Jon Brayman, Criminal Defense Scion Forging His Own Path
by Dustin J. Seibert
This article originally appeared in Emerging Lawyers Magazine for 2016 and has been reprinted with permission. © 2016 Law Bulletin Publishing Co.
Hanging in Jonathan M. Brayman’s office at Breen & Pugh is a painted courtroom sketch from the Pontiac murder trial, a case stemming from the 1978 prison riots at Pontiac Correctional Center in Pontiac, Illinois, and the largest death penalty case in U.S. history at the time.
The depiction includes Brayman’s father, Paul, who was one of the defense attorneys. The painting was completed in 1981, three years before the birth of the younger Brayman. “We just moved suites from the 14th to the 12th fl oor a few months ago,” Brayman says. “I found the sketch sitting in my father’s storage, so I framed it for the new offi ce.” Jon made partner in April after fi ve years with the fi rm, while Paul is trying to wind down a career in which he became so wellknown and respected as a trial attorney that his son is sometimes accidentally referred to as him.
Brayman works on cases with his father. Jon still runs his opening statements, theories of his cases and closing arguments by him. Though Jon looks to carry on his father’s sterling reputation, he knew he never wanted to jump in and practice law with his father immediately. “For some lawyers, there’s a natural tendency to go practice with a lawyer you have admiration for and is working in the area you’re interested in,” Brayman says.
“But I fi gured (practicing with my father) was an easy way to go about my practice. I wanted to develop my experience and reputation on my own.”
Paul Brayman says he’s pleased his son made the decision to strike out on his own, adding that the connections Jon has made have been invaluable to his career. “It was the best move for him to get experience on his own and really not feel that I was sheltering or pushing him in any direction,” he says. “Jon has developed into a really talented attorney. He’s gotten plenty of referrals from public defenders and other lawyers for cases, so people know that he does a great job.”
While Jon works in trial courtrooms every day, he has established himself as an appellate attorney as well, helping to create favorable precedent for criminal defendants and winning new trials for numerous clients.
Brayman’s senior partner, Thomas Breen, says Brayman’s close relationship with his father put him in a unique position to observe complicated and high-profile cases before he ever went to law school.
“He seems to be willing to tackle and work his way through just about anything,” Breen says.
“I’ve seen him do things in cases that you can’t teach. Because of his dad, he has a great idea of what social and legal justice should look like, and he’s more than willing to use his talents to fi ght for that.”
The firm’s other name partner, Todd Pugh, says Brayman relies on far more than his instincts and his father’s guidance.
“Jon is a workhorse,” he says. “Like every great trial lawyer I have known, he puts fastidious preparation ahead of all else.”
A Path of Uncertainty
Despite his father’s infl uence, becoming a lawyer was not a given for the younger Brayman. The New Trier High School graduate received a sociology degree with a focus in criminology from the University of Colorado-Boulder. He knew he wanted to do graduate work, just not to what end.
“I bounced around several potential careers, but I always thought I’d go to law school because it would be a valuable education and credential for whatever I wanted to do,” he says.
Brayman says one of the advantages of attending the University of Iowa College of Law was its proximity to Chicago, where he worked during his law school summers and was able to watch cases in federal courts. That
experience pushed him toward using his law degree to become a practicing attorney.
When he graduated, Brayman moved back to Chicago and passed the bar exam. He got his fi rst law job working with civil rights attorney Thomas Peters, where he hit the ground running, doing trial and appellate work. Brayman helped litigate and settle multimillion dollar civil rights class actions against the City of Chicago and was successful in pushing the Illinois legislature to reform its laws for “innocent owners” of vehicles in civil forfeiture cases.
While there, Brayman started working with Thomas Breen of Breen & Pugh, whom he’d met years earlier while clerking for several lawyers in the Monadnock Building. Brayman was in the Chicago federal courtroom when Breen was a defense lawyer during the 2007 “Family Secrets” mob trial.
“Tom was just the most phenomenal trial lawyer,” Brayman says. “The way he was able to cross-examine and pick apart the government’s main witnesses was incredible to me. It made me want to develop into a trial attorney who’s half as strong as he is.”
Breen and his partner, Todd Pugh, were interested in hiring Brayman, but Peters was ill with cancer. Brayman agreed in April 2011 to work full-time with Breen & Pugh with the understanding that he would be able to do whatever he needed to in order to assist Peters during a tremendously diffi cult and emotional time.
“Tom Peters was such an incredibly kind and gifted man. I was going to do whatever I needed to do to make sure he was able to fi nish his cases.” Peters passed away in July 2011 at the age of 63.
The Civil Rights Bug
Brayman’s career dedication to civil rights was borne from learning about and following police misconduct cases in law school, as well as being in the midst of the gay rights movement and litigation that occurred
during his law school years in Iowa.
While there, he worked with Lambda Legal and One Iowa, both LGBTQ education and advocacy groups. During his third year of law school, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously held that marriage equality was a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution. Brayman received the Ramza-Fester “Rainbow Rights” Scholarship for his work with Lambda Legal.
Brayman split the summer between his second and third year of law school working for federal judges in New Orleans and Chicago, spending his days watching trials and sentencings, and completing his actual work in the wee hours of the morning. During this time, Brayman met Julian Murray, a defense attorney and the former fi rst assistant U.S. Attorney for thenEastern District of Louisiana. Brayman later assisted him in helping to win a new trial for a man sentenced to death by a federal jury in New Orleans.
“Part of being a trial lawyer and advocate is adopting what you find compelling in the way that lawyers present their cases inbcourt,” he says. “There are often fascinating stories in the civil rights cases, and it was something different from criminal defense, which was kind of expected of me because of my father.”
Brayman currently serves on Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Justice Council, the junior advisory board for the law school’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.
The Point of It All
Brayman’s devotion to fairness and balance became apparent in his dedication to Patrick Hampton. The 52-year-old client was wrongly imprisoned for 20 years for a December 1981 gang attack of three concertgoers at a Zapp & Roger concert at the Chicago Amphitheater.
A federal judge granted Hampton a new trial in 2001, ruling that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel because of his lawyer’s failure to investigate alibi witnesses Hampton provided. Breen & Pugh represented Hampton pro bono on remand for his retrial when it was discovered that he was identifi ed by one of the victims in the case due to manipulation by police detectives. He was ultimately exonerated in October 2011.
Brayman says he and his team are seeking compensation for Hampton that will allow him to live comfortably for the rest of his life. As the case continues, Brayman often meets Hampton for a bite to eat before walking him to his downtown job.
“He’s a really incredible and inspiring guy,” Brayman says of Hampton. When asked why Hampton’s case is so important to him, Brayman responds, “It shows the importance of lawyers in the system. When you have a client who’s telling you the truth, you need to hear him out, investigate what he is telling you, and what you do from that point on can make a meaningful difference in that client’s life.”
Christopher Smith of Christopher Smith Trial Group works with Breen & Pugh on the Hampton case. He says Brayman has a level of empathy that isn’t often apparent in defense lawyers.
“You meet lawyers who care but don’t have the skills, and you meet some with skills who don’t necessarily care. He has both,” Smith says. “He’s young and energetic and wants to be one of the best. He’ll volunteer
to work with good attorneys just to show them what he’s got and to pick up a little of what they do.”
Will Change Come?
Brayman has already had the taste of high-profi le cases in his career, having represented championship boxer and Guadalajara, Mexico, native Saul “Canelo” Alvarez in a battery case in Los Angeles last year. He also represented Richard J. Vanecko, Mayor Daley’s nephew, in his 2013 manslaughter case. But Brayman
remains at home at the Criminal Courts Building on 26th Street and California Avenue, where he says he witnesses a lot of justice — and injustice — nearly every day.
“I like to think that lawyers and judges try to do the very best they can, but there needs to be more common ground in the system because there’s too often a lack of empathy,” he says. Brayman recalls experiencing a bit of that empathy recently. He found out that the 21-year-old son of a client awaiting a gun charge was murdered. Their team needed to work with the judge, the family, and the prosecutor to break the news to the client in a dignifi ed manner.
“It was not appropriate for his lawyers to tell him in the lockup while surrounded by others, or for his lawyer to tell him at all,” he says.
The client’s sister broke the news in the jury room, which Brayman says led to an understandably emotional scene. That the deputy sergeant consoled the man, considering the stereotypically hostile relationship between a guard and a detainee, drove Brayman to his own emotions. “It was moving to me because a lot of times there is a certain tension between sheriff’s deputies and detainees, and this kind of empathy was something I’d never seen before,” he says.
“It was a volatile situation the way our client reacted, and the deputies didn’t respond in the way that they could have, where you see things escalate because of the uncertainty. It was an example of the kindness and grace that you absolutely need in the face of such senseless violence.”