BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – A man prosecutors painted as a homicidal, sex-crazed layabout and defense attorneys cast as a loving father figure caught in a tragic nightmare was convicted Tuesday in the 2003 drownings of his then-girlfriend's three children in Clinton Lake.
Maurice LaGrone Jr., wearing a blue shirt and slacks, showed no reaction as the verdict was read and the jury polled. His family wept in the back of the courtroom after the verdict was announced.
The children's three fathers emerged from the courtroom with tears in their eyes and hugged their mothers. Prosecutor Ed Parkinson shook their hands after leaving the courtroom.
Craig Brown, father of Austin Brown, said, "I want to hug and embrace the prosecutor."
The jury will return to the courthouse at 10 a.m. Wednesday to determine if LaGrone is eligible for the death penalty, which prosecutors had vowed to seek.
Prosecutors alleged LaGrone, 30, intentionally sank then-girlfriend Amanda Hamm's car with her children inside. LaGrone and Hamm planned the killings because the children were in the way of their relationship, prosecutors contended. Defense attorneys called the drownings a tragic accident.
Hamm, 30, faces identical charges but her trial has not been scheduled yet. She has pleaded not guilty and refused to testify in LaGrone's trial, citing her constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Hamm's attorney, Steve Skelton said his client's case has similarities to LaGrone's, but also differences, including that LaGrone had been driving the car that sank.
"We'll keep working and hopefully end up with a verdict that's different from today," Skelton said after LaGrone's verdict was read.
The jury of seven women and five men heard 14 days of testimony over nearly four weeks in LaGrone's murder trial, moved to McLean County because of pretrial publicity and the much smaller pool of potential jurors in DeWitt County.
Prosecutors alleged during closing arguments that LaGrone and Hamm never were in the car, sinking it in the lake with the children inside and then telling sometimes conflicting stories to cover up the drownings.
Defense attorneys said LaGrone made foolish decisions, such as parking too close to the water on a boat ramp. But they said evidence supported his account of the incident, including a re-enactment where a stuntman's foot got caught in the door as he escaped from a sinking car, just as LaGrone had told investigators that his did.