James Linder's Story

Jobs for people with felonies are hard to come by, so when 36-year-old James Linder lost his job in June of 2014 at a local bakery in Lake County, Illinois, his employment opportunities felt especially bleak. James had recently been released from prison and was on a 60-day imposed house arrest. When his parole officer incorrectly wrote down James’ work schedule, he had to stay home until the error was corrected. Otherwise, he would have violated parole and been sent back to prison.

In the time it took for his parole officer to fix the mistake, the bakery had found someone else to replace him. “The bakery was going to get me on a different shift, but I didn’t have a ride to get there to the new shift,” James explained. “The bakery was forty-five minutes away, and I was stuck right there at home.” Without a job, James could not contribute financially to raising his thirteen-year-old son, Jakeice, or help his sister, Ebony, with her rent. Ebony had supported him while in prison and now she was letting him stay with her and her children. James felt hopeless after losing the bakery job: “When I got the job, I was excited. I was like I can get my son some stuff for his birthday coming up. When I lost it, I was real mad. It was a decent job, I mean at $12.75 per hour, it was a good job for having just got out of the penitentiary.”

James applied for more jobs but no one hired him or only hired him until his background check came through. “[He] would go fill out applications a week straight, a month straight sometimes. I would tell him don’t give up, just don’t give up,” his sister, Ebony, remembered. “He would get a job for a week, and then they’d fire him because his background came in. That happened three or four times. He [would get] very discouraged,” she explained. He needed money and turned to the only option he knew: selling small amounts of drugs. He did it infrequently but made enough to take his son for a haircut and help out his sister.

Cody Hillier and his girlfriend, Danielle Barzyk, had been in out-patient and in-patient treatment and had relapsed in August of 2014 shortly after completing in-patient treatment. They were using crack cocaine or heroin daily leading up to Danielle’s death on January 30, 2015. Cody testified that the day Danielle died, they drove to Lake County and he purchased three packets of heroin from James.

While Cody purchased the drugs, Danielle stayed in the car. She never met James. Cody testified that he asked for two halves, one for him and one for Danielle, and then a third packet just for himself. He split the three packets of heroin and put it in contact lens cases and then returned to the car. The State’s attorney argued the total weight was over a gram, but James’ attorney challenged this at trial, saying the total weight was less than a gram.

Cody and Danielle then drove to neighboring Deerfield, where Danielle had a job interview. While she was in the interview, Cody used “a bump” of the heroin. “A bump” of heroin is a tenth of a gram. Then she came back to the car and, while they were driving, she did “a bump” of it too. Cody drove her to his house, where they took another “bump,” and then he drove her back to her house in McHenry County. She stayed home for awhile where it’s assumed she did another “bump” by herself. Cody went back later to pick her up and they went to Chipotle and returned to watch a movie. Afterwards, they each did one last “bump” of heroin.

Danielle began having difficulty breathing and asked that Cody take her for help. When responders arrived, and asked Cody if his girlfriend had taken any drugs, he lied and told them she was having an asthma attack. Police did not administer naloxone. They attempted to give her rescue breaths but, in the end, she was transported to a hospital in Kane County where, again, she was not given her naloxone (presumably because they thought she was having an asthma attack as Cody had said), and was pronounced dead there.

The next day, working with the McHenry County Task Force, Cody arranged to purchase heroin in Lake County that evening. Cody allegedly bought more from James under police surveillance. A few blocks from the alleged sale, James was pulled over and arrested. He was taken to the police station in Lake County and questioned about Danielle Barzyk’s death. He was confused and told the police, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know any woman by that name. Besides I don’t sell drugs to women.”

From there, he was transferred to McHenry County and charged with drug-induced homicide. Instead of being prosecuted in Lake County, the county in which James allegedly sold the drugs, or in Kane County, the county where Danielle was pronounced dead, his case was prosecuted in McHenry County, the county where Danielle resided and ingested a portion of the heroin. For James, his incarceration at the county jail was the first time he had ever been to McHenry county, a predominantly white, farming county an hour away from where he grew up and lived with his sister. McHenry county’s population is 93.5% white and 1.6% black.

James’ lawyer sought to dismiss the drug-induced homicide charge based on the fact that the murder statute allows the State to proceed to trial where the murder takes place or where the person dies and the body is found. He argued that in James’ case, the alleged delivery of heroin took place in Lake County, the heroin ingestion in Cook County and McHenry County, and the victim’s death in Kane County, concluding that McHenry County was not the right jurisdiction. James’ lawyer emphasized that James’ actions began and ended in Lake County and, as such, Lake County was the only proper place of trial. The judge disagreed and refused to dismiss the case.

Awaiting trial, James sat in the McHenry county jail for over two years. When it came time for his lawyer and the State to select a jury, there were no black jurors available to serve. In a motion for new trial, James’ attorney, Henry Sudgen, sought to change the venue in James’ case due to the fact that out of all three counties he could have been prosecuted in, McHenry County “is the least likely of the three counties in which he would be able to get a jury of his peers.” The judge denied the motion and, at the end of the trial, the all white jury returned with a guilty verdict after approximately only two and a half hours of deliberation.

The drug-induced case was not James’ first contact with the criminal justice system. When he was 16-years-old, he was sentenced to 11 years for armed robbery and aggravated vehicular hijacking. Nobody was physically hurt, but it was the 90s and the height of the punitive responses to youth crime – particularly against black youth from marginalized communities. James was the running back for his high school freshman football team, and had never been in trouble until then. He was in learning disability classes, and when his classmates started skipping school, he did too. He started hanging out with a teenage crowd that was getting into trouble and ended up making a mistake with some other boys that he would never cease paying for.

He was sent to a juvenile facility plagued by chronic over-crowding. The violence inside was extreme – young people hitting, stabbing, and stealing from each other. He had to learn how to adjust and protect himself. When he was transferred from juvenile detention to adult prison, he recalls: “I was a young guy. I was scared to go from juvie to prison. I didn’t have hair on my face, not a lick of hair on my face. Everybody was calling me shorty.” James stayed in prison until he was released at 21-years-old.

He’d grown up in prison, and now returned to the world branded as a criminal and felon. He moved in with his parents, but lived under parole-imposed house arrest and wore a band on his leg. He applied to jobs, checking the box asking if he had ever been convicted of a felony. But no one called back. “Everybody looks at you all crazy, because you just got out of the penitentiary, and you’re 21-years-old,” James explained. “People see you as a criminal.” Eventually, he just stopped applying for jobs. Then one evening, while still on house arrest, he stayed over at his girlfriend’s house, violating his parole for not going home. He was sent back to prison for ten months. While in prison, his mother died. It was really hard for James, his sister, Ebony, recalled. “[Our] mom passed away in Memphis, Tennessee and [James] couldn’t come to her funeral, because it was too much money to ship him down. It was like $3,500, and [our] dad didn’t have the money. So he didn’t get to see [our] mom get buried.”

When James got out, he went back to live with his father until he met a girl and moved in with her. He looked for jobs again, but with each re-entry back into society, he found himself yet again without access to employment, housing, or public benefits. The challenges associated with mere survival on the outside led to more prison time: he was arrested and sent to prison for charges including fleeing a police officer, drug possession, and possession of a firearm.

James had been out almost a year before he was re-arrested and charged with drug-induced homicide. During that year, he insisted on spending as much time with his son, Jakeice, as possible. He used to go and get Jakeice after school every day. They would play video games and basketball and listen to music together. “With his dad back around, Jakeice was happy,” Jakeice’s mother said, “but when James went back to jail, it was like a dark spell over my son. He misses his dad a lot.” Now Jakeice is lost, says his mom, and getting in more trouble. Even though James calls Jakeice from prison, she says it’s still hard. “Every boy needs his father,” she explained.

When the State’s attorney offered James a plea deal for the drug-induced homicide charge, he turned it down. He felt strongly that his only crime was delivery. During his sentencing, James apologized to Danielle’s family, and acknowledged his participation in her death, but challenged the State’s position that he killed her. He told the judge, “I contributed to this young lady’s death [but] I didn’t kill her.” After his testimony concluded, the judge sentenced him to 28 years. She pointed to his criminal history, including his juvenile conviction from when he was 16, as justification for the nearly three decade long sentence she imposed. After listening to the judge refer back to his early criminal record, James told his lawyer,
“I was a juvenile back then; she can’t do that.”

James’ 28-year sentence is 55% greater than the greatest sentence in McHenry County since 2011 for the same charge. Out of the eleven drug-induced homicide cases in McHenry County, there have only been four that actually went forward as drug-induced homicide. One of those was dismissed by the State, and the other three include sentences of eight years, ten years, and six years. All the other charges, other than one that was not guilty by a bench trial, were amended to lesser charges.

Meanwhile, Danielle’s boyfriend, Cody, who had purchased the drugs for her, and then lied to medical responders when there was a chance her life could have been saved with naloxone had he told them she ingested heroin, was charged with delivery, not drug-induced homicide. Cody testified for the State in James’ trial and received probation and time-served. From prison, James explained, “If you’re black and coming to McHenry County, you’re screwed. The county gives probation to white boys with class x felonies and sends black guys with the same class x felony to the joint.”

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