- Brian Jackson/Sun-Times Media
- Federal prosecutors say Jason Austin should serve extra time for a double murder on the west side, though he hasn’t been convicted of it.
Two years ago Jason Austin was convicted of federal drug charges for dealing heroin and cocaine on Chicago’s west side.
But drugs barely came up Wednesday during the first part of a hearing to determine his prison term. The open question was whether he should serve additional time for the double murder of a cop and a social worker even though authorities lacked the evidence to convict him of it.
Federal prosecutors said Austin shot and killed Officer Robert Soto and Kathryn Romberg on a warm night in August 2008—and then intimidated so many witnesses that authorities were forced to drop murder charges against him.
“The only sentence that will protect the community” would be at least 40 years, federal prosecutor Maribel Fernandez-Harvath argued before Judge Joan Lefkow.
But defense attorney Richard Kling blasted the U.S. attorney’s office for attempting to pin the slayings on Austin without strong enough evidence to try him for it. “This is a murder trial in sheep’s clothing,” he said.
It’s not unprecedented for the feds to use narcotics laws—or other offenses—to go after suspects linked to violence. And the sentencing process allows for the introduction of testimony and circumstantial evidence that wouldn’t hold up in a trial.
Even by those standards, the Austin case stands out, highlighting both the power and limits of the authorities in a neighborhood were the drug trade has largely replaced the legal economy.
The hearing Wednesday was dominated by testimony from Chicago police detective Kevin Bor, who detailed the murder investigation from the beginning.
At a little after 1:30 a.m. on August 13, 2008, police received a report of gunfire on the 3000 block of West Franklin in West Humboldt Park. Officers found Romberg and Soto sitting in his SUV. She was dead from a shot to the head. Soto had also been shot three times. Before he lost consciousness, he reportedly told officers that he had been robbed by three black males driving a red or maroon four-door car. He died a few hours later.
Bor said he arrived at the crime scene within minutes and oversaw the investigation. He recounted how officers canvassed the neighborhood for witnesses. Eventually, he said, they tracked down two groups of people who’d been hanging out at homes a couple blocks away at the time of the shooting.
In the days after the murder, a number of the witnesses were interviewed by police on multiple occasions, sometimes for hours at a time, Bor said.
On August 14, 2008, a neighborhood resident named Terrance Scott was picked up by narcotics officers who’d seen him making deals near Kedzie and Ohio. Scott told police that on the night of the killings he’d been hanging out with a friend named Troy Davis and several others when they heard gunshots from a couple blocks away, Bor said.
But when police found Davis, he told them he hadn’t heard any shooting that night—just some loud noises from a passing train, according to Bor.
Over the next few days, under repeated questioning, their stories changed. First Scott and then Davis told police that they’d been in the car with Austin that night on a hunt for marijuana. Then Austin saw Soto’s SUV and abruptly circled around the block. “Jason Austin alone got out of the car,” Bor said Scott told police. “He committed a robbery and then shot Detective Soto and Kathryn Romberg.”
Other witnesses revealed that they’d seen the three together in Austin’s maroon Buick Regal, or that they’d seen the car driving away from the crime scene, Bor said. Some said Austin had initially intimidated them into keeping quiet.
Yet before the grand jury, Scott, Davis, and some other witnesses changed their stories again: they claimed they’d been bullied or beaten until they implicated Austin.
During cross examination, Kling grilled Bor about the circumstances of detectives’ interviews with witnesses. Bor said some of the witnesses had voluntarily remained at the station for questioning for as long as 24 hours.
“All these individuals were told they were free to leave, and all of these individuals chose to stay in a locked interview room—is that your testimony?” Kling asked.
“Correct,” Bor said.
Kling noted that several of the witnesses later sued the city over their treatment by police and received a settlement. “Troy Davis told an assistant state’s attorney that he was called a liar and slapped on the cheek, and he believed that’s how police do their jobs and you were just doing your job. And that’s a lie?”
“That is correct,” said Bor.
The net result: Austin was arrested for the slayings on August 16, 2008, but charges were dropped within a month after a number of witnesses recanted. The police then began an investigation with the FBI to nab him for distributing heroin and cocaine.
The hearing continues Thursday.