Julius Ballanco: Part 2: The trial and the verdict
The conclusion of a water closet murder case.
Editor note: This is the second and final part of Julius Ballanco’s series on a water closet murder case he was asked to testify in. This is not Julius’ first rodeo when it comes to water closet murder cases. For his previous columns on this subject, visit PMEngineer.com.
An attorney that I work with on some forensic cases is famous for saying, “The problem with going to trial is that you are putting yourself in the hands of 12 people that couldn’t figure out how to get out of jury duty.” I laughed when I first heard it, because in all of these years, I have never served on a jury, although I have reported to jury duty many times.
Another saying from a friend I grew up with, who is now an elected judge, is, “The jury is always right.” I often wondered about that, thinking about some famous legal cases. Of course, he is presenting the law as a presiding judge.
When the People of the State of Illinois v. Kenneth Cusick went to trial, the state’s attorney opened, showing the interviews of Cusick explaining how he found his wife in the toilet bowl. In my view, this would cause the jury to ask whether a woman could accidentally drown in the water closet. Of course, prior to the viewing of the interviews, the state’s attorney already stated in the opening remarks that it was impossible for an adult female to accidentally drown in a water closet. She also told the jury she would present experts that could prove her point. One of those experts was me.
I wasn’t scheduled to testify until the fourth day of the trial. The plan was to meet the state attorney’s legal team the night before I was going to testify. As we started preparations, I asked George Mueller, deputy state’s attorney, who the defense was going to get to testify to refute the comments that an adult woman cannot accidentally drown in the water closet. His response was, “No one.”
All I thought was, “What? This guy will easily get convicted.”
Then, Mueller said the defense will be that Tracy died of a methadone overdose. My head was spinning. I asked him how they planned to get around Cusick’s statements in his interview and the coroner’s report that indicated death by drowning? There was also a second autopsy performed after Tracy’s body was exhumed. That autopsy report also indicated death by drowning.
Mueller said the defense will simply ignore the interviews and the entire case presented by the state’s attorney. They will bring in pathologists that will declare that Tracy died from a methadone overdose.
Realize that Tracy Cusick was no saint. She smoked and drank. She also smoked marijuana, did some cocaine, according to interviews of friends, and experimented with opiates, including Vicodin and methadone. The autopsy did identify that the toxicology report showed alcohol and methadone in her system, but her death was still ruled a drowning, with water in the sinuses and lungs.
The defense seemed rather bizarre since the facts were irrefutable. But then again, I look at the world as an engineer. Attorneys often see things much differently than engineers.
Julius takes the stand
My testimony was rather straightforward. The jury paid close attention to all the technical information regarding a water closet bowl. George Mueller finished by asking if an adult woman could accidentally drown in a water closet bowl. The answer was, of course, no.
Under cross-examination, the defense questions were somewhat innocuous. Could Tracy’s nose be submerged in the water closet without having her mouth submerged? Yes. Couldn’t she drown that way — by having her nose submerged? No, she would breathe through her mouth.
Then I was asked whether I saw that she had methadone in her system on the autopsy report. I did, responding, “Yes.”
The next question, I had a funny feeling that I would be asked, “Wasn’t the methadone at the toxic level?”
My response was, “I’m an engineer, not a medical doctor. I have no idea what the toxic level is for methadone.” Of course, that is the truth, I do not have any knowledge of toxic levels of illegal or legal drugs.
There was an attempt to do a follow-up question regarding methadone, but the judge said I already said I didn’t know anything about methadone. I was then dismissed, having supported the state attorney’s claim that Kenneth Cusick murdered his wife by drowning her in the water closet bowl.
I drove home from LaSalle County, but continued to follow the trial through the local media. I noticed the media even had sound bites of my testimony.
When the defense presented its case, they started by trashing Tracy. That is not unusual — tear down a dead person as being the bad guy, where the husband was trying to save her from herself. Then they brought in a pathologist that swore Tracy died from a methadone overdose. In other words, two autopsies were wrong.
There appeared to be no discussion of Kenneth Cusick’s three statements of finding his wife with her head in the toilet bowl with her nose and mouth submerged. The defense basically ignored that he ever said those statements.
During the closing arguments, the state’s attorney reminded the jury what Kenneth Cusick said to the investigating police officers. I was mentioned as stating emphatically that an adult woman cannot accidentally drown in a water closet.
As the jury received the case, both sides figured they would have to wait some time before the jury reached a verdict. If they played back the two interviews, that would occupy about an hour and 15 minutes. Then they would have to review all of the other testimony. But surprisingly, the jury returned in just under two hours. Fast for a murder trial. The jury found Kenneth Cusick not guilty of murder. He was free to leave court.
I knew the jury got it wrong. It normally would have been a bad day for me, but fortunately, my wife and I were celebrating our youngest daughter receiving her master’s degree in biology from Miami University. The good news overshadowed the bad decision.
As I contemplated the jury’s verdict, I kept thinking of a saying I still believe — it is better to find 10 murderers not guilty than to convict one innocent person of murder.
While I firmly believe Mr. Cusick is guilty of murdering his wife, Tracy, the jury decided otherwise. That is how our system of justice works.