The Kelli O’Laughlin stabbing: What you should do about it.

The blood-thirsty masses will make it so. It is easier to appease the masses.

Anybody who isn’t mortified by the details of the Kelli O’Laughlin stabbing isn’t human. It’s that simple. For those who may not know, the details released are that the high school freshman was murdered last week. She, reportedly, walked in on a burglar in her suburban Chicago home. He stabbed her to death and then fled.

The case has been on the forefront of Chicago media consciousness for the last week. The public frenzy reached its peak when prosecutors charged John Wilson with the girl’s murder. In doing so, more details have also bubbled to the surface. We are told that Wilson, after stabbing the girl to death, took her cell phone and sent “taunting” texts to the girl’s mother. Over the next couple days, he traveled with the girl’s phone. The FBI was able to nab Wilson by tracking the cell phone. There was some sort of DNA taken from a hat, and a subsequent eye-witness identification (identifying Wilson as being a few miles away after the crime), too.

I don’t doubt any of it. At this point, though, I dispute it all. You should too.

Why?

I don’t know what happened. You don’t know either. You think you know. You don’t know. You and Nancy Grace may “know.” But, neither of you really know. One of the first things I learned about defending people is that you don’t ever really “know” as much as the people who know nothing. It’s hard to explain. It seems that people on the “outside” of the case- the ones who get the least amount of inside information- are the ones who form the strongest opinions.

Am I saying that Wilson is innocent? Not at all. I’m saying you should wait. Calm down. Stop paying attention to the case. Let the system do its thing. Stop judging. It will be better for that poor girl and her grieving family in the long run.

Media frenzies only put pressure on prosecutors. They put pressure on elected State’s Attorneys to appease the masses. The same thing that makes democracy great can really skew the justice system. You think that added pressure to “do the right thing” is good? You think you want to pressure prosecutors to do what you “know” should be done? Pressure can cause really bad decision-making.

How did pressuring the authorities work out in the Rolando Cruz case? Remember that one? In 1983 a young girl was kidnapped and murdered after a burglar kicked in the door at her suburban Chicago home. She was home from school that day. Her body was later found just off a bike path not far from her home. Similar facts to O’Laughlin’s.

The cops arrested Cruz (and Alejandro Hernandez), and we were happy. We were even more happy when he was sentenced to fry. After all, we knew he was guilty. He confessed. Plus, he knew things that only the killer would know. So we were told.

The appellate court sent it back on some silly “technicality”. We convicted him again, and sentenced him to fry once more. He needed to fry after what he did to that young girl. He needed a good taste of justice… Illinois style.

And, he appealed. Why did he do that? Why did he waste all of our money on appeals? Just fry him, already. We knew he was guilty. Even so, Cruz was granted a third trial.

That third time was, apparently, a charm. After nearly 10 years on death row, Cruz was finally freed. The case was dismissed after (among other things) one the the police officers admit to giving false testimony in the previous trial.  At least we could put that behind us and stop wasting money, right?

Wrong.  There was still a killer “out there.”  Eventually the right man was charged, pleaded guilty and, in 2009, sentenced to death (a sentence which Illinois has since abolished in large part because of the plight of Rolando Cruz). When the dust had finally settled, a quarter of a century of Illinois justice looked something like this:

  • Trials: 7 resulting in 0 convictions (Cruz-3, Hernandez-3, Cops and prosecutors-1)
  • Civil suits: 1 (settled for 3.5 million)
  • Sentencing Hearings: 5 (Cruz-2, Hernandez-2, Dugan-1)

The real kick-in-the-pants was that the people behind the scenes had a pretty good idea that Cruz wasn’t really involved. Some of them went as far as saying they knew he wasn’t involved. They also had a pretty good idea of this before Cruz was even charged. They knew it at each trial, and at each sentencing. The guy who eventually admit to killing the girl made some incriminating statements very early in the case. Plus, there was physical evidence linking him to the crime. Then, why did prosecutors persist on putting Cruz to death?

Public outcry. It was huge. And, when I say “public” outcry, I really mean pressure from you people. The same people who are consumed right now with Wilson. For the politically elected official, fighting the tide of public opinion is like trying to dig to China: in theory you might get there eventually, but you will be long gone before eventually ever arrives. The blood-thirsty masses will make it so. It is easier to appease the masses.

How many TENS OF MILLIONS of dollars would have been saved in our financially wrecked state if the prosecutors were free to initially make the correct decision in the Cruz case? How would that have played out if the police didn’t feel any pressure to “solve” the murder. Should we ask Gary Gauger?

The decisions of law enforcement and prosecutors are skewed by overwhelming public opinion all the time. Would the Atlanta Olympic games have continued if the bomber wasn’t quickly apprehended? Good thing Richard Jewell was arrested quickly! It’s easier for politicians to apologize to a pathetic scapegoat than to oppose the opinionated mob. Especially if the apology won’t come until after the next election. Or, never at all.

I would like to know how many people out there signed electronic petitions for Troy Davis, cheered the exoneration of the Dixmoor 5, and are ready to fry Wilson? If you did, you just don’t get it. When Troy Davis, Rolando Cruz, and the Dixmoor 5 were initially charged, you hated them, too. Being objective in the heat-of-the-moment is the hardest time to do it, yet also the time it is absolutely most essential.

No doubt, if Wilson is convicted some spiteful person will email me with a nasty “I told you so” message. I don’t care. This isn’t a contest. It’s not me saying he’s innocent versus you saying he’s guilty. The courts aren’t there to decide who among us “won.” There are absolutely no winners in this situation. Besides, If you think this is about guilt or innocence you are missing the point.

The point is that the intense attention paid to criminal cases can often prevent the system from arriving at a just verdict. As I have explained in the past, the government does bring a lot of that on themselves. You can stop it, though. Do you care that much? Do the people who signed the Troy Davis petitions still care?

Again, I’m not saying Wilson is innocent. If you think that, you have been selectively reading. What I am saying is that we need to calm down and wait. You don’t know what happened. You only know what the police want you to know… just like the initial stages of every other big criminal case. The best thing you can do for the memory of this girl is ensure her family does not have to spend the next two decades reliving this horror over and over and over again in the courtroom- like the family of the victim in Rolando Cruz’s case did. Back off and let the police and prosecutors make correct decisions the first time- like them or not.

Can you do that for the criminal justice system? Can you do that for Kelli O’Laughlin’s family?

Author: matthaiduk

Matt Haiduk is a criminal defense lawyer in Illinois. He loves his dog. And pizza.

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