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Not Guilty Verdict in Murder of Hampshire Illinois Police Sergeant

Chicago Criminal Defense Lawyer Assisting in Murder Defense Cases

Before his trial began 16 days ago, John Carroccia pledged he would leave the Kane County Courthouse at its conclusion as a free man. Carroccia kept that promise Tuesday after a fast-acting jury of six men and six women took just over two hours to find him not guilty of murdering Hampshire police Sgt. Gregory Sears.

"I'm going to go home to mom, and I'm glad it's all over," the 51-year-old Rockford man said after leaving the courthouse surrounded by applauding friends and relatives."I just want to get home and start over again. I've been deprived of a life the last two years."

About 30 minutes earlier, Carroccia openly wept as a clerk read the verdict finding him not guilty of murdering Sears, a lifelong friend, on June 1, 2000. A brief cheer of excitement and relief erupted from about 25 supporters who packed a Kane County courtroom Tuesday to hear closing arguments and the verdict. A half dozen police officers from Hampshire and Gilberts left the courtroom almost immediately, frustration evident on their faces. The defendant's supporters later exchanged hugs and brushed aside tears while celebrating outside the courtroom. Many used cellular phones to call other friends and relatives to deliver news of the verdict.

"It's been hell for the whole family," said Gene Carroccia, the defendant's oldest sibling.

Carroccia had been on trial since March 10 for a first-degree murder charge alleging he shot Sears three times on the back of the head as the 50-year-old police officer patrolled the Elgiloy Business Park in Hampshire. Despite the verdict, prosecutors Tuesday said they still believe Carroccia killed Sears.

"We are confident we charged the right person, confident in the case we put forward, but we respect the jury's decision," First Assistant Kane County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said. "Unless we're presented with additional evidence or additional witnesses, the investigation will not be reopened."

Berlin admitted the largely circumstantial nature of the evidence against Carroccia, as well as the lack of a clear motive, could have made the case a tough sell to the jury. Randy Blackburn, jury foreman, said it was not the nature of the evidence, but the lack of evidence against Carroccia that led to the swift not guilty verdict.

"If the defense would have rested after the prosecution, it wouldn't have made any difference at all," Blackburn said. "You don't put someone away in prison forever with inconclusive evidence. We had reasonable doubt. It was about the evidence the prosecution had and it wasn't enough."

Blackburn said jurors were particularly concerned with the lack of physical evidence, such as blood or a conclusive test on gunpowder residue, linking Carroccia to the murder. Asked whether there was any evidence that made jurors think Carroccia may be the killer, Blackburn said there were "a lot of things" but not enough to shake the standard of reasonable doubt. Blackburn described Sears' widow, Norma Jean Sears, as "an unusual character," but said her claims of memory loss since her husband's murder and defense efforts to portray her as a more likely suspect played no role in the deliberations. Other jurors declined to comment following the verdict.

In their post-trial statements Carroccia's defense team was critical of the Kane County Sheriff's Department, which arrested the Rockford man just 19 hours after Sears' body was discovered lying in the Hampshire business park.

"[There was] a general failure to investigate everybody involved in the case," defense lawyer Stephen M. Komie said, a reference to the investigators' speedy dismissal of Norma Jean Sears as a suspect. Berlin was quick to defend the investigation. "I think the Kane County sheriff's office and the rest of law enforcement has done an incredible job investigating this case," he said, noting that the investigation continued well after Carroccia's arrest. "The police did a very thorough job and did follow up on Norma Jean and all other suspects," Berlin added.

Komie also ridiculed the prosecutor's theory of the case - that Carroccia was upset over his Sears' marriage to Norma Jean and how that marriage led the officer to break off a 17-year affair with another woman who was friendly with the defendant.

"It's insane to believe somebody is going to kill his best friend for marrying the wrong girl," Komie said. "That just doesn't happen in America."

"The result is absolutely justice," defense co-counsel Jack Rimland added. "As far was we're concerned, there's still a killer out there."

Carroccia and his defense team plan to discuss the case and their reaction in more detail this morning at a press conference in Komie's downtown Chicago offices. Berlin concluded his post-trial comments with a note of sympathy to Sears' parents, who were not present for the verdict.

"Our hearts and thoughts go out to the Sears family," he said. "This has been a very difficult process for them."

Earlier Tuesday, Berlin gave an impassioned closing argument in a last-ditch effort to convince jurors Carroccia was responsible for Gregory Sears' murder. Berlin told jurors that anyone who believes Carroccia did not kill the officer must also believe defendant is the unluckiest man in the world.

"If there were a lottery for the unluckiest man in the world, he would hold the winning ticket," he said. The prosecutor mockingly said it must have been bad luck that Carroccia's van was spotted at the murder scene, that a waitress testified she served him coffee at a restaurant a half-mile away from there about 10 minutes before the slaying and that materials consistent with gunpowder residue were found on his steering wheel a day later. "He's not the unluckiest man in the world," Berlin later said, raising his voice and pointing a finger at Carroccia. "What he is is guilty of murder."

In a surprising move, Berlin not only addressed defense claims that Sears' widow was a more likely killer, but said jurors could reasonably believe she played a part in the murder.

"I'm not going to stand up here and say Norma Jean is your normal everyday person," he said. "Norma Jean Sears had a motive to kill her husband, I'm not going to deny that. But there is no evidence that anyone other than this defendant (Carroccia) pulled that trigger. All the evidence you heard in this case points to him and him alone," Berlin added, a theme he returned to several times in his 35-minute argument.

Berlin also hinted at a motive, saying that Carroccia had become close in early 2000 to Marilyn Vogelman, a Lakewood woman who had a 17-year affair with Gregory Sears before he met Norma Jean in 1998. Vogelman, police said, was upset when Sears ended their relationship.

"Was she a part of it? It's an inference you can make," he said. In earlier arguments, Kane County State's Attorney Sal LoPiccolo gave jurors a nine-point list of why Carroccia should be convicted. Among those points were evidence Sears knew his killer, Carroccia's guns similar to the murder weapon were missing when police searched his home and claims the defendant gave police a phony alibi. Berlin finished the state's argument by asking jurors to send a message that people who commit crimes like the Sears' murder will be held responsible.

"You know the truth now," he said. "We now ask you to do justice. Don't let him get away with it."

In the defense closing, a far more subdued Rimland also asked jurors to send a message. That message, he said, is for the Kane County Sheriff's Department to reopen its investigation into Sears' slaying. Although Rimland never said his client was innocent, he repeatedly told jurors there was not enough evidence to find Carroccia guilty.

"Through suspicion, speculation, and innuendo, there can be no conviction," Rimland said.

Rimland also attacked the credibility of key prosecution witness John Rogula, who testified early in the trial he saw Carroccia's van leaving the murder scene. However, Rimland noted, Rogula made the observation at 8:50 p.m., in a rainstorm from at least 400 feet away. Other testimony indicated Rogula bragged to co-workers that he expected a reward for his testimony.

"His testimony was ludicrous," Rimland said. "He told you a bunch of things that are humanly impossible." The defense lawyer finished his argument by reminding jurors of the standard of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

"Concentrate on that and the absence of any scientific, physical or forensic evidence linking John Carroccia to a homicide," he said.

It was a request the jurors obviously took seriously and led to the result for which Carroccia had been hoping.

"I was praying for this," he said. "I always pray."

Komie and Associates is located in Chicago, Illinois and defends clients accused of murder, homicide and other serious criminal charges throughout the state. For a free case consultation, call 312-263-2800.

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