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Christopher Vaughn gets life in prison for killing wife, 3 kids

Christopher Vaughn was sentenced to four life terms this morning for fatally shooting his wife and three children after pulling off an expressway in 2007.

Vaughn looked over his shoulder at his family as he was led away after being sentenced by Judge Daniel Rozak for the murders of his wife Kimberly and their three children, Abigayle, 12, Cassandra, 11 and Blake, 8.

Kimberly's family hugged and shook hands with investigators in the courtroom.

Earlier, Kimberly twin sister Jennifer Ledbetter told the judge that "our hearts ache with the knowledge that they were priceless to everyone but the one man who should have loved them more than their own life."

Vaughn seemed to wipe his eyes several times as Ledbetter read her statement.

Also addressing the court was Kimberly's mother, Susan Phillips. In a matter-of-fact tone, she called Vaughn "a selfish coward" who had "destroy(ed) the very best thing that he had, a loving wife and three amazing children" and caused incredible pain for the surviving family.

Vaughn murdered his wife and kids, prosecutors say, because he saw them as obstacles to his dream of a new life in Canada. He posted wistful Internet messages about building a cabin and settling in the Yukon cut off from the world.

According to prosecutors, Vaughn woke his family on the day of the killings promising a surprise trip to a water park. But shortly after 5 a.m., he pulled off the road and shot them. Each child was shot once in the chest and head while buckled in the back seat of the family SUV.

Abigayle was found holding a stuffed animal. Blake's wounds indicated he had raised his arm to shield himself.

At the trial, defense attorneys told jurors that Vaughn's wife was to blame, saying she was suicidal over marital strife. They suggested she shot her husband in the wrist and leg, then killed the children and herself.

But prosecutors asked jurors whether it seemed reasonable that a woman who disliked guns could have shot her husband twice, only grazing him each time, but fatally shot each of her children with a marksman's precision.

They contended that Christopher Vaughn shot himself to make it look like his wife carried out the attack, and told jurors that Vaughn showed little emotion after the shootings and was more interested in his damaged clothing than the fate of his family.

Vaughn had been scheduled to be sentenced Monday. But Rozak halted the sentencing so he could review transcripts and television broadcast reports before ruling on a motion for a new trial from the defense, which argued that publicity from another high-level murder trial had prejudiced the jurors.

Vaughn's September trial overlapped with the trial of Drew Peterson, the former Bolingbrook police sergeant convicted of killing his third wife.  Vaughn's attorney, George Lenard, argued that part of the reason his client didn't get a fair trial was because the press conferences held by Peterson's lawyers outside the courthouse damaged his own credibility as a defense attorney.

Rozak denied the motion this morning, saying he had admonished jurors to avoid all news coverage during the trial.

Also, Rozak said any comparisons he heard between the two defense teams characterized Lenard as "the second coming of Clarence Darrow while the others were like a rerun of Mo Howard in 'Disorder in the Court.' "

Lenard, who cited 51 grounds for a new trial, began his more than two-hour oral argument Monday by taking some shots at former Peterson co-counsel Joel Brodsky.

Lenard criticized a news conference held by Peterson's new defense team that he said seemed to mock the disappearance of Peterson's fourth wife, Stacy. Prosecutors believe Peterson killed Stacy, but he has not been charged. He was tried this summer for the 2004 drowning of his third wife, Kathleen Savio.

"That gave criminal defense attorneys — all of us — a black eye," Lenard told the judge, saying jurors may have been so disgusted by this "show" that they were unfairly prejudiced against Vaughn's defense team.

"I think they need to apologize about what they said out there," Lenard later told reporters outside the courthouse.

Prosecutors called the argument "unbelievable," and Peterson attorney Joe Lopez tweeted it was "hilarious to blame us for his loss."

"It's unbelievable that the Drew Peterson case would find itself in the Christopher Vaughn case," Assistant State's Attorney Mike Fitzgerald said.

"If they thought the Drew Peterson trial was going to be an influence, why didn't they do something about it at the time?"

Lenard said he never expected media coverage of the two trials to overlap. He also cited as grounds for a new trial closing arguments that he said were a "personal attack" against him and the speed with which jurors returned a verdict.

Fitzgerald said jurors might have returned a verdict in less than an hour because they found the evidence of Vaughn's guilt "overwhelming."

Lenard said that in his 28 years of practicing law, he's never before seen jurors return a verdict so quickly without asking to review evidence.

"I don't know exactly what it is that they were thinking, but 45 minutes and not asking for any exhibits, not wanting to hear any testimony, that's extremely rare. I've never had that situation before and that's odd."

sschmadeke@tribune.com

Twitter: @ChicagoBreaking

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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