Why 'Lake County Five' charges might be best hope for opponents of felony murder law

To the opponents of Illinois' controversial felony murder law, the case of five teenagers charged with first-degree murder for the killing of another teen by a Lake County homeowner last month is the "worst-case scenario."

But the "Lake County Five," as the teens have become known, might also be opponents' best hope for getting the public and legislative attention needed to change the law.

Some of those opponents gathered Thursday at the Lake County courthouse to pray and show support as the "Lake County Five" appeared in court. Others got together Wednesday night in Waukegan to discuss ways to advocate for change.

"People aren't always motivated on an issue like this unless they see the impact it can have," said Jobi Cates, executive director of Restore Justice Illinois, based in Evanston. "It's horrible that this is happening, but it really has galvanized people."

A refresher: Last month, a 75-year-old resident of the tiny Lake County hamlet of Old Mill Creek shot and killed 14-year-old Jaquon Swopes of Chicago, who, along with the five others, was trying to break into the man's car in his driveway at 1:15 a.m., authorities say.

In announcing charges last month, Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim said the five are responsible for the boy's death. "Had they not made the decisions they did make early Tuesday morning, this 14-year-old would still be alive today," he said

Applying the felony-murder law that holds someone responsible for the death of an accomplice killed in the commission of a crime, Nerheim charged Jaquon's cousins Diamond C. Davis, 18, Steven Davis, 17, Stacy Davis, 17, and Kendrick Cooper, 17, and friend Curtis Dawson, 16, with first-degree murder.

Nerheim's decision, which could put the teens in prison for decades, has renewed old debates and brought new scrutiny to the long-standing law.

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  Family members, clergy and supporters conducted a prayer circle in the Lake County courthouse Thursday before a group of Chicago teenagers appeared in court on first-degree murder charges stemming from the shooting of a fellow teen last month on Old Mill Creek. Doug T. Graham/

'Where we need to be'

Even before the Lake County Five, Restore Justice Illinois and like-minded organizations were working to change the felony-murder law. They note that Illinois is one of 19 states that allow accomplices to be charged as a "proximate" cause of someone's death. Under the theory of the Old Mill Creek case, the teens deciding to break into a car and not back down when confronted by its owner was the proximate cause of Jaquon's death.

Other states impose a more restrictive "agency theory" that requires either the intent to kill or knowledge that a death was possible.

"Proximate cause allows the kind of disaster we're seeing in this case," Cates said.

In March, Restore Justice worked with state Rep. Justin Slaughter of Chicago to introduce legislation to change that. Lost amid marijuana legalization, progressive income taxes and gambling expansion, the legislation didn't get far.

That didn't come as a surprise to its backers, who have hope the bill eventually will move forward.

"We're right where we need to be," Cates said.

While continuing to push forward on the legislation, advocates say they'll also continue to draw public attention to the issue, as well as launch a letter-writing campaign to Nerheim.

Among those at Wednesday's gathering was Julane Alt, a Libertyville resident and former attorney, who told Daily Herald staff writer Doug Graham she is outraged by murder charges.

"This is not what the felony murder statute was made for," she said. "I am going to lobby my local representatives to support changing the law."

Next week, Mothers Against Wrongful Convictions will host a panel discussion on the felony-murder law featuring criminal justice reform advocates and attorneys. It's set for 6:30 p.m. at Shiloh Baptist Church, 800 S. Genesee St., Waukegan.

"This is a really stark use of the law and an example of how it can be misapplied," Cates said. "We don't think it's right and we're going to keep pushing."

<h3 class="leadin">The other side

For his part, Nerheim issued a statement Thursday afternoon sounding perhaps less committed to prosecuting the Chicago teens for murder than he was a few weeks ago.

"We have been in repeated communication with attorneys for the five individuals, and we continue to review the evidence, facts and background of the offenders in order to make appropriate formal charging decisions," the statement reads.

"I want to reiterate a passage from our previous statement: the Lake County State's Attorney's Office will continue to evaluate this case and work towards a resolution that is fair to all parties involved, while also fulfilling our obligation to keep our community safe," he continues. "In doing so, I will consider the facts, circumstances, any mitigating factors, and the ages of the offenders."

<h3 class="leadin">Reaching out to immigrants

Lake County Sheriff John Idleburg has joined 55 fellow law enforcement leaders from across the country in signing an open letter aimed at easing immigrants' fears in the wake of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, and federal raids in Mississippi.

Addressed "Dear Immigrant Communities," the letter says it is local law enforcement's job to keep everyone safe, not to enforce immigration laws. And keeping the community safe requires the trust and help of everyone in it.

  Lake County Sheriff John Idleburg is sending a message to immigrants saying he wants them to feel safe in his community. Mark Welsh/, 2018

"We want you to feel safe in our communities and comfortable calling law enforcement to report crimes, serving as witnesses, and asking for help in emergencies," the letter from the Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force reads. "When you feel safe and comfortable reaching out to us, we can keep everyone safer."

Idleburg said fear of being detained over immigration status keeps people from coming forward as a crime victim or witness.

"Our efforts need to be focused on our local community," Idleburg said. "We have no desire or resources to enforce federal immigration laws. We need our immigrant communities to trust us in order for us to effectively do our jobs of keeping people safe."

It's not the first time Idleburg, a Democrat from Zion, has waded into the national debate on immigration. During the federal shutdown early this year, he and his colleagues on the Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force spoke out against a proposed border wall and instead called for "targeted investments in border security."

<h3 class="leadin">An Olympic effort

Congratulations to Rolling Meadows officer Christopher Don and his police dog partner Scar for a pair of second-place finishes in the annual Vohne Liche Kennels and American Working Dogs K-9 Olympics.

Rolling Meadows police officer Christopher Don and partner Scar.earned two second-place finishing at last month's Vohne Liche Kennels and American Working Dogs K-9 Olympics in Indiana. the competition attracts top police dogs from across the country and four other countries.

Held Aug. 19-23 in Denver, Indiana, the event brings together more than 140 of the top police dogs from across the U.S. and four other countries. They compete in disciplines such as narcotic detection, article searches, apprehension and control techniques.

Don and Scar earned second place in narcotic road clears and narcotics in open areas.

Scar is a Belgian Malinois/Sheppard mix and has been working in the department for two years. Don is a six-year veteran of the Rolling Meadows force and was certified as a police dog handler in 2017.

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