In pursuing a much desired conviction, prosecutors can get carried away. If trial judges do not hold them in check, disaster can ensue.
That’s what happened when Kane County prosecutors went the extra mile, with the trial judge’s ill-considered permission, to secure the murder conviction of a man accused of killing his wife.
The case is now set to go back for retrial because the Illinois Supreme Court last week overturned the conviction of 52-year-old Shadwick King.
The decision is somewhat ironic because the state’s highest court unanimously found that prosecutors had presented sufficient enough evidence to convict King of murder without calling an expert witness who was not as expert as they claimed.
“... we have no problem concluding that a rational trier of fact easily could have concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that (the victim’s) death was produced by a criminal agency and that defendant is the person responsible,” wrote Justice Robert Thomas.
The decision drew considerable media attention because the Supreme Court held that it is improper for prosecutors to call expert witnesses “solely for the purpose of shoring up one party’s theory of the case.”
A state appeals court overturned King’s conviction in August 2018, finding that testimony of the expert witness — former FBI agent Mark Safarik — should not have been allowed by trial Judge James Hallock. The Supreme Court’s affirmation of the appellate court decision sets a precedent for all state trial courts.
Kathleen King died about 6 a.m. July 6, 2014. Prosecutors said she was strangled by her husband, who was angry about an extramarital affair. The defense contended she died of a heart attack caused by a variety of factors while she was out jogging.
A forensic pathologist — Dr. Mitra Kalelkar, who performed the autopsy, testified that Kathleen King died as a consequence of “manual strangulation.” A defense pathologist, Dr. Larry Blum, attributed the 32-year-old’s death to a heart attack “brought on by stress, alcohol intoxication, lack of sleep and caffeine consumption.”
It was a classic case of a “battle of the experts,” which occurs when opposing sides present scientific testimony that is in conflict. In circumstances like that, jurors must rely on their own judgment as to the experts’ credibility as well as the circumstantial evidence that is presented.
Evidence showed that in this case, the couple — parents of three children — had been drinking heavily late in the evening of July 5 and early July 6 before they returned to their residence.
Authorities suggested that it was there that a jealous Shadwick King strangled his wife, dressed her body in jogging clothes and laid her across train tracks. The defense said Kathleen King, on her own, went for a jog, felt sick, sat down on the tracks and died.
Circumstantial evidence lent credibility to the prosecution’s claim that the death scene was staged. For example, witnesses testified that Kathleen King’s traditional jogging route did not come near the tracks. Plus, bruises on her neck and chin suggested a physical struggle.
Prosecutors presented Safarik as a crime-scene expert to raise doubts about where she died. In addition to testifying about facts the high court said jurors could have figured out on their own, Safarick was allowed to answer questions “as to the cause and manner of Kathleen’s death,” including scientific issues about which he had no expertise.
Safarik, essentially, told the jury that the victim was strangled at her home and that her body was placed on the railroad tracks by her assailant.
“Safarik was in no position to jump into this fray and, despite a complete lack of any medical training or experience, render expert opinions on such matters as the process and timing of lividity onset, the presence and causes of petechial hemorrhaging and the presence of absence of the primary indicators of four distinct categories of asphyxia,” Thomas wrote.
King was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Now being held at the medium-security Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, he’ll be returned to Kane County for a second trial.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-351-5369.
Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is email@example.com.