Gino Betts’ partiality to the prose of Langston Hughes almost matches his unwavering commitment to the just execution of the law.
In November, Betts, an Austin native, was named an assistant state’s attorney with the Cook County State’s Attorney Division of Criminal Appeals and has officially begun fulfilling what he described as a lifelong goal – a career in the legal field.
“He told me when he was 12 that he wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice. … He had creative ideas in his head from early on,” said Gino Betts Sr., his father.
Betts works alongside some 70 other attorneys within the division, scrutinizing criminal cases that have either been appealed by those convicted or that have verdicts the attorneys disagree with.
“This is a great training program because there are all types of cases. … It’s multifaceted … and Gino is really learning the breadth of the law,” said Mary Boland, Betts’ briefing supervisor.
“You have a lot of things at stake here. … You’ve got families that depend on you,” said Betts, in reference to the families and fates of those who are potentially falsely convicted.
He referenced the feeling of intimidation regarding the law that he sensed within the Austin community as one of his primary reasons for pursuing his position with the Cook County State’s Attorney.
“What was impressed on me when I was younger was fear; a lot of people were scared,” Betts said. “If I [can] be of service to alleviate that fear and stress and try to enforce justice and the law of Illinois, I [will].”
“I think Gino is going to make a fine trial lawyer,” Boland added.
His story resembles Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son,” in which a mother attempts to impress upon her child the importance of perseverance, informing him that her life has been no “crystal stair” in an effort to inspire the same relentless pursuit in him.
Like the boy in the poem, Betts has enjoyed a strong matriarchal presence throughout much of his life, in both his grandmother and his mother.
Although he was academically gifted (subsequently placed at Whitney Young Magnet High School), he recalls when he was in danger of not graduating, at which point his mother stepped in and provided the tough wisdom present in the Hughes poem: “So, boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps … I’se still climbin’, And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”
“The counselor called me up and she wanted me to meet her. … She wanted Gino to attend an alternative school because he was doing so poorly,” said Annette Crawford, Gino’s mother.
“I said, ‘No, my son took a test to get in here and he is going to graduate.'”
Betts was allowed to remain at Young on the condition that his academic performance improved, which it did.
He graduated and fervently pursued his higher education, to say the least. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northern Illinois University in 2006, Betts participated in a study abroad program through Howard University School of Law, located in Washington D.C., that took him to South Africa. At Southern Illinois University School of Law in 2009, he earned his law degree. In October he passed the Illinois Bar exam and is now a licensed attorney.
Betts says his social experiences in Capetown, South Africa – where he studied constitutional comparative law under South African Justice Albie Sachs, a framer of the post-Apartheid constitution and a former freedom fighter, as well as courses in business law and alternative dispute resolutions – strongly influenced his view of people in general.
“I was able to abandon preconceived notions of what I thought Africa may have been like … when I was able to meet and talk with my peers across the ocean,” Betts said. “People are people no matter where you go. Humanity is humanity.”