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CLINTON — The prosecution and defense told the court Friday they are ready to begin the murder trial of Maurice LaGrone Jr. on Feb. 21 in Bloomington. And LaGrone attorney Jeff Justice said his client will testify in his own defense.

"He’s going to be the first defense witness," said Justice, who has led LaGrone’s defense team since shortly after his arrest in December 2003.

LaGrone, 30, and Amanda Hamm, 29, each face nine counts of first-degree murder in the September 2003 deaths of Hamm’s three children. Charges allege that Christopher Hamm, 6, Austin Brown, 3, and Kyleigh Hamm, 23 months, died after LaGrone and Hamm conspired to drive Hamm’s car into the lake.

After attorneys exchanged certificates of readiness for trial, DeWitt County Circuit Judge Stephen Peters asked LaGrone if he understood that both sides were ready to start the trial.

LaGrone, who is briefed on legal proceedings during weekly meetings with his attorneys at the jail, acknowledged that he understood his trial will begin in about two weeks.

Peters also heard arguments Friday by Special Prosecutor Roger Simpson that the state has not received all the automotive tests performed by defense witness Dr. Michael Varat.

DeWitt County Sheriff Roger Massey testified that he reviewed videos this week of tests conducted in California on a car similar to Hamm’s 1996 Oldsmobile Cutlass. He said a close examination of the video showed that the car sustained damage during the testing.

The sheriff also told the court that documentation indicates that Varat conducted at least 12 tests on the car. Testimony from Varat during a recent hearing was based upon eight tests.

The prosecution and defense have both hired forensic automotive engineers to conduct tests that may be shown to the jury. Among the issues explored on the videos are how well the brakes may have worked on the boat ramp leading to the lake where the incident occurred and how fast the car may have sank in the water.

Hamm and Lagrone maintain that the car went into the water by accident. The two adults escaped and the three children remained in the back seat of the car.

Justice argued that the state is not entitled to all the material related to testing. The defense is required to provide the results of tests that may be introduced into evidence, said Justice.

The defense also asked why questions are now being raised about potential evidence disclosed to the prosecution in September.

"This is an attempt to get discovery they are not entitled to — it’s also six months too late," said Justice.

Peters said he will review the case law provided by attorneys and issue a written ruling on the state’s request for Varat’s tests and materials.

Justice offered an estimate on how proceedings will unfold beginning with jury selection Feb. 21. He said jury selection could take up to two weeks followed by a week of pre-trial hearings in Clinton outside the jury.

The Clinton hearings will involve evidence Justice termed controversial. Among the issues to be decided is the credibility of five federal inmates formerly housed in the DeWitt County jail. A March 7 hearing has been set to hear testimony on the inmates, who are expected to offer informant statements based upon their conversations with LaGrone.

When the trial gets under way in Bloomington, Justice anticipated that evidence will take about three weeks. “I would be shocked if we had a verdict before the first of April,” said Justice.

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.


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