JOLIET – A judge will decide today whether an Illinois man convicted of killing his wife and three children deserves a new trial, based in part on claims that the behavior of lawyers next door during Drew Peterson's murder trial made it impossible for the man to get a fair trial.
Christopher Vaughn was convicted of fatally shooting his family in their SUV so he could start a new life living in the Canadian wilderness. His September trial overlapped with the high-profile trial of Peterson, the former suburban Chicago police officer convicted of murdering his third wife.
Vaughn's attorney, George Lenard, said press conferences held by Peterson's lawyers outside the Will County courthouse were so detrimental to the reputation of court that they damaged his own credibility with the jury.
He noted that in one press conference, Peterson's attorneys jokingly said, "Stacy who?" when asked what effect Peterson's fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, who vanished in 2007, might have on Peterson's trial in the 2004 death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio.
"That gave defense attorneys, all of us, a black eye," Lenard told the judge during a hearing Monday. "Nobody ever said to me that made defense attorneys look good."
Prosecutors said jurors made the right decision amid "overwhelming" evidence against Vaughn. Assistant State's Attorney Mike Fitzgerald noted that if Lenard was concerned about the media spectacle surrounding Peterson's trial, he could have asked that Vaughn's trial be delayed, but he did not.
Peterson was convicted in the courtroom next door of killing Savio, whose drowning was initially ruled an accident until the 2007 disappearance of Stacy Peterson triggered a new investigation. Peterson hasn't been charged in his fourth wife's disappearance.
Judge Daniel Rozak said he would announce his decision Tuesday.
Lenard also argued that jurors' own comments after convicting Vaughn of first-degree murder made it clear they considered factors they should not have, including Vaughn's apparent lack of emotion during the 5 1/2 week trial.
Lenard said that because Vaughn did not testify, it was improper to consider his demeanor during the trial.
He also said that prosecutors unfairly attacked his integrity by using such terms as "silly," ''ludicrous" and "shameful" to describe Lenard's arguments. "I didn't have the opportunity to defend myself," he argued.
The defense attorney also noted that jurors deliberated less than an hour, despite hearing the testimony of more than 80 witnesses and considering more than 700 exhibits. And some jurors said after the trial that they didn't even consider Lenard's argument that perhaps his wife shot her three children, and shot at her husband before turning the gun on herself.
Fitzgerald said that after watching all the witnesses and seeing powerful blood evidence, jurors agreed that the case against Vaughn was "overwhelming." The prosecutor also noted that a jury in the same courthouse deliberated for just seven minutes before convicting a defendant.
Rozak didn't ask any questions during Monday's hearing. The judge said he wanted to consider the motion overnight and read transcripts of various parts of the trial, including jury selection.
Vaughn was convicted in September in the 2007 slaying of his wife, his 12-year-old daughter, 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. During his trial, prosecutors said the slayings were part of Vaughn's plan to start a new life in the Canadian wilderness.
Investigators said Vaughn had surprised his family with news that he was taking them to a water park the morning of June 14, 2007, but pulled off the road soon after starting the trip.
Prosecutors allege he first shot his wife, then twice shot each of his children – who were buckled in the back seat of the family SUV – and then shot himself in the leg and wrist in an attempt to make it seem like his wife was the shooter.