After a judge ruled at trial that the testimony of the main witness had been impeached, Chicago gang member Cornell McWilliams was acquitted on eight of 10 charges against him June 10, including six counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault.
Judge Stanley Hill’s ruling elicited outrage from both police and McWilliams’ victim, Kristina Alonje. Alonje reached out to CBS Channel 2 over the summer, and sat for an interview that aired in July.
At the time Hill, who convicted McWilliams of vehicular invasion and burglary, did not publicly comment on Alonje’s criticisms or his reasons for the acquittals. But in court Thursday he elaborated at length on his reasoning both for the acquittals and for his surprising decision to not only sentence McWilliams to 30 years in prison, but also order him to register as a sex offender.
The judge also released a 10-page printed copy of his rulings to the media.
Hill passed sentence after a nearly three-hour hearing that saw prosecution and defense attorneys wrangle for nearly two hours over the nuances of case law regarding legal standards for applying the Sex Offender Act.
For Alonje, Thursday’s events brought to a close nine months of trauma and frustration.
In a Victim Impact Statement she read Thursday, Alonje said she was going about a normal day, heading over to her mom’s place four days before Christmas “to build a gingerbread house with my little sister.” When she stopped at a Northlake gas station for fuel, she was attacked by McWilliams.
Video from the gas station shows McWilliams forcing his way into Alonje’s car at a gas pump. The video does not clearly show what he did inside the car, but she says he repeatedly groped her sexually.
McWilliams said he was just trying to reach for her wallet on the center console. But Alonje painted McWilliams as a liar desperate to distance himself from the sexual motivations of his assault on her.
“Problem is, my car does not have a center console,” she said, adding that she did not bring her wallet with her that day.
She fought back against McWilliams, pushing and screaming and honking her horn. That attracted passersby who confronted McWilliams.
She said that while McWilliams was unable to steal her valuables, “He did manage to steal my sense of security. This is my town. I’m supposed to be safe here.”
She also took a barely veiled slap at the judge in her statement, saying that watching Hill acquit McWilliams was “almost as tragic as the events that happened last December.”
She refused to accept those acquittals, saying, “I hope (McWilliams) is punished for the crime he committed and not the crime he was convicted for.”
McWilliams, 31, also made a statement before the court, apologizing “for the crime I’ve committed.” He told the judge his 262 days in jail awaiting trial had given him the opportunity to “think about my life.”
“Know I need some help,” he said, asking Hill for mercy.
Hill didn’t buy it. He castigated McWilliams, who has 78 arrests and 27 convictions on his record, calling him “a taker, not an earner … a criminal, not a productive member of society.”
Throughout his ruling, Judge Hill was emphatic that he had applied proper judicial standards in acquitting McWilliams of the criminal sexual assault counts. He repeatedly pointed out the difference between the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required for a conviction, and the “manifest weight of evidence” required for a legal finding of a sexual motivation to McWilliams’ actions. At one point he went off his printed script, calling the difference between reasonable doubt and a preponderance of the evidence “a beast of a difference.”
“There are facts on the record suggesting the offenses may have been sexually motivated,” the judge wrote. “Though insufficient to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in the aggravated criminal sexual abuse counts of the indictment, the evidence is sufficient to meet the lower threshold of proof required for purposes of the Sex Offender Registration Act.”
“Consequently, defendant is required to register as a sex offender pursuant to the Act.”
The judge also alluded to the pain and suffering Alonje has endured. “She seemed terrified, panicked,” he said of the video footage of the gas station incident. Looking straight at Alonje, he said, “The post traumatic consequences for Ms. Alonje were devastating. “Defendant’s conduct was reprehensible and appalling.
The judge agreed with the prosecution that McWilliam’s two previous Class 2 felony convictions required he be sentenced under Class X guidelines, which call for a six- to 30-year sentence instead of four to 15 years.
McWilliams’ attorney told the court she intended to file an appeal.
Outside the courthouse after the hearing, Alonje stood with her mother and boyfriend, Tim Saenger, smiling for the first time that day.
In the final analysis, while they didn’t like the means, Alonje and her family were satisfied with the end result.
“This has been really hard on her,” said Saenger. “This doesn’t fix what happened, but it’s a good win.”
Alonje acknowledged she was “stunned” by the sentence. “Completely floored. Completely floored. I thought he was going to give him the six-year minimum.”
“The (lack of) convictions bothered me at first, because with those convictions we thought that was the only way he would have to register (as a sex offender),” she said.
She said the long sentence and sex offender status for McWilliams will help her deal with getting back to normal emotionally.
“It’s going to make it easier,” she said. “But it’s going to take a long time … it’s going to be a process.”
—- Chicago gang member gets 30-year sentence in Northlake car invasion —