Murder trial tainted by media spectacle next door?
JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — An Illinois man convicted of killing his wife and three children is asking for a new trial, but not solely because of anything that happened in his courtroom — he’s blaming the high-profile trial next door.
Christopher Vaughn was convicted of fatally shooting his family so he could start a new life in the Canadian wilderness. His September trial overlapped with the trial of Drew Peterson, the former suburban Chicago police officer convicted of killing his third wife and whose case had been made into a TV movie.
Vaughn’s attorney, George Lenard, argues that part of the reason his client didn’t get a fair trial was because the press conferences held by Peterson’s lawyers outside the courthouse damaged his own credibility as a defense attorney.
The judge considering that unusual argument, Will County Judge Daniel Rozak, said he would announce his decision Tuesday.
Lenard told the judge Monday that Peterson’s attorneys made comments that were so detrimental to the reputation of court that they hurt his credibility with jurors in Vaughn’s trial.
He noted that at one press conference, Peterson’s lawyers jokingly said, “Stacy who?” when asked what effect Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, who vanished in 2007, might have on Peterson’s trial in the 2004 death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio.
“That gave defense attorneys, all of us, a black eye,” Lenard told the judge during a hearing Monday. “Nobody ever said to me that made defense attorneys look good.”
Prosecutors scoffed at Leonard’s argument, saying jurors made the right decision based on “overwhelming” evidence against Vaughn. Assistant State’s Attorney Mike Fitzgerald noted that if Lenard was so concerned about the media spectacle surrounding Peterson’s trial, he could have asked for a delay to Vaughn’s trial, but he did not.
Vaughn was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder — charges that carry a mandatory life sentence — after a 5 1/2 week trial for the 2007 deaths of his wife, 12-year-old daughter, 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.
Investigators said Vaughn surprised his family with news that he was taking them to a water park the morning of June 14, 2007, but pulled off the road soon after starting the trip. Prosecutors allege he first shot his wife, then twice shot each of his children — who were buckled in the back seat — and then shot himself in the leg and wrist to make it seem like his wife was the shooter.
Prosecutors said the slayings were part of Vaughn’s plan to start a new life in the Canadian wilderness.
On Monday, Lenard also argued that jurors’ own comments after convicting Vaughn made it clear that they considered factors they should not have, including Vaughn’s apparent lack of emotion during the trial. Lenard said that was improper because Vaughn didn’t testify.
He also said prosecutors unfairly attacked his integrity by describing his arguments as “silly,” ”ludicrous” and “shameful.”
The defense attorney also noted that jurors deliberated less than an hour before returning their verdict, despite the testimony of more than 80 witnesses and more than 700 exhibits. And some jurors said they didn’t even consider Lenard’s argument that Vaughn’s wife may have shot her three children and her husband before turning the gun on herself.
Fitzgerald said the quick verdict could be explained by the strong evidence, including blood evidence, against Vaughn.
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