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Court overturns conviction of man accused of killing Aurora student
By Christy Gutowski and John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff

Erin Justice

 

Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

Laurence Lovejoy

 

Valerie Justice looks over everal family photos of her slain daughter, Erin, in 2005.

 

Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

Erin Jenea Justice of Aurora, at age 4, with a milk mustache.

 

Erin Jenea Justice of Aurora, laying to the left of a doll in the photo, at 10 weeks old.

 

Valerie Justice receives a hug from one of Erin's classmates during a memorial service in April 2004 in Aurora for Waubonsie Valley High School sophomore Erin Justice who was murdered March 27 in her Aurora home.

 

Daily Herald file photo

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Published: 9/24/2009 11:13 AM | Updated: 9/24/2009 5:51 PM

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SPRINGFIELD -- It's been more than five years since his daughter's murder, but Edreick Justice couldn't get Erin off his mind early Thursday while working the midnight shift.

"I just had a strange feeling," he said. "It was like she was getting ready to tell me something."

Hours later, prosecutors called to tell him the Illinois Supreme Court had overturned the death sentence of Erin's stepfather in her March 27, 2004 slaying.

Prosecutors plan to appeal but, if the high court's unanimous decision stands, Laurence E. Lovejoy, 43, will receive a new trial.

"I'm kind of numb," Edreick Justice said. "I feel like someone just jammed my life back into reverse."

Erin's mother, Valerie, echoed his disappointment.

"You have to go on and learn how to live," she said, "but this certainly doesn't help. I have very strong faith, and I know, in the end, it'll all be taken care of."

Erin "EJ" Justice, 16, was beaten, poisoned, stabbed and drowned in the bathtub of her Aurora townhouse, about three weeks after she accused her new stepfather of rape.

Prosecutors argued Lovejoy killed Erin - a Waubonsie High School track standout who dreamed of becoming a model or crime scene investigator - in an effort to silence her about the sexual assault. Days after her violent death, Lovejoy's DNA was matched to saliva found on Erin's chest and cheek.

After a six-week trial, in which DuPage Circuit Judge Kathryn Creswell presided, a jury convicted Lovejoy and sentenced him to death in February 2007.

In Thursday's opinion, justices said Lovejoy was denied a fair trial because Creswell did not give the defense the chance to bring in its own expert to rebut a sheriff's crime lab forensic scientist who gave testimony that contradicted her reports.

The testimony in question dealt with Lovejoy's partial footprint on a bathroom tile and was, as the justices put it, "devastating" to his defense.

The question was whether the bare footprint was left before the murder and was then washed over by Erin's blood or whether Lovejoy had stepped in her blood after the killing.

One forensic test came back negative for blood. The defense was aware of the test result. At trial, however, the sheriff's expert who did the testing said it was "apparent blood" and the test must have produced a false negative.

Her report, though, did not include this opinion.

The defense argued prosecutors failed to previously disclose her opinion. The prosecution team, led by DuPage State's Attorney Joseph Birkett, said it earlier filed "numerous documents" about this, but they did not produce them that day in court.

The defense asked to strike all of the contested testimony and have the death penalty taken out of consideration, saying prosecutors violated legal rules overseeing the disclosure of evidence. The judge denied that request. Later, Lovejoy's attorneys sought permission to put the trial on hold so they could consult their own expert. Creswell denied the request.

In a unanimous decision, the Illinois Supreme Court disagreed with the judge's decision and said a new trial is needed to correct the error.

"However, we feel compelled to note that there is no good reason why the trial court denied defendant's request for a continuance after (the expert) testimony in light of the seriousness of the charge, the complexity of the evidence at issue, and the fact that a short continuance would not have created any hardship to the court, the parties, or the witnesses in this case," Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald said in writing the opinion.

In response, Birkett said Thursday he will arrange a meeting with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's staff to consider all legal options, including a rehearing request.

Birkett disagreed with the high court's perceived discovery violation, and said there was "overwhelming" evidence of Lovejoy's guilt even without the footprint. Prosecutors lacked a confession, but Lovejoy's prints were recovered elsewhere in the home on pieces of crucial evidence that authorities said were linked to the crime and cleanup efforts.

Lovejoy maintained his innocence throughout his criminal proceedings. His appellate attorney, Kim Fawcett, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Despite their disappointment, Erin's parents said they remain confident truth will prevail.

I don't want to go through this again, but I will for Erin, until we get this right," Edreick Justice said. "There's more than enough evidence to prove his guilt."