A woman serving a 30-year sentence for a 2003 sledgehammer attack on her ex-husband and his then-new wife will get a second chance at a trial, a Lake County judge declared Tuesday.
Judge John Phillips blamed both the state's attorney's office and the lawyer representing defendant Sandra D. Rogers for their handling of the case, which resulted in Rogers submitting a plea that led to her long prison term on attempted murder charges.
Rogers' 2004 plea didn't admit her guilt but rather acknowledged the state's case was strong enough to result in a guilty verdict.
Rogers, formerly of Mundelein, has been imprisoned since then. She was not in court Tuesday, instead remaining at the downstate Dwight Correctional Center.
Phillips' ruling essentially resets the case against her to where it was at the time of the plea.
Ralph Strathmann, the lawyer now representing Rogers, called Phillips' ruling "pretty uncommon." He expects Rogers will be satisfied that "justice is being done."
Assistant State's Attorney Patricia Fix, who worked the review of Rogers' case but not the original prosecution, said she was not surprised by Phillips' decision. After hearing the ruling, Fix went to speak privately with the victims of the attack, one of whom was in court Tuesday.
"We're going to discuss what our next steps are in the process," Fix said. "I need to talk to them first, because they're going to have to go through this again."
Later in the day, Fix said her office will prosecute Rogers on attempted murder and home invasion charges. She admitted the case will be more difficult to prove so many years later, noting evidence typically does not age well.
Authorities said Rogers and co-defendant Jonathan McMeekin went to the Lincolnshire home of Richard Rogers and Angela Gloria and attacked them as they slept.
McMeekin, then 17, was having a romantic relationship with Rogers' 14-year-old daughter.
McMeekin pleaded guilty to attempted murder and was prepared to testify against Rogers if her case went to trial. He remains imprisoned.
Rogers had sought to undo her plea, claiming she was tricked into admitting her role in the crime. She said her attorney was told a Lake County corrections officer was prepared to testify she passed a message from Rogers to McMeekin that would have hurt her case.
The exact wording of that message was disputed, however. Rogers said she was told the officer would say the message was "I'm sorry," which could be legally interpreted as an admission of guilt.
But Rogers maintained the message was "How are you and I love you."
An investigator working for the prosecution later determined the message was not "I'm sorry," but that information was not passed on to the attorney then representing Rogers, Phillips said.
The state's attorney's office had a legal duty to share that information with the defense, and the defense attorney had an obligation to investigate as well, Phillips said.
"The purported apology was not insignificant," Phillips told the courtroom Tuesday. "It did have an effect on her decision to plea."
Phillips called the lack of disclosure "material" to the case, particularly because the other evidence tying Rogers to the attack was circumstantial.
With Rogers' plea tossed, the original charges against her will be reinstated, Phillips said. A new trial date will be set, too, and she will be assigned a new attorney.
Phillips also took aim at the jail guard who passed the message for Rogers, saying the officer's actions were "disturbing" and "inappropriate."
Phillips said he hopes her actions are investigated.
That's unlikely, however, as the guard already was reprimanded, Fix said. Even so, Fix laid blame at the guard's feet, too, saying she "played no small role" in the situation.
Fix said the guard gave contradictory statements about the message she relayed. At one point she even denied passing along the message.
"(This) is, in fact, a disturbing situation," Fix said.
State's Attorney Michael Waller could not be reached for comment.
A hearing for Rogers' case was set for May 8. Bond may be set for Rogers at that time, too.
Both of the prosecutors who handled Rogers' original case, George Strickland and Christopher Stride, are judges today. Phillips' ruling should not reflect poorly on them, Strathmann said, because -- according to testimony -- they didn't know the actual wording of the message.
But for attorneys on either side of the case, confirming the wording "would have been as simple as picking up the phone and making a call over to the jail," Strathmann said.
Neither Strickland nor Stride could be reached for comment.