BLOOMINGTON — Maurice LaGrone Jr. sat emotionless next to his defense attorneys as an obviously distraught jury returned murder convictions against him Tuesday. A McLean County jury deliberated more than 23 hours over four days before convicting him of first-degree murder in the deaths of his former girlfriend's three children. Today the jury's focus will shift to deciding whether he can face the death penalty.
"The three little kids got justice today. It was a long trail to justice," special prosecutor Ed Parkinson told reporters.
LaGrone, 30, showed no emotion as the verdict was read about 6:30 p.m.
The seven women and five men on the jury were somber, and at least one juror wiped away tears as they were polled by DeWitt County Judge Stephen H. Peters.
One juror looked directly at LaGrone for several minutes ,then put his face in his hands and appeared distraught.
LaGrone's attorney, Jeff Justice, said the defense team was "overwhelmingly shocked" by the verdict.
"We will stand strong tomorrow and next week. We're hoping we will be able to make sure Maurice leaves this courthouse with his life," Justice said.
After the verdict, Parkinson shook hands with the fathers of the three children. Craig Brown, Austin Brown's father, pulled Parkinson close and said, "I want a hug."
LaGrone and former girlfriend Amanda Hamm each were charged with murdering her three children. Prosecutors argued the couple thought the children were in the way of their starting a new life together, but the defense argued it was an accident.
Christopher Hamm, 6, Austin Brown, 3, and Kyleigh Hamm, 23 months, were in the back seat of their mother's car on Sept. 2, 2003, when it went into Clinton Lake. LaGrone had been behind the wheel and their mother in the front seat.
Today, the murder case moves to its second phase, when jurors will determine if LaGrone is eligible for the death penalty. If they decide he is eligible, the case will move to the third phase, when jurors will determine if a death sentence will be handed down.
If they reject capital punishment, the judge will sentence LaGrone to prison. That phase could take a week.
LaGrone's attorneys told the judge they would ask for a continuance if the case moves to the third phase.
The Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in Illinois released a statement after the verdict.
"The Coalition has disagreed with the decision to make this a death-penalty case from the beginning. The track record of using jailhouse informants in capital cases has proven highly unreliable and has sent a lot of innocent people to death row," said Chuck Hutchcraft, state organizer for the coalition.
During about four weeks of testimony, jurors heard testimony from 37 prosecution witnesses and 28 defense witnesses.
Both sides agreed that the deaths of Hamm's three children made no sense. For the defense, the incident at the lake involved recklessness and stupidity; for the prosecution, it was a matter of intentional murder.
The prosecution showed jurors numerous large color photographs of the west-side boat ramp and the area surrounding it.
Jurors also saw a video of automotive tests performed by police showing how a driver could back up the boat ramp. LaGrone had claimed he could not get the car back up the ramp once it started rolling into the lake.
A tape recording of Hamm's 911 call to emergency dispatchers was played twice in the courtroom and replayed 15 to 20 times during deliberations.
The most potentially damaging testimony against LaGrone came from a former federal inmate who was housed with LaGrone at the DeWitt County jail. Dwight Hayden, an ex-prisoner with an extensive criminal history, relayed details of a dream in which his deceased mother urged him to tell police about what he said was a confession LaGrone made to him.
The state introduced witnesses who were at the lake and the hospital the night the children died — police officers, doctors, nurses and family members — who told the jury that Hamm and LaGrone did not appear to be wet or upset after the children were pulled from the car.
The prosecution painted an unflattering picture of LaGrone as a man who worked infrequently, used drugs and was content to let his girlfriends work and pay the household expenses. The former dishwasher abused and terrorized Hamm's children by placing Austin's head in an oven and threatening the children with knives and screwdrivers, according to prosecution witnesses.
The long-awaited testimony of Hamm did not materialize at the conclusion of the state's case. She refused to testify, despite an offer of limited immunity that would have protected her from having her statements used against her in her trial.
The jury also did not hear statements Hamm made while she was in a hospital psychiatric unit. Police interviewed Hamm for three hours but did not record the statement.
The judge ruled earlier in the trial that Hamm's hospital comments could be used only after Hamm disclosed them on the witness stand.
The defense put LaGrone on the witness stand as its first witness. He admitted he lied three times to police when questioned about the incident. Those lies were that he had smoked marijuana the day the car went into the water, the car was much closer to the water's edge than LaGrone initially told investigators and he did not apply the brake as the car went into the lake.
The false statements of what happened were offered, said LaGrone, because he felt guilty the children had died. "I felt responsible. I knew I could have done more," LaGorne told the jury during two days on the witness stand.
When asked if he felt it was a mistake to allow his client to take the witness stand, Justice said. "He always wanted to testify from the day I met him."
Several LaGrone family members and former girlfriends offered the jury a view of LaGrone as a man who likes children and went out of his way to spend time with them. Young members of LaGrone's family recalled play times that included a green mask he wore to scare them.
Former girlfriends said they trusted LaGrone with the care of their children while they worked.
Hamm's mother, Ann Powers, testified for the defense that her daughter's life was based on a string of mistakes, including relationships with three men that produced three children but no lasting commitment.
"Amanda never did pick the right men," said Powers.
The case finally went to the jury on Thursday.
The jury decision was announced shortly before 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. Peters asked the panel at 4:30 p.m. if they wanted to adjourn for the night, but jurors sent word that they were at a crucial point and wanted to continue deliberations.
During their discussions Tuesday, the jury asked for three pieces of evidence. They asked to see four photographs of LaGrone and the children, a psychologist's testimony on reaction to grief and emergencies, and a videotape of tests involving the car.
Now that it has convicted Maurice LaGrone Jr. of first-degree murder, the jury will convene behind closed doors today to determine if he is eligible for the death penalty.
In Illinois, a defendant is eligible to be put to death if he meets at least one of 20 criteria. A murder would qualify if: there were two or more victims; a victim younger than 12 was killed as a result of "exceptionally brutal or heinous behavior indicative of wanton cruelty"; and it was committed "in a cold, calculated and premeditated manner pursuant to a preconceived plan, scheme or design."
If he's deemed eligible, jurors then will decide whether to issue the death sentence after a possibly weeklong hearing in which witnesses present testimony for and against the death penalty for LaGrone.