Jason Austin, shown here in 2008, was sentenced to 35 years for dealing heroin--and for a double murder for which he wasnt convicted.
  • Brian Jackson / Sun-Times Media
  • Jason Austin, shown here in 2008, was sentenced to 35 years for dealing heroin—and for a double murder for which he wasn’t convicted.

U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow stressed Thursday that Jason Austin had not been tried for murder.

Before a packed courtroom, she noted that Austin, 32, was standing before her in an orange prison jumpsuit because he was convicted two years ago of overseeing a profitable heroin operation on Chicago’s west side.

That was bad enough, the judge said: by her own “conservative” estimate, Austin’s business at Kedzie and Ohio had sold more than ten kilograms of heroin in the two years before it was busted in 2010. “We’re all aware of how destructive drugs are in the poor communities of this city,” she said.

But Lefkow said she’d also seen enough evidence to conclude that Austin was responsible for the senseless double murder of a cop and a social worker in 2008, and that he should be held accountable for it even if authorities were never able to convict him of the crime.

“I have yet to reach a conclusion as to why you killed those individuals,” Lefkow told Austin. “But I do believe it’s very likely you committed those murders. . . . You destroyed two innocent lives.”

She sentenced Austin to 35 years in prison. He could have been sent away for life.

After she made the announcement, one of Austin’s relatives began sobbing and ran from the courtroom. Police and other officials who’d filled the seats—including U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon and Chief Nicholas Roti, who heads the police department’s organized crime division—shook hands and offered each other congratulations.

The sentence ends the latest chapter in a saga that began in the early hours of August 13, 2008, when Chicago police detective Robert Soto and social worker Kathryn Romberg were shot and killed while sitting in a parked SUV on the 3000 block of West Franklin.

Police swarmed the area to collect evidence and track down potential witnesses. Over the next few days, they conducted dozens of interviews—many in locked rooms at a west-side police station where witnesses were kept for as long as 24 hours at a time, according to court testimony.

Eventually several witnesses said they’d seen Austin’s two-door Buick Regal driving down Franklin after the shooting. And two brothers who worked for Austin—Jeffrey and Terrance Scott—told police that Terrance and another friend were in the car when J-Rock, as their boss was known, abruptly pulled up next to Soto’s SUV and shot the two occupants, thinking they were a rival dealer and his girlfriend.

Austin was arrested and charged with murder. But not for long—authorities said he and his associates intimidated the Scotts and other witnesses into changing their stories. After several key witnesses recanted, claiming they’d been beaten by police, the murder charges were dropped.

The police then teamed with the FBI to launch an undercover investigation into the drug operation at Kedzie and Ohio. Austin, the Scott brothers, and more than two dozen others were arrested on drug conspiracy charges in 2010. Austin was convicted in 2012.

Still, his sentencing hearings were focused almost exclusively on the murders. Prosecutors called up Jeffrey Scott and a number of police officers to detail how they’d learned of Austin’s involvement—while defense attorney Richard Kling described Scott as an unreliable liar and argued that the cops were actually the ones who’d intimidated witnesses. (You can read about the hearings here, here, here, and here.)

In reading her decision Thursday, Lefkow conceded that there were questions about Scott’s reliability, and acknowledged that some “good cop/bad cop” techniques had undoubtedly been used by detectives investigating the homicides. But she said two pieces of evidence had convinced her of Austin’s guilt.

One was a recording of a phone call Jason Austin made to his mother on August 30, 2008, from Cook County Jail. His mother told him that witnesses had reported seeing a black man driving away from the murder scene “with his hat turned backwards.”

“Man, I ain’t have no damn hat on,” Austin responded.

Prosecutors argued that this was as good as an admission of guilt, and Lefkow agreed. “You made a slip of your own,” she told Austin.

The judge also pointed to recordings in which a seemingly distraught Terrance Scott described witnessing the murders. “The videotape of Terrance Scott speaking to Detective Swiderek pretty much clinched it for me,” Lefkow said.

When he was offered the opportunity to speak for himself, Austin asked the judge for mercy. “I’d like to have another chance to show my family that I’ve improved myself,” he said.

Lefkow told Austin that she understood that his life hasn’t been easy—his family was poor, and his father, an addict, beat his mother when he was around at all. “You grew up in rough circumstances,” she said. “I’m not naive about how people who don’t have many opportunities in life make choices to get involved in drugs to have a little money.”

Yet every time Austin had been in trouble, he went right back to his life of drugs, gangs, and guns, she said. “You were feared in the community, and you leveraged that fear,” she said. “You’re a very young man, and you should have many good years ahead of you. But you’re going to spend most of them behind bars.”

Afterward, Soto’s family members told reporters that the sentence was a relief. “Although it will not bring my uncle back, my family finally has some closure,” said Amanda, a niece, who asked that her last name not be used.

Prosecutors also praised the outcome. “Jason Austin is a violent drug dealer, and today’s 35-year sentence provides a modest measure of justice,” said U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon in a prepared statement.

But Kling, Austin’s attorney, said he was “confused and surprised” that Lefkow would punish his client for a crime he wasn’t convicted of. “I respect her decision, but I think she’s wrong on the murders, and I think that will be one of the big issues in appeal.”