When police arrested Anthony Copeland of Calumet Park, Bill Clinton was campaigning for his second term, Chicago was reeling still from the previous summer's fatal heat wave, and "The Macarena" dance craze was sweeping the nation.
It was May 7, 1996. Copeland was 25 years old.
Since then, the accused gangland killer hasn't set foot outside the Cook County Jail's concrete walls.
Copeland — accused of shooting a man as he bent over to tie his shoes — has been jailed for eight years. Neither judge nor jury has decided the question of Copeland's guilt.
Top nine longest-held inmates in Cook County Jail
And he is not alone.
In the Cook County Jail, more than 600 people are locked up awaiting trial or sentencing.
"We have 33 people that have be in there (at least) five years," said Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan, who oversees the jail. "That's unacceptable to me, it's totally unacceptable, it's ridiculous. ... That tells you something is wrong with the system."
Cook County courts have always had a problem dealing with massive caseloads and have always been slower then neighboring counties as a result.
But the problem appears to be getting worse.
The average length of stay for a Cook County jail inmate in 2003 was a record high 216 days. In the 1990s, it was about 90 days, Sheahan said.
In New York City, an inmate stays in jail an average of 45 days, and in Los Angeles, 35 days, according to a report released in May by the John Howard Association. The group was appointed by the federal court to monitor Cook County jail conditions as part of a 1974 civil rights lawsuit on behalf of inmates.
"There are thousands of cases ... where average length of stay is a year," said Charles Fasano, who monitors the jail for the association. "These are huge numbers of guys."
Defense attorneys are accustomed to cases that take years, said Andrea Lyon, president of the Illinois Association of Defense Lawyers and director of the Center for Justice in Capital Cases at DePaul University.
That's particularly so for cases in which the defendant could be sentenced to death.
"It used to be that a capital case would go to trial in a year or a year and a half," said Lyon, who managed the Cook County Public Defender's murder task force until 1991. "That was considered long, but everyone understood that there was a lot more involved. ... you have to defend everything your client ever did in his life.
"Now I hear cases where (attorneys) are unsurprised when it takes three or four years to go to trial, which is astounding to most people."
Cook County courts swamped
Prosecutors say all delays are generally caused by the defense, because prosecutors are required by law to go to trial quickly.
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees everyone "the right to a speedy and public trial." By Illinois law, a defendant has a right to a trial within 120 days of his arrest, if he asks for it.
Defense attorneys counter that prosecutors are slow to turn over evidence and often ask a judge for time to conduct DNA testing or respond to defense motions.
"The 120-day rule is really a sham," Sheahan said. "I think that there are times when all of us have to work harder."
Fasano said studies of the court system by outside consultants have shown both prosecutors and defense attorneys ask for delays and neither side fights hard for quick trials.
"It's sort of like, 'We're working together every day, I better agree with you so you'll agree with me.' It's professional courtesy, and the clock stops," Fasano said. "Constitutional protections are Swiss cheese."
One clearly contributing factor is the sheer number of cases in Cook County. Often referred to as the largest unified court system in the nation, Cook County's system includes the city of Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. Other major metro areas, like New York, are split into multiple court jurisdictions.
Cook County felony judges handed down more than 37,000 decisions in 2003, said Judge Paul Biebel, chief judge of the criminal courts.
"My judges in this building (each) disposed of an average of 900 cases per year," Biebel said. "We're not getting more room, so the reality of the situation is we're doing with what we have."
A judge can try only one case at a time, Biebel said.
Most of those enduring lengthy waits for trial face serious crimes and cannot afford their own attorneys, either. That makes them the responsibility of the Public Defender of Cook County, an office notoriously overworked and understaffed.
Even attorneys in the office's homicide task force, which handles the most serious cases, work 20 cases each on average, said Xavier Velasco, chief operations officer for the public defender's office. Each of the 36 attorneys on that task force handles an average of six or seven death penalty cases, Velasco said.
"While we're interested in efficiency, our role is to make sure that our clients' rights are protected," Velasco said. "That is our mandate."
After 13 people were released from death row in Illinois because they were found not guilty or because their cases were deeply flawed, death penalty cases grew more complicated thanks to greater scrutiny on the legal system.
And many of the reforms have proved time-consuming.
"There are 200 to 500 hours of preparation needed out of court for every capital case," said Lyon, who spent 15 years with the public defender's office. "But it's someone's life. You can't tell someone, 'It's 5 o'clock and I'm leaving.' "
In capital cases, and increasingly in all felony cases, prosecutors and defense attorneys are seeking DNA testing of evidence. The popularity of such testing has outstripped the capacity of the Illinois State Police crime lab and other private crime labs, Velasco said.
The state police lab can return high-priority "heater" cases, in which there is a known suspect, within days, said State Police Lt. Lincoln Hampton. Other cases are tacked onto a backlog that has recently shrunk from 1,100 cases to 775 cases.
"In January, it would take about three months to get answers (from the lab)," Hampton said. "But it can vary widely. ... Crime scene investigators are getting much more aware of DNA testing, so before where they'd send in two or three samples, now they send in 20.
"They don't want to miss a clue if it might solve a case."
Sheahan suggested some defendants want their cases to drag, especially those who know they're guilty.
"They know they'd rather be here in Cook County than in some state prison, so they'll stall," Sheahan said. "They're closer to home, they're here with some of their friends, their visitors don't have to travel as far."
Rampant overcrowding in jail
Besides the emotional toll on the accused, the victims and their families, long trial delays inflict consequences on the judicial system.
The most obvious effect is on the jail, which has been overcrowded "every single day ... since January of 1988," according to the John Howard report.
About 1,000 inmates sleep on the floor of the day activity room every night, Sheahan said. Cells designed for two people routinely hold three.
"Length of stay and number of admissions are the two main variables for overcrowding," Fasano said. "Admissions is not going up. It's like a restaurant. The question isn't how many tables you have, it's how often you turn them over."
Sheahan has started release programs that allow some non-violent inmates to live outside the complex. He won the right last November to send inmates appealing their cases back to state prison until they're needed in the courtroom.
Still, the average daily population of the jail — 10,664 in 2003 — has doubled in 15 years.
"If you crowd them in, a lot of them have short fuses," Sheahan said. "They get upset with each other, even looking at TV, they could get to a fight over a TV show.
"Even an average family, a good family, if you put them in a room all day and tell them to stay there, they'd get on each other's nerves. And in many cases, these are not good people."
Besides the general overcrowding, the inmates held longest create special security problems. Often, they're the most violent people in the jail, and they get bolder the longer they're there. Gang members in jail can communicate with their gang on the outside easier than they can from state prison, Sheahan said. Other gang members cycle through on a regular basis, allowing the relay of messages and orders.
"When they get that way, they think it's their home; they don't follow rules and regulations; they think it's their gang turf," Sheahan said. "There isn't anything they haven't tried to do or think about.
"They have all the time in the world."
In the courtroom, prosecutors face problems with long-delayed cases because witnesses die, move, lose interest, or forget what they know, said Cook County state's attorney spokesman John Gorman.
"Witnesses in many of these gang cases go back to the neighborhood, and they get intimidated by the gangs," Gorman said. "And occasionally they will recant."
Solution far from reality
With no agreement about the cause of the problem, there is little agreement about solutions.
Both Fasano and Sheahan think the county should study the issue. Fasano called for an independent report, similar to one the county paid for in 1990.
"Many of the lawyers and judges say there are legitimate reasons for (delays in) this case and this case and this case ... and there probably are," Fasano said. "But then you have to look at it on the macro level and say, 'Here's what you have, boys.'"
Sheahan suggested a permanent case-management review committee could be created to look into any case taking more than two years.
"What I envision is you get a former judge, or a former public attorney, and a former prosecutor and a defense counsel. They could look it over and see if there are any red flags," Sheahan said.
Sheahan said judges and attorneys have opposed the plan, and county board members aren't sure they want to pay for it. But Sheahan said such a review group would cost little.
"If there's an exception, look at it, but how can we ever defend eight years? Five years?" Sheahan said.
Biebel said the chief judge's office is reviewing cases more than two years old, but it is too early to know what will be found.
Lyon has a radical solution that she admits will not get much popular backing from lawmakers. She said the nation should consider legalizing drugs.
"A lot of our judicial resources ... are tied up dealing with low-end user cases," Lyon said. "We'd be better if we took (drug addicts) out of the system and put them right into treatment, which works 50 percent of the time, as opposed to jail, which works 10 percent of the time for drug addicts."
Biebel — who said he would not endorse a change in drug laws — noted drugs are everywhere in the felony courts.
"Approximately 70 percent of our cases involve drugs directly or indirectly," Biebel said. "Fifty percent of murders are gang-related ... and that involves drugs, because in Chicago, the gangs control the drug trade."
At least three of the nine longest-held inmates at Cook County jail are awaiting trial for gang-related crimes.
Any changes in law will come too late to affect their cases.
Anthony Copeland, now 32, is due in court July 9.
On that day, it will have been 2,985 days since his arrest.