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Adams found guilty of Dixon woman's murder

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(Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com)
Byron Adams, 54, of Chicago was found guilty today of first-degree murder in the Sept. 11, 2009, death of Margaret Atherton in her Dixon home.

DIXON – Margaret Atherton's family got the news Tuesday that they've been waiting to hear for more than 3 years.

Byron Adams, the man prosecutors say killed Atherton in her Dixon home, was convicted on three counts of first-degree murder in her death.

"So many prayers going into this last 3 years," said her mother, Paulette Finn. "[I'm] grateful, so grateful."

After a 4-day trial, it took a Lee County jury less than 2 hours to convict the 54-year-old Chicago man.

Adams will be sentenced Nov. 16. He faces 20 to 60 years in prison.

Lee County Assistant State's Attorney Peter Buh said after the verdict that he will ask for the maximum 60-year sentence for Adams.

"This defendant is a very dangerous person," he said. "He's committed numerous crimes prior to the murder of Margaret Atherton. He's been held accountable for his actions and he will be sentenced according to his actions."

Adams' attorney, David Mandrgoc, said after the verdict that the evidence was "pretty strong," namely a confession to police, against his client.

"Mr. Adams chose to talk to the police before getting counsel," he said. "That's the large part of the problem."

He added, "I think without his confession, it would have been a totally circumstantial case and a lot different, quite honestly."

During his closing arguments, Buh told the jury that there was "no doubt" that Adams was in Dixon on Sept. 11, 2009, and that he killed Atherton. 

That's the day police found Atherton, 35, dead in an upstairs bedroom of her West First Street home. Two rolled up socks were in her mouth, a pillowcase was twisted and knotted at the back of her head, and a black necktie bound her hands.

A neighbor reported that he saw a white car parked in the neighborhood about the time Atherton was killed. The man, who knew Adams as a fellow newspaper carrier, said he had seen Adams drive the car before and that it had the prefix of "H20" on the license plate.

Police ran the plate and found that it was reported stolen a month before by Adams' ex-girlfriend.

Using iPass records and surveillance videos from the Dollar Tree and Walmart stores in Dixon, police tracked the white 2000 Pontiac Grand Am coming from Chicago to Dixon and back. Adams told police he had sole control of the car.

Atherton's purse, along with a red, white, and blue towel, were found in a trash bin behind the Dollar Tree about an hour before police found Atherton dead.

It was Adams himself who summoned police and gave them details of the murder that matched perfectly with the evidence, Buh said.

Only the killer could know that socks were stuffed in her mouth and that a pilowcase was over her head. Only the killer could know that her hands were bound with the tie and that she was lying face down on the bed, Buh said.

"These are all things the defendant supplied to police," Buh told the jury. 

Mandrgoc said in his closing argument that prosecutors failed to prove that Adams was even in Atherton's house that day. 

They had no fingerprints, cellphone records, or tire or shoe imprints, he said.

Most importantly, Mandrgoc told the jury, Adams' DNA was not found in Atherton's home or on the pillowcase.

However, a forensic biologist testified last week that Adams was a minor DNA contributor on the pillowcase and his DNA could not be excluded from the black necktie.

Mandrgoc also argued that there were no witnesses who gave a reliable identification of Adams and said he was developed as a suspect simply because he delivered newspapers in Atherton's neighborhood. 

Further, police promised Adams "over and over" that if he admitted that he was having an affair with Atherton that had gone awry, he could get the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. 

"You have more than enough reasonable doubt in this case that you can't find Mr. Adams guilty of any of the charges in this case," Mandrgoc told the jury.

Adams hunched forward, stared straight ahead and showed no emotion as the verdict was read.

In the gallery, several members of Atherton's family held hands and cried.

Atherton's husband said he was "relieved" that the jury convicted Adams.

"It was about time," said Ryan Atherton, 38, of Walnut. "Three years was long enough."

He said he was frustrated about Adams' "bellyaching" about how he was treated and his multiple requests to fire his attorneys.

"Who was looking out for [Margaret's] rights when he was doing this to her?" he said. 

After the verdict, Finn sat in the hallway of the courthouse and got out her billfold. Inside, she had photos of Atherton with her husband and her senior high school picture.

"She was our baby girl," Finn said.

For Ryan Atherton, he and Margaret's three daughters are "going day by day" and trying to move on with their lives.

"Just keep moving forward, that's all we can do," he said. "Raising the girls and getting them through life."

Margaret Atherton's father, James, died in July. Finn said James wanted to be here for the trial, but "it got drug out for so long."

After the verdict was read, Finn said she planned to make a trip to the cemetery where both her daughter and husband are buried.

"I'm grateful to God and I'm going to go and tell my husband and Margaret what happened today," she said.

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