Jury: Conner guilty in fatal DUI
BY LAUREN FITZPATRICK
Feb 23, 2011 05:00PM
Jurors found Cecil Conner guilty of two counts of aggravated drunken driving for causing the May crash that killed 5-year-old Michael Langford Jr. in Steger.
Cecil Conner alone was to blame for the death of his girlfriendâ€™s 5-year-old son last spring, a Will County jury decided Tuesday night, in spite of a fervent defense that tried to fault a Chicago Heights police officer.
Jurors found Conner guilty of two counts of aggravated drunken driving for causing the May 10 crash on Steger Road near Carpenter Street in Steger. Michael Langford Jr. was killed after Conner slammed the red Chevrolet Cavalier into a tree, through a fence and into another tree, uprooting it.
He kept silent as the judge read the jury forms. Then he cried, his attorneys said outside the courthouse.
Conner faces up to 14 years in prison, though he could also qualify for probation. Defense attorney Jeff Tomczak said after he files a motion for a new trial, he will argue that the special circumstances of the case should keep Conner out of prison.
Connerâ€™s sentencing is scheduled for May 18.
The 23-year-old admitted from the witness stand he was â€œpretty drunkâ€ after a weekend of partying at his cousinâ€™s house when he took the wheel of the Cavalier, slammed into a tree, ricocheted through a fence and landed atop a pine tree he uprooted. The child who died, he said, was like his own son.
But in an unusual defense, he swore he was following the orders of the police officer who arrested his designated driver and girlfriend, Kathie LaFond, on a suspended license, setting a terrible train of events in motion.
And as the day dragged into evening, relatives of Michael Langford Sr., the childâ€™s biological father who lives out of state, worried Conner might be acquitted.
During about nine hours in the jury room, the jurors had asked the judge four questions, mostly requesting more information about the defense strategies. Circuit Judge Edward Burmila told them they already had the necessary information and urged them to keep deliberating.
â€œWeâ€™re very happy with the verdict that came back,â€ said Kim Lozano, one of Langford Sr.â€™s local cousins, after she told him the news over the phone. â€œHe wants the maximum sentence, though itâ€™s not enough to replace our loss.â€
Lozano said her family also blames Chicago Heights Officer Chris Felicetti for failing to figure out Conner was drunk, and Michaelâ€™s mother, Kathie LaFond, for having her child out so late.
The defense said Felicetti ordered Conner to drive Michael home and threatened to arrest him if he didnâ€™t listen, Tomczak argued Tuesday, trying to convince jurors the case was one of entrapment and necessity. LaFond also testified she told Felicetti three times that Conner was drunk, and she was his designated driver to the home where she and Conner and Michael lived together.
â€œRemember, it was his son, too,â€ Tomczak said. â€œIf thereâ€™s a mistake in this case, it wasnâ€™t Cecil Connerâ€™s. Donâ€™t hold him accountable for what that police officer did.â€
Prosecutors urged jurors to hold Conner accountable for his fatal choices.
Conner drank, drove and kept driving until he sped the red car over a curb, across two lawns, into a tree, through a fence and uprooted a pine tree, with the rear passenger area where Michael slept in a booster seat taking the impactâ€™s brunt, they argued.
Conner never told the officer who pulled LaFond over he had been drinking, and neither did LaFond, Assistant Stateâ€™s Attorney Deborah Mills said. And he never told Steger police during multiple interviews that Felicetti told him to drive.
But once on the stand, his â€œextremely selective memoryâ€ came back, Mills said.
â€œHe now remembers he was ordered to drive or he would be arrested,â€ she said. â€œItâ€™s certainly convenient he can remember that part in detail.â€
Conner also kept going, even when a friend he called for help told him to stop the car, Mills said.
â€œHe never pulled over,â€ she said. â€œHe had two phones available to him but he drove at least 66 mph and didnâ€™t pull over.â€
LaFond had testified, mostly for the defense of the man she still calls her boyfriend, but also briefly for the state. She did not cry then.
LaFond, who listened to the arguments, left the courthouse before the verdict was read. But right after Tuesdayâ€™s arguments, her eyes were red.
â€œI cried through the whole thing,â€ she said.