WOODSTOCK – Both sides in Gary Gauger’s civil trial agreed that he sat on death row while innocent of slashing his parents’ throats, but jurors did not find that three sheriff’s detectives framed him.
Eleven jurors found in favor of Undersheriff Gene Lowery and retired Detectives Beverly Hendle and Chris Pandre after deliberating about five hours Thursday. The verdict denied Gauger of the $20 million or more he was seeking for post-traumatic stress disorder and for the 3½ years he spent behind bars, including nine months on death row.
Gauger, 57, sat staring straight ahead as Judge Maureen McIntyre read the jury’s verdict after a trial of almost two weeks. Jurors also found that the three detectives had probable cause to arrest him in April 2003 and had not acted with malice nor conspired against him.
Lowery said the verdict restored his and his former colleague’s honor.
“I don’t think there’s anything to celebrate but what we’ve personally gained,” Lowery said.
“... We were accused of wrongdoing, and we were just doing our jobs” Lowery said.
Gauger’s attorney, Matthew Crowl, said he and his client respected the verdict but were “very disappointed.” Crowl said they planned to appeal.
“We felt the evidence was strong, but we understand it’s a high burden to meet [in] a malicious prosecution case,” Crowl said.
Gauger was sentenced to die by lethal injection after a McHenry County jury convicted him late in 1993 of his elderly parents’ grisly murders. Ultimately that conviction was overturned, former Gov. George Ryan pardoned him, and two motorcycle gang members were convicted of murdering Ruth and Morris Gauger as part of a federal racketeering case.
During closing arguments Thursday morning, Crowl argued that the three detectives concocted a confession by leaving out important details of an 18-hour interrogation. Crowl argued that they pressured a tired, vulnerable man by refusing to let him leave or sleep and by claiming to have evidence they did not have.
“They left out key facts that would have shown the context and would have shown the difference between what Gary said and a true confession,” said Crowl, emphasizing Gauger’s claim that he told officers he refused to sign a confession because he had no memory of committing the crime.
Gauger testified that he created a hypothetical account of how he might have killed his parents in a blackout and repeated that account hours later after Pandre yelled at him. Gauger acknowledged on the witness stand that the second time he told police the account, he did not say it was hypothetical.
An attorney for the detectives, James Sotos, argued that any police officer would have had “an honest and strong suspicion” that Gauger killed his parents after the 18 hours of questioning.
Sotos pointed to Gauger leaving his house to tend to his plants as sheriff’s police were searching for his mother shortly after his father’s body was found.
Gauger also said a Spanish word when detectives read him his Miranda rights and mentioned a case where someone beat a criminal charge because that person didn’t understand the Miranda rights when they were read in English. Later, Gauger claiming he could beat a polygraph examination by controlling his blood pressure also raised detectives’ suspicions, Sotos said.
“Every step of the way, he’s either mocking them or playing games with them,” Sotos said. “They don’t know what he was doing. He’s not acting like a survivor.”
Crowl argued that detectives’ practice of having one person take notes and write the report of their marathon discussion with Gauger – and then later memorizing that single set of reports for the trial – showed malice.
“They created their story of what happened in that room,” Crowl said. “All three of them made the pieces of their story fit so it looked to prosecutors, it looked to a jury, like a confession.”
But Sotos said the officers were only following the procedures of their department on developing reports.
He emphasized that the officers included Gauger’s denials and a early hypothesis of how his parents were murdered in their reports.
Sotos said their account of his “confession” did not hide that Gauger did not remember locking the door to the rug trailer where his mother’s body was found, although Gauger had given police permission to break the lock on the trailer as they searched for his mother.