Judge doesn't allow two witnesses in Urbana murder trial

URBANA – Defense attorneys for accused murderer Phillip Harris rested their case Wednesday afternoon in Champaign County Circuit Court without calling any witnesses on his behalf – but not for lack of trying.

Champaign attorneys Ed Piraino and Walter Ding wanted to have co-defendants Paul McLaughlin and C.J. Tucker testify that they have already pleaded guilty for their roles in the Aug. 4, 2005, murder of Peter McLaughlin.

The 45-year-old Parkland College police officer was found dead in the crawl space of his home at 603 E. Florida Ave., U, four days after authorities believe that his son, Paul, now 21, fatally stabbed him.

Harris, 17, of the 2600 block of Roland Drive, Champaign, is also charged with Mr. McLaughlin's murder under the theory that he is accountable for the actions of Paul McLaughlin, who pleaded guilty to murder in November and is serving a 45-year prison sentence.

Harris admitted to police that he bludgeoned Mr. McLaughlin in the back of the head before McLaughlin stabbed his father. Jurors heard those statements Tuesday.

Tucker, 16, of the 2400 block of Campbell Drive, Champaign, was present when the killing occurred and armed with a billy club but played a lesser role in the attack on Mr. McLaughlin, according to testimony. He pleaded guilty to armed violence and concealment of a homicidal death for helping stash the body and is serving a 19-year sentence.

Piraino and Ding argued that the jury had heard testimony about McLaughlin and Tucker and they wanted the jurors to see those two and hear them admit their involvement.

But Assistant State's Attorney Duke Harris, no relation to the defendant, argued there was no value to such testimony.

"All we're doing is setting the stage for the jury to say, 'Well, three people were charged and two were convicted. The state has gotten its pound of flesh,'" he said, worrying that the jurors could use the testimony as a reason to acquit Harris.

Ding countered that the strategy could backfire and the jury could use it to believe Harris is guilty.

Judge Tom Difanis ruled that the testimony was not relevant or probative and forbade its introduction.

He did so after Ding and Piraino put McLaughlin on the stand – when the jury was out of the courtroom – to hear how he would answer the single question: Did you plead guilty to the first-degree murder of Peter McLaughlin? Two of Peter McLaughlin's brothers were in the front row watching their nephew as he answered that he had.

Also testifying Wednesday was Dr. Bryan Mitchell, the forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Mr. McLaughlin.

Mitchell said he found eight blunt cuts on the back of Mr. McLaughlin's head and 22 stab wounds to the back and neck.

"Mr. McLaughlin died of multiple stab wounds which led to him bleeding into his chest cavity and caused his lungs to collapse," Mitchell said, adding he found a broken tip of a knife in one of the stab wounds.

The blows to the head – which Harris admitted he inflicted with a billy club – might have rendered Mr. McLaughlin unconscious but did not kill him, the doctor testified. Jurors saw a graphic photo showing the wounds to the back of the head.

Urbana police Lt. Mike Metzler also testified he was at Mr. McLaughlin's home while his fellow detectives were interviewing Harris at the police station. Based on what Harris was saying, Investigator Rich Surles sent Metzler a text message telling him to check window wells for the body. Metzler said he and another detective did that but didn't find anything.

Metzler said it was then that he recalled seeing a window that appeared to be blacked out over a washer and dryer in the basement. He removed the window and found it led to a crawl space over a part of the home that had been added on. That's when he found Mr. McLaughlin's body, covered in blankets and a galvanized tub turned upside down over his feet. He was clothed and had a plastic grocery sack over his head.

Mike Kyrouac, the crime scene technician from the Illinois State Police, testified that among the evidence he found was a knife believed used on Mr. McLaughlin in a sump pump pit, a billy club believed used by Harris behind a couch in the basement, a piece of rolled-up carpet with stains that appeared to have been washed which was stashed in the ceiling above Paul McLaughlin's bedroom, and Harris' library card in Paul McLaughlin's bedroom.

Under cross-examination by Piraino, Kyrouac said the only identifiable fingerprint found on the billy club was the victim's.

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