Jim Dey: A fresh start in C-U for Lovelace

Jim Dey: A fresh start in C-U for Lovelace

Curt Lovelace doesn't bear the mark of Cain, but he freely acknowledges the scars left by a three-year experience in which he was charged with the murder of his wife and, after two widely publicized trials, found not guilty by a Sangamon County jury.

"Just Google me," said the 48-year-old Lovelace, referring to his internet notoriety.

Now the lawyer and former University of Illinois football star is trying to rebuild his life and career.

He and his current wife, Christine, have moved from their hometown of Quincy to Champaign, where he's in the process of setting up a law practice. But Lovelace is not turning his back on his experience as a defendant in the criminal justice system. He is, in fact, taking up pro bono legal work on behalf of others who find themselves in the same situation as he did.

Although all the details have yet to be finalized, Lovelace is joining forces with Washington-based lawyer, Evan Park, and planning, among other things, a criminal defense practice.

"We feel a calling to give back to the legal system," he said.

Christine Lovelace, who's also 48, was one of her husband's most zealous advocates as the case played out. Now she's joining her husband's legal work in a support capacity.

"I have found myself on a new career path," said Christine, who formerly worked in business.

"She is the most talented and hard-working woman I know. I'm just fortunate to be married to her," Curt Lovelace said.

Lovelace's up-close-and-personal experience being on the wrong side of the law included 651 days in jail and another 277 days of home confinement prior to his acquittal in March.

His first trial in Adams County ended in a hung jury that left Lovelace without funds to hire lawyers for the second trial. Fortunately for him, Jon Loevy, a Chicago lawyer associated with the University of Chicago's Innocence Project, volunteered to represent Lovelace.

Because of the extensive pre-trial publicity in Adams County, the second trial was moved to Springfield. After hearing evidence for 10 days, jurors deliberated for just two hours before rejecting prosecutors' claims that Lovelace had suffocated his wife, Cory Lovelace, the mother of their three sons and one daughter.

The not-guilty verdict ended a case that began in August 2014, when Lovelace was arrested by Quincy police and charged with murder in connection with the 2006 death of 38-year-old Cory.

At the time of his arrest, Lovelace had a solid reputation as a local boy who had made good. He was a star athlete in high school who became the starting center on Fighting Illini football teams coached by John Mackovic.

After graduating from the UI's College of Law, Lovelace returned home, where he was elected to the school board, worked as a county prosecutor and opened a law practice. He also taught at Quincy University and worked in the Judge Advocate General's office for the Illinois Army National Guard.

An excerpt from the wrongful prosecution federal lawsuit Lovelace recently filed against law enforcement officials in Quincy and Adams County spells out his current circumstances.

"Following his acquittal, Mr. Lovelace remains fundamentally changed by his experiences. His relationship with some members of his family has been altered. He lost his law practice and spent three years unable to earn a living. His reputation in the town of Quincy, the place where he was born and spent almost his entire life, and the place where he worked as a public servant in a variety of capacities, was destroyed," the lawsuit states.

Just prior to moving from Quincy, a community of about 40,000 located along the Mississippi River, Lovelace and his wife turned their family home over to a local bank rather than face foreclosure.

While prosecutors charged that Lovelace suffocated his wife with a pillow on Feb. 14, 2006 — Valentine's Day — the defense argued she had died of natural causes. Evidence showed that Cory Lovelace had a variety of health problems, including liver issues related to alcoholism.

The initial cause of Cory Lovelace's death was found to be "undetermined," although there was no indication of foul play.

That led to a reinvestigation of the case seven years later by Quincy Police Officer Adam Gibson, who sought other expert medical opinions. Ultimately, investigators found experts who asserted that Mrs. Lovelace died from suffocation about 12 hours before Curt Lovelace reported finding her dead in their upstairs bedroom.

At the same time, defense experts challenged that finding, declaring Cory Lovelace's death to be the result of natural causes.

But there was more to the case than conflicting expert opinions.

The couple's two older sons, both now serving in the United States military, told police at the time of their mother's death and jurors in the two trials that they had spoken to their mother that morning before they went to school.

That testimony undermined the prosecution argument that Lovelace had suffocated his wife the night before and that she was lying dead in her upstairs bed at the same time the two sons told authorities they had spoken with her.

Evidence against Curt Lovelace was, at best, shaky, and the prosecution apparently knew it. That explains why lawyers from the state appellate prosecutor's office repeatedly offered Lovelace inducements to plead guilty to lesser charges.

Just before the second trial, Lovelace said, prosecutors offered a plea agreement allowing him to enter the equivalent of a nolo contendere plea (no contest) to a lesser charge for a sentence of the time he already had served in jail. After thinking over the offer — immediate freedom — Curt, Christine and their children decided he could not plead guilty to a crime he insists he didn't commit.

The case had many of the elements required for a sensational trial, and it wasn't just local media outlets who followed it. The CBS News program "48 Hours" has run two programs on it. Lovelace said NBC's "Dateline" plans a two-hour broadcast at some future date.

Lovelace said he's not particularly pleased to be the focus of national attention, but felt compelled to participate to make certain his side is heard.

The case changed him in many ways.

Now 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Lovelace said the subsistence jail diet — frozen TV dinners, pizzas and pot pies — plus his exercise regime caused him to drop down to 185 pounds. Lovelace said he didn't notice the weight reduction because he couldn't see himself in a mirror. But Christine said she "watched him melting away week after week," becoming so concerned that she asked if she could bring food to her husband.

Christine Lovelace said she was told she could bring food to all the inmates, but not just one inmate. So she organized food donations from herself and friends — fruit, vegetables and meat — for the entire jail population, a number he said averaged about 20.

Curt Lovelace said time in jail passed slowly, and to cope he established a daily schedule that included writing in a journal, reading books that included the Bible, watching TV and exercising in a small room the size of a racquetball court. He said he both ran and walked in what he called "the gym" and engaged in less demanding physical activities like yoga and tai chi.

He said he "read a lot of good books," took naps "just to pass the time," "had a good relationship with all of the jailers" and even made friends with some of the inmates. Lovelace said he spent so much time in the jail that he became a "fixture," a permanent part of the scenery.

"I saw people leave and come back while I was there," he said.

While in jail, Lovelace received permission from jailers to hold 12-step, faith-based counseling sessions for troubled inmates.

"Most people in jail have addictions of some sort, whether it's drug or alcohol," he said.

Lovelace said the inmates seemed to appreciate the opportunity to talk about their various problems.

"Guys would come in and just want to vent," he said.

After the first trial ended in a hung jury, Lovelace's new lawyers persuaded Circuit Judge Robert Hardwick to lower Lovelace's bond from $5 million to $3.5 million. That meant Lovelace could be released if he could post 10 percent of the $3.5 million — $350,000.

With the help of friends, Lovelace was released on bond, but ordered to serve home confinement. Lovelace is now engaged in a legal battle with the county over the judge's decision to keep $35,000 of the $350,000 as a bond fee.

After being locked up for so long, Lovelace said the greater freedom he had under home confinement seemed odd.

"I had to get used to it. All of a sudden you have all these decisions to make, what to wear and what to eat," he said.

Lovelace wore an ankle bracelet that allowed jail officials to monitor his whereabouts. Occasionally, however, the ankle bracelet would falsely indicate he had left his residence and Lovelace would receive calls asking where he was.

Lovelace said he was fearful of being falsely accused of violating his home confinement and that his concerns morphed into a paranoia he never felt before.

"I think part of paranoia is warranted. Is our home safe? Are our phones secure?" he said. "I was much more open, less private, not concerned about my security. I'm less trusting of law enforcement, having gone through this experience."

Lovelace said he still believes the overwhelming number of police and prosecutors are conscientious. But he said he can't say the same for all.

Now that he's free of all limitations on his freedom, Lovelace is finding how much things have changed since his arrest.

"I was out of circulation for so long, I've noticed price inflation," he joked.

It's been a whirlwind four months since his acquittal. He said he and Christine spent "two weeks of solid media," "accomplished a move" to Champaign and "reactivated my law license."

He said his decision to move from Quincy was "difficult but necessary" because of all the media attention and conflicting opinions his trials generated and that Champaign seemed to be a natural choice.

"I, obviously, spent time here. We have friends here. It's bigger than Quincy. We have a comfortable level of anonymity," he said.

Lovelace said he's not looking for complete anonymity, that he and his wife are willing to share their story because "it needs to be told."

"This type of stuff happens. It happened to me," he said. "One of our safeguards is zealous legal representation. That's the only thing that saved me."

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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ROB McCOLLEY wrote on June 18, 2017 at 6:06 pm
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Welcome home, Curt.

Automan wrote on June 18, 2017 at 11:06 pm
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Free pro bono legal work for wrongfully prosecuted people? He'll find plenty of work in Champaign County.

billbtri5 wrote on June 22, 2017 at 9:06 am

..courageous to go to trial...I salute you...and why keep the funds of a innocent citizen?...

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