Lake County drops murder charges against Chicago teens in fatal car burglary
Lake County prosecutors dropped murder charges Thursday against five Chicago teenagers whose accomplice was shot and killed during an attempted car burglary near Old Mill Creek last month.
While reversing a decision that sparked controversy both locally and in the legal community, State's Attorney Michael Nerheim said the facts of the case still support the murder charges.
"However, after full consideration of all the evidence, mitigation presented by defense counsel as well as the wishes of the victim's family, my office has entered into an agreement with defense counsel for the five offenders," Nerheim said in a statement announcing his decision. "This agreement ensures all offenders will be held responsible and face appropriate sentences."
Under the agreement, the only adult charged in the case, 18-year-old Diamond Davis, will plead guilty next week to burglary, a felony, and misdemeanor trespassing, Nerheim said.
The four others, all boys, will have their cases remanded to juvenile court. Nerheim, who had charged the teens as adults, said a plea agreement has been reached with all four, but he declined to elaborate.
It's unclear what type of sentencing recommendations prosecutors will present in each case.
"Due to strict laws governing juvenile courtroom proceedings, my office is unable to give details regarding the charges involving juveniles going forward," he said.
The five were charged under the state's "felony murder" rule after 14-year-old Jaquan Swopes was shot to death by a homeowner who spotted people trying to break into a car on his property in the early morning hours of Aug. 13. The law allows accomplices in some felony cases to be charged with murder if a death occurs during that crime.
Nerheim's decision to bring murder charges was praised by some but criticized by community activists and criminal justice reformers.
Jobi Cates, executive director of Restore Justice Illinois, said people from all walks of life came out against Nerheim's use of the felony murder law.
Her Evanston-based organization has advocated for change in the felony murder law and coordinated a letter-writing campaign in the Old Mill Creek case. Cates said Thursday she plans to write another letter to Nerheim, this one thanking him for listening to the community and reconsidering the case.
"It's very hopeful and very heartening both that the prosecutor took time to slow down and go through the facts of the case and that the community really engaged on this issue," Cates said.
Eric Rinehart, a Lake County defense attorney who hopes to challenge Nerheim in the 2020 election for state's attorney, also criticized Nerheim's initial decision. He reiterated that criticism in a statement Thursday.
"The office charged first and investigated later, the opposite of what should have been done," Rinehart said. "Thankfully, it now appears that public pressure from our community has caused the office to retreat."
Friends and family of Diamond Davis attended her court appearance Thursday afternoon but did not address the media.
Nerheim said the five teenagers admitted they were in the Old Mill Creek area Aug. 13 to commit a car burglary and had driven there in a car stolen from Wilmette days earlier.
The 75-year-old homeowner told investigators he was in bed when he noticed headlights moving up his driveway about 1:15 a.m. After the vehicle turned around to face the road, "several occupants" got out and approached the house, Nerheim said. That's when the man armed himself with a legally registered handgun and went outside.
The homeowner, who has not been charged, told police he announced his presence and shouted for the teens to leave his property. Nerheim said the man told police that "several" offenders then moved quickly toward him, one "carrying an object." The homeowner fired several shots "to try and scare the offenders away," telling investigators he feared for his safety and the safety of his wife, Nerheim said. One of the shots struck Swopes in the head.
Investigators later recovered a 10-inch-long hunting knife on the driveway and a cellphone with pinned GPS coordinates of other homes near Old Mill Creek, Nerheim said.
After the shooting, the six teenagers left in a vehicle. They stopped near an accident scene in Gurnee, where one of the boys got out with Swopes to seek medical attention. The other four drove away, leading police on a high-speed chase from Gurnee to Chicago, where the remaining teens were apprehended. Nerheim said they told police they fled because "they didn't want to go back to jail."
"It is time for these offenders to understand the seriousness of their actions and face the consequences," Nerheim said Thursday. "If they choose to continue to follow the troubled path they are currently on, it will end in only one of two ways -- either with another tragic funeral or with more involvement with the criminal justice system. My hope is they will learn from this tragedy, and take this opportunity to be rehabilitated."