'His guilt could not be any clearer' : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
|'His guilt could not be any clearer' |
|Juror foreman, prosecutors reflect on Vaughn trial guilty verdict |
|by Tony Scott|
Even at the end, when the verdict was read, with the possibility now looming that he will spend the rest of his natural life in state prison, convicted murderer Christopher Vaughn said nothing, and did not react.
Vaughn was living in Oswego in June of 2007 when he murdered his wife, Kimberly, and his three children, Abigayle, 12, Cassandra, 11, and Blake, 8, in the family's SUV. A jury found Vaughn guilty of first-degree murder for his wife and each one of his children last Thursday at the Will County Courthouse in Joliet.
Prosecutors said Vaughn had planned to escape his mundane suburban life and move to the wilderness of Canada, sharing his plans with a Canadian man he met online and with a local exotic dancer, two of the approximately 90 witnesses to testify during the five-week trial.
Vaughn's family was found shot to death in the SUV off a frontage road near Interstate 55 in Channahon Township in the early morning hours of June 14, 2007, after Vaughn flagged down a passerby who called 911. Vaughn had shot himself, prosecutors said, after murdering his family, and told the police that Kimberly had shot him prior to shooting her children and then herself.
Defense attorneys charged that Kimberly had been depressed and stressed out, and under the effects of prescription medications she was taking for depression and migraines, when she shot herself and her children.
The weight of the evidence, however, proved otherwise, and after a deliberation lasting less than an hour, the jury reached a verdict at around 4:30 p.m. last Thursday.
Speaking to the media that afternoon, jury foreman Dan Lachat said the "totality" of the evidence convinced him and the other jurors that Vaughn's story didn't add up.
"If you watched him throughout the trial just like we did, and you saw the evidence like we did, I think you'd come to the same conclusion as we did," Lachat said.
Lachat said the jurors never seriously considered the defense's theory about Kimberly Vaughn shooting herself.
Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow, who did not personally prosecute the case during the trial but spoke to the media after the verdict was rendered, said the prosecution team knew that they had a case when they saw the videotaped interrogation of Vaughn. He said that, at one point, Vaughn made a motion with his left arm when talking about shielding himself from Kimberly shooting in the vehicle.
"He shot that arm to stage the scene," he said. "How preposterous - you have a gun pointed at your head and you're gonna raise your left arm on the other side?"
Glasgow said prosecutors immediately went to then-Chief Judge Stephen White's house to obtain a warrant for Vaughn's arrest, and a State Police trooper went to Missouri to apprehend Vaughn.
"Absolutely, unequivocally, Mrs. Vaughn could not have committed these crimes, based on the physical evidence," he said.
Glasgow said the process to bring Vaughn to trial may have been quicker if it wasn't a death penalty case initially. Private attorneys had represented Vaughn using the state's capital litigation fund, used by prosecutors and defense attorneys for death penalty cases. However, when the state ended the death penalty in 2010, the fund was shut down. Vaughn's attorneys quit, and he was assigned to a team of public defenders.
"He'll spend the rest of his life staring at the cold walls of a prison cell, and then he'll meet his maker later for his real punishment," Glasgow said.
Glasgow said Kimberly Vaughn's family, particularly her parents, Del and Susan Phillips of St. Charles, Mo., were satisfied with the verdict.
"There wasn't a lot of elation because of the five years that have gone by, but it was obviously extremely satisfying to them," he said.
Glasgow said it was the first time Will County had seen a case like this.
"We've never had anyone kill their family execution-style like this," he said. "To shoot your children at close range, there's no soul in that person. When the verdict was read, he didn't move, his face didn't change. That's the mark of a psychopath. He feels nothing. No compassion, no remorse."
Following the verdict, Kimberly Vaughn's family, including her parents, Del and Susan Phillips of St. Charles, Mo., siblings and friends, sat down for dinner at a local restaurant and made a quiet toast in Kimberly's memory with lemon-drop martinis, her favorite drink.
'It happens - women
do kill their children'
In his closing argument, defense attorney George Lenard tried to hammer home his team's theory that Kimberly Vaughn shot herself after shooting the kids. He acknowledged his client's odd behavior, including his plans to move to the wilderness, but said Vaughn was not on trial for that.
"He is not on trial for planning to leave his family, and there's a big difference," he said.
Lenard questioned why Vaughn would say his wife couldn't commit murder when confronted by the police, and why he didn't delete the emails that had been found, or destroy a magazine found in his house that described a murder-suicide scenario. He pointed out that his client was "good with computers" as an IT security expert.
"If this was planned, why not delete all that?" he asked.
Lenard also pointed out that the prosecution did not have a towel that was photographed on Kimberly Vaughn's lap, covered in blood. Prosecutors admitted that the coroner's office staff had mistakenly washed the towel when the vehicle was processed, not knowing that it was a piece of evidence.
"We don't have the towel," Lenard said. "Can you imagine going back to the jury room, filling in those guilty forms without having that towel?"
Lenard said he understood that it would be difficult to believe Kimberly Vaughn killed her children.
"Why would a mother kill her children?" he said. "You can't believe that that would ever happen. But it's difficult for rational people to understand irrational acts. But it happens - women do kill their children."
Lenard suggested that Kimberly Vaughn thought her kids would be better off dead, suggesting that she told her children "come with me to heaven, where you're going to be safe."
Prosecutors: defense story
But during the state's closing arguments, prosecutors Michael Fitzgerald and Chris Regis ripped that theory - and Vaughn's story - to pieces.
Fitzgerald said Vaughn told police that divorce "isn't an option."
"What's he left with? The option he chose was to murder his family," he said.
Fitzgerald said the jury had not heard any evidence that Kimberly Vaughn was suicidal or homicidal.
Fitzgerald described how Vaughn's blood had been dripped all over Kimberly, and how Kimberly's blood was found on his jacket.
"Christopher Vaughn says he's shot and leaves the vehicle," Fitzgerald recalled. "There's no reason, no way, no how that Kimberly Vaughn's blood should be on his jacket."
Fitzgerald mocked Vaughn's story that Kimberly shot him in the wrist and the thigh, instead of in the head when she had the gun and was sitting next to him, and that, according to Vaughn, she shot all of the children, who were shot in the head and torso with no misses.
"Are you telling me that that's the best she can do to someone sitting right next to her? That's the best she can do?" Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald noted that while Vaughn had been practicing shooting the murder weapon at a Plainfield firing range the night before the murders, Kimberly had only been to a gun range once in the previous two years.
Meanwhile, the night before her murder, Kimberly was cooking dinner for the neighbors who were coming over, and calling her mom and sister about a cheesy potato dish recipe, Fitzgerald said.
She had also made future plans, as she had just graduated from the University of Phoenix the weekend before her death and was working at her subdivision's clubhouse as a part-time job. Fitzgerald said she had made plans to visit her family the following month, he said.
Eerily, Del Phillips recalled in testimony that Vaughn walked right past him and did not say goodbye the Monday morning following Kimberly's graduation as his in-laws were getting ready to leave. Kimberly had later defended her husband's behavior, dismissing it as being preoccupied with work, Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald also observed that Kimberly showered and brought along books and a travel bag for the family's trip to the water park the morning she was killed. Why would she do that if she was planning to kill her family, he asked?
"It strains credulity, it strains believability," Fitzgerald said.
Prosecutor: Vaughn's 'guilt
could not be any clearer'
During a rebuttal argument following Lenard's argument, Regis, at times his voice passionately rising to a shout, went further than Fitzgerald in pointing out the incredulity of Vaughn's statements.
"His guilt could not be any clearer," Regis said.
Regis asked the jury to just forget about the physical evidence found in the vehicle - the blood dripped all over Kimberly, the fact that the only fingerprints found on the gun were those of Vaughn, that every other shot was "delivered with precision" - except for the ones that struck Vaughn.
"From his own mouth, he told us that he is completely guilty of these four murders," Regis said.
Regis said Vaughn's statement to the State Police was "so ridiculous, contradictory, filled with holes" and "reeks of his guilt."
He said that he told the passerby immediately that "I think my wife shot me," but when paramedics arrived and asked him what happened, he said, "I don't know." He said Vaughn didn't say a word about his wife or children to paramedics.
Regis pointed out that Vaughn printed out Mapquest directions to the Springfield water park, even though he was originally from the St. Louis area, lived in Oswego and had taken Interstate 55 in that direction many times.
Regis said Vaughn kept giving investigators details about a back story but never really reacted to news that his family had been "slaughtered."
When Vaughn did react, Regis characterized it as "bad acting," worse than a "first grade Christmas production."
"He sat there and deadpanned, 'That's not true,'" Regis said.
Within 10 minutes of being told that his wife was shot, Vaughn was back to telling the police his back story about Kimberly being sick, Regis said. When asked if Kimberly nagged him, just minutes after being told she was dead, Vaughn said, "She nags about as much as any other wife."
Regis also showed excerpts of the videotaped interrogation of Vaughn by State Police, including parts when he is shown photos of his dead children. When he is shown the photos, a distressed Vaughn picks up the pictures, crumples them up and throws them.
Eventually, Vaughn is left alone with a photo of Blake, shot in the head, Regis said, showing the jury that portion of the video.
"It's the first time he's seen Blake since he put a bullet in his head, and he doesn't know what to do; he doesn't know how to react," Regis said. "That picture is like 'The Telltale Heart' - it's screaming at him."
Vaughn, he observed, simply pushes the photo away and puts his head down.
Regis ripped the defense for accusing Kimberly of killing the children.
"She loved her family, she loved her kids," Regis said. "For someone to come in and say she killed her kids... it's ludicrous and unthinkable, and even more importantly, not supported by the evidence."
Regis said Vaughn killed his kids "just like he rehearsed" at the shooting range the night before.
"There is no other person on the face of this Earth who wanted those people dead," he said.