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‘You’re digging yourself a hole,’ judge warns defendant representing himself in police officer’s killing

Jovan Battle is charged with the March murder of off-duty Chicago Police Officer John Rivera.

Police officers comfort each other at the funeral for Chicago Police Officer John P. Rivera. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Police officers comfort each other at the funeral for Chicago Police Officer John P. Rivera in March. Jovan Battle, charged with first-degree murder for allegedly pointing out Rivera’s car to the man who shot him, is representing himself at trial.

As he walked down North Clark Street after a night out with friends in River North this spring, off-duty Chicago Police Officer Jack Hightower said he noticed a homeless man standing in a doorway but didn’t think much about him.

Minutes later, the disheveled man who’d held Hightower’s gaze pointed the officer and his friends out to a gunman who opened fire on their parked car, killing Hightower’s boyhood friend and fellow officer, John Rivera, prosecutors said.

Wednesday, Hightower got a long look at Jovan Battle from the witness stand, as Battle, who is acting as his own attorney, stands trial for Rivera’s murder.

Under cross-examination by the 32-year-old Battle, who dismissed his court-appointed lawyer after passing a court-ordered mental fitness examination, Hightower was calm, if at times perplexed. Battle repeatedly played surveillance video — from two angles — of alleged gunman Menelik Jackson firing multiple shots into the driver-side windows of Hightower’s Honda, killing Rivera and injuring a friend seated behind him.

Prosecutors have said the shooting was a fatal case of mistaken identity abetted by Battle, who allegedly told Jackson and co-defendant Jaquan Washington that Rivera and his friends were part of a group of Latino men who had beaten up Washington an hour earlier in front of the Rock ‘N Roll McDonalds. Jackson and Washington have pleaded not guilty and still are awaiting trial.

As he has with nearly every witness, Battle used Hightower’s testimony as an opportunity to highlight the main thrust of his defense: that he did not know Washington or Jackson, nor anyone in Rivera’s car.

“Did you see a gentleman sitting in a doorway?” Battle asked. Yes, Hightower replied.

“Was I the gentleman?” Battle asked. Yes, Hightower said.

“Did I say anything to you... (or) to any of the people that you were with?” Battle asked.

“No. Just made eye contact,” Hightower said.

Hightower’s clipped, monotone answers on the stand were in sharp contrast with recording of his breathless, panicked call to 911 after Rivera and their friend Ruben Sierra had been shot. Battle asked that the call be played to show that Hightower had initially misidentified the shooter. Seated in the courtroom gallery, Rivera’s mother cried as Hightower’s voice— and the recorded sound of Rivera’s girlfriend, Sara Garcia, shouting in the background— filled the courtroom.

Sierra and Garcia also testified Wednesday. The group had left a nearby bar about an hour after Jackson and Washington had brawled at the nearby McDonald’s. Surveillance video from a neighboring building showed Hightower, Rivera and Sierra bounding cheerfully across Clark Street to the sidewalk beside Rivera’s Honda Accord. Moments later, the video showed a figure alleged to be Jackson jog up beside the car, raise a gun and fire two volleys at point-blank range.

Sierra testified that a bullet went into his arm and ricocheted into his collar bone, another shell had to be surgically removed and one remains lodged in his throat. Sierra said he didn’t realize he’d been shot until he felt blood run down his arm as he watched Hightower give Rivera CPR on the sidewalk.

Battle’s rambling cross-examinations have slowed the pace of the trial and had begun to wear on the patience of Judge Dennis Porter. Porter declined to let Battle play body-worn camera footage from an officer that spoke to Hightower at the scene, which Battle said would show that Hightower had initially provided his fellow officers with a description of Battle, not the shooter.

“You told the jury about five times that you’re the guy (on the video) in the black jacket,” Porter said during a break in the trial, adding later, “you’re digging yourself in a hole.”

“I’m going to dig as big a hole as I want,” Battle replied.