Before his trial began 16 days ago, John Carroccia pledged he would leave the Kane County Courthouse at its conclusion as a free man.
Carroccia kept that promise Tuesday after a fast-acting jury of six men and six women took just over two hours to find him not guilty of murdering Hampshire police Sgt. Gregory Sears.
"I'm going to go home to mom, and I'm glad it's all over," the 51-year-old Rockford man said after leaving the courthouse surrounded by applauding friends and relatives.
"I just want to get home and start over again," he added. "I've been deprived of a life the last two years."
About 30 minutes earlier, Carroccia openly wept as a clerk read the verdict finding him not guilty of murdering Sears, a lifelong friend, on June 1, 2000.
A brief cheer of excitement and relief erupted from about 25 supporters who packed a Kane County courtroom Tuesday to hear closing arguments and the verdict. A half dozen police officers from Hampshire and Gilberts left the courtroom almost immediately, frustration evident on their faces.
The defendant's supporters later exchanged hugs and brushed aside tears while celebrating outside the courtroom. Many used cellular phones to call other friends and relatives to deliver news of the verdict.
"It's been hell for the whole family," said Gene Carroccia, the defendant's oldest sibling.
Carroccia had been on trial since March 10 for a first-degree murder charge alleging he shot Sears three times on the back of the head as the 50-year-old police officer patrolled the Elgiloy Business Park in Hampshire.
Despite the verdict, prosecutors Tuesday said they still believe Carroccia killed Sears.
"We are confident we charged the right person, confident in the case we put forward, but we respect the jury's decision," First Assistant Kane County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said.
"Unless we're presented with additional evidence or additional witnesses, the investigation will not be re-opened," he added.
Berlin admitted the largely circumstantial nature of the evidence against Carroccia, as well as the lack of a clear motive, could have made the case a tough sell to the jury.
Jury foreman Randy Blackburn said it was not the nature of the evidence, but the lack of evidence against Carroccia that led to the swift not guilty verdict.
"If the defense would have rested after the prosecution it wouldn't have made any difference at all," Blackburn said. "You don't put someone away in prison forever with inconclusive evidence.
"We had reasonable doubt," he added. "It was about the evidence the prosecution had and it wasn't enough."
Blackburn said jurors were particularly concerned with the lack of physical evidence, such as blood or a conclusive test on gunpowder residue, linking Carroccia to the murder.
Asked whether there was any evidence that made jurors think Carroccia may be the killer, Blackburn said there were "a lot of things" but not enough to shake the standard of reasonable doubt.
Blackburn described Sears' widow, Norma Jean Sears, as "an unusual character," but said her claims of memory loss since her husband's murder and defense efforts to portray her as a more likely suspect played no role in the deliberations.
Other jurors declined to comment following the verdict.
In their post-trial statements Carroccia's defense team was critical of the Kane County Sheriff's Department, which arrested the Rockford man just 19 hours after Sears' body was discovered lying in the Hampshire business park.
"(There was) a general failure to investigate everybody involved in the case," defense lawyer Stephen M. Komie said, a reference to the investigators speedy dismissal of Norma Jean Sears as a suspect.
Berlin was quick to defend the investigation.
"I think the Kane County sheriff's office and the rest of law enforcement has done an incredible job investigating this case," he said, noting that the investigation continued well after Carroccia's arrest.
"The police did a very thorough job and did follow up on Norma Jean and all other suspects," Berlin added.
Komie also ridiculed prosecutors' theory of the case - that Carroccia was upset over his Sears' marriage to Norma Jean and how that marriage led the officer to break off a 17-year affair with another woman who was friendly with the defendant.
"It's insane to believe somebody is going to kill his best friend for marrying the wrong girl," Komie said. "That just doesn't happen in America."
"The result is absolutely justice," defense co-counsel Jack Rimland added. "As far was we're concerned, there's still a killer out there."
Carroccia and his defense team plan to discuss the case and their reaction in more detail this morning at a press conference in Komie's downtown Chicago offices.
Berlin concluded his post-trial comments with a note of sympathy to Sears' parents, who were not present for the verdict.
"Our hearts and thoughts go out to the Sears family," he said. "This has been a very difficult process for them."
Earlier Tuesday, Berlin gave an impassioned closing argument in a last-ditch effort to convince jurors Carroccia was responsible for Gregory Sears' murder.
Berlin told jurors that anyone who believes Carroccia did not kill the officer must also believe defendant is the unluckiest man in the world.
"If there were a lottery for the unluckiest man in the world, he would hold the winning ticket," he said.
The prosecutor mockingly said it must have been bad luck that Carroccia's van was spotted at the murder scene, that a waitress testified she served him coffee at a restaurant a half-mile away from there about 10 minutes before the slaying and that materials consistent with gunpowder residue were found on his steering wheel a day later.
"He's not the unluckiest man in the world," Berlin later said, raising his voice and pointing a finger at Carroccia. "What he is is guilty of murder."
In a surprising move, Berlin not only addressed defense claims that Sears' widow was a more likely killer, but said jurors could reasonably believe she played a part in the murder.
"I'm not going to stand up here and say Norma Jean is your normal everyday person," he said. "Norma Jean Sears had a motive to kill her husband, I'm not going to deny that.
"But there is no evidence that anyone other than this defendant (Carroccia) pulled that trigger. All the evidence you heard in this case points to him and him alone," Berlin added, a theme he returned to several times in his 35-minute argument.
Berlin also hinted at a motive, saying that Carroccia had become close in early 2000 to Marilyn Vogelman, a Lakewood woman who had a 17-year affair with Gregory Sears before he met Norma Jean in 1998. Vogelman, police said, was upset when Sears ended their relationship.
"Was she a part of it? It's an inference you can make," he said.
In earlier arguments, Kane County State's Attorney Sal LoPiccolo gave jurors a nine-point list of why Carroccia should be convicted. Among those points were evidence Sears knew his killer, Carroccia's guns similar to the murder weapon were missing when police searched his home and claims the defendant gave police a phony alibi.
Berlin finished the state's argument by asking jurors to send a message that people who commit crimes like the Sears' murder will be held responsible.
"You know the truth now," he said. "We now ask you to do justice. Don't let him get away with it."
In the defense closing, a far more subdued Rimland also asked jurors to send a message. That message, he said, is for the Kane County Sheriff's Department to re-open its investigation into Sears' slaying.
Although Rimland never said his client was innocent, he repeatedly told jurors there was not enough evidence to find Carroccia guilty.
"Through suspicion, speculation and innuendo there can be no conviction," Rimland said.
Rimland also attacked the credibility of key prosecution witness John Rogula, who testified early in the trial he saw Carroccia's van leaving the murder scene.
However, Rimland noted, Rogula made the observation at 8:50 p.m., in a rainstorm from at least 400 feet away. Other testimony indicated Rogula bragged to co-workers that he expected a reward for his testimony.
"His testimony was ludicrous," Rimland said. "He told you a bunch of things that are humanly impossible."
The defense lawyer finished his argument by reminding jurors of the standard of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
"Concentrate on that and the absence of any scientific, physical or forensic evidence linking John Carroccia to a homicide," he said.
It was a request jurors obviously took seriously and led to the result for which Carroccia had been hoping.
"I was praying for this," he said. "I always pray."
Dark picture of widow emerges Defense still focusing on Norma Jean Sears
by Charles Keeshan Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted on Saturday, March 23, 2002
Less than four months before Hampshire police Sgt. Gregory Sears' murder, his widow claimed she had killed a previous husband, a friend of the slain officer testified Friday.
The testimony from Elgin resident Annette Downey was part of a continuing effort by the defense of Sears' accused killer, John Carroccia, to paint Norma Jean Sears as a more credible suspect in her husband's slaying.
Carroccia, 51, of Rockford, is on trial on first-degree murder charges alleging he fired three shots into the back of Sears' head June 1, 2000 as the officer patrolled the Elgiloy Business Park on Hampshire's outskirts. The defendant, a lifelong friend of the murdered policeman, says he was shopping then watching television at home around the time of the fatal shooting.
As part of his defense, three former friends of Gregory Sears took the witness stand Friday to testify about the officer's relationship with Norma Jean Sears, who he married three weeks before he died, and their interaction with her before and after the murder.
Downey, the wife of an Illinois State Police sergeant, told jurors about her experience with Norma Jean Sears when she and her husband joined Gregory Sears and his future wife at a dinner outing in February 2000.
During the dinner, Downey testified, Norma Jean Sears asked questions about how much money she would receive if her future husband died while on duty. She also told a story about the death of her first husband, Downey said.
"She said she shot and killed her first husband and that because she was abused they ruled it a justifiable homicide," she testified.
According to Carroccia's defense, Sears' first husband is still alive and her second husband, Gary Rahilly, died of cancer in 1996.
Downey, along with Hampshire residents Paul and Marian Hosick, also testified about their encounters with the widow in the hours after the Sears' murder. All three said Norma Jean Sears acted calm throughout the night and any tears she shed seemed forced.
"She didn't seem upset," Marian Hosick said. "She looked just fine."
Paul Hosick later described the widow's reaction when she learned of the murder.
"She buried her head in my left shoulder," he said. "Supposedly she was crying. When she pulled her head up my shoulder was dry."
Kane County prosecutors attacked the credibility of all three witnesses, getting them to admit they never liked Norma Jean Sears and were friendly with Carroccia.
Under intense questioning by First Assistant Kane County State's Attorney Robert Berlin, Downey said she suspected Norma Jean's involvement in husband's slaying almost immediately.
The prosecuting attorney later shouted questions at Paul Hosick when asking his feelings about Norma Jean Sears.
"So we're clear, you didn't like Norma Jean Sears, did you?" Berlin asked, his voice rising.
"No I didn't," Hosick replied with equal volume.
"From the day you met her, you didn't like her," Berlin pressed.
"That's right," Hosick replied, leaning back on the witness stand, arms folded across his chest.
"Sir, you'll say anything to help your buddy, Mr. Carroccia," Berlin later asked.
"No sir," Hosick answered.
In earlier testimony from the defense, FBI scientist Charles Peters told jurors he compared the composition of the bullets that killed Gregory Sears with ammunition seized from Carroccia's home two days later. None matched the fatal rounds, he said.
"The alloys don't match or even come close to what was in the victim," Peters testified.
Also, a physician called by the defense questioned whether it was really a stroke that hospitalized Gregory Sears two weeks before his death.
Dr. Stanley Zydlo told the jury he believed Sears suffered a seizure that could have been caused by an overdose of stimulants. The defense hopes the testimony leads jurors to suspect that someone, perhaps Norma Jean Sears, was trying to kill the sergeant before June 1.
However, under cross examination, Zydlo admitted he based his opinion entirely on a review of Sears' medical records and autopsy report, not any discussions with the officer's doctors.
Zydlo also said any number of factors other than a drug overdose could have caused the seizure, including Sears' poor physical condition. He later said it is possible Sears suffered a very minor stroke in May 2000 that would not have left behind telltale signs he would expect to find in the autopsy of a stroke victim.
The defense is expected to conclude its evidence Monday or early Tuesday. The case could be in the hands of jurors by Wednesday.
Widow can't recall events around killing Wife of slain officer says defense attorney so traumatized her she can't remember
by Charles Keeshan Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted on Friday, March 22, 2002
Choking back tears and angrily denouncing a lawyer for her husband's accused killer, the widow of slain Hampshire police Sgt. Gregory Sears testified Thursday she has no memory of when the veteran police officer was murdered.
But under intense questioning by the attorney for murder suspect John Carroccia, Norma Jean Sears on at least three occasions offered details about the days surrounding the murder that contradicted her claims of memory loss.
Norma Jean Sears, in what had been the most anticipated moment of Carroccia's trial, took the witness stand Thursday afternoon and spent more than two hours answering a barrage of questions about her life before and after her husband's June 1, 2000, slaying.
But instead of offering any information concerning the murder, she reiterated over and over that she could not remember anything about the night her husband of only three weeks was gunned down while on duty. Sears made the same claim 11 months ago when called to testify at a pre-trial hearing.
Kane County prosecutors contend Carroccia, a 51-year-old from Rockford and lifelong friend of the slain police officer, fired three bullets into the back of Gregory Sears' head, killing the Marengo resident almost instantly. Carroccia has pleaded innocent and his defense is trying to portray the officer's widow as the more likely suspect in the 50-year-old officer's slaying.
Dressed in a charcoal pantsuit and sporting a newly blonde hairstyle, Norma Jean Sears spoke softly in her native Kentucky accent, punctuating many of her answers with "sir" during her time on the witness stand.
"I don't remember any of that time," she repeated again and again when pressed for details about anything that occurred in the hours and days after her husband's death.
Among the things she could not remember was telling investigators shortly after the murder that she thought Carroccia might want her husband dead. She also could not recall examining her husband's wounds the next day at a funeral home, preparing wills with her husband the day of his murder or calling a male friend in Florida 12 times on June 1, 2000.
After Norma Jean Sears' testimony, defense lawyer Stephen M. Komie ridiculed her claims of memory loss.
"I spent the afternoon listening to the most absurd and fanciful comments I've ever heard in my life," he later said outside of court.
Norma Jean Sears blamed her memory loss, which she said began about six weeks after the murder, on stress caused by Carroccia's defense team and media reports about her checkered past. She singled out Komie, as he questioned her, as the cause of her problems.
"You took my memory from me," she told Komie with her voice breaking and tears in her eyes. "I can't even remember my husband's funeral. I can't remember saying goodbye to him. You took all that away from me."
It was one of many confrontational moments between her and Komie. Perhaps the most combative moment came when Komie asked about the death of her second husband, Gary Rahilly, six years ago when she lived in Florida.
"Do you remember telling (a Sears' family friend) you murdered your other husband?" Komie asked.
"How dare you," Sears shot back as prosecutors objected to the question. "He died of cancer."
Sears said she moved back to Florida three weeks after the murder to get away from Komie, but said even there she has been constantly harassed by people she claims are working on behalf of the Chicago lawyer, including deputies of the Marion County, Fla., sheriff's department.
"You don't leave your home unless you have to," she said. "It just took its toll and I couldn't take anymore."
Outside of court, Komie denied any effort to harass or intimidate the witness.
Although Norma Jean Sears stuck by her memory loss claim throughout her testimony, Komie believed she tripped up at least a few times. The most significant, in the defense's eyes, came when Sears testified she did not know she would receive a $148,000 federal grant as a result of her husband's death until Hampshire police Chief Tom Atchison told her several days after the murder.
"So you have an excellent memory when it comes to going down to the chief's office and collecting $150,000 from our government?" Komie asked.
"No, I don't remember that," she said. "I was told it (later)."
Norma Jean Sears also testified about the driving rainstorm the night of her husband's slaying and being placed in a police car the next day while Carroccia was arrested at her home.
The defense also questioned Sears about her financial status before and after the murder and her relationship with a married Florida man named Ray Goodrich.
Komie pressed Sears on the number of phone calls between her home in Marengo and her former residence in Florida, where Goodrich was living the first half of 2000. Komie said there were 121 such calls between April 27, 2000, and June 16, 2000, included a dozen on June 1.
Norma Jean Sears replied that she and Goodrich are "very good friends" and when she moved up to Illinois to live with and eventually marry Gregory Sears, Goodrich moved into her Florida home and maintained it.
"Anytime something needed to be done, he would call," she said.
Komie later indicated that phone records will show Sears called Goodrich from a pay phone at a Hampshire truck stop while Gregory Sears was home sick for more than a week in late May 2000. Sears said she could not explain those calls.
Sears also denied that she was broke when she moved to Marengo to be with Gregory Sears in fall 1999. Although she had completed bankruptcy proceedings in June 1999, Sears said a worker's compensation settlement three months later allowed her to come to Illinois with $10,000 in the bank.
She also testified that she has collected nearly $250,000 in death benefits since her husband's slaying. She also admitted that she knew she could collect another $750,000 in worker's compensation, but said she has not filed a claim.
Carroccia defense team argues witness may be lying for reward
by Charles Keeshan Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted on Thursday, March 21, 2002
Lawyers for John Carroccia opened their defense of the accused police officer killer Wednesday attacking two eyewitnesses who placed the defendant at the scene of Hampshire police Sgt. Gregory Sears' murder.
Carroccia, 51, of Rockford, is on trial on first-degree murder charges accusing him of firing three shots into the back of the 50- year-old officer's head on June 1, 2000, then leaving him to die face down along a road in the Elgiloy Business Park on the outskirts of Hampshire.
A key part of Kane County prosecutors' case against Carroccia is the testimony of John Rogula, a Belvidere man who says he heard three gunshots at about the time of Sears' murder then watched the defendant's van driving out of the business park.
However, former co-worker Adam Stephenson told jurors Wednesday that Rogula sometimes smelled of marijuana while on the job and is not someone to be believed.
" (He is) not very trustworthy," Stephenson said when asked about Rogula's reputation. "He was very sly. He avoided the truth."
A day after the murder, Stephenson testified, Rogula told him he planned to collect a $1,000 reward for identifying Carroccia's van leaving the scene of Sears' murder.
The defense had earlier trained its sights on prosecution witness Rhonda Herrmann. A former waitress at a truck stop less than a half-mile from the murder scene, Herrmann testified last week she served Carroccia coffee the night of Sears' slaying.
Carroccia left the truck stop at about 8:45 p.m., Herrmann said, about five minutes before authorities believe Sears was shot to death.
But fellow truck-stop waitress Abbey McDonald testified Wednesday that she was working alongside Herrmann on that night and she never saw Carroccia that night.
" (Herrmann) is not truthful at all," McDonald said.
However, under cross-examination, McDonald also said she did not see Sears or his wife, Norma Jean Sears, in the truck stop that night. Previous testimony indicated both had been there June 1, 2000. McDonald also admitted she grew up across the street from Carroccia's relatives and remains friendly with the family.
Although the defense concentrated on the eyewitnesses Wednesday, it did not forget about Sears' widow, who they hope to convince jurors is a more likely suspect in her husband's murder.
To that end, attorneys elicited testimony from Marengo funeral home director John Freund about Norma Jean Sears' unusual behavior a day after the fatal shooting.
According to Freund, the widow showed no emotion while making funeral arrangements, but insisted on viewing her husband's body before its embalming.
"She specifically wanted to see the (bullet) wounds," he said.
Before resting their case Wednesday morning, prosecutors presented evidence that on the day after Sears' slaying, the steering wheel of Carroccia's van had particles consistent with gunshot residue on it.
However, Illinois State Police scientist Robert Berk testified the findings are not enough to say for certain Carroccia had fired a gun the night of the murder.
The inconclusive finding is the only physical evidence offered that could link Carroccia to the murder.
Using a high-powered electron microscope, Berk said he discovered materials consistent with gunshot residue on a sample taken from the left side of the van's steering wheel.
The amount found, Berk testified, was significantly higher than what he would expect to find on someone who had not recently fired a gun. But, he said, it was not enough to say with any scientific certainty that Carroccia had fired a gun.
"It would be my opinion that the steering wheel was in close proximity to a firearm when it was discharged, that it came into contact with something that had gunshot residue on it or it simply came from other environmental factors," he said.
Carroccia's defense seized on the third theory, pressing Berk with questions about what everyday items the defendant could have touched that day that would have led to the same finding.
Berk said a similar finding would be possible from someone who had been working with certain types of paint or any number of industrial materials and machines. Carroccia claims he was working on refurbishing a home the day of the murder.
Similar tests on other parts of the steering wheel proved negative, Berk testified, along with tests of Carroccia's hands and clothing.