Fifth District grants new trial to woman sentenced to 17 years in Cook's court

By The Madison County Record | Jan 30, 2016

MOUNT VERNON – Jurors in the court of former St. Clair County judge Michael Cook watched video of an interrogation that he shouldn’t have let them watch, Fifth District appellate judges ruled on Jan. 25.

Three judges granted a new trial to Rachael Howard, now serving 17 years for aggravated criminal sexual assault.

They found that the video carried prejudicial comments of Belleville detectives Matthew Eiskant and Beth Ferry.

“Having viewed the interrogation video in its entirety, we find that the defendant’s responses could be easily understood without the jury hearing several additional minutes of inflammatory statements,” Justice Melissa Chapman wrote.

Justices Thomas Welch and Bruce Stewart concurred.

They reached a decision without determining whether Cook committed a separate error in excluding a physician’s testimony about blood alcohol.

At Howard’s trial, in September 2012, neither Howard nor jurors realized that a heroin addict presided over the proceedings.

His condition made headlines in May 2013, when federal agents arrested Cook on charges of possessing heroin and using it while possessing firearms.

He and U.S attorney Stephen Wigginton negotiated a sentence of 18 months, but senior judge Joe McDade of Peoria rejected the agreement.

McDade imposed two years, finding Cook harmed public faith in the judiciary.

As of Jan. 28, the online inmate locator of the prison bureau placed Cook at residential reentry in St. Louis, with a release date of Feb. 20.

He’ll go free sooner than Howard.

State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly could ask the Fifth District for rehearing, or he could petition the Illinois Supreme Court to review the decision.

Even if Kelly accepts the decision, the mandate won’t issue until Feb. 29.

At that point Howard would return and Kelly would face a choice.

Kelly could prepare for a trial about events from 2010, before a judge who must not show the prejudicial parts of the video and who might not exclude the physician.

He could also dismiss the charge, in the spirit of a Fifth District decision that cast more doubt on Howard’s sentence than on her guilt.

According to the case record, at a barbecue in Belleville, Howard set off an attack on a woman that the Fifth District identified as A. E.

In a dispute over a cigarette, Howard punched A. E. in the face.

Howard’s friend Joshua Harris struck A. E.’s friend Richard Hofmeister and knocked him to the ground.

Howard’s friends Artarius Whales and Delcheva Harris hit A. E., kicked her, and dragged her down an alley.

Hofmeister tried to help A. E., but Joshua Harris and Howard chased him off.

He ran to homes of two neighbors, found no help, and ran to the police station.

According to Chapman, Delcheva Harris and Whales sexually assaulted A. E.

“The defendant was present throughout the assault,” she wrote.

She wrote that Howard told police she punched and kicked A. E. many times, maybe once while Delcheva Harris and Whales sexually assaulted her.

After the assault, she took Whales, Harris and Harris to her mother’s home.

At 4:30 a.m., detective Matthew Eiskant woke the mother.

She gave him permission to go upstairs and talk to her daughter.

Eiskant found all four, asleep, Howard in bed and the others on the floor.

Eiskant brought Hofmeister to the house, and he identified the three men.

Eiskant and detective Beth Ferry interviewed Howard, who admitted punching A. E. in the face and denied any further involvement.

In a second interview, Eiskant and Ferry told her there was surveillance video of the attack and the men had told them what happened.

“They repeatedly emphasized the brutal nature of the attack, telling her that it was a horror movie in the city of Belleville, that A. E. was left in the alley to die like an animal, and that the defendant was lucky that A. E. Survived,” Chapman wrote.

She wrote that Ferry told Howard she was as responsible as the men.

Kelly charged Howard with aggravated criminal sexual assault, and grand jurors indicted her.

In 2012, defense counsel moved to exclude from video of the interview the comments and opinions of Eiskant and Ferry.

Kelly agreed to redact the part about dying like an animal, and portions where Eiskant and Frey referred to Howard and the men as animals.

Prior to trial, Howard’s attorney asked Cook to exclude almost all of the final six minutes.

Cook ruled that jurors would see almost all of the final six minutes.

They watched Eiskant tell Howard that A. E. was admitted to a hospital with fractures throughout her face and body.

They watched Ferry tell her, “You are lucky she is alive,” and repeat it.

On the stand, Eiskant told jurors he never had any information that A. E.’s injuries might be life threatening.

Howard’s attorney told jurors that A. E. couldn’t recall events due to intoxication, but Hofmeister testified that she didn’t appear intoxicated.

Howard’s attorney then sought to call her treating physician for testimony that the hospital admitted her with alcohol concentration of 0.272.

Cook excluded the testimony.

Jurors returned a guilty verdict.

Howard moved for a new trial, and Cook denied it.

In 2013, he sentenced her to 17 years in prison.

She moved for reconsideration, and he denied it.

Howard filed notice of appeal, and appellate defender Amanda Horner filed a brief for her in 2014.

Appellate prosecutor Kelly Stacey replied last April, and Fifth District judges heard arguments in July.

The judges found no probative value in the statements of the detectives.

“The officers repeatedly emphasized and exaggerated both the brutal nature of the assault and the extent of the victim’s injuries,” Chapman wrote.

“They told the defendant that each of the three men raped A. E. repeatedly, while the evidence showed that two of the three men raped her once.

“They told the defendant that A. E. had fractures throughout her body and that she could die from her injuries, neither of which was true.

“In addition, detective Ferry told the defendant three times that she was just as responsible for the brutal assault as her codefendants.

“This, of course, was the ultimate question jurors were called upon to decide.”

She wrote that Cook instructed jurors not to consider the statements as substantive evidence, but the instruction didn’t cure the prejudice.

“As the defendant correctly contends, police officers are viewed as authority figures,” Chapman wrote.

“As such, their statements are often given substantial weight by jurors.

“In addition, the repetition of many of the statements served to emphasize the statements and enhance their prejudicial impact.”

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