A photograph of the crowd attending Carnell Fitz-patrick’s murder trial last week might suggest that the central conflict in the case was about race, rather than road rage. Twenty black people sat behind the defendant on the left side of the gallery. Twenty-five whites sat behind the prosecutor’s table on the right.
Cries came from both sides on December 4, when the jury pronounced Fitzpatrick guilty of first-degree murder. It had been more than 31 months since he’d been arrested for running over 26-year-old bike messenger Thomas McBride with a Chevy SUV. The case had generated a lot of heat–it became a cause among area cyclists who felt it reflected the animosity some drivers feel toward bikers–but it hadn’t generated much light. The recantation of one eyewitness account had left many doubting the outcome, and the jury deliberated for two days before reaching a verdict.
Afterward McBride’s family and friends nodded and wept, while Fitzpatrick’s mother ran out sobbing. She could still be heard in the courtroom as deputies stood watch in the center aisle. Fitzpatrick’s eyes teared up. He was handcuffed and led away.
One week earlier, on November 27, prosecutor Lynda Peters asserted that Fitzpatrick had “deliberately mowed down” McBride on the 5300 block of West Washington on April 26, 1999. Peters and fellow prosecutor Patrick Kelly then called three witnesses.
Tyrone Hibbler testified he’d been driving east, directly behind the SUV, which was “driving a little strange….I saw the bicyclist, he got close to the curb and I saw it just for a few seconds because the SUV jumped over and blocked my vision….Then all of a sudden, it sped up and it went over, I saw it bump up a couple times and it had rolled over the kid on the bike.”
Later, under cross-examination, Hibbler was asked by Fitzpatrick’s attorney, Sam Adam, “You can’t be sure whether in fact the SUV was attempting to avoid hitting the bicycle by moving left to right, can you?”
“When you say sure, I don’t know,” Hibbler answered. “All I saw was erratic behavior and the results. Now what was going on, as I told my wife, I thought it was a game they were playing because it was so odd.”
Lionel Dixon testified he was driving west on Washington. He noticed “a body underneath a truck…headed eastbound down Washington.” Dixon said he made a U-turn and followed the truck to an alley, where he saw the driver get out, yank a bike “from off his car,” and take off.
Early reports had McBride grabbing Fitzpatrick’s license plate as he fell to the pavement. Dixon returned to the accident scene, where he saw “the body laying there, license plate on the ground, and [a] couple of people standing on the side.” On cross-examination he reiterated that he saw nothing pertaining to the incident before noticing the bicyclist under the SUV.
The third witness was Jerry Carter, who at the time of the incident went by the name Jerry Howard. He had been walking east on Washington near Lorel, and he gave detailed statements that day to the police and to an assistant state’s attorney. Ten days later he repeated his story to a grand jury: he had seen the SUV come north on Lorel, make a “roll stop” at Washington, and “almost hit” the eastbound bicyclist at Washington. The bicyclist hit the truck with his hand and said, “You stupid motherfucker.”
“The guy on the bike,” Carter had told the grand jury, “he started riding off, and the guy in the truck sped up….Then as he got behind him, I thought he was going to come to a complete stop and get out and exchange words, due to the fact that the guy had hit his truck and called him the bad word. And he proceeded to, he bumped him.” Carter said McBride “wobbled a little bit. He continued to ride, to pedal the bike, and then the guy hit him again and just ran right over him.”
Yet during pretrial motions, Carter refused to testify about what he had told police and the grand jury. Prosecutors later said he had been threatened about testifying and had warned them he’d lie on the stand. In court he said the driver was “trying to get around” the bicyclist and “accidentally hit him.” He testified the entire incident transpired over 40 to 50 seconds; earlier he’d told the grand jury it took three to four minutes. He didn’t remember whether the bicyclist had touched the truck. Then, under cross-examination, he was shown a recantation he’d made earlier on videotape to Fitzpatrick’s former lawyer, Irving Miller. Carter eventually said the bicyclist had slapped the front of the vehicle on the driver’s side, but he repeated that the subsequent collision looked like an accident.
Carter told the court he had called assistant state’s attorney Michael Rogers soon after making his statement to the grand jury. He said he felt compelled to recant after discussing the matter with his pastor. “I basically told [Rogers] that I had made a mistake of what I saw and it wasn’t the actual thing that I saw.”
“What did you say you had made a mistake on?” Sam Adam asked.
“That the guy intentionally ran him over,” Carter replied.
“Uh-huh,” said a woman sitting next to Fitzpatrick’s mother in the gallery. Though they’d been silent during Hibbler’s and Dixon’s testimonies, they had grown more animated–and audible–while Carter was on the stand. Both women shook their heads. “Still live in a black-white world,” said Fitzpatrick’s mother. “The bottom line,” said the other woman, “is you know, and I know, your own children. You know whether in anger they’re capable of that level of maliciousness.”
On November 28 the prosecution sought to establish the veracity of Carter’s original story. Police detectives who had dealt with him on the day of the incident testified that his statements seemed spontaneous and straightforward. This elicited doubtful grumbles from Fitzpatrick’s supporters. Adam asked another assistant state’s attorney whether Fitzpatrick had a lawyer present when he went before the grand jury. Snorts rose from the left side of the gallery when she said no. It was quieter when she explained that attorneys are never present at such proceedings.
Shortly after hitting McBride, Fitzpatrick had called his godmother, Chicago police officer Secdonia Terry, to turn himself in. Terry testified that she spoke to him on a cell phone, “asked him if he knew what he had done,” met him at a predetermined site, and handcuffed him in front of his two young sons and their mother.
November 29 was spent on the prosecution’s physical evidence, including blood and fingerprints found on the bicycle. Nine autopsy photographs were shown as McBride’s family wept. Fitzpatrick’s grandmother also appeared to wipe away tears.
On November 30 the defense presented its case, calling four witnesses. Fitzpatrick’s first attorney, Irving Miller, testified about his work on the case in its early months, including his role in videotaping Jerry Carter’s recantation in March 2000. Michael Slebnik, a private detective, testified that he had measured the distance from 5315 W. Washington to the corner of Lorel as just 107 feet, and that there was no stop sign at that corner. Dimitris Terry, Secdonia’s son and a lifelong friend of Fitzpatrick’s, testified that he had been driving directly behind the SUV on both Lorel and Washington, but turned the corner only after the collision. At that point, he saw McBride’s body and the bike under the SUV as Fitzpatrick pulled away. He said moments later Fitzpatrick called him by cell phone, asking, “What happened?”
Fitzpatrick then took the stand and swore that it was all an accident. Questioned by Adam, he said he was driving north on Lorel, slowed but didn’t stop at Washington, looked left, saw no traffic, turned right, “suddenly saw a bike in front of me,” and hit the brakes but couldn’t stop in time. He said he’d had no interaction with the bicyclist.
Adam: “Tell us, in your own words, why you didn’t stop, why you fled.”
Fitzpatrick: “I had never been through any kind of accident, I just panicked.”
Adam asked him to explain what happened next.
“I heard scraping underneath,” Fitzpatrick said. “The bike was tangled to a piece of wire at the back….I untangled it and drove off.”
Adam: “Tell us why you proceeded home.”
After a brief pause, spectators on the left side of the gallery began to mutter “Tell him” and “Go on, say it.”
Fitzpatrick: “I had soiled my pants, and I was nervous and scared and I panicked.”
On cross-examination Lynda Peters asked Fitzpatrick why he had looked just to the left, not to the right, as he approached the intersection.
“What could I hit to the right?” Fitzpatrick replied.
“Yeah, why?” murmured observers on the left.
Having put Fitzpatrick on the stand, the defense opened the door to the prosecution’s introduction of his criminal record. Patrick Kelly detailed Fitzpatrick’s narcotics convictions from 1991 and 1994.
“That is so weak, 1991,” said another spectator on the left. Her tone was more sad than bitter. “If you go back that far ain’t nobody not gonna have something.”
After Fitzpatrick’s testimony, the court took a short recess. Out in the hall the father-in-law of one of McBride’s brothers said, “I hope they find the guy guilty.” He thought the parents, Bob and Mary Ellen McBride, needed “closure.” In the seats on the left side of the gallery, Fitzpatrick’s mother whispered to a friend, “I’ve gotten nothing done for two years. Two years.”
“Hard to imagine any healing coming out of this room,” said another spectator.
Monday, December 3, began with both sides giving closing statements. Judge Kenneth Wadas provided the jury with instructions on first-degree murder and on the lesser, nonintentional offense of reckless homicide. The jury left at 1 PM to deliberate.
Kelly appeared confident, telling the McBrides “we’re almost there.” In the cafeteria, Adam commented that it had been “a very clean case, no dirty tricks.”
Family members and others began returning to the courtroom around 3 PM, wondering if a verdict might come quickly. People on both sides of the room waited. Then, after supper, word came that the jury had asked for information about any fingerprints that might have been found on the front of the SUV. At 9 PM Peters announced that deliberations would resume first thing in the morning.
On December 4 Judge Wadas announced that the jury had requested to view the March 2000 videotape of Jerry Carter’s recantation. In the rear left row of the gallery, a few feet behind Fitzpatrick’s mother and other family members, a couple of bike activists were discussing the trial. “Any bikers on the jury?” one asked. “Couldn’t there’ve been testimony about Tom’s cycling experience, the unlikelihood that he wouldn’t stick to the curb lane out there at the murder site?”
Fitzpatrick’s mother stood up, whispering fiercely as she left the room. “They know I’m his mother. How come they’re talking that bullshit in front of me? They didn’t have their asses out there.”
Word came at 4 PM that the jury–composed of eight whites and four blacks–had reached a verdict. Over the next half hour spectators returned in silent waves. The gallery was packed and still. A note went down the rear left row: “No talking after verdict. Agreed?”
Two jurors, who did not want their names used, talked later about their
“One big point was Jerry Howard’s testimony,” said the first juror. “We wrestled a lot with that, whether to believe parts or discount the whole thing.
“When he recanted he said he lied earlier because he was ‘mad at the driver’ for taking off. That just didn’t fit for us. It wasn’t till after the trial that we found out about threats against him.
“So we worked more with Howard’s statements to the police, to the grand jury. They were consistent. We compared them with Fitzpatrick’s testimony, with the physical evidence. [Fitzpatrick] said he hit the brakes. That just didn’t work, didn’t make sense. He said the bike was right there when he came around the corner, in the first 10 or 20 feet. We compared that with the 107 feet. It was pretty clear there was pursuit. And Hibbler’s testimony was very strong in reaching that conclusion, very credible.
“More of us were initially for the reckless homicide charge. Our first vote was about seven to five for that, as opposed to first-degree.
“Some of us had experience with messengers downtown, negative stuff, but there was nothing like ‘he brought it on himself.’ No one should’ve lost their life.
“Some of us felt [Fitzpatrick] didn’t necessarily want to murder him. We don’t know his mind-set. Maybe he just wanted to bump him. But we thought he was pursuing him, and there was some intent, and we looked at how the murder law is written–creating the strong probability by his actions, the strong probability of death or great harm. More people started saying, ‘Well, this is how the law is stated.’
“We took anonymous votes, ten or twelve of them. We got to six-six, then eight-four, then ten-two, then eleven-one. It was a slow process.”
The second juror described the group’s communication as “chaotic at first, with a lot of shouting, and arms folded, and heads shaking no. Our voting method would be to speak one by one and see where everybody stands. But agreement evolved, especially on day two, when we switched from the one-by-one method to secret ballots.
“I was strongly for first-degree murder from the start, but open-minded out of respect for the other jurors and the process. We had two people who kind of assumed the role of foremen, one representing first-degree and the other representing reckless homicide. But they were very open-minded, very interested in exploring the other side’s view.
“When the count evolved to eleven-one, the final process came when the lone juror asked that we go over Tyrone Hibbler’s testimony on the witness stand. After that was completed, there wasn’t a conversation among us. We absorbed what we had just heard collectively. The lone juror went to the rest room to have a cigarette. I checked the time, feeling that something monumental was about to happen, and noted that it was 3:50 PM. The lone juror left us in silence, until emerging from the rest room and softly saying, ‘Let’s take another vote.’ We all knew what was about to happen. We just had to go through the formality.”
Judge Wadas scheduled sentencing for January 15. Defense attorneys didn’t indicate whether they intend to appeal. Fitzpatrick, who’s 31, faces 20 to 60 years in prison.
Mulling over the verdict, Tim Herlihey, who runs a bike shop in Uptown, mentioned that he’d bicycled to the courthouse that morning. He felt a driver had come too close to him, so he rapped on the side of the car. “But the driver was OK with it,” he said and then paused in reflection. “Maybe we can all learn a lesson from this case.”