On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend 2015, a child’s foot was found floating in the debris at the edge of the Garfield Park Lagoon. Police vehicles descended on the busy park as families barbecued. Draining the lagoon turned up another foot, two hands and the head of 2-year-old Kyrian Knox.
The toddler was last seen alive two weeks earlier in Rockford, where Kamel Harris had been watching Kyrian, his own son and a 2-year-old grandson. Kyrian’s mother and Harris’ daughter had left the children with Harris while they looked for jobs in Iowa.
It would take more than a year for Harris to be charged with the child’s murder, a gruesome crime that made headlines in Rockford and Chicago.
But the case against Harris unraveled over two weeks in a cramped courtroom at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse. In interviews with the Chicago Sun-Times, a trio of jurors, all of whom asked to remain anonymous, said the May trial was agonizing, their decision painful. Harris was found not guilty of murder, dismemberment and concealing a homicidal death.
It was a shocking verdict in a case that had seemed ironclad based on statements by police and Cook County prosecutors: Kyrian’s blood was found in Harris’ car; three jail inmates had heard Harris confess; Harris’ alibi — that he’d handed the child off to strangers who told him they were Kyrian’s relatives — was unconvincing.
“We went back every day thinking, ‘This is going to be they day they put on some evidence that explains why we’re all here,’” said one juror, a Hyde Park businesswoman. “But that never happened.”
In murder trials before a jury, Cook County prosecutors win convictions 85% of the time. Given the ghastly nature of the crime, Harris, 42, figured his days as free man would be over.
He turned down several plea deals, finally agreeing to an offer to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter in exchange for a 100-month sentence. That was a clear sign prosecutors weren’t confident with their case, said K.S. Bob Galhotra, a member of the Public Defender’s Murder Task Force that handled Harris’ case.
We were always confident in our case,” Galhotra said. If he took the deal, Harris would have gotten credit for time served in Cook County Jail and would have gone free in a few months. “But if you go to trial and lose, you’re spending the rest of your life in prison as a child killer.”
The deal fell apart when Judge James Joyce refused to agree to the 100-month sentence, insisting on a sentencing hearing that could have tacked on years of prison time.
‘They did not prove their case’
Over eight days at trial, jurors saw Kyrian’s mother take the stand, looked at autopsy photos of the toddler’s waterlogged remains and heard hours of expert sparring over the intricacies of identifying blood proteins and DNA. They heard from a jailhouse informant who said the snitches claiming to have heard Harris confess were lying.
And testimony from Kyrian’s mother and Harris established that child care arrangements in their circle were decidedly ad hoc, said another juror, a suburban mother of two. Harris’ alibi was that he gave Kyrian to a man who came to his house and said he was taking the boy to stay with relatives. After talking on the phone with a woman who said she was Kyrian’s mother, Harris said he packed the boy’s things.
“When I first heard it, I thought, ‘That is some baloney,’” the second juror said. “But they couldn’t prove it, and they couldn’t disprove it. It just felt like, where’s the evidence?”
During nearly four hours of testimony, a state police expert conceded that stains in the back of Harris’ car were not blood, though they did contain Kyrian’s DNA.
“That was like four hours of my life I’ll never get back,” the Hyde Park juror complained. “It wasn’t blood. Why bother?”
When the jury took a poll after closing arguments, it wasn’t even close: Eight thought Harris was not guilty, four believed him guilty. A few hours later, the vote moved to eight for acquittal, two undecided and two guilty. The next morning, the tally had changed again: Ten for acquittal, and two holding out for guilty. After four more hours, the vote was unanimous for acquittal.
After filing into the jury room, jurors wept and emotions grew after Joyce walked in. The prosecution’s case left ample room for reasonable doubt, the Hyde Park juror told the judge, and other jurors asked if police would chase down more leads in the case.
“He [Joyce] said, ‘No, I think the state’s attorney knows who killed that child,’” the Hyde Park juror said.
The response upset jurors, prompting one of the previous holdouts to say, “See, I knew he was guilty.’”
Reached at her home, that woman, an African American mother and grandmother, conceded she questioned changing her vote and wondered if Harris was guilty.
“But I don’t want to talk about that right now,” she said. “It’s taken me a long time just to find a place in my heart where I can put Kyrian.”
The two other jurors remained confident in their vote to acquit.
“It felt like this kid was destined to die. If he had a champion, it was Kamel, and Kamel was not a great babysitter, we found out,” the Hyde Park juror said. “You wanted to go back in time and pick that little boy up and take him home.”