A State Park Place man who was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of a teenage girl during a high-speed chase will get a new trial next month after the judge found the actions of the girl’s family during his trial may have prejudiced the jury.
A St. Clair County jury found Donald J. Friese, 30, guilty in November, but last week that verdict was overturned and St. Clair County Circuit Judge Zina Cruse, the judge who presided over the first trial, ordered a new trial.
“I want to praise this judge because she did the right thing,” said John Lynch, Friese’s attorney.
Friese was convicted of causing the death of 18-year-old Mercedes Ferrarie-Troisi. Prosecutors said Friese intentionally caused the crash that killed Ferrarie-Troisi.
Police said that on April 29, 2013, at about 4:25 a.m., there was a fight over the teen’s stolen marijuana at the home of her friend Brandy Hayes on Yale Avenue in Collinsville. Hayes and Ferrarie-Troisi and others went to a gas station to confront Friese.
Friese drove away from the gas station. Hayes, with Ferrarie-Troisi as her passenger, took off after him. The two cars drove at triple-digit speeds on Collinsville Road in State Park Place until the crash in the 4900 block of Collinsville Road. Ferrarie-Troisi was ejected, then Hayes’ Buick rolled over her.
Friese was on home confinement on a federal narcotics charge when the incident occurred.
In his motion for a new trial, Lynch argued that the victim’s family acted in a manner that continuously caused disturbances during his client’s trial.
“During the trial, Lisa Ferrari-Darron (the victim’s mother) enlisted her husband and various family members and friends to continue what is best described as jury-distraction and general disruption of the trial process, to include feigning reactions by plan (described in detail via social media), and wearing provocative clothing, similar to that of the deceased,” Lynch wrote.
He also wrote, “Lisa Ferrarie-Darron’s behavior resulted in the cessation of testimony on multiple occasions as jurors were focused on her rather than that of the witness(es). That alone was unacceptable as it deprived defendant Friese of his absolute right to a fair trial.”
Ferrarie-Darron could not be reached for comment. St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly declined to comment because the case is now pending.
“Even with this court’s admonition to Lisa Ferrarie-Darron, and the people, trial proved no different where T-shirts were on display for the witnesses, prospective jurors and the general public — all representative of a pattern of misbehavior and attempts to influence what should have been a fair and impartial jury trial,” Lynch wrote.
In his motion, Lynch accused Ferrarie-Darron of:
▪ Trying to talk directly to jurors.
▪ Entering the courtroom wearing a fur coat, pink leopard-print attire and headdress.
▪ Pushing other trial observers out of the way.
▪ Providing cues to a state witness.
▪ Encouraging supporters to wear their “Justice4Mercedes” T-shirts, even though the judge admonished them not to do so.
“The jurors’ attention should be on the witness box, not the gallery,” said University of Illinois law professor Andrew Leipold. “It’s too bad because nobody benefits from an unfair trial, not the victim, defendant or the victim’s family.”
Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, director of IllinoisVictims.org, said trials are traumatic experiences for victims’ families. Victims’ families need to be guided by experts in the systems so they can manage their expectations.
“They need to understand that if they do X, Y or Z, they could lose the case, and they don’t want that,” Bishop-Jenkins said.
Another legal expert said a defendant’s right to a fair trial is absolute.
“What’s potentially confusing about this situation is that we’re tempted to think of a jury trial as akin to other political processes, where citizens are permitted and even encouraged to communicate with decision-makers in an effort to influence their decision making,” said University of Illinois law professor Eric Johnson. “A fair trial requires that the information conveyed to the jury be strictly controlled, both inside the courtroom through evidence rules, and outside the courtroom (through laws that prohibit jury tampering).”
Lynch also argued the case didn’t warrant a first-degree murder charge. Instead, he said, the case should have been charged as reckless homicide. Hayes, the driver of the car in which Ferrarie-Troisi was riding, was not charged.
However, under Illinois law, a theory of accountability allows prosecutors to charge first-degree murder in a case like this because of the acts that precipitated the death.
“It’s aggressive but it is also meant to give people a warning not to engage in the underlying behavior that could lead to a death,” Leipold said.
Friese’s next court date is June 17. It’s unclear when the new trial will be. Lynch said he won’t be the defense attorney in the retrial.