Fatal DUI case languishes in Cook County court for more than a decade

One decade ago, after celebrating his son's engagement with family and friends in his apartment, Anthony Joyner ventured out into a cold winter night to walk a female relative home.What happened next is the subject of one of Cook County's longest criminal...

Fatal DUI case languishes in Cook County court for more than a decade

One decade ago, after celebrating his son's engagement with family and friends in his apartment, Anthony Joyner ventured out into a cold winter night to walk a female relative home.What happened next is the subject of one of Cook County's longest criminal...

19 April 2017 Wednesday 09:22
28 Reads
Fatal DUI case languishes in Cook County court for more than a decade

One decade ago, after celebrating his son's engagement with family and friends in his apartment, Anthony Joyner ventured out into a cold winter night to walk a female relative home.

What happened next is the subject of one of Cook County's longest criminal prosecutions still pending in court.

Joyner was killed Jan. 18, 2007, after a motorist's car struck him near Wood and 151st streets in Harvey.

The pedestrian was hit with such force that it took several minutes before his body was found. It would be more than seven hours before police found the 41-year-old man's severed foot in a backyard across the street.

Prosecutors charged motorist Reginald Burrell, then 29, with reckless homicide and aggravated drunken driving on suspicion he was under the influence of alcohol and marijuana at the time of the 2 a.m. collision.

But, 10 years later, after more than 100 court continuances and lots of legal maneuvering, the case has yet to go to trial. Time has not helped the prosecution's case. In fact, after the defense successfully challenged police procedures, the judge excluded Burrell's statement to police and forensic evidence that was obtained at the hospital without a warrant or the defendant's consent.

Prosecutors recently dropped all criminal allegations against Burrell involving alcohol. He still faces one felony count of aggravated DUI related to metabolites of THC — a substance in marijuana — in his system.

Cook County Judge Brian K. Flaherty, who has presided over the case nearly since its inception, set a Sept. 18 trial date at the Markham courthouse. Joyner's sister, Elaine, said she is cautiously optimistic the case will finally go to trial.

The Oak Forest woman said she has rarely missed a court appearance. She described a maddeningly slow journey through the criminal court system in which she said the victim's rights are secondary to that of the defendant's. There is no closure, she said, and each new court date is a reminder of all that she lost.

"I loved my brother dearly," said Elaine Joyner, 55, the oldest of three siblings. "I miss him so much. You go to court month after month, year after year. It's not easy because you're reliving it every time. But, I'm not giving up. I made my brother a promise.

"I'm going to see this through to the end."

Burrell was indicted at the end of former Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine's tenure. The case languished through successor Anita Alvarez's two terms in office. It continues with newly elected State's Attorney Kim Foxx's administration.

In a statement, her office acknowledged the delayed prosecution is "simply unacceptable" and pledged its commitment to "ensuring justice is done, and to being responsive to the needs of our communities, which includes the prompt and fair resolution of cases."

"The new administration has begun a systematic review of the office's longest-pending cases, including this one, to evaluate the causes of this unacceptable delay, improve our practices and help ensure that situations like this do not re-occur," the statement said.

Burrell has been free on bond this entire time, but he hasn't had a valid driver's license in nearly a decade. He has no prior criminal record and has not been in legal trouble since, public records showed. Now 39 and a father of four children, the Riverdale man and his attorney insist he was not impaired and it was Anthony Joyner who caused the collision when Joyner, who had been drinking alcohol that evening, stepped onto the road in front of Burrell's car.

"This was a freak accident," Burrell said in a statement provided by his attorney. "I tried to swerve to miss him but he was right in front of me and it was cold and icy and I ended up spinning and hitting a tree. There are no words to describe how bad I feel that he died. It is a tragedy that I must live with and I pray for his family every day."

Anthony Joyner Family photo

A picture of Anthony Joyner from 1982.

A picture of Anthony Joyner from 1982.

(Family photo)

The crash

Authorities were not immediately able to answer whether this is Cook County's oldest pending criminal case.

But, to put it into perspective, if Burrell hadn't posted bond all those years ago, he would be the longest-held person in the County Jail, sheriff's officials said.

Although trials may be routinely delayed as parties appeal a ruling to a higher court, or proceedings stall due to witness availability or a defendant's mental or physical health, none of those issues are at play in People v. Reginald Burrell.

Tribune interviews and a review of the circuit clerk court file revealed nearly all the continuances were agreed upon by both sides. If the judge objected, it wasn't reflected in available public documents. The defense has sought several subpoenas and filed complex pretrial motions.

"It's just ridiculous," said Rita Kreslin, executive director of the Schaumburg-based Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists, which has a court advocate who has accompanied Elaine Joyner to court since the beginning. "That's the longest I've heard of."

Attorney Donald Ramsell is the author of the Illinois DUI Law and Practice Guidebook. Of the more than 15,000 DUI cases since 1986 that he said his Wheaton defense firm has handled, "less than a handful" stretched beyond a few years before trial. There can be "calculated reasons why each side would seek the delay," Ramsell said, and for prosecutors, "no verdict is better than a 'not guilty' verdict."

Burrell's attorney, Juliet Boyd, said DUI cases such as his that involve blood evidence take longer and that, coupled with routine scheduling conflicts between parties, and the police department's slow response to her subpoenas, has led to a long court battle.

Regarding her rigorous defense, Boyd is unapologetic.

"I truly believe he is innocent," she said of Burrell. "I have a legal and ethical obligation to defend him as best I can."

Burrell was traveling north on Wood Street when his black Cadillac Seville struck Joyner. Sherry Buckner, who is the grandmother of one of Joyner's three sons, said he insisted on walking her home.

Buckner, 67, said her memory has faded regarding parts of that night due to all the time that has passed and the two strokes she's suffered.

If called to testify as a witness, she said, "I can't do it. Ten years is a lot of years."

Buckner said she did not see the car strike Joyner. The two were separated by several feet as she crept slowly across sheets of ice. Buckner said she remembers hearing a loud bang and then, suddenly, Joyner was nowhere in sight. She went to get help, Buckner said, and other family members eventually found Joyner's body "down the block" several minutes later.

"There he was, under the bushes, all broken up," she said.

2007 report: Car hits, kills Harvey pedestrianOpen link

By then, Harvey police Officer Cameron Forbes was about one block away dealing with what he thought was a one-car crash involving property damage only. Forbes, now a department commander, testified during a May 2012 hearing in Burrell's case that he initially had no idea that a pedestrian had been struck.

When he arrived, Forbes said he found two men standing near the Cadillac with a shattered windshield. Neither Burrell or the other man, later determined to be a passenger, would admit who had been driving, Forbes testified. Nor, he said, did they mention anything about a pedestrian being injured.

Forbes described the exchange as brief because he was concerned they were injured and so he quickly called for an ambulance. The officer said he noticed that "a crowd was starting to gather around the ambulance and it was becoming hostile due to the fact that they were upset. They thought somebody had been injured," according to a transcript of his testimony.

A short time later, one of the men in the crowd found Joyner's body and led the officer to it, Forbes said.

His supervisor, Lt. James Brooks, who also testified during the pretrial hearing, said after police realized there was a fatality, he called the Cook County state's attorney's felony review unit to request that a prosecutor come to the scene. He also sought the assistance of an Illinois State Police accident reconstruction expert, Brooks said.

Brooks, now retired, testified police lacked probable cause at that point to arrest anyone. To figure out the driver's identity, Brooks said, the prosecutor advised police to ticket both Burrell and his passenger for failure to render aid and provide information so that the hospital staff would draw blood, which later could be compared to trace blood evidence found in the car.

But, in a hard-fought pretrial defense motion that sparked the police testimonies, Burrell's attorney successfully argued they had "no indication whatsoever that (Burrell) was impaired" and therefore lacked probable cause for an arrest or forensic testing of his blood and urine. The police report does not mention slurred speech, glassy eyes, an odor of alcohol or other textbook signs of impairment, according to court testimony.

Furthermore, Boyd said, the assistant state's attorney who was at the crash site contradicted Brooks and testified he did not order the blood and urine draw.

"In this case, the improper conduct of the police is staggering," Boyd said in a defense motion.

Brooks testified that the assistant state's attorney told him they needed to wait for test results and other evidence before charges. After Burrell and his passenger were released from the hospital, police brought them to the station and placed them into lock-up, but both were released without charges that same day.

The test results later showed Burrell had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 and THC metabolites in his system, court records showed. Prosecutors approved felony charges against him two months after Joyner's death.

Police did not respond to requests for comment.

Chief Judge Tim Evans, through a spokesman, declined to answer Tribune questions and said Flaherty cannot speak about a pending case.

Sister of killed pedestrian Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune Elaine Joyner, 55, talks about the death of her brother Anthony Joyner at her home in Oak Forest on March 31, 2017. He died in January 2007, but the Cook County DUI case has not gone to trial in the last 10 years. Elaine Joyner, 55, talks about the death of her brother Anthony Joyner at her home in Oak Forest on March 31, 2017. He died in January 2007, but the Cook County DUI case has not gone to trial in the last 10 years. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)

A 'nightmare' case

Burrell also testified during a pretrial hearing.

The motorist said he saw "someone running out in front of me" and, despite his efforts to swerve, he could not avoid striking the man. His car hit a tree in a homeowner's property about half a block from where Joyner's body was found, records showed.

Burrell testified he had been traveling "at least 40" mph after leaving a Dolton bowling alley. He admitted drinking "one or two shots" of cognac earlier but denied smoking marijuana that night or being impaired.

A state accident reconstruction expert later estimated Burrell's speed was 46 to 52 mph. The posted speed limit is 35 mph.

The expert used the location of the victim's severed foot to help determine the car's speed at impact. Boyd has argued the "gruesome evidence" should be excluded. She still has a pending motion challenging whether the aggravated DUI statute is constitutional.

Another issue at trial will be whether the defense may mention Anthony Joyner's intoxication level as it tries to prove his actions led to an unavoidable accident. Joyner was more than twice the legal limit of 0.08, toxicology results showed, but he wasn't driving.

His sister, Elaine Joyner, said her brother had a car but he chose to obey the law and walk because he had been drinking. Joyner said she finds it hard to believe her brother, a former part-time volunteer firefighter and security officer, would run into traffic as the defense alleges when he had the wherewithal not to drive.

"He was into saving lives," she said, "not taking his own or endangering anyone else's."

Joyner described her brother, who she called "Tony," as a "jokester and very laid-back." She said he was a hard worker who in his spare time loved to play dominoes and dance to James Brown music. He loved her spaghetti and, in fact, the last time she saw him was the day before he died when he stopped by after work to pick up a pot she had prepared for him.

Their mother, Shirley Joyner, died of a blood clot three months before the crash. Elaine Joyner said she used the money from her mother's estate to bury her brother. Afterward, Joyner said she fell into a deep depression that eventually subsided with the help of family, friends, therapy, medication and her volunteerism with the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists.

She said it's no longer about punishment, and her anger rests more with the court system, due to all the delays.

"No one should have to go through this, this long," she said.

If convicted of aggravated DUI, Burrell faces probation or up to 14 years in prison.

Ironically, if the collision occurred today, prosecutors might not be able to charge Burrell under the current DUI law regarding marijuana. Under the old statute, which applies in this case, prosecutors do not have to prove impairment.

Burrell said he thinks about the case every day.

"Because of the accident, I got a divorce. I lost my job. I am facing a felony record and jail time," he said in a statement. "I went back to school and got my bachelor's degree in computer networking science, but I can't get a job because of this case. I worry about who will support my four kids.

"This is a nightmare which has been going on for 10 years, but we are trying to fight the charge so I can get my life back."

Elaine Joyner still has her brother's number in her phone. The number belongs to someone else now, but she can't bring herself to delete it. She still wears the gold chain and heart charm he gave her their last Christmas together. Earlier this month, she sat in her usual spot in the gallery of Flaherty's courtroom. Another date was set. Nothing of substance occurred.

She'll be back for another hearing Tuesday.

cmgutowski@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @christygutowsk1

Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.

Comments
Avatar
Your Name
Post a Comment
Characters Left:
Your comment has been forwarded to the administrator for approval.×
<strong>Please!</strong> Be aware that you are responsible with your comments!