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They took the kids to Clinton Lake often. The young children enjoyed the playground and played along the edges of the lake.

The last trip was Sept. 2, 2003.

When it was time to go home, the three children, their mom and her boyfriend got into the car parked on the boat ramp, aimed toward the water.

The boyfriend said he put the car in reverse to pull away from the lake. The car went into the water.

The mom and boyfriend escaped.

The three children in the back seat did not.

On Tuesday, the former boyfriend's murder trial begins at the McLean County Law and Justice Center.

The question of whether Maurice LaGrone Jr. drowned Amanda Hamm's three children may hinge on the following questions

w Could the car slip into the lake when it's in reverse?

w How long did it take the car to sink?

w How long were the children in the water before emergency personnel pulled them out?

The defense says it was an accident and Hamm called rescuers almost immediately.

The prosecution says LaGrone and Hamm plotted to kill the children, who were getting in the way and waited awhile to call for help.

Hamm, who also faces nine counts of first-degree murder, does not have a court date.

"These were three young children who were as innocent as can be, and it's our job to do justice for them," said Ed Parkinson, special prosecutor.

LaGrone attorney Jeff Justice said, "We feel confident we have covered every possible thing, and now it's a question of orchestrating the presentation of evidence and witnesses so the jury understands it."

Justice said the jury will hear LaGrone's explanation of what happened when he takes the stand as the first witness for the defense. The jury also will see a videotape of a statement made by LaGrone to police at the boat ramp.n; The interview was one of five statements LaGrone made to police, said Justice.

Police and prosecutors maintain LaGrone's statement is false.

"We believe his statement is accurate," said Justice.

Family members of the children have expressed relief the case finally is scheduled to begin.

The fathers of Christopher Hamm, 6, and Austin Brown, 3, attend most court proceedings along with one of the grandmothers of Kyleigh Hamm, 23 months. Hamm's mother also monitors court hearings.

The trial's start ends about two years of pre-trial process

Prosecutors said in early 2004 they would not seek the death penalty, but changed their minds a few months later, saying stunning new evidence changed their minds.

The trial moved from DeWitt County to Champaign County and finally to McLean County because the defense felt LaGrone could not get a fair trial in DeWitt County. DeWitt County Judge Stephen Peters will preside.

Peters ruled last year jurors will not be taken to Clinton Lake to view the scene.

Peters also decided some remarks reportedly made by the two boys about the relationship they and their mother had with LaGrone will not be heard by the jury.

Comments made by Christopher and Austin to a Clinton school staff member may be repeated in court.

The Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty also has questioned the role public funding may play in the LaGrone case, claiming officials sought the death penalty because they knew they would get financial help.

"Money has been at the center of the debate in this case," said a coalition report on Illinois death-penalty issues.

A state fund established to help cover the defense costs in capital murder cases will ease DeWitt County's financial burden significantly in the Hamm and LaGrone cases.

LaGrone, 30, and Hamm, 29, were arrested Dec. 9, 2003, three months after the deaths.

The two boys were pronounced dead at a Clinton hospital. The toddler was transported to a Peoria hospital where she died the following day.

Hamm was arrested in Bloomington where she had been living in a homeless shelter and LaGrone was taken into custody in St. Louis as he reported to work at a hotel.

Both defendants have been held in the DeWitt County jail since their arrest. They've been in the courtroom together for a handful of court proceedings where they were seated at separate defense tables.

Many elements of the case are known, but other details are known only to the two survivors.

According to police, LaGrone gave a statement about 90 minutes after rescuers arrived at the lake.

"He stated that he got back in the car - they were all in the car. He said he placed the car in reverse and it rolled forward into the water even after he applied the brakes," DeWitt County Sheriff Roger Massey said during a recent hearing.

Jurors chosen for the LaGrone case will hear extensive scientific and medical evidence from the prosecution and defense.

Both sides have hired automotive engineers to conduct a wide range of tests. The prosecution worked with Hamm's 1997 Olds Cutlass that was pulled out of the lake. The defense used a similar car.

The ability of the car's brakes to hold the vehicle on a slippery boat ramp will be explored.

The engineering dynamics of a car entering the water - how long it floats and how far it will travel into the water before sinking - also will be discussed by attorneys.

Physicians are expected to offer opinions on how long the children were in the water before help arrived. A Peoria doctor has offered an estimate of more than 30 minutes. Defense lawyers argue the time span was far shorter, perhaps as few as 10 minutes.

During their more than two years in jail, Hamm and LaGrone have each experienced family loss.

LaGrone's father, Maurice LaGrone Sr, 61, died last May. Hamm's step grandfather, James Richmond, with whom she was very close, died several months after her arrest.


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