My last Chicago jury trial was a murder case. I briefly mentioned this case not too long ago in a different blog post. The trial ended in a guilty verdict, but it was actually a win for the defense. How?
The man who would become my client was about thirty-years-old. He had a series of intimate encounters with a certain young woman who was the frequent lover of another woman. Read that again. The other woman turned out to be insanely jealous and was at the time living somewhere in Iowa. From there she made several threats via phone, text and social media to the man who had slept with her ‘girlfriend.’
A month or so passed and the jealous woman returned to Chicago. Soon after, she saw the man who became my client at a convenient store. She walked up to him and punched him right in the face. Then a melee erupted with fists and feet flying everywhere. This fight was captured on camera and was played for the jury at trial. I realize there might be some Jerry Springer type comedy at this point, but there was nothing at all humorous about what happened next.
The jealous woman who started the fight was the biggest woman I’ve ever seen. My client was at least six-two and she easily had four inches on him and about 100 pounds. And she looked like a man. There was nothing at all feminine about her. She looked like she could play right tackle for the Chicago Bears. She was massive.
That store fight was quickly broken up. Then a few days later on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the big woman was driving around with her brother looking for the man she had just fought. She wasn’t finished with him. Her brother was also big but not quite as big. My soon-to-be client was then living in Altgeld Gardens, a south side housing project. He happened to be outside waxing his car when he was seen by the big woman who pointed him out to her brother.
The brother jumps out of the car, runs at the man waxing his car and begins beating on him. Meanwhile the sister has a long knife and is trying to cut the car’s tires. Some of this fight was caught on security cameras. Long story short: the brother got the best of the other guy, though no one was really hurt or even bleeding. But the brother said, “I’m coming back, and I am going to have something for you.”
What do you think that meant?
The two attackers drove off and the other man went inside his house. About twenty minutes later, the other two return. The police are called at this point. The man inside the house is told by family to stay inside the house. That was really good advice. But the brother and sister start messing with the car (it was a nice car), and that could not be tolerated. She got in the car and started throwing CDs out of the window. And the brother started keying it. So, out of the house goes the car’s owner, but now he has a pistol with him. He believed this other man, the brother, also had one now.
What happens next was caught on video. The pistol is raised, and the brother starts walking quickly around the back of the car but doesn’t simply leave. Instead, he is shot in the side and is pronounced dead in the emergency room a short time thereafter.
The shooter panics and leaves the housing project. He takes refuge at his sister’s house. I am called the next day, Sunday. The sister tells me the police are looking for her brother because he shot a man that died. I asked, “Did he do it?” She says, “Yes. He shot him but they were fighting before it happened. Here, you talk to him.”
She puts her brother on the phone. He was very upset, and I could tell he was crying. He told me what had happened and asked what he should do. The police were obviously looking for him. I advised him to turn himself in and that if they wanted to hire me, I would take him myself and make sure he wasn’t questioned.
They did hire me to represent him. I knew from day one this case was going to trial. I drove him to the police station (Area 2 HQ). I told the police he wasn’t to be questioned and left a business card.
At this point, keep in mind, I have not seen any videos. I don’t really understand how big this woman was who started all the problems. I didn’t know her brother was a frequent guest in the penitentiary. I did know my new client had no felony convictions and was scared he was going to prison for life.
Months later came the trial. It was clean and fair. The prosecutors were good. The judge was good. Everything happened pretty much as I had expected it to.
Naturally, I was trying this as a self-defense case. I won’t go into all the arguments I made to the jury; the main ones should be pretty obvious. In a self-defense case, perhaps the most relevant evidence is the state of mind of the defendant at the time of the incident.
So, I put my client on the witness stand and walked him through everything that happened. He was credible. He actually cried and expressed genuine remorse to the family of the man he had killed. He said he didn’t mean to kill him; he just wanted them to leave him and his car alone. It had all happened really fast and he thought that other man had brought a gun back with him (remember what he said we he left about coming back with something). I could tell the jury believed him. I think even the prosecutors believed him.
The judge at my request gave the jury an instruction on second degree murder, which is first degree murder but with special circumstances that lessen the defendant’s culpability. Example: husband comes home and finds his wife in bed with another man, gets his pistol and kills them both. In this example, a second-degree instruction is arguably appropriate because of the ‘heat of moment’ experienced when finding one’s spouse in bed with someone else.
There were three possible outcomes in my case: not guilty, guilty of first-degree murder or guilty of second-degree murder. After closing arguments, I thought we had a very good shot at getting a not guilty. My entire focus had been on getting a not guilty. Nothing surprising there.
A first-degree conviction would have equaled about 65 years in prison—essentially a life sentence. The jury came back. Guilty of second-degree murder. This meant that the jury agreed that my client believed he was defending himself lawfully, but...his use of deadly force was unreasonable under the totality of the circumstances.
I am sitting there thinking about my motion for a new trial that I have to immediately start working on. The prosecutors walk over to congratulate me. “Good job. You saved his life.”
Ah! Second degree murder is a class one felony with a max of fifteen years served at 50%, and my client has about one year in county…so the most he’ll do is six and a half. I’m driving home thinking about this. Then I realized filing a motion for a new trial is a really bad idea, because if it’s granted, he gets retried and could be convicted of first degree murder the second time around.
So, yeah, it really was a win. I was just so hyper focused on getting him acquitted on all charges that at the time a conviction of any kind was bad. A few days later, I got a letter from the client telling me he doesn’t want to try to get a new trial. So, we were in complete agreement.
But let’s pull back the zoom a little and examine exactly what happened. A man ended up dead and another in prison because of a woman’s jealousy and her propensity to violence.