ST CHARLES — Knowing something bad is going to hap pen and knowing a murder is about to occur are not the same.
Consequently, Melissa Sandoval,19, is not guilty of any thing for driving two men to a North Aurora hotel where they killed a rival gang member in February 1999, ruled 16th Judicial Circuit Court Judge James Doyle on Tuesday morning.
In a six-day bench trial, Kane County assistant state’s attorney Sal LoPiccolo tried to prove that Sandoval knew Patrick Inocencio and Jesse Martinez were going to kill Eric Johnson at the Howard J9hnson Hotel, 306 S. Lincolnway
Sandoval was acquitted of first degree murder, attempted first degree murder, aggravated battery with a firearm, armed violence and home invasion.
Although she was not accused of shooting anyone, Sandoval could have been held account able for the others’ actions if prosecutors proved she knew Inocencio and Martinez were planning the murder.
“She knew something bad was going to happen,” Doyle said before issuing his verdict. However, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled last year that a defendant must “prove that he intentionally aided in or encouraged the crime’s commission.”
“The facts in this case don’t even come close to the facts (in that case),” Doyle said, adding that he must follow the law, even when he doesn’t like it.
Defense attorney Kathleen Colton was pleased with the verdict.
“It was the appropriate decision under the current state of the law,” Colton said. “She’s very grateful that she’s been found not guilty.”
Sandoval’s testimony was an important part of her defense, Colton said.
“She did a good job trying to explain the position she was in,” Colton said. “None of us will ever be in that position.”
Claiming she had no choice but to participate, Sandoval testified Inocencio or Martinez would have shot her if she refused.
LoPiccolo said he respected Doyle’s verdict even though he disagreed with it.
For a short time after her acquittal, Sandoval faced more jail time, as LoPiccolo asked to hold her as a material witness in the state’s case against Martinez.
However, he later determined a personal recognizance bond was in order. Late Tuesday, Sandoval had signed the recognizance bond and was awaiting her release from jail.
When asked about the significance of Sandoval’s testimony against Martinez, LoPiccolo said, “I think it’s an important part of the case.” A trial date for Martinez
has not yet been set.
Before she testified Friday, Sandoval was not considered a material witness, LoPiccolo said. In previous statements to police, Sandoval did not mention Martinez, as she did in her testimony, he said.
Colton doesn’t regret having her client testify, however.
“I think she needed to testify to explain her answers in the written statement,” Colton said.
Another reason for Sandoval to testify was to show the judge how different she was from Inocencio, who testified during the prosecution’s case, Colton said.
“He (Doyle) had to understand the difference between her and Patrick Inocencio,” Colton said.
Before issuing the verdict, Doyle commented on Inocencio’s behavior during his testimony.
“I have never had a witness come in here, look at a photograph (of a deceased victim).., and start laughing at the photograph,” Doyle said. Although Inocencio was not eligible for the death penalty because he was 16 years old when he committed the crime, Doyle said his behavior is a strong argument for the death penalty.
Inocencio pleaded guilty to murder and aggravated battery last year and is serving a 32-year prison sentence.