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Woman who has served 7 years for sledgehammer attack gets new trial

By Lisa Black, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — A woman who has served seven years in prison for a sledgehammer attack on her ex-husband and his wife will be allowed a new trial after a Lake County, Ill., judge agreed Tuesday that the woman had entered into a plea agreement based on false information.

Sandra Rogers, 55, maintained her innocence in 2004 while entering into a so-called “Alford” plea agreement that acknowledged that prosecutors had sufficient evidence to prove her guilt, Judge John Phillips said. She opted to plead rather than go to trial — a decision that resulted in a 30-year prison term — largely because of prosecutors’ contention that she had admitted guilt in a message passed to her co-defendant through a jail correctional officer, the judge said.

Former Assistant State’s Attorney George Strickland, now a Lake County judge, has testified that he was not aware that an investigator in his office had determined up to a month before the plea that Rogers has not actually apologized in the message.

Rogers’ former defense attorney also failed to verify the accuracy of the message, Phillips said.

The judge reinstated the attempted murder charges against Rogers and is due to set a new trial date next week. Rogers, incarcerated at Dwight Correctional Center in Illinois, did not appear in court.

Her ex-husband and a daughter sat expressionless in the courtroom and later declined comment.

“The judge made a ruling based on the facts in front of him,” Assistant State’s Attorney Pat Fix said. “I certainly feel for the victims that — eight, nine years after the incident, when they thought they had put this behind them — we had to tell them this is what we have to do. … We will do our best to go forward and put together our best circumstantial case.”

Though the judge pointed to mistakes by both prosecutors and the defense, his ruling is the latest setback for the atate’s attorney’s office, which has seen several cases unravel with DNA evidence.

During a recent hearing, Strickland testified that there was plenty of other evidence of Rogers’ involvement in the crime. That included the facts that Rogers changed her appearance after the near-fatal attack, left the state, gave several conflicting statements to authorities and told them that her ex-husband “needed to be … removed from the planet,” Strickland said.

A then-teenage accomplice in the attack, Jonathan McMeekin, was due to testify that at her trial that Rogers, embittered over having lost custody of her children, pushed McMeekin to help her try to kill the couple. Authorities said Rogers and McMeekin surprised the couple in bed in their Lincolnshire home in May 2003, and Rogers struck both of them over the head multiple times with a 2-pound sledgehammer, nearly killing both.

McMeekin, now 25, also pleaded guilty to attempted murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Rogers has said that the message she sent through a Lake County jail guard to McMeekin said nothing more than, “How are you? I love you,” Phillips said.

That a correctional officer relayed a message to a co-defendant is a “disturbing situation,” Phillips added Tuesday during his ruling, asking that the incident be “looked into.”

“It was clearly inappropriate,” Phillips said. “ … She did in fact pass a message.”

The correctional officer, who still works at the jail, was reprimanded verbally at the time, Fix said.

“Ironically, this message … probably isn’t even evidence we would use” at trial, Fix said.

Judges rarely allow defendants to retract guilty pleas, said Northwestern University Law School professor Ronald Allen, who specializes in criminal procedure.

When that does occur, it’s generally because something went seriously amiss during the court process, he said. These factors could include a defense lawyer giving ineffective assistance, the revelation of potent new evidence or a prosecutor misrepresenting the evidence, he said.

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