walked past the locked interrogation room where Herring was meeting with a lawyer.
"I heard Timothy having a conversation, but it was basically with himself, a one-way phone conversation, which was extremely odd since he's in a room with his attorney," testified Chicago police Lt. Brendan Deenihan, who said he went into the room and saw Herring, chained to a ring in the wall, end a call and hand the phone back to the lawyer.Lawyer Sladjana Vuckovic, a volunteer for First Defense Legal Aid for nearly 10 years, faces a 15-year sentence and possible disbarment if convicted.

That discovery led to an even more unusual twist. The lawyer, Sladjana Vuckovic, was charged with bringing contraband — her cellphone — into a penal institution. Vuckovic, who at the time was volunteering for a 24-hour free legal service for indigent suspects, faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted and would likely be disbarred.
The charges sparked a controversy among criminal-defense lawyers who said they routinely bring their cellphones into police interview rooms and sometimes let clients make calls. Some veteran attorneys said they could not remember a similar case ever being pursued by police.
Prosecutors alleged that in two visits to the Far South Side detective headquarters where Herring was in custody, Vuckovic allowed him to use her cellphone to make or receive a total of 26 calls. Phone records showed calls were made to Herring's half-brother and a friend, and that on two occasions, Herring had a three-way conversation with his half-brother and an unknown third party whose number came up blocked.
"The police will never know who (Herring was) talking to or what was being said," Assistant State's Attorney Michael Golden said in his opening statement to the Cook County jury. "They will never know how he was using that phone to advance his own case."
Vuckovic's attorney, Leonard Goodman, told jurors no signs were posted at the headquarters prohibiting cellphones in the interrogation room and that the Police Department's own general orders call for a suspect in custody to be allowed "a reasonable number" of calls to family, friends and an attorney.
Hours after Vuckovic's second visit to the station, Herring was charged with gunning down Officer Michael Flisk and Steven Peters as Flisk processed the scene of a break-in at Peters' garage. Police alleged Herring, then 19 and on parole, returned to the scene because he feared Flisk would uncover evidence connecting him to the burglary.
Born in the former Yugoslavia, Vuckovic, 44, worked as a attorney for the CTA but also had a passion for helping those less fortunate, her lawyer said. She had volunteered for First Defense Legal Aid for nearly a decade and was the on-call attorney the night Herring's brother called the agency's hotline and asked for help.
Goodman said First Defense attorneys often have to clear hurdles of distrust with clients who tend to be suspicious about whether the lawyer is really there to represent them. She allowed him to use her phone only to contact family and warned him not to talk about his case, Goodman said. Both times she had her phone in a shoulder bag. On her second visit, she brought Herring a sandwich and drink, he said.
"She's made hundreds of station visits, and not once has a detective ever said to her she couldn't bring a cellphone in," Goodman said.
In an effort to keep the high-profile murder from influencing Vuckovic's trial, Judge Evelyn Clay had lawyers refer to Herring only as "Timothy H." and jurors were not told that Herring was charged with killing a Chicago police officer and a second victim.
Still, at times the testimony made it clear that Herring was not in custody for a routine slaying. Several detectives said Herring was originally picked up on a parole violation sweep that's done only in exceptional cases. Deenihan, second-in-command at the Calumet Area headquarters, told jurors he was so focused on his investigation of the double slaying that he had no time to worry about arresting Vuckovic at the time.
In addition, several of Flisk's family members, including his wife, Nora, attended Vuckovic's trial, sitting in the front row of the courtroom gallery wearing buttons with the slain officer's photo.