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Trial slowed by defense objections; state hopes to rest today

Judge Jeffrey O'Connor points toward defense attorney Jeremy Karlin while speaking 
to him regarding a line of questioning of a DNA expert. O'Connor was upset about a 
series of questions asked without the jury present to determine admissibility.
Judge Jeffrey O'Connor points toward defense attorney Jeremy Karlin while speaking to him regarding a line of questioning of a DNA expert. O'Connor was upset about a series of questions asked without the jury present to determine admissibility.

ROCK FALLS – "An extraordinary amount of time was wasted," Assistant Attorney General Bill Elward said Wednesday at the close of the seventh day of Nicholas Sheley's third murder trial.

Throughout the course of the day, the prosecution, which had expected to rest its case Wednesday afternoon and begin closing arguments this morning, was able only to question five witnesses.

Elward said the prosecution still needed to question four or five more witnesses this morning, something he wants to wrap up by noon, with jury instructions and closing arguments to happen after lunch.

Wednesday's first four witnesses were all called before 11 a.m. Then the fifth witness, Anne Kwiatkowski, supervisor of DNA analysis in the crime lab of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, took the stand.

Her questioning – by both the prosecution and defense – lasted from just before 11 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., hours longer than that of any previous witness.

The holdup was caused largely by continual legal objections from Sheley's defense attorney, Jeremy Karlin, over how he could effectively cross-examine Kwiatkowski without bringing up two other murders that Sheley is accused of committing, but hasn't yet gone to trial for – those of Arkansas couple Jill and Tom Estes, both 54. The two were killed in the parking lot of a Festus, Missouri, hotel, prosecutors say, at the hands of Sheley.

Kwiatkowski was in court Wednesday to testify about DNA tests conducted on swabbings taken from clothing and other items recovered by investigators. The clothing included a Dale Earnhardt Jr. jersey, and a pair of khaki shorts and Bears T-shirt that, prosecutors say, Sheley stole from Brock Branson, 29, after murdering him; his girlfriend, Kilynna Blake, 20; her son, Dayan, 2; and Kenneth Ulve, 25, in their Rock Falls apartment on June 28, 2008.

He is now on trial of those four killings.

DNA found on that clothing, Kwiatkowski testified, matched the DNA profiles of three of the four apartment residents, as well as Sheley, his then-wife Holly, and Russell Randall – a man whose murder Sheley was convicted of in 2010. Reed's killing happened in Galesburg, prosecutors say, mere hours before he drove to Rock Falls to kill Branson, the Blakes, and Ulve.

Some of the DNA found in the mixtures also matched the profiles of the Esteses, and so the issue that Karlin continued to push was how to effectively raise questions about the validity of the results of the DNA mixtures without bringing up the Esteses' deaths.

To better illustrate his point, and with the jury out of the room, he embarked on a line of questioning with Kwiatkowski to illustrate how he might run into unexpected "land mines" about the deaths of the Esteses.

At the close of the very lengthy session, a visibly frustrated Judge Jeffrey O'Connor called it a complete "waste of time."

Raising his voice and pointing at Karlin, O'Connor said: "Nothing she said had anything to do with Mr. Karlin's unavailability to cross-examine because he doesn't know where the line is or where the minefield's going to blow up. That was just general examination of the science of this particular witness.

"As we sit here right now, the jury is deprived of that cross-examination."

The jury was then allowed to re-enter the room, at which point Karlin questioned Kwiatkowski, following almost the exact line he had used out of the presence of the jury.

Other witnesses called Wednesday testified to the chain of custody of evidence.

Jessine Mondragon, with whom Holly Sheley was living at the time of the killings, testified about events that began around 11:30 p.m. on June 28, 2008. She said that's when Sheley showed up at their home unexpectedly and left with Holly.

Mondragon said she got a phone call from Holly a few hours later, placed from the house of Sheley's sister, Heidi. Holly asked to be picked up, and so Mondragon left to get her.

Mondragon said that when she arrived, Holly was holding a plastic bag, and in the bag was a pair of jeans with the seat "covered in blood."

Prosecutors say that after Sheley killed the four Rock Falls victims, he and Holly drove around awhile before he headed to St. Louis and then to Festus, where he later killed the Esteses.

When this trial concludes, Sheley will head to court in Missouri, where he could face the death penalty for their deaths. Illinois does not have a capital punishment law.

Sheley is charged with 15 counts of first-degree murder in the the four Rock Falls deaths. He already is serving two life sentences for the Galesburg killing and for the murder of Russell Reed, 93, of Sterling.

Follow Sauk Valley Media reporter Christi Warren on Twitter for live updates from the courtroom: @SeaWarren.

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