A JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH & IRISH AMERICAN AFFAIRS
Spring 2020 / VOL. 20 ISSUE 2
Ex-Prosecutor McCarthy Reflects
on Busy Career
By: George Houde
The Irish American Post Chicago Bureau
That Irish lullaby was one of the many reminisces McCarthy had on her mind following retirement as a prosecutor in dozens of major crime cases.
That eventually would be it, too, for a long list of defendants who met McCarthy face-to-face in Cook County criminal court. Street gang members, drunken relatives, jealous husbands, betrayed wives, and serial killers have been sent away in part because McCarthy took Capote’s famous book about murder and justice to heart.
“I always read true crime books when I was growing up,” McCarthy said. “My mother always wanted to know where she went wrong.”
After decades of prosecuting criminals of all sorts and comforting victims or their grieving survivors, McCarthy said she had enough and retired Sept. 30.
“It’s a great loss for the state’s attorney’s office,” Cook County Judge Stanley Sacks said. “She’s a great trial lawyer. She is by far the best prosecutor I’ve ever had in my courtroom.”
As a young girl, her Irish father made sure she was up-and- at-em, but in a humorous way. It still reverberates with her.
“When I was in grade school, my dad would wake me up for school by standing at the foot of the bed and singing Tura Lura Lura at the top of his lungs. When I hear that song today it evokes fond memories and a little PTSD. He was the funniest person I have ever known.”
Since 2009, McCarthy has served as supervisor of the state’s attorney’s office at the county’s courthouse in Rolling Meadows, close to her home turf of Arlington Heights and Mount Prospect. Besides managing a group of prosecutors, investigators and staff, she continued prosecuting difficult cases.
The Donnie Rudd murder case was a recent one. He was convicted of staging a car accident decades ago to cover up the murder of his new bride and in 2018 received up to 150 years in prison.
Then there were the three life sentences for D’Andre Howard, the young man who sliced up his fiancé's family in their Hoffman Estates home, killing three.
And Matthew Nellesen, the young son who beat his father to death with a baseball bat, stabbed him in the neck and left his corpse in the basement for several days. He was sentenced to life without parole.
Now 56, McCarthy said she intends to take a year off to travel and then may become a defense attorney specializing in police misconduct cases.
She also said she will continue teaching classes to police and prosecutors. One of those is part of the certification process for homicide detectives in the Chicago Police Department.
McCarthy’s interest in justice led her from Prospect High School to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and then to Chicago-Kent College of Law. In her first job, she clerked for an insurance legal firm.
“Then I clerked for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office,” McCarthy said. “I loved it.”
She was sworn in as an assistant state’s attorney in 1989 and worked her way up through the ranks, serving as supervisor of the domestic violence unit and the homicide/sex unit.
It wasn’t easy. As a beginning assistant state’s attorney she lost her first two cases in the same day.
“I called my dad and said ‘Maybe I‘m not cut out to be a trial lawyer,’” she remembered. “He said, ‘Stick with it.’”
Defense attorneys who have lost cases to her concede McCarthy is tough but give her high marks as a fair-minded prosecutor.
Donna Rotunno, currently defending Harvey Weinstein against sexual misconduct charges, got to know McCarthy after the two dueled during a trial. Rotunno lost the case to McCarthy, but gained a friend.
Rotunno said McCarthy is “a prosecutor’s prosecutor who is not afraid to do the right thing.”
“Maria is just the utmost professional and a phenomenal human being,” Rotunno said by phone from New York. “She is one of the most fair and reasonable prosecutors I have had the pleasure of dealing with.”
Tim Grace, a former Cook County assistant state’s attorney turned defense lawyer, who faced McCarthy in the Donnie Rudd trial, said of her, “She is just a tenacious prosecutor, an unbelievable trial attorney and she is not somebody who is going to miss anything."
Besides murder, McCarthy said she has strong reactions to cases of elderly abuse and cruelty to animals. In one case, she adopted a French bulldog after its owner was convicted of aggravated cruelty to animals. She named him Art after the police officer who rescued him.
“When an animal abuse case comes in, all the assistant state’s attorneys know they have to treat it like a murder case,” she said.
McCarthy said her years as a prosecutor have been rewarding and taught her the importance of loving what you do.
“I tell anyone who wants to be a prosecutor that it’s the greatest job in the world,” McCarthy said. “It’s powerful to fight for people who in many cases have no one to fight for them and that’s what a prosecutor does.”
As a young girl, Maria McCarthy remembers waking up for school, helped by her Irish father.
“He would come into my bedroom singing Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral at the top of his lungs,” McCarthy recalled. “I’ll never forget it.”
Awakening to her father’s booming tenor may have inspired McCarthy to embrace the day, get to school and learn about life. This would lead her to read a book for a class assignment, one that would set her on a path that would take her to the busy halls of crime and punishment in Cook County, Illinois.
As a bright suburban middle school student when she discovered a book that would lead her to the busy halls of crime and punishment in Cook County.
“I read Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ and that was it,” McCarthy recalled. “I knew I wanted to be a prosecutor. I was 13.”