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Joliet woman found not guilty in ‘party game’ death

Tiffany Startz (center) accompanied by her mother Teres(left) an unidentified woman leave  Will County Court House Joliet Illinois Wednesday

Tiffany Startz (center) accompanied by her mother Teresa (left) and an unidentified woman leave the Will County Court House in Joliet, Illinois, Wednesday, October, 12, 2011. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 23, 2012 2:55AM

John Powell lost his life. A mother lost her son.

And though Tiffany Startz won’t be convicted for throwing the “party game” punch that killed him, she and her family betrayed no feelings of victory as they left the Will County courthouse Wednesday.

“Nobody wins here,” said Startz’s mother, Theresa Startz.

Instead, the 22-year-old Startz sat quietly in the back seat of her parents’ car as her father, Tim Startz, offered condolences to Powell’s family for the “horrible, tragic incident that we feel horrible about.”

Then they drove away from the cries of Powell’s mother, who told reporters her worst nightmare had come true.

“She got away with murder,” Theresa Guy of Romeoville said of Startz.

The scene unfolded shortly after Judge Edward Burmila found Startz not guilty of reckless conduct and battery, granting a motion for a directed verdict from attorneys who argued prosecutors didn’t prove Startz’s guilt last week.

Startz went on trial for a punch she threw at a Crest Hill garage party in September 2010 to celebrate the life of a friend who recently committed suicide. Powell, a 25-year-old rapper from Romeoville, performed in the basement of the house in the 2500 block of Waterford Drive. Then, as people gathered in the garage, he took a bet from the now 28-year-old Jimmy Mounts, who promised $5 to anyone willing to take a hit from Startz.

During the trial, Burmila watched a cell phone video of Powell holding his arms behind his back and leaning toward Startz.

“Get this s*** on YouTube!” a man declares at the start of the video as a rowdy crowd forms a circle.

Ira Goldstein, Startz’s attorney, said she took off a ring before she threw the closed-fisted, right-handed punch that sent Powell backward several steps.

“I punched him and he just kind of stepped back and said, ‘Wow, nice job,’” Startz said to police during a videotaped interview shown during her trial.

Moments later, though, Powell collapsed to the ground. An ambulance was called and he was taken to the emergency room at Provena Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, where he was pronounced dead.

Will County Coroner Patrick O’Neil at the time said a vein in Powell’s neck opened when his head snapped back, causing a brain injury. O’Neil eventually ruled the death a homicide, and Powell’s death certificate notes it was “the result of a party game.”

Police sought criminal charges against Startz and Mounts about three months after Powell’s death. Mounts avoided trial by pleading guilty last week to lying to police about what happened. He initially told officers Powell tripped and fell.

Goldstein argued his client committed no crime because she had Powell’s permission to punch him.

“Miss Startz had no idea what was going to be in store for her,” Goldstein told the judge.

Handing down his ruling, Burmila said Startz acted negligently when she hit Powell, but he said negligence does not equal recklessness. He rejected prosecutors’ arguments that consent is not a defense to battery in Illinois, as well.

He also made clear he didn’t want to diminish the significance of Powell’s death.

“Having lost a child myself, I know personally the pain,” Burmila said.

Still, the ruling sent Guy rushing out of the courtroom to collapse against a wall near the elevators. She said she’ll pursue a “John’s Law” so similar acts may be prosecuted for murder, and she said she’ll file a civil lawsuit. She has repeatedly said she wanted Startz to go to jail.

“I just want to know how she got away with it,” Guy said.

Chuck Pelkie, a spokesman for the Will County state’s attorney’s office, said the criminal case won’t be appealed. He said it wasn’t one prosecutors took lightly, though, and he said people need to know there will be consequences for irresponsible behavior.

“Unfortunately in this case there are no consequences right now,” Pelkie said.

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