The Illinois Supreme Court has reinstated the 70-year sentence of Mark Downs, a man convicted in the high-profile 1996 Aurora murder of 6-year-old Nico Contreras.
The opinion filed June 18, 2015, was delivered by Justice Charles Freeman with concurrence by Chief Justice Rita Garman and Justices Robert Thomas, Thomas Kilbride, Lloyd Karmeier, Anne Burke and Mary Jane Theis.
The Supreme Court ruling reverses an Appellate Court decision that would have vacated Downs’ conviction and sentence on the grounds that the Kane County Circuit Court failed to define “reasonable doubt.”
“Following a jury trial in the circuit court of Kane County, defendant Mark Downs was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 70 years’ imprisonment,” the opinion states. “On appeal, the appellate court vacated defendant’s conviction and sentence and remanded for a new trial. The appellate court concluded the circuit court erroneously defined ‘reasonable doubt’ in response to a jury question during deliberations.
“For the following reasons, we reverse the judgment of the appellate court and reinstate defendant’s conviction and sentence.”
Nico was asleep in his grandmother’s house when he was shot twice in the head, authorities said, by gang members seeking revenge against Nico’s uncle. Downs and another man were convicted in the murder, and Downs had been charged with 70 years in prison.
Thursday’s Supreme Court decision was important for a number of reasons, but in part because the case had been emblematic of a community’s fight against gang crime.
Nico’s death sparked anti-violence initiatives in Aurora that have seen significant successes over the years. After reaching a height of 26 primarily gang-related murders in 2002, Aurora recorded zero homicides in 2012. Although the state’s second-largest city has seen a recent increase in gang-related crime, its violent crime rate has plunged overall, and in early 2014, it was rated among the 50 safest cities in Illinois.
Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon said in a press release statement Thursday that the case is not over, and his office would continue to seek justice.
“We are, first and foremost, pleased for Nico Contreras’ family and friends that the Illinois Supreme Court agreed with our position,” he said.
“We appreciate the thorough work of the prosecution team of Sal LoPiccolo and Mark Stajdohar from our office, and the team of Joan Kripke and the late Jay Hoffman of the Office of the Illinois State’s Attorney’s appellate prosecutor, and Assistant Attorneys General Michael Glick and Katherine Doersch. Thanks to Aurora Police Chief Greg Thomas and his team for their hard work, perseverance and patience since Nico was murdered nearly 19 years ago when he was only 6 years old.
“Throughout this appeal process, we have remained focused on justice for Nico, who would now be 24 years old, justice for his family, and justice for his community, which was galvanized by his murder to begin to put an end to the senseless gang violence that had plagued the city of Aurora for far too long.
“This case has been returned to the Illinois Appellate Court Second District for some remaining issues, and those issues will be addressed in court.”
- Chicago Tribune: State high court reinstates conviction in murder of 6-year-old Aurora boy
- Daily Herald: Conviction reinstated in child’s 1996 Aurora murder
- Kane County Chronicle: Illinois Supreme Court upholds guilty verdict in gang shooting of 6-year-old Aurora boy
Illinois Supreme Court Justices