John Rekowski likes to win.
When the veteran Madison County public defender fights — either in the courtroom or in the boxing ring — there’s nothing else on his mind. If he’s distracted, he’s going to take a hit.
The boxing appeals to his competitive sense, and it helps him clear his mind after a hard day. He usually juggles multiple balls at once — cases, state legislation he’s working on and maybe an angry prosecutor every so often — and needs a chance to de-stress.
The boxing requires him to focus on only one thing, which he says is "mind-purifying." Plus, he says, "Hitting something, sometimes, is a great stress-reliever."
Rekowski says his No. 1 client is, essentially, the U.S. Constitution, and it's his duty to protect defendants' constitutional rights.
"I've met some pretty bad people in the course of my 30-some-odd years here in the office," he said. "But I've yet to meet a criminal that scares me as much as my government."
He said he wants to fight for the little guy who may have not been dealt any cards in life. Never making snap judgments on his clients, Rekowski said he only knows if someone is guilty or innocent when the jury returns with their verdict. He and 13 others in his office represent about 80 percent of the county's felony cases — about 3,000 per year.
The case that always sticks out in his mind is Dustin Pennington’s. Just 16 at the time, Pennington had been accused of stabbing an East Alton motel clerk to death. He was tried as an adult and faced life in prison.
Rekowski knew he didn’t do it. Even police had doubts about the confession given by Pennington, he said.
The jury came back with the verdict, and the courtroom erupted. Pennington had been acquitted on all counts. The jury asked to speak with Rekowski and the other defense lawyer. Rekowski walked into the jury room nervously. He didn’t know what to expect.
But one of the female jurors ran up to him and hugged him so hard she knocked his coffee over his shoulder.
“That was one of the best moments of my life,” Rekowski said. “I gave that kid back a life. He’s never been in trouble since that day.”
But as the public defender, of course, Rekowski also represents clients who aren't as wholesome.
"Some of them I would not have home for dinner, but at the same time, it's been interesting to get to know them and to get inside their heads," he said.
He noted the case of Glennon Engleman, a dentist who moonlighted as a contract-killer.
"People of that nature, they're fascinating," he said. "I deal with some some very nice people who do some dumb stuff and get in trouble. I deal with some very bad people who do some very terrible stuff. The one thing I can say about the job is, it's never dull."
Shortly after he finished law school, Rekowski joined the public defender's office. There, he was in his element. He dealt with real people, solving real problems, and “in many ways, keeping the government at bay.”
He's been the chief public defender since 1984. In addition, he’s spent the past 15 years helping to write and lobbying for or against legislation in Springfield, hoping to protect the rights of the accused.
“I like to think that when the time comes, we’re going to leave this place a little bit better off for our kids than where it is right now,” Rekowski said.
Rekowski has lobbied for e-stop cards that track how many minority motorists are stopped by police, for state reimbursement of public defenders' salaries, for lowering court fees and assessments for lower-income people. This past year, he spent a chunk of time reworking forfeiture laws in the state.
Along the way in his career, he's made some enemies. Namely, former Madison County State's Attorney Don Weber, who, in a recent interview, called Rekowski a "dogmatic, knee-jerk, left-wing ACLU-type liberal who is philosophically deposed against law and order and justice."
The feeling is mutual, Rekowski said. His relationships with prosecutors vary, but he and Weber were at "war" when Weber was state's attorney, Rekowski said.
"We did not view the justice system the same," Rekowski said. "It was a very public war, everyone knew we hated each other. I've never been so happy to see someone gone in my entire life."
Weber said Rekowski is probably the least-feared defense attorney a prosecutor could face.
But that opinion isn't shared by other prosecutors, said former Assistant State's Attorney Susan Jensen, who often squared off against Rekowski in the courtroom. She'd always seen Rekowski as a professional, who does everything he can for his client but is never overly theatrical. He doesn't try to pull a fast one on prosecutors, and he keeps the trial fair, she said. And he is highly respected by judges, according to Jensen.
After a burglary case ending in an acquittal that kept the jury deliberating until 2 a.m. after a two-day trial, the victim approached Rekowski, asking him how he could sleep at night.
Rekowski told him that, if his client was acquitted, it means he did his job right. It wasn’t he who had screwed up; it was the prosecutor, the police or the judge.
“If everybody plays by the rules and they gather all the evidence, I’ve got very little to do. If cops don’t lie, I’ve got nothing to do,” Rekowski said. “This isn’t Russia where I have to prove my client’s innocence.”
He genuinely likes most of his clients, he said. Many of them aren’t dealt any cards in life. Rekowski recalled the case of a 15-year-old from Venice he represented in juvenile court. The boy didn’t know where St. Louis was. His entire world was the small, 1.8-square mile town he had been born in.
“That kid was destined to be a public defender client from the moment he came out of the womb,” Rekowski said. “Lousy school system, no support, no parents. How can you not feel sorry for that person? Even if he does something terrible, there’s that back story.”
Rekowski is passionate and opinionated, always ready to defend what he believes in. He feels lucky that he, unlike so many of his clients, was dealt the cards to make a good life for himself.
“If I can keep a felony off some guy’s record so that when he does get his life on track, he’s employable, it’s not a bad day,” Rekowski said.