Kane County Judge James Doyle believed that Melissa N. Sandoval knew “something bad” was going to happen on Feb. 13, 1999, when she drove two gang members to a North Aurora motel to confront a rival gang.
And just a year ago, that would have been enough for Doyle to find Sandoval, 19, guilty of the murder when rival gang member Eric Johnson, 18, was shot and killed and three others were seriously wounded.
But on Tuesday, Doyle, who was deciding the case in a bench trial, said that after hearing a week’s worth of evidence, an Illinois Supreme Court case from last year prevented him from finding Sandoval guilty.
“This (prior Supreme Court case) mandates ... a finding of not guilty” of murder and 14 related counts facing Sandoval, Doyle’s ruling said.
Sandoval was charged in 1999. along with the two gang members prosecutors said she drove to the Howard Johnson motel Patrick W. Inocencio, 18, of Aurora and Jesse B. Martinez, 20, of Montgomery.
Testimony last week conflicted on Sandoval’s actual role in the crime. Sandoval testified that she was threatened by Inocencio and Martinez and told to drive the car, but another witness said Sandoval told her that she even tried to shoot at the victims herself but her gun jammed.
Prosecutors said the shooting occurred after an earlier confrontation between the two gangs, both of which happened to be partying at the same motel that night.
Inocencio, accused of leading the shooting, pleaded guilty last year and was sentenced to 32 years in prison. He is appealing his guilty plea. Martinez’s case is headed to trial.
Sandoval took the good news calmly Tuesday, though her mother wept openly outside the courtroom as she was comforted by Sandoval’s family.
Both Sandoval’s and her mother’s reaction was in part due to Assistant Kane County State’s Attorney Sal LoPiccolo’s attempt to keep Sandoval in jail even though she had just been found not guilty.
Although Sandoval was eventually freed on bond, LoPiccolo first argued that because of Sandoval’s testimony during the trial, she would be needed as a witness in the case against Martinez later this year.
Since Sandoval previously had talked about moving to Wisconsin and also had expressed a deep fear of retribution from Martinez’s and Inocencio’s gang, LoPiccolo said he feared that she would not show up to testify in the future.
LoPiccolo asked that her bail be set at $100,000, which her defense attorney, Kathleen Colton, said was “ridiculous” because LoPiccolo knew that her family couldn’t raise the 10 percent, or $10,000, needed to get her out of jail.
Doyle agreed with LoPiccolo, saying: “I don’t think we’ll see her again if she gets out of here.”
The issue infuriated Colton, who said she was even more worried for Sandoval’s safety in jail than on the streets, because there are many members of Inocencio’s and Martinez’s gang in the Kane County jail.
Besides, Colton said, “I don’t think the prosecution of Jesse Martinez stands or falls on the testimony of Melissa Sandoval ... This is just a way to continue her incarceration after she’s been found not guilty.”
Sandoval had been held in jail on bond since she was arrested two years ago. Colton said she intended to ask the Illinois Appellate Court to quickly review the bond later Tuesday, but before she could even leave the courthouse, LoPiccolo realized he had made a mistake in asking for the bond.
After reviewing the statute, LoPiccolo said he discovered that he is required first to ask Sandoval if she would sign a so-called “recognizance bond” that requires no money be posted.
A money bond would be set only if she refused to sign a recognizance bond, but Sandoval did sign it and was freed later Tuesday.
Colton continued to maintain that Sandoval and her family would be at risk even in their home, and LoPiccolo said he would ask police to provide extra protection for them.
Doyle’s not guilty verdict ended a case that he said involved some of the most chilling testimony he has heard in his years on the bench or in prosecution that of Inocencio, who laughed on the stand as he viewed photos of Johnson’s body.
“When I watched Patrick Inocencio testify here, I try not to use the word ‘shock’ ... but I use the words ‘cold blooded’ “to describe him, Doyle said. “I have to say, after watching (a former) 16-year-old, for whom the death penalty doesn’t apply, testified and then laugh at the victim, that’s got to be a strong argument for the death penalty.”
Inocencio was 16 at the time of the shooting and under state law a person has to be 17 or older to be sentenced to death.
As for the Illinois Supreme Court case Doyle referred to that dictated his ruling, it happened to be a reversal of a guilty verdict he made in 1996 in an unrelated Elgin gang murder case.
In that case, the defendant, Victor Perez, also was charged with first- degree murder because he was present at least during the initial confrontation between two rival gang members that led to a murder.
The Illinois Supreme Court found that Perez had not “with the requisite intent, aided or abetted (the shooter) prior to or during the commission of the offense.”
Doyle said he couldn’t find that “requisite” intent in the case against Sandoval.