Thursday, March 24, 2016

29 years a staffer

      Twenty-nine years ago Wednesday, March 23, 1987, was my first day on the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times. I read every plaque between the 'L' stop at Clark and Lake, trying not to be too early, got to the office just before 9, and was assigned a story about a dog.
     I thought, to mark the occasion, I'd pull something I'm proud of out of the archive, and thought of this, for a variety of reasons. I wrote it on deadline. It's a news story, but I cast it in an unusual structure, one that I think echoed what I was writing about. You'll notice a familiar name in the first sentence—before she was a disappointing state's attorney, she was a promising assistant state's attorney. As you probably know, she was defeated by Kim Foxx earlier in the month. Girl X, whose name is 
Shatoya Currie, is 28 and lives in an assisted living facility. In 2012 she made news when the singer Jennifer Hudson sought her ought and brought her to a show.  Patrick Sykes was sentenced to 120 years in prison, where he remains. 

A. . . B . . . C . . .

     Letter by agonizing letter, assistant state's attorney Anita Alvarez slowly read off the alphabet Friday afternoon while a nearly blind, partially paralyzed, mute 13-year-old known to the world only as Girl X struggled to nod "yes" or shake "no."

D . . . E . . . F . . .

     Judge Joseph Urso's fourth-floor courtroom was filled to capacity—people waited in the hall for a seat to be vacated—yet was utterly silent during her testimony. From the back of the large marble courtroom you could hear the gentle clack of the clear plastic beads in Girl X's neatly braided hair as she moved her head in response to Alvarez's line of questioning.     
     Letter by letter, her account unspooled of her brutal sexual assault and beating four years ago in a Cabrini-Green apartment. Patrick Sykes has pleaded not guilty. He sat at the defense table, toying with a pen, occasionally gazing hard at Girl X.

G . . . H . . . I . . .

     Again and again, Alvarez recited the alphabet, her voice flat. First she would ask if the letter was in the beginning of the alphabet. If the answer was yes, she started with "A, B, C . . ." 
     If Girl X shook her head no, Alvarez asked if it was in the middle. If yes, she began with "I, J, K . . ." If no, she began with "R." When Girl X nodded, she went on to the next letter in her testimony.
     She walked Girl X through the night before the attack. A routine day in the life of a 9-year-old girl. A sleepover at a friend's house.
     Some were simple yes or no questions. "Did you see T.T. after school?" "Did you play with T.T.?" "Do you remember where you played with T.T.?"
     The testimony created the rare sight of the judge not sitting on the bench but standing, next to the court reporter, so he could see Girl X's responses. Urso often leaned forward, his hands on the table, watching closely, jumping in to explain an answer—"I believe it was a `No,' " he said. He seemed concerned about Girl X, asking several times if she was OK, or for her therapist, Barbara Robinson, who sat next to her clarifying her sometimes slight shakes of the head into "yes" or "no," to adjust her wheelchair headrest so she would be comfortable.

J . . . K . . . L . . .

     While testifying about a sexual assault is considered harrowing even for adults, Girl X not only kept her composure, but managed to laugh at one point. She began coughing, clearing her throat, and for a moment Alvarez seemed confused whether she was responding.
     "The witness is coughing," Urso said, and Girl X smiled and let out a laugh, as if she was thinking, as any teenager would, "No kidding, judge."
     She wore a Nordic sweater and gray pants, rolled up in wide cuffs. Her hands were tightly curled, drawn up against her chest: hands that hadn't played in four years and probably never would again.

M . . . N . . . O . . . P . . .

     Habit is hard to break, and Alvarez kept messing up, not asking a yes or no question, but asking questions like "Was it a man or a woman?" while not giving Girl X a chance to spell her answer. Finally Urso had to caution her, "Please ask a question that can be answered."
     "I'm sorry," she said.

Q . . . R . . . S . . .

     As a 13-year-old whose schooling has been interrupted by years of therapy, Girl X's spelling was at times shaky. Spelling what her attacker pulled out, she stopped after "K-N-I." She hesitated. "You're not sure how to spell it?" asked the state's attorney. "Did he pull a knife?"

T . . . U . . . V . . .

     The details of the alleged attack were spelled out in crude, necessarily short descriptive terms that can't be printed in a newspaper. The two word, eight-letter act she said her attacker ordered her to perform took nearly a minute to spell. She then testified that he urinated in her mouth—she spelled it "pe"—and that he fondled her, though she could not begin to spell the common word for her private parts.
     When the attack was over, she testified, she asked him a question.
     "Did you say anything?" Alvarez asked. Girl X nodded.
     "Can you spell it for us? Is it in the beginning?" Girl X nodded yes. "Is it A . . . ?" She nodded yes again.
     Gradually, Alvarez drew the following sentence from Girl X: "Ask can I scool?"
     His reply, Girl X spelled out, was "o . . . bitch." Then she said he began to smother her with a blanket.

W . . . X . . . Y . . . Z

     "Do you remember ever coming out of that bedroom?" A shake no. "Do you remember ever coming out of that apartment?" Again no.
     Defense attorney Robert Byman asked a few polite questions—about her favorite TV show, about whether she had one or two grandmothers, but Girl X did not respond to most of them.
     As she was wheeled from the courtroom, Girl X let out a sound, a loud, quavering wail that started out like a laugh and ended like a sob.
                                     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 25, 2001


  1. Excruciating and heartbreaking.

  2. Prison is too good for him. Hope some inmates take a broom stick to him hard every day.

  3. Nothing much to say. You've said it all from A to Z.


  4. An excellent story from a time when Anita Alvarez was a dedicated public servant. Several years ago 60 Minutes did a segment called "Chicago: The false confession capital." If you have 14 minutes to kill it is a video well worth watching. It includes a jaw dropping interview with Anita Alvarez, that didn't get broadcast until after she was re-elected. Chicago may be the false confession capital, but these antics occur all over our nation, to adults as well as juveniles. It would serve people well if this video was a part of all high school civics classes

    1. Ah yes, the interview where she said a guy committed necrophilia.
      This is why we need runoff elections when someone doesn't get 50% + one vote in the election.

  5. I remember how sickened I was reading about this poor girl. Though I wasn't a regular reader of your column in 2001 I clearly remember this one. Thanks for re-posting it and congratulations -- 29 years and still going strong.


  6. Kept trying to find the column in the paper. Duh. Guess I'll never get past - nor want to - wanting to read printed words on crinkly pieces of paper. Fine column that will replay in my mind for some time to come.


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