Accidental Murder

Levi Wilson sat back on the living room couch of his brother-in-laws’s second floor apartment on South Lawndale Avenue. A beer in hand, snacks on the coffee table, the smell of a ham cooking in the kitchen—it was turning out to be fine Saturday afternoon. Levi and his wife Lativia thought they were just going to Lattie’s sister for an early evening dinner, but when they arrived it was a full blown anniversary party for Levi and his wife. Thirty years of marriage, three successful daughters and the family had gathered to help them celebrate.

“Lattie!” shouted Levi. “Bring me a beer.”

The women were all in the kitchen, alternately hovering over the side dishes and basting the ham. The men and older boys were in the living room watching the Bulls game. The younger children were playing board games on the dining room table.

“You kids are going to have to clear that table soon… we’re fixin’ to set out dinner.”

Levi was annoyed as he pushed himself up from the couch. He strode purposefully through the house to the kitchen.

“Bitch!” he shouted at Lattie. “I tol’ you to get me a beer!”

He took a wide swing at his wife. He connected, but the previous beers and Lattie’s evasive action caused the blow to harmlessly graze the back of her head. The family had seen this side of Levi all too often.

“Daddy!” shouted Delilah, their oldest daughter. “Not here! Not today!”

Delilah stepped between her mother and father as Levi prepared to swing again, but instead he shoved his daughter aside and she momentarily lost her balance and fell to the kitchen floor. Even Levi realized that he may have just crossed some unspoken line. In their entire marriage, he had never laid a hand upon his daughters.

“Bitch!” he repeated as he grabbed himself a beer and retreated to the living room. Moments later the women heard the men-folk laughing.

Lattie helped her daughter up, unhurt, from the floor, but both were crying. The other women tried to direct the group’s attention to the final preparations of the afternoon meal, but Lattie scanned the kitchen counter and picked up a 6” narrow bladed boning knife. If any of the women saw her they said nothing as she marched toward the front of the house.

Lativia stood in front of Levi. He waved her to get out of his view as he strained forward to see the television. He never saw the knife as his wife took a half step forward and struck him once on his left shoulder. She turned and went back to the kitchen, still holding the knife.

“Goddam crazy woman!” exclaimed Levi as he brushed his shoulder as if to straighten his shirt.

“Levi, you be cut man!” shouted his brother-in-law.

Levi looked at his fingertips and saw just a trace of blood.

“It ain’t shee-it, man,” he said as he tried to look at the top of his shoulder. He couldn’t quite see the wound.

His brother-in-law pulled his shirt aside and observed a small 3/8th inch laceration with just a trace of blood at the edges.

“You’ll be all right man, but stay in here. Let her cool off and we’ll all have supper.”

Levi nodded silently as his fingers traced his left collar bone area.

There was silence in both the kitchen and the living room with the only sounds coming from the television. The entire apartment was still, save for the sound of the Bulls announcer. Levi dropped his hand to his upper left chest area now, just below the collarbone. He rubbed it slowly.

“Hurts,” he said, just before he lost consciousness.

* * * *

“Seventy-four-o-seven, call your office,” the dispatcher paged. We found a phone nearby.

“Listen ya guys, sorry to give you a late job, but the next shift is short tonight. Take a DOA stabbing victim at Mount Sinai—one in custody now at the 010th District.”

It had been a quiet Saturday afternoon up to that point, but with less than 90 minutes to go we were now stuck for the evening.

At Mount Sinai Hospital the ER personnel directed us to a private examining room where Levi Wilson awaited transportation to the Cook County Morgue. His shirt had been cut away but treatment had not proceeded much beyond that. He was pronounced dead on arrival. There was a single 2” X 2” gauze patch on his left shoulder on the hollow just above the collarbone.. When we removed it we saw a very small laceration with clean edges and a trace of blood. An ER nurse came into the room to retrieve some supplies.

“Is this what killed him?” we asked with a dubious tone of voice.

“We’re guessing yes, unless they find some surprises at the morgue tomorrow.”

“Maybe heart attack?” asked my partner. If it was a heart attack, we might get to go home relatively on time.

The nurse shrugged and left the room.

We looked over the ER report. The only injury noted was a “laceration of the left supraclavicular hollow.” Chalk up another mini-lesson in anatomy—that cavity on top of your shoulder is really a “supraclavicular hollow.”

The 010th District was a madhouse with not only our case, but all the other flotsam that makes up a normal Saturday afternoon in a busy district. The Watch Commander was only too happy to give us permission to move all parties to the Area Four Homicide office on Maxwell Street and we wound up transporting Lativia Wilson.

Mrs. Wilson was a somewhat heavyset woman 53 years of age, well dressed with salt and pepper hair, obviously extremely distraught.

“Please, sweet Jesus! Tell me Levi’s not dead,” she pleaded. “I just hit him on the shoulder.”

“Hit him on the shoulder with a knife,” countered the uniformed patrolman as he removed his handcuffs from her wrists. He looked expectantly at us but we shook our heads. Lativia would ride with us without handcuffs, but I would ride in the back seat with her.

At the area office we separated the witnesses as best we could and succeeded in reconstructing the incident with very little disparity in the accounts:

Levi hit Lativia and then pushed Delilah who fell to the floor. Neither were injured. Lativia took a kitchen knife, followed Levi to the living room and struck him on the left shoulder with a knife. Levi most likely died within 5-10 minutes of the incident. Levi had a documented history of domestic abuse over the last 25 years.

We called the Cook County Felony Review unit for a recommendation on charges. The Assistant States Attorney was working a double homicide on the far south side. Could we review the case with him over the phone? He listened patiently as my partner ran down the particulars.

“Listen,” replied the ASA. “Normally I would call out someone else from home, but this seems pretty cut and dried. Charge her with murder. Put my name down as approving”

“Uh… well…,” my partner was at a momentary loss for words. “Uh… I don’t think we were exactly looking for a murder charge here.”

“What!” shouted the ASA. “All the times I fight with you guys when you don’t have a complete case and now I’m giving you a murder and that’s not what you want?”

“Well we’re just sayin’, she’s 53 years old, never had so much as a parking ticket and he’s been beatin’ on her for years…”

“Yeah, but this time she’s not hurt, she picked up the knife in the kitchen, followed him all the way to the living room and stabbed him. That’s murder. Let her defense attorney bring up that other crap and maybe we’ll plead it out when it comes to court.”

“Well…” (my partner wasn’t quitting) “…we’re not even sure she caused his death. He’s got a tiny laceration on the top of his shoulder. Maybe he died of a heart attack, or a stroke or something.”

“Yeah, right after she stabbed him. Charge her with murder.”

My partner and I looked at one another and shrugged. So be it.

In total violation of our normal practice Delilah was in the interrogation room with her mother when we entered to explain what was going to happen. Lativia would be charged with murder and removed to the women’s lockup to await a bond hearing the following morning. We knew it would not be a pleasant experience for her. The women embraced and cried.

“Don’t they have something like ‘accidental murder?’” cried Delilah.

* * * *

Sunday morning roll call came too soon. The sergeant tossed us the Wilson case file.

“We’ve got no morgue man today. One of you will have to take the autopsy and the other the bond hearing. Work it out between you.”

“I’ll take court,” replied my partner.

Since I was the junior man on the team, that left me with morgue. It might be interesting, I told myself. I still wasn’t convinced that that tiny cut had killed Levi Wilson. We’d find out soon. I decided to skip breakfast for the time being.

I had only been in homicide a few months but I had at least half dozen autopsies under my belt. The initial shock of watching a pathologist’s assistant cut into a human body had worn off after the first two or three. Revulsion had been replaced by inquisitiveness.

At the morgue I learned that the Wilson case was number three in the morning line-up—the double homicide from the night before would be first. While I waited, the morgue office paged me. It was my partner from court.

“Have you got a cause of death yet?” he asked.

“No, we’re number three. What’s up?”

“Well the judge is a friend of mine. I’m thinkin’ maybe we can get Lativia a personal recognizance bond.”

“On a murder?” I asked skeptically.

“Well we’re not even sure it’s a murder. Call the court bailiff on this number as soon as you get something.”

About 20 minutes later Doug the diener rolled Levi Wilson into the room. He was naked now and we both looked at the small cut on his left shoulder and then scanned the rest of his body. Doug turned Levi to each side but we found no other wounds.

“What do you think? I asked.

He shrugged and called the pathologist over. The pathologist shrugged also.

“Get started” he told Doug.

At the Cook County Morgue a pathologist’s assistant did most of the initial work opening the body. “Dieners” they were called, and Doug was one of the best.

The shoulder laceration was relatively close to where Doug would start his “Y” incision to open the chest, so he called for some photos before he started.

He cut a long incision from each shoulder to the center of the chest where they joined. He then extended the incision downward to the pubic area. Next came the saw. Doug cut a triangular section of the rib cage out and then lifted it free.

“Oh yeah!” he exclaimed.

Looking into a normal chest cavity, one could readily discern the major organs of the chest, most prominent the heart and lungs. But Levi Wilson’s chest was filled with free blood.

“Doc!” called the diener.

The pathologist nodded for Doug to proceed. He carefully used an oversized soup ladle to remove and measure the blood volume. The three of us were peering at the chest cavity intently now. The doctor placed the handle of a scalpel lightly into the wound and then inserted his gloved hand into Levi’s upper left chest and found the wound from the inside. He nodded to Doug and Doug used a hose to gently rinse the injured tissues. The trajectory of the knife blade was clearly visible now, from the left shoulder supraclavicular hollow directly down to the ascending aorta and left ventricle of the heart. Levi Johnson had quite simply died of a stab wound to the heart.

I called my partner at court to give him a report.

“You’re too late,” he told me. “The judge already gave Lativia a personal recognizance bond on my recommendation.”

“Is that on the record?” I asked.

“No, I talked to him in chambers before the court call. The ASA is having a fit. I’ll wait until the next recess and tell Kenny… I mean the judge, maybe we goofed.”

“I don’t think we goofed. She’ll show up in court. Tell ‘Kenny’ I said hello.” I laughed.

* * * *

Weeks turned into months, seasons changed and the Bulls didn’t make the playoffs.

“Padar, you’ve got a court notification, the Civic Center downtown. That’s the Wilson Homicide, how come its downtown?”

“The defendant’s out on recognizance bond, Sarge. Maybe that’s why they sent it to the Civic Center.”

“Recognizance bond on a murder charge? How did that happen?”

“Hey, she’s a nice lady. We pulled strings.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” replied the sergeant sarcasically.

It was my first time in court at the relatively new Chicago Civic Center, later to be renamed the Richard J. Daley Center. The ambience was more genteel than the gritty antiquity of the Criminal Courts Building at 26th and California. The courtrooms were small and new and lacked the “prison smell” of 26th Street. I could get used to this real quick, I thought.

Lativia Wilson had arrived before me and was accompanied by two of her three daughters. When Delilah saw me she slid into the bench and sat next to me.

“Thank you for getting mama out on bail,” she said.

“Who told you that?”

“Our lawyer. He said someone put a word in to the judge.”

“Well it wasn’t exactly me,” I replied.

“Well thanks anyway, detective. Our family really appreciated it,” she smiled.

Lativia’s case was the first called.

“Your honor, may I approach?” asked her attorney.

“In camera,” replied the judge. “Court reporter please come to chambers.”

The judge, the Assistant States Attorney, the defense attorney and the court reporter disappeared into chambers. Hey, this was Cook County; nothing surprised me, well not too much. But I was surprised when the bailiff appeared and asked me to step into chambers.

Lativia’s attorney introduced himself to me.

“Delilah works for us,” he said with a smile. “We’re very fond of her.”

So… Lativia’s getting pro bono representation from a downtown law firm I thought to myself. Not too shabby.

The judge spoke…

“Detective, we have been reviewing the circumstances of this case. The state and the defense have agreed to a plea bargain to Voluntary Manslaughter, if I concur. What do you think of that?”

“I think that’s appropriate in this case,” I responded.

“And regarding sentencing… if I pronounce sentence today, this case will be off my docket. I’m thinking of a prison term of two years with five years felony probation…”

Whoa, I thought… I didn’t know what to say, but he wasn’t quite finished.

“…and I’m going to suspend the prison sentence, pending completion of her probation—if she can keep her nose clean,” he smiled at himself. “What do you think of that?”

“I think that’s appropriate in this case,” I repeated myself and returned the judges smile.

“Then it’s done. Let’s return to court.”

It was the first and only time in my police career that I ever attended a criminal trial at the Civic Center. It was also the first and only time in my career that a criminal court judge ever asked my opinion on anything.

Once back in open court, the plea and sentencing was repeated. Lativia Wilson would walk out of court essentially a free woman. Her daughters hugged her and they cried together.

Accidental murder. Sometimes the system works in mysterious ways…

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16 Comments on “Accidental Murder”

  1. MaryAnn Dykema says:

    You have a great way with story telling. It’s nice to hear that someone DIDN’T get screwed by the system.

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks for you kind words MaryAnn.

      You didn’t ask, but in my view, the people that get regularly screwed by the system are the residents of Cook County, when judges sentence repeat offenders to probation, then probation on top of another probation, sometimes triple probation. All the time warning the bad guys of dire consequences if they violate their multiple probations. The consequences never materialize.

  2. Reminds me of a early 70’s case in 018. Judge Pincham made all the decisions and no one was consulted. Wife stabbed husband basically the same way. Small bond and at conclusion of trial 5 years probation. Seems like not much changes but the names. Thanks again for a trip down memory lane.

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks Greg, for reading and commenting as always. I appreciate the feedback.

      After retirement, I went on a “ride-a-long” with my son several years back. He was a patrol officer at the time. They had better tools (MDT in the car, etc) but overall at the end of the evening it was the same circus, just different clowns.

  3. Ed Hammer says:

    Like I have said before, awesome story and you are a cop witha big heart. Thanks for your service and thanks for the great article. You da man!

  4. Mary Rita Shull says:

    Thank you so much for your unique perspective! Well done.

  5. Maryann Sevening says:

    As usual a great story Jim……ah, for the old days in Lawndale.

  6. Rich Rostrom says:

    What a tragic story. Married thirty years, raised the kids. You’d think it was a stable, happy family. But the guy was a brute, and he just pushed her too far one last time.

    Incidentally, a fatal stabbing that way (down through the shoulder) is a bit of freak occurrance. I’m no anatomy expert, but I suspect that Mrs. Wilson hit exactly the spot where the blade could go through; and it had to be a narrow blade.

    Discussions I’ve seen about stabbing murder (in mysteries and elsewhere) all say that the killer should stab horizontally, through the rib cage. An overhand stab is the mark of an amateur, because it’s likely to fail.

    Also, a small-entry wound may easily be fatal; two classic weapons are the stiletto dagger and rapier sword, both of which are very thin blades intended to pierce the heart.

    • jimpadar says:

      You are correct… with 11 years in homicide and a total of 29 years on the job, I never saw another piercing knife wound at this particular point on the body. It was indeed a freak “accident” of sorts, although the law of course generally recognizes sticking a knife into another’s body as prima facie evidence of intent to do great bodily harm. The wife here, had no such “intent” I’m sure. But as they say, “Shit happens.” BTW, it was in fact a very thin bladed boning knife with a 6″ blade. Numerous images are available on the internet.

      As always, thanks for reading and commenting Rich!

  7. Jim,
    Thanks for your usual good story. I assume the A4 Greek lunch had a good turn out? Take care,
    Dennis

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks for the read, Denny.

      Ya, there were about 28 there. We had a great time and they put on an excellent family style spread. Nobody went home hungry.

  8. Gerald Cushing says:

    Jim , an interesting story which could only happen in Cook county. Why don’t you write that book and share some more with us. It’s been a while since I’ve seen you, but you still remain the same factual man we all respected.


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