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Thursday, May 12, 2005 07:02 pm

Conduct unbecoming

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Louis Russo was not quite 20 when he was interrogated by Illinois State Police in March 2003. It was the day after his infant daughter’s funeral, and investigators had reason to believe that Russo might have caused the baby’s death.

Special Agent Cynthia Robbins and Sgt. Rebecca Dewitt-Early gave Russo his Miranda warning and then started to question him.

“After having given you your rights, Louis, are you willing to talk to us?” Robbins asked.

“Before I answer, if I do,” Russo said, “what are my chances of spending one last night with my wife?”

His entreaty caught the investigators off-guard.

“Louis, I have, uh, an answer to a lot of questions, but that one I don’t have right now,” Robbins responded.

Over the next 32 minutes, as the investigators tried to coax Russo to talk, he repeatedly asked for a private visit with his wife: “I just want to be able to speak to her before I tell anyone else. . . . I just don’t want to say anything until I see my wife. . . . I’m not telling anyone until I tell my wife . . . I just feel it wouldn’t be right unless I tell her alone. . . . ”

When it became clear that the investigators weren’t going to grant his request, Russo tried to end the interrogation: “I’m not talking, I’m not. You might as well stop the conversation because I’m not going to talk. . . . You guys can do whatever you want to me. I’m not going to talk. . . . ”

Months later, when Logan County Circuit Judge David Coogan heard a tape of this interrogation, he ruled that Russo’s statement was coerced and therefore inadmissible in court. By the judge’s count, Robbins and DeWitt-Early had violated Russo’s Miranda rights 15 to 20 times.

But Miranda wasn’t the only problem. There’s also an unseemly scheme involving Russo’s dad and wire-tapped phone calls, explained in a series of police reports produced more than a year after the interrogation, not to mention a soap-opera scenario in which Robbins was assigned to this case by her live-in lover/supervisor, State Police Lt. Carlo Jiannoni, who hoped to advance her career.

In a memo to the State Police officials, one of the attorneys involved in the case claimed the investigators’ incompetence harmed the cause of justice:

“I have tried to envision an innocent construction of the events . . . and the reports which follow. Knowing the case as thoroughly as I now do, I cannot ascribe innocent motives to this situation. My conclusion is that SA Robbins knew or should have known that Louis was invoking his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. If she does not know, she is woefully under-qualified to be a case agent assigned to a murder investigation. If she does know, she intentionally left extremely pertinent information out of her reports to the detriment of the accused and ultimately the entire justice system.”

That statement was drafted not by Russo’s defense attorney, Tim Timoney, but by Tim Huyett, the Logan County State’s Attorney — the original prosecutor of the murder case.

Dated June 23, 2004, Huyett’s densely-detailed seven-page memo apparently sparked an internal investigation at ISP, as well as a criminal investigation. And for the past year, it has appeared possible that the investigators might be charged with obstruction of justice and official misconduct.

But last Friday, a Logan County grand jury convened to consider indictments for Robbins, DeWitt-Early, Jiannoni and another officer, Sgt. Angela Grable, was cancelled. Robbins and DeWitt-Early had made a deal, agreeing to accept administrative sanctions rather than face prosecution. That agreement means it will be up to ISP to discipline its own officers.

A clue as to how bad a spanking Robbins and DeWitt-Early can expect came earlier this month when two other high-ranking ISP officials found themselves on the bad end of the law in another case. A federal jury found ISP Capt. Steve Fermon and Lt. Col. Diane Carper had retaliated against Lt. Michale Callahan for his efforts to re-investigate a 1986 double-murder (Randy Steidl, one of two men found guilty of that crime, has already been freed from prison), and awarded Callahan more than $700,000 in damages.

ISP Director Larry Trent responded with an e-mail to ISP brass, calling the jury’s decision “a blatant miscarriage of justice” and pledging full support for Fermon and Carper.

Timoney says the embarrassment of the Callahan case might explain why ISP “pushed so hard to get a deal struck on this.” And indeed, if the plan was to avoid adverse publicity, it has apparently worked. Aside from a short segment last Friday night on WICS Channel 20 and an article in the tiny Lincoln Courier, this scandalous story has attracted no media attention.

But we may not have heard the end of it yet. Timoney plans to ask the state inspector general and perhaps the FBI to investigate. “As far as I’m concerned,” he says, “I’m not gonna stop.”

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