In a brief phone conversation after finding her 16-year-old daughter brutally slain, Valerie Justice testified Wednesday, her then-husband suggested he already knew about the murder and claimed to have nothing to do with it.
"Let me tell you, I did not do this," she recalled Laurence Lovejoy saying on March 27, 2004, the day Erin "EJ" Justice was killed in their Aurora home.
Contact information ( * required )
The next day, Valerie Justice said, she asked Lovejoy why he hadn't asked what happened to his stepdaughter. "He said other people told him and he just didn't want to bring it up," she testified. "He wanted to know what the police were asking and what they wanted from me."
Lovejoy, 44, is accused of drugging, beating, stabbing and drowning Erin Justice to silence her after she told authorities he sexually assaulted her earlier that month. A DuPage County jury convicted him and sentenced him to the death penalty in 2007, but the Illinois Supreme Court later overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial.
On Wednesday, Valerie Justice testified at Lovejoy's retrial about coming home from work early to check on her daughter, who had been unreachable by phone, and finding her murdered.
She remembered calling out her daughter's name to no response as she walked through a front door that had been left open and to an upstairs bathroom.
"I opened the door and turned on the light. I saw my baby in the bathtub," she testified. "My first instinct was to try to pull her out. But I lifted her arm and realized I needed to call 911."
State's Attorney Robert Berlin told jurors that weeks earlier, on March 3, 2004, Lovejoy ran a bath for his stepdaughter and massaged her legs with oil before raping her as she pleaded for him to stop.
Afterward, the Waubonsie Valley High School student went to authorities, who swabbed parts of her body to test for Lovejoy's DNA. With Justice's mother's consent, Lovejoy was allowed to remain free but was to have no contact with the teenager until the results were in.
On cross-examination from Assistant Public Defender Ruth Walstra, Valerie Justice said she did not see Lovejoy as a danger as long as he was away from her daughter. She said she vowed to divorce him if the test results proved the allegations.
"At the time, I didn't feel threatened," she said.
Valerie Justice said she was working at a part-time job the morning her daughter was killed. Prosecutors said Lovejoy went to their Aurora townhouse and force-fed Erin Justice an overdose of cough syrup before beating her with a blunt object, repeatedly stabbing her about the wrists and neck, and eventually drowning her in the bathtub.
Among other evidence linking Lovejoy to the crime was a partial footprint found at the crime scene in the victim's blood. A forensic expert is expected to testify the print matched that of Lovejoy, who was granted a new trial because he wasn't allowed to call a last-minute witness to refute such evidence in his last trial.
Prosecutors said tests done on Erin before her murder later corroborated the teen's account of being attacked and confirmed Lovejoy's DNA on her cheek and chest.
But at one point before the murder, Valerie Justice said Lovejoy asked her to tell investigators her daughter's "story kept changing."
"Was her story changing?" Berlin asked.
"No," she said. "I told him I was going to support Erin."