After two weeks in jail and two orders from the state Appellate court, a key witness in the Tyshawn Lee murder case has been released despite prosecutors’ concerns about threats against her and her failure to show up for meetings with prosecutors.
The witness, a 20-year-old woman who, as a 16-year-old was walking down South Damen Avenue when she heard the sound of gunshots and saw a black SUV driving away. Inside the truck, the woman allegedly caught a glimpse of Corey Morgan, who is set to go to trial next week alongside Dwright Boone-Doty, the alleged gunman who shot 9-year-old Tyshawn. The woman is one of four witnesses in the high-profile case who have been jailed, including a man arrested last week in Arkansas who is en route to Cook County ahead of the Sept. 18 start of testimony.
Prosecutors said Monday that the woman has been difficult to reach and blew off a March meeting with investigators and an August court date. Equally troubling, Assistant State’s Attorney Thomas Darman said Monday, was an ominous remark by a mugger who targeted the girl’s father this summer.
The woman’s father told Darman that in July, he was robbed at gunpoint by several men as he was walking with his wife and 3-year-old child. One of the men pressed a gun to the head of the 3-year-old and made a statement that seemed to be a reference to the name of the witness, Darman said. The woman had moved out of a home she shared with her grandmother after two men showed up at the door, asking about the witness’ whereabouts. The father and prosecutors had been working to relocate the woman ahead of the trial, Darman said.
Judge Thaddeus Wilson, who had twice ordered the woman held — first without bail, then with a $100,000 cash bond — seemed to reluctant to let the woman out of jail at Monday’s hearing. The judge designated her a material witness, required her to sign a pledge to return to court for the trial and ordered her to wear a GPS tracking anklet. She still faces the prospect of more jail time on the contempt of court charge that led to her arrest.
“I told her personally, in no uncertain terms, and she still refused to appear (in court),” Wilson said, as the woman stood before him in a yellow jail jumpsuit and leg shackles. “It seems as though to me, in essence, she had more fear of what was going on in the street and threats made to her family than anything I had to say.”
Wilson had ordered the woman held without bond after her arrest for contempt of court in August, only to have the state Appellate Court last week order him to set bail. Wilson set bail Thursday at $100,000 cash, only to have the Appellate Court again send the case back.
In all, four witnesses have been jailed ahead of the Sept. 18 date set for the start of trial, including an 18-year-old high school student and a man arrested in recent days in Arkansas. So far, the 20-year-old woman is the only witness to go free.
Her lawyer, Michael Jarard, said he believed law enforcement and her family would be able to keep her safe, despite the apparent threats against her and her family.
“Safety is always a concern,” Jarard said. “I have been working with the state, and I think they will do whatever they can and work diligently to make sure she is safe.”
Wilson asked if Jarard was aware of the alleged threat during the robbery.
“Did her father tell you about this alleged incident with the gun being pointed at the 3-year-old?” Wilson asked. “And you believe it was solely a robbery, unrelated to this case?”
“Your honor,” Jarard replied. “I don’t have a belief one way or the other.”
Prosecutors Monday requested material witness status — which would allow Wilson to keep witnesses in jail or to impose restrictions on their movement— for two other witnesses, a 20-year-old man and 18-year-old. Issuing subpoenas to bring witnesses to court ahead of trial is a common practice in complex cases, Darman explained to the judge.
“Only because this case is so large and so cumbersome ... we’re doing our best to keep this thing organized and keep everyone on task, and we subpoenaed some witnesses for non-court dates,” Darman said.
The three witnesses remaining in custody could be locked up for weeks, as the trial is expected to take most of September. Doty and Morgan will have separate juries, meaning their trials will sometimes play out in shifts as jurors are shuttled in and out of the courtroom, dragging on a case that also is set to feature lengthy testimony on cutting-edge DNA technology used by investigators.
Morgan on Monday formally turned down a plea deal that would have seen him serve 25 years in the case, the same prison term prosecutors gave to the getaway driver in the shooting, Kevin Edwards. Morgan would receive a term of at least 35 years if found guilty, and possibly more than 100 with assorted enhancements for targeting a child.
Doty, whom prosecutors say lured Tyshawn into an alley near Dawes Park then shot the fourth-grader in the head, also has demanded to represent himself. Monday, the alleged gunman seemed to hedge slightly on whether he wanted an attorney.
Each day last week after Doty fired his court-appointed public defenders, prosecutors have turned over reams of investigative files and evidence to the inmate. Monday, Doty said he would review the latest sheaf of documents and decide on his representation.
“I’m not ready as of this moment,” Doty said. “Tomorrow, I’ll let you know for sure. They tendered over some more evidence I ain’t had time to look at.”