Christopher Vaughn sentencing delayed as judge considers motion for new trial
BY JON SEIDEL, JANET LUNDQUIST AND DAN ROZEK Staff Reporters November 26, 2012 1:16PM
Updated: December 28, 2012 6:09AM
Drew Peterson’s lawyers have already taken the heat for losing their client’s own murder trial this summer.
Now Christopher Vaughn’s attorney claims their over-the-top behavior — donning sunglasses and mugging daily for TV cameras while making jokes about the murder charges against their client — helped taint the trial next door of the Oswego man convicted of the shooting deaths of his 34-year-old wife Kimberly and their three children in June 2007.
George Lenard, Vaughn’s defense counsel, made the novel argument while arguing for a new trial Monday on what was meant to be Vaughn’s sentencing day. Because Vaughn, 38, faces no less than life in prison, and Illinois has no death penalty, the request for a new trial is Lenard’s best hope for his client.
Will County Judge Daniel Rozak said he’d consider the request overnight, meaning family members and numerous witnesses who appeared in the courtroom must return Tuesday if they want to see the five-year-old case through to its conclusion.
Vaughn, who was clean-shaven and wore a suit throughout his trial, appeared in court Monday with a goatee and his hair buzzed short.
Outside the courtroom, his attorney said the comments and actions by Peterson’s attorneys could have left Vaughn’s jury distrustful of all defense attorneys.
“It didn’t help,” said Lenard, who himself is a former member of Peterson’s defense team.
There’s been a strange connection between the Vaughn and Peterson trials ever since they were scheduled earlier this year to begin three weeks apart. Testimony in the trials overlapped this summer in courtrooms directly neighboring each other. They also involved a few of the same witnesses, and for a time the men shared the same sentencing date — Monday. Peterson’s sentencing hearing was delayed.
Lenard said Monday he never could have predicted the effects the Peterson trial could have on the Vaughn jury. He pointed to a question-and-answer session Peterson’s lawyers held with reporters in which they cracked jokes about the disappearance of Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy Peterson.
“That gave criminal defense attorneys, all of us, a black eye,” said Lenard, who described the actions by Peterson’s media-hungry defense team as a “show.”
Former Peterson attorney Joel Brodsky described the claims raised by Lenard as “just bizarre.”
“When you don’t have a good argument, you make a bad one,” Brodsky said, adding jokingly: “I guess if it rains tomorrow, it’s my fault.”
Peterson defense lawyer Joseph Lopez compared it to other famous defense strategies of the past.
“Now you’ve got the guy playing the Peterson card,” Lopez said.
But Lenard’s bid for a new trial isn’t tied entirely to the Peterson trial. He also said a man who went on to become the jury foreman in Vaughn’s trial — attorney Dan Lachat — was indoctrinated during jury selection by a prosecutor who asked pointed questions about Lachat’s children, what he’d do to protect them and whether he’s familiar with guns.
Lachat was in Rozak’s courtroom Monday, which Lenard called “unusual,” but Lachat declined to speak to reporters.
Lenard also complained at length about the passionate closing argument made by Assistant State’s Attorney Chris Regis at the end of Vaughn’s trial. Lenard said he took issue when Regis used words like “ridiculous,” “offensive,” “shameful” and “embarrassing,” to describe Lenard’s own closing argument.
He also brought up a photo Regis took with jurors after the trial at a nearby bar in Joliet.
“I did not realize I am that stupid until I listened to Mr. Regis’ rebuttal argument,” Lenard said.
Finally, Lenard said the jury’s verdict was suspect because it was reached in less than an hour after a five-week trial that featured more than 80 witnesses and more than 700 pieces of evidence.
“That tells me that there’s something that went terribly wrong in the trial,” Lenard said.
Assistant state’s attorney Michael Fitzgerald told the judge Lenard has simply connected the dots between what the defense attorney failed to do — failing to object during portions of Regis’ closing argument and the selection of Lachat for the jury, and failing to ask for a continuance after Peterson’s trial was scheduled to begin so close to Vaughn’s.
“It’s unbelievable that the Drew Peterson case would find itself in the Christopher Vaughn case,” Fitzgerald said.
Lenard later dismissed claims by prosecutors that the jury convicted Vaughn in less than an hour because the evidence against him was so strong.
“I don’t know exactly what it is they were thinking, but 45 minutes, not asking for any exhibits, not wanting to hear any testimony, that’s extremely rare,” Lenard said. “I’ve never had that situation before.”
Unless the judge rules in Vaughn’s favor Tuesday, members of Kimberly Vaughn’s family are expected to testify during the sentencing hearing about the pain of losing her and the children in a cold, calculated murder seemingly motivated by Vaughn’s desire to go live in isolation in the Canadian wilderness.
Police found the bodies of Kimberly Vaughn, 12-year-old Abigayle, 11-year-old Cassandra and 8-year-old Blake in the family SUV on June 14, 2007. It was parked in a gravel drive off a frontage road west of Interstate 55. Christopher Vaughn was shot as well in his left wrist and thigh, and he eventually told police his wife shot him before she murdered the children and killed herself.
But prosecutors convinced the jury it was Vaughn who pulled off the expressway, got out of the car, shot his wife under her chin and then reached over her body to fire two bullets at close-range through each of his children.