Cops didn't frame former death row inmate, jury says

  • Gary Gauger

    Gary Gauger

Published: 8/20/2009 4:00 PM | Updated: 8/20/2009 11:08 PM

For a dozen years McHenry County Undersheriff Gene Lowery and two former colleagues have lived with allegations they framed an innocent man for the murder of his parents and helped send him to death row for a crime he did not commit.

Those claims may have been silenced Thursday night when a jury cleared him and retired detectives Beverly Hendle and Christopher Pandre of malicious prosecution and conspiracy claims brought in a lawsuit by pardoned death row inmate Gary Gauger.

Jurors deliberated nearly five hours before returning the verdicts, which found that even though Gauger was innocent, the detectives had probable cause to arrest him for his parents' 1993 slayings.

Gauger was suing the detectives, and the McHenry County sheriff's department, for $20 million, alleging they falsely reported that he confessed to the murders - acts that ultimately landed him behind bars for 31/2 years, including nine months on death row, before he was exonerated.

On Thursday, it was the detectives claiming vindication.

"Nobody feels good when the criminal justice system fails," Lowery said after the verdict. "Though I feel we've been exonerated, I don't think there's anything to celebrate.

"Maybe some of our honor is back," he said. "We were accused of wrongdoing, and we were just doing our jobs."

Gauger, an organic vegetable grower who lives near Richmond, declined to comment on the jury's decision, but his lawyers said they will appeal. "It's a very disappointing verdict," Gauger attorney Matthew Crowl said. "We felt that the evidence was strong, but we understand it's a high burden to meet in a malicious prosecution case."

That burden required Gauger to show that not only did the detectives arrest the wrong man but that they did so with an "improper motive" other than bringing the proper person to justice.

The jurors declined to comment on their decision as they left the McHenry County courthouse Thursday night.

Gauger was living with his parents, Ruth and Morris Gauger, in April 1993 when they were found dead, their throats slashed, on the family farm off Route 173. During 18 hours of questioning, police said, Gauger confessed to the killings. He later was convicted of first-degree murder based largely on that confession and sentenced to death.

About three years later, however, a federal investigation linked two members of the Outlaws motorcycle gang to the murders. Gauger ultimately was released from prison and the charges against him were dismissed. In 2002, he received a full pardon.

Gauger testified last week that contrary to the detectives' claims, he never admitted to the murders.

Instead, he told jurors, he offered a hypothetical explanation of how he might have done it after detectives falsely told him they had evidence proving he was the killer and suggested he did it during a blackout. He said he repeatedly told investigators he had no memory of harming his parents.

The detectives denied those claims, testifying this week that Gauger never offered a hypothetical explanation and they never lied to him about evidence.

During closing arguments, the detectives' attorney, James Sotos, told jurors that it was Gauger's own actions and statements that made him a suspect.

"I don't think the police officers misdirected this investigation," he said. "Mr. Gauger misdirected this investigation. There is not a police officer in the world who would not have held an honest and strong suspicion."

Crowl, however, argued that the investigators were guilty of something much more than an honest mistake.

"The only way our (justice) system works is if people tell the truth," he said. "In this case the police didn't tell the truth. That is not a mistake. That is malice."