Judge Michael Toomin I Sun-Times file photo

Judge Michael Toomin I Sun-Times file photo

The Koschman judge who’s rocking the system

Published Dec. 5, 2012


Staff Reporters

As a teenager, Michael P. Toomin – the judge who made the ruling that led to this week’s indictment of a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley – appeared more likely to end up on the other side of the bench.

Toomin made headlines for the first time 56 years ago, when he was expelled from New Trier High School for stealing a police car and ended up spending three days in the Cook County Jail.

The judge, who has been known to tell friends he was “incorrigible” as a teenager, went on to preside over some of Chicago’s most high-profile criminal cases in his 32 years on the bench.

Among them:

• He sentenced notorious El Rukn gang leader Jeff Fort in 1988 to 75 years in prison for murder, saying Fort had ordered “the systematic liquidation of persons who might be out on 43rd Street” selling drugs on his turf.

• He sentenced stable owner Kenneth Hansen in 1995 to more than 200 years in prison for the 1955 murders of three boys – Robert Peterson and brothers John and Anton Schuessler – a grisly crime that terrified parents across Chicago.

• He presided over the precedent-setting retrial of Chicago Outfit hitman Harry Aleman, who had been acquitted of murdering a union official because the judge in that case had been bribed. After the fix was discovered, Toomin ordered a new trial for Aleman, who was convicted and sent to prison, where he died.

• In 2000, he refused to appoint a special prosecutor to examine alleged misconduct by police and prosecutors in the botched murder investigation of 11-year-old Ryan Harris, saying police and prosecutors had good reason to file charges against two boys, ages 7 and 8, that later were dropped.

Then, in April, declaring “the system has failed” David Koschman, Toomin granted Nanci Koschman’s request to appoint a special prosecutor to reinvestigate her son’s death, as well as to determine whether “employees of the Chicago Police Department and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office acted intentionally to suppress and conceal evidence, furnish false evidence and generally impede the investigation into Mr. Koschman’s death.”

In doing so, Toomin – who stands 5-foot-5, the same height as David Koschman – was taking on those agencies, as well as Chicago’s most powerful political family.

Toomin appointed former U.S. Attorney Dan K. Webb as special prosecutor, and Webb took the case to the grand jury that, on Monday, returned an indictment accusing Daley nephew Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko of delivering the punch that led to Koschman’s death.

Toomin, 74, lives in Lincoln Park. He is divorced, with no children. And, unlike most Cook County judges, he is a Republican.

His father, Philip R. Toomin, was vice president of the Lincoln-Dembitz Republican League, which backed Richard Nixon for president in his unsuccessful 1960 campaign.

Toomin’s father once got a federal appointment to serve as associate justice of the High Court of the Trust Territory of the Pacific – 680 square miles of islands in the Pacific Ocean. It’s an experience that Toomin’s father and mother, Pauline Toomin, described in their 1963 book “Black Robe and Grass Skirt.”

A judge since 1980 and former chief judge of Cook County’s criminal courts, Toomin was given the Koschman case by Chief Cook County Criminal Courts Judge Paul Biebel Jr., who stepped aside because of a health issue.

Biebel calls him “one of the best judges I’ve ever served with.”

Bill Murphy – an attorney and longtime friend who worked with Toomin in the Cook County public defender’s office – says of him: “He has a love for the law. You read his opinions, he starts back at the Magna Carta. He spends his weekends writing opinions, while we go out and play golf.”

Toomin spent his early childhood in Kenwood before his family moved to Glencoe in 1950, in time for him and his sister to attend New Trier.

He has acknowledged he was “in trouble a lot” as a teen, spending time in the Audy Home – the county’s old facility for juvenile delinquents – and the Cook County Jail.

During his senior year at New Trier, Toomin and a friend were arrested for stealing a North Suburban Patrol squad car that had been left running outside a hot dog stand in Wilmette. Toomin and a group of friends had been working during Christmas break for the post office and had gone out drinking when they spotted the squad car. Toomin, 17, jumped in the driver’s seat to go for a joy ride with one of his friends. As they sped off, the officer began shooting at the car.

Toomin abandoned the car, ran through the snow and hid in a garbage can before turning himself in.

New Trier expelled Toomin. His father sued to have him reinstated but dropped the case. Toomin never went back.

Instead, he joined the Marine Corps, where he served from 1956 to 1958. After getting his GED in the Marines, he went on to Northwestern University, where he graduated in 1962, and then the DePaul University College of Law, where he earned a law degree in 1967.

He spent two years as an assistant public defender, then practiced law for 11 years alongside his father, specializing in criminal defense.

Toomin aspired to be a judge but found it tough, as a Republican, to win election in heavily Democratic Cook County. After twice running for judicial seats and losing, he was appointed an associate judge in 1980. He finally won election as a circuit judge in 1984 – on his fourth try – from a district that included only suburban voters.

He has since lost three elections for a seat on the Illinois Appellate Court from the first district, which covers only Cook County.

He was given a temporary appointment to the appeals court, though, by the Illinois Supreme Court between 2008 and 2010. He then returned to the Cook County circuit court.

Now the teenager who stole a squad car is the presiding judge of the Cook County juvenile courts.