Touch of Death | Feature | Chicago Reader

Touch of Death 

Can a man be convicted of murder, eight years after the fact, on the strength of a single fingerprint?

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For Helen Karapanos the nightmare began when she rang her own doorbell and no one answered. She was living with her parents on the second floor of their north-side three-flat, but she did not have a key to the downstairs door.

It was a few minutes after 5 PM, June 11, 1979.

Eight and a half years later, on January 26, 1988, she sat in the witness chair in the Skokie branch of the Cook County Circuit Court and described what happened next. "I waited at the door to be buzzed up," she said, "and through the glass I could see the blood-splattered walls and my father's glasses at the foot of the steps.

"I immediately left and went out the same door I came in and around the side of the house to the back."

In the backyard she found her mother gardening. I told her I saw the blood on the walls and the glasses of my father. Then she told me 'I saw two black men just leaving.'"

Brian Dosch, assistant public defender, objects to the admission of hearsay: the witness may testify only about what she knows, not what she has been told.

"Sustained," rules the judge, Jack G. Stein.

The two women went up the back stairs and entered their apartment through the kitchen door. As they moved toward the front of the apartment they saw that it was in disarray. "In the living room we saw my father lying on the floor." The front bedroom, Helen's, had been ransacked. Drawers had been pulled out. Items moved around. One of her sweaters, now bloodstained, lay on the living room floor next to her father.

Asked about her father's condition, Helen testifies, "He was alert. He was awake. He spoke to us, but he was immobile. . . . we asked him what happened to him."

"Did he make any response?" asks Jonathan Lerner, assistant state's attorney.

"Objection to any response," Brian Dosch objects. "It's hearsay."

"It's a spontaneous declaration," Lerner argues.

A spontaneous declaration, sometimes called an excited utterance or outcry, is an exception to the hearsay rule; the court sometimes admits hearsay if it is the first statement of the victim shortly after the crime, before there has been time to reflect. Usually spontaneous declarations are used in rape cases to corroborate the victim's testimony. Here no rape is involved; the state is hoping to use the statement because the victim is not available.

"No question about it," the prosecutor argues. "There is a startling event. His blood and glasses are downstairs. He is lying there. There is blood. There is blood around him. There is no question that this is a startling event."

The defense attorney argues: "She testified that he was alert. There is no evidence he was in any way excited or distraught at this point in time.

"Also, we don't know when this incident occurred. There is no foundation as to the length of time between when this incident occurred and when the supposedly excited utterance occurred.

"The response they are trying to put in as an excited utterance was a response to a question and was not a spontaneous declaration."

Helen Karapanos waits in the witness chair.

"I will overrule the objection," Judge Stein says.

"What was it your father said to you?" Lerner asks.

"That when he was returning from mailing a letter, he walked into the vestibule, where there were two black men waiting for him. They beat him up and forced him upstairs and he had to open the door to the apartment. They beat him up again and left him there."

The police and an ambulance arrived at the apartment. Gus Karapanos, 82, was loaded on a stretcher and taken to Edgewater Hospital. His wife, Sophia, went with him. Helen stayed behind while the police started their investigation.

A typewriter, a slide projector, a clock radio, a camera, several pieces of jewelry, and over a hundred dollars in cash were missing.

"But the highlight," Lerner had said in his opening argument, "is something that was not taken but was moved."

A stereo receiver had been moved from Helen's dresser to her bed. Helen testifies that she had the stereo "approximately five years."

"Had it ever been out of the apartment?" Lerner asks.

"No."

"Had it ever been out for repairs?" No.

"Had it ever been cleaned or dusted?"

"By my mother, yes."

"How would you describe your mother's housekeeping?"

"She was impeccably neat."

She also testifies that while the receiver was on the bed a Police Department evidence technician dusted it for fingerprints.

Thirty-five hours later, at five in the morning, the phone in the Karapanos apartment rang. "The hospital called us and we went to the hospital because he had died," Helen Karapanos testifies.

"And you saw him at the hospital and he was dead?" Lerner asks.

"Yes."

"I ask you to lean forward and see the gentleman in the white shirt," Lerner says, indicating the defendant. "Do you know him?"

"No."

"Prior to June 11, 1979, have you ever seen, or including June 11, did you ever see that person?"

"No."

"Did you know his name prior to June 11, 1979? Did you know the name Wade Stallings?"

"No."

"Did you ever see that person in your home?"

"No."

"Is there any reason you could think of, any reason a man named Wade Stallings or the man sitting there, one and the same . . . that that person ever would have been in your apartment prior to or on June 11 of 1979?"

"No reason," Helen Karapanos says.

With the descriptions furnished by Sophia Karapanos a flash message was sent over citywide police radio. A police report written that night reads, "Wanted 2 M/N's [male Negroes]. #1. Unknown M/N, 5'10"/6'0" medium complexion, black pants, long sleeve dark shirt, skinny, short black hair, 20/22 years old. #2 Unknown M/N. 5'10"/6'0" 20/22 years old."

The robbery detectives assigned to the incident, Frank Kajari and Paul Carroll, canvassed the neighborhood. They found no new witnesses. But, says their report, one of the neighbors did tell them "that he had observed two persons fitting the description of the wanted subjects loitering in the area on several occasions in the past two weeks. He further related that these persons had been seeing a tenant in his building that is currently in the hospital. Efforts to reach the tenant have been futile as of this writing."

The report continues: "The I/Os [investigating officers] then proceeded to the Edgewater Hospital and spoke with Dr. Goldfarb. After determining the extent of the victim's injuries, the I/O's attempt to interview him. The victim speaks broken English and due to his condition, was unable to give the I/O's any information other than that 2 M/N's had beaten him. The victim is scheduled to be at the hospital for at least one week. Additional efforts will be made to interview him."

The same report says, "Injuries: Stable condition, concussion, multiple facial abrasions, swollen left wrist."

Thirty-four hours later Gus Karapanos was dead.

The investigation was then transferred from the Area Six robbery unit to the homicide/sex unit. Today the detective division is divided into a violent crimes unit and a property crimes unit, and a transfer would not have been necessary. The incident would have been a violent crimes case from the start.

The first homicide report reads: "Injuries: Cranial cerebral injuries; Subarachnoid hemorrhage. Internal abdominal injury including broken ribs, perforated intestine and acute peritonitis. Fatal. Pronounced dead at 0440hrs. 13 June 79 at Edgewater Hospital by Dr. Alschiek."

The homicide detectives, Dennis Porter and Bernard Porter, interviewed Sophia and Helen Karapanos on June 15. It was the day of the funeral. They drove to the Chicago Read Mental Health Center and interviewed the neighbor who was said to have been visited by the two men seen loitering around the neighborhood. She was no help. She told detectives that on the day of the robbery she had been in Read. She also told them that she knew no male Negroes fitting the description supplied by Sophia Karapanos.

On June 18, the pawnshop section of the Chicago Police Department notified Area Six homicide that a camera stolen from the Karapanos residence had been sold June 12 to a pawn shop on Wilson Avenue.

Homicide investigators then interviewed the pawnbroker. "He related the following in summary and not verbatim. That a M/N in his 20's, 5'6" 170lbs, accompanied by two other M/N's, both of whom appeared to be in their late 20's, brought the camera into his shop on the 12 of June. The M/N who sold the camera . . . showed him a social security card with the name Barry Williams and gave an address of 5414 N. Kenmore. He also displayed a welfare card but [the pawnbroker] was not sure that the name on the welfare card was the same. [The pawnbroker] did remember that the subject called him by his first name . . . but related that he does not remember doing business with him in the past. The subject sold the camera . . . for the sum of $55.00."

The address on Kenmore turned out to be nonexistent. The social security number on the card displayed had been issued in the state of Washington, and a message was sent there requesting any information on the name and number.

Photographs of the three Barry Williamses with local criminal records were ordered.

The pawnbroker viewed all the photographs in the homicide, robbery, and burglary suspect books, but could not make an identification.

"At present efforts are in the process to have [the pawnbroker] assist in the drawing of composite photos which may assist in this investigation," a progress report written June 29, 1979, reads. "Investigation to continue."

The next entry in the file would be made more than seven years later.

But an arrest on December 10, 1979, six months after the robbery, would lead to that next entry. On that date Wade Stallings, 17, was arrested on the north side. The arrest report explains: "Above arrested strong arm robbery. Above along with below listed arrestee grabbed victim by throat choking her then grabbed her purse and grocery bags. Fled."

A second suspect also was arrested.

Wade Stallings was photographed and fingerprinted. On January 30, 1980, he was sentenced to two years' probation, the first six months to be served in the House of Corrections.

After Stallings was released from jail he lived at several different locations in the Uptown area, and also, for a time, in Elgin. He was arrested three more times in Chicago on misdemeanor charges and never convicted.

In 1984 he moved to Milwaukee.

All this time his fingerprints sat in a file in the identifications section of the Chicago Police Department at 11th and State. In the same building a different file held the fingerprints lifted from the stereo in Helen Karapanos's bedroom.

In the fall of 1986 the "automatic fingerprint identification system," sometimes called AFIS, went into service at police headquarters. In November, Officer Theatrice Patterson, a fingerprint technician, used this computerized search system on a print lifted from the Karapanos residence. He later wrote this report. "On 26 November 1986 at 12:53 hours an examination of material containing friction ridge impressions found in the above referenced case was conducted. The examination revealed the friction ridge impressions to be identical with the fingerprints of above listed suspect. . . .

"Finger identified: #4 finger. . . .

"Location of identified latent prints: On radio in bedroom."

The suspect: Wade Stallings.

The Chicago police file for Wade A. Stallings showed that he had been born in Alabama on June 15, 1962. On the date of the incident on Kenmore Avenue he was four days shy of his 17th birthday. The arrest report from December 10, 1979, gives this description: six-foot-two, 165 pounds, brown eyes, black hair, dark complexion, medium build. The file listed separate addresses for each arrest. There were three local addresses, all in the Uptown area, and one in Elgin, Illinois.

Area Six violent crimes detectives talked to several people in Uptown and were told that Stallings had moved to Milwaukee. A check with Milwaukee police confirmed this.

On January 6, 1987, Sophia Karapanos and the pawnbroker were shown a photographic lineup that included a photograph of Wade Stallings taken from police files. Neither could identify him.

That same day an arrest warrant was issued.

Later that night, seven and a half years after Gus Karapanos's death, Milwaukee police, accompanied by Chicago police detectives, knocked on a door on Juneau Street in Milwaukee. It was 10:10 PM. "Upon arrival," the Milwaukee police report reads, "we were admitted to the residence by a black female later identified as Carrie Stokes. Upon entering the residence the suspect was observed lying in a bed in a bedroom. The suspect was placed under arrest and conveyed to headquarters."

The Chicago police report of detectives Michael Wick and Larry Thezan reads, "After processing, Stallings was questioned as to this incident. The questioning began at 0130 hrs., on 7 Jan 87. Stallings was again advised of his rights by Det. La Monte of the Milwaukee Police and by the undersigned detectives. He was informed of the charges against him to which he replied 'I was never there. I can't tell you something I don't know about.' The interview continued with Stallings continuing to deny any knowledge of the crime. When told that his fingerprints had been found at the scene, Stallings again stated 'I was never there. I can't tell you something I don't know about.' Stallings had been informed that the murder had occurred in June of 1979. Stallings offered that he had only committed one robbery, and that he had been arrested for it. He stated that he never tried to rob anyone before or after the one time that he had been arrested.

"This interview was stopped at 0215 hrs., when Stallings asked to make a phone call to Carrie Stokes. He made the call and was allowed to use the bathroom at 0220 hrs.

"Stallings was again interviewed as to this case. Before the interview took place, he was again advised of his rights. Stallings only statement continued to be 'I was never there. I can't tell you something I don't know about.' He could not provide an answer to how his fingerprint was found at the scene. This interview was terminated at 0330 hrs., 7 January 87. The undersigned detectives and Sgt. Carroll returned to Chicago."

On April 8, 1987, Area Six detectives, armed with a governor's warrant, took Stallings into custody at the Milwaukee County Jail and returned him to Chicago.

In May of 1987 Sophia Karapanos died of natural causes.

The trial begins January 26, 1988, in Judge Stein's courtroom on Old Orchard Road in Skokie. It's in a modern two-story building, with skylights that filter daylight into a long atrium that runs outside the courtrooms. Courtroom H is the last court on the ground floor.

An assistant state's attorney recently transferred from 26th and California explains the difference between the two courthouses. "Up here," he says, "your shoes get the floor dirty."

Wade Stallings pleads not guilty and waives his right to a jury.

In his brief opening statement, Assistant State's Attorney Jonathan Lerner describes the circumstances of the crime. "I believe after you hear all the evidence," he tells Judge Stein, "you will find the defendant guilty."

Assistant Public Defender Brian Dosch is equally brief. He says he doesn't understand how the state, eight years after the incident, "can negate every reasonable alternative explanation for that fingerprint being there. That is the only evidence they have in this case."

He argues that the fingerprint, standing by itself, "is insufficient, not only as a matter of common sense but as a matter of law."

The state calls seven witnesses. After Helen Karapanos testifies, five Chicago police officers take the stand. Officer Max Ziegler, the first policeman to arrive at the scene, is also the first to testify. He describes the condition of the apartment when he arrived.

Detective Frank Kajari, one of the original robbery detectives assigned to the case in 1979, follows. He also describes the scene of the crime. Next, the detectives visited Edgewater Hospital, where they had a brief interview with Gus Karapanos. "He seemed weak," Kajari tells the court.

After Karapanos's death, the case was transferred to the homicide unit. With the reorganization of the detective division, Kajari became a violent crimes detective. On April 8, 1987, he was one of the detectives who drove to Milwaukee and returned Wade Stallings to Chicago.

On cross-examination, Kajari admits that in 1979 he never wrote down the brand name, model number, or serial number of the stereo that had been moved to the bed, and that he cannot be sure that the stereo identified as people's exhibit number one is, in fact, the same one that was in the apartment.

The next witness is Detective Michael Wick of Area Six violent crimes. He testifies that he is one of the officers who arrested Stallings in Milwaukee on the night of January 6, 1987, and that he also questioned Stallings at Milwaukee detective headquarters in the early morning hours of the next day.

"The only thing he would say to us is 'I don't know anything about it. I can't tell you something I know nothing about.'"

"Did you ask him if he had been in the apartment?" the prosecutor asks.

"He said he didn't know the man. He had never been there and he doesn't know anything about any man being robbed or beat up."

"Was he asked anything about how his fingerprint may have been in the apartment?"

"We asked him to explain how it came to be in the apartment," Wicks says. "He said he doesn't know. He was never there,"

After the witness is excused, the defense says, "I am making an objection to the testimony and moving it be stricken."

"I have a fingerprint case," the prosecutor responds. "There is no question that you will hear now that there is a fingerprint and it was located in the apartment. The fact that he says he was never there is somewhat relevant."

"I will deny your motion," the judge tells the defense.

"Thank you, judge," the defense responds.

The next witness is Officer Thomas Kelly, a Police Department evidence technician. He testifies that he took photographs of the scene and dusted for fingerprints. "First I put powder on with a brush," he says, explaining the dusting process.

"After we find the print we clean it out, and then there is a plastic piece and you pull it apart and on one side it is sticky. You put the sticky side down and rub it on there real good and put it back together and seal it."

He identifies a plastic fingerprint tape as containing one of the two latent impressions he lifted from the Karapanos residence. Both were taken from the stereo, this one from the right front, the other from the left front.

Kelly testifies that after he lifted the prints he stapled them to his report and turned them in to the crime lab.

Under cross-examination by Assistant Public Defender Jack Carey, Kelly admits that he did not write down the brand name, model number, or serial number of the stereo.

Much of the cross-examination concerns the chain of custody of the fingerprint. "Now, after you stapled the latent lift to your report, what did you do with it?" Carey asks.

"I put it in my file in the front seat of my squad car."

"Did you take it anywhere?"

"At the end of my tour of duty I turned it in to the desk sergeant."

"How many jobs did you do that day?"

"I don't know, sir."

"How many did you do on an average day?"

"Objection as to relevance," Jonathan Lerner says.

"I will sustain that," Judge Stein rules.

On cross-examination, Lerner says, "Once the fingerprint was lifted onto the tape and then sealed by you, that in effect becomes the fingerprint. Is that why you didn't inventory the radio itself."

"Right," Kelly says.

"The same with if you take a fingerprint off a dresser you are not going to inventory the dresser because now you have the latent print and the dresser no longer does?"

"I have the print," Kelly says, "and the dresser may have ridges."

"In fact, it's possible to take a second from the same spot?"

"Yes."

"Do you do that if you have a good lift the first time?"

"No."

"Did you consider this to be a good lift?"

"Yes, I did."

The next witness is Officer Theatrice Patterson, who testifies that he has been a latent-fingerprint examiner with the Chicago Police Department since 1973.

"What are the two basic fundamental principles of fingerprints?" the prosecutor asks.

"The two fundamental principles are first, no two fingerprints are the same, and fingerprints do not change from the time of birth until death and decomposition."

"What is a latent print?"

"A latent print on the palmar surface of our hands and the plantar surfaces of our foot is a scan that is entirely different from the scan on the rest of our bodies. This scan is characterized by a series of raised portions we refer to as ridges and recessed portions we refer to as firs.

"On the raised portions of the ridges, there is a tiny series of pores. From the pores there is a continuous exudation of sweat. This sweat, along with any other oily substance that may be pressing on the ridges, will come in contact with a smooth surface leaving an exact replica. This residue is referred to as a latent print."

Patterson testifies that before November 1986, when the crime lab started using the AFIS system, the only way for an examiner to make a comparison was to be supplied with a suspect. "We would need ten fingers to search through the master files."

"About how many prints are in the master files?" Lerner asks.

"At that time, anywhere from one and a half to two million prints."

"So, unless you had the name of a suspect, basically, nobody can try?"

"It was impossible to search a single fingerprint out," Patterson says.

"How has AFIS changed that?"

"AFIS now supplies us with a candidate list of the most likely suspects."

"AFIS is a computerized system that in effect spews out or kicks out possible suspects?"

"Yes, sir," Patterson says.

"So, in effect," the prosecutor asks "it shortcuts the need for the name suspect that was pre-AFIS?"

"Yes, sir," Patterson replies.

Patterson testifies that AFIS will give an examiner as many suspects as he requests, ranking them by the characteristics of the prints and supplying the most likely candidates first.

On November 26, 1986, the latent lifted from the right front of the stereo on Helen Karapanos's bed was fed into an AFIS fingerprint reader. Within minutes AFIS kicked out five suspects. One of them was Wade Stallings.

From the master files Patterson pulled the card containing the inked fingerprints of Stallings taken December 10, 1979, after he had been arrested for strong-arm robbery.

"I found that the latent print from the radio matched the number four finger to this card," Patterson says.

"Fingers, I take it, are numbered?" the prosecutor asks.

"The right ring finger," Patterson says. "The thumb is number one."

On April 16, 1987, Patterson compared the latent to an inked fingerprint card taken eight days earlier, on the day Wade Stallings was returned to Chicago. Once again the number four finger matched the latent lifted from the stereo.

Patterson identifies a photographic blowup of the two prints standing side by side. He testifies that the enlargement was made "for illustration to the court." It wasn't used in the actual identification.

Nine points of comparison have been marked on the blowup. Patterson says there are at least 10 other points of comparison that are not marked, for a total of 19.

He says that no minimum number of points is required. "It is said that 10 to 12 is more than sufficient," In one case, an identification was made with only 7.

Under cross-examination by Assistant Public Defender Jack Carey, Patterson agrees that in England 16 points of comparison is the recognized minimum, while in France it is 17.

"Now there is no way of telling how long those prints were on the surface it was lifted from, is there?" Carey asks.

"No, sir," Patterson says.

The two men go over the blowup. Patterson has trouble pointing out all the similarities.

"That doesn't show in the latent," he says one time. "It's not clear anywhere. If you count over one, two, three, four that would be the ending ridge right here. . . . This is where the bifurcation, if you could see it, it doesn't clearly show there. This is where it is."

"There is no dot there," he says another time, then changes his mind. "I see where a dot is, yes."

"But there is a continuous line on either side of the dot?" Carey asks.

"It appears to be a continuous line," Patterson replies.

"That would be a major inconsistency because that is a rare ridge characteristic?"

"If there is no dot there would be, but there is a dot there."

Patterson has already said that "one unexplainable dissimilarity would void the identification."

"Judge, for the record, I don't see it," Carey says at one point.

"It does appear to blend in there," the witness agrees, "but there is a continuous ridge."

On redirect examination, Patterson explains that he made his original comparison using the latent, not the blowup.

"Do you use anything to aid your vision in making any findings?" the prosecutor asks.

"A two-by-four magnifying glass," Patterson says.

About the dot Patterson says, "I could see the dot or where the dot would be. It's obscure. . . . I think that is caused by pressure. I know it is."

"Would you say it's an explainable dissimilarity?"

"Yes, it is."

"Officer, as you said, if there was one unexplained dissimilarity between the latent and the inked fingerprint, then--"

"I would void the identification," Patterson says.

After Lerner has finished his questions the judge asks about the AFIS process.

Patterson explains that he makes an enlargement of the latent "five times its actual size. We take tracing paper like you did when you were a kid and we trace the latent on the paper and we reduce the enlarged tracing and this reduced tracing is what is fed into the AFIS. . . ."

"The theory behind this is a latent print is a chance impression. A lot of times there are foreign matter and not a true impression. By tracing it, using our expertise . . . we could make it a more accurate representation of the latent. This is supposed to improve the accuracy of the machine."

"Where does the computer search out whatever it's looking for to get the five you get?" the judge asks.

"What we did," Patterson explains, "we took our master files and we made a data bank. This is based on the information we put in. . . . It searches the entire data bank and comes up with the five most likely candidates.

"If we have other information as to demographics, it will reduce the search time. For example, if I know it's a male, if I know the age category, if I know what finger it is, this all helps. Sometimes evidence technicians, they will supply us with this.

"If you touch a glass, then you lift a print from the glass and the middle finger is longer. They see a smudge and they will say it's the number three finger. We will ask the computer to search only number three fingers.

"In this particular case, I have no demographic information, so it was a cold search."

The judge then asks why all 19 points of comparison were not marked on the blowup.

"We never do that," Patterson says. "If I come to court with 19 this time, and next time I only have 9, I may be questioned. That is one reason we don't chart out any more. Years ago, everybody used to use 12. It was required 12. We no longer require 12, so nobody puts 12 anymore. Any number other than 12 are included in the exhibit."

"Then I have to take it on faith when you tell me there are 10 others?" the judge asks.

"I see what you are saying," Patterson says. "Yes. We almost never, they discourage you from putting it in. The school I went to discourages you from 12."

During recross-examination, Carey and Patterson once again go looking for the disputed dot.

"I said I could actually see the dot," Patterson says. "It is caused by pressure."

"What looks like a continuous line to the nonexpert," Carey says. "It looks like a continuous line to me."

"Objection," the prosecutor says.

"It may stand," the judge rules. "I looked at it. It looks like a continuous line."

"It does appear to be," Patterson agrees.

"I ask you to look at this," Carey says to the judge several minutes later. "This is the ridge ending he says he sees."

Judge Stein leans down from the bench and looks at the blowup. "Well, he has pretty good eyes," he says after a moment.

"He has better eyes than I do," Carey agrees.

The state's last witness is Dr. Tae An. He is the pathologist for the Cook County Medical Examiner who did the postmortem examination on Gus Karapanos.

"Upon external examination I observed multiple bruises and abrasions," he says. "One on the right forehead, a large one, one on the left forehead, extending to the left lateral face and above the eyelid. . . . There was a black eye on both sides. . . .

"There were two abrasions on the forehead in the middle portion. One cut wound on the right of the forehead above the eyebrow. One cut wound on the left side above the eyebrow. There was a bruise on the left ear about here," he says, using his own body as a model. "A bruise on the right chin about right here. There was one abrasion on the neck around this area here. . . .

"There was a large bruise involving the left hand, back side, extending to the left forearm about this area. A large one. There were three bruises around the wrist on the right wrist. There were two abrasions on the left elbow area. I think that was about it."

After an internal examination he found that "the cause of death was craniocerebral injury with subarachnoid hemorrhage and internal abdomen injury with perforation of the intestine and acute peritonitis."

"Now what was the cause of the peritonitis?" the prosecutor asks.

"The cause of the peritonitis is due to the perforation of the intestine. . . . Whenever there is a perforation of the intestine . . . the dirty material inside the intestine, it comes out and causes infection of the entire abdomen."

Dr. An also noted several broken ribs during his examination. "They could be evidence of trauma, but are not fatal injuries by themselves," he says.

On cross-examination, Assistant Public Defender Brian Dosch asks, "Were you aware, after your careful reading of the hospital reports, that Mr. Karapanos, during his stay at Edgewater, had gotten out of bed on several occasions and had to be restrained?"

"I don't remember that."

"If a person were admitted to a hospital and they were to give him a head CAT scan and a chest X ray, and then later, upon death, while still a resident of that hospital, it comes out that he has chest ribs broken and dies from subarachnoid hemorrhaging, would it be more logical to assume that the injuries that caused those injuries . . . to the head and abdomen or the chest, for instance the ribs, occurred after admission to the hospital?"

"Well," the doctor says, "I would say it's more logical."

"Thank you," Dosch says.

"No, no!" the doctor says. "It's more logical the CAT scan missed the subarachnoid hemorrhage if it was present. It often misses it."

"It's more logical to assume that because when you do your examination you were assuming that the subarachnoid hemorrhaging . . . occurred as a result of a beating?"

"Not necessarily."

"Is it possible for the ribs to have been broken subsequent to the X rays that showed no broken ribs?" Dosch asks.

"Well, that's possible, yes," the doctor concedes.

"In fact, that's likely. Isn't that true?"

"Well, then I cannot explain why it's not there."

"If there were no broken ribs, that would explain why there were no broken ribs on the X ray?"

The doctor does not give in. "I'm not sure they had taken enough X rays," he testifies.

Doctor An also testifies that with the onset of acute peritonitis would come pain in the abdomen and a rise in body temperature caused by the infection.

"Based on your knowledge as a pathologist and as a physician, you knew that that was a probable cause of death, the acute peritonitis?"

"That is cause of death."

"Thank you," Dosch says. "In fact, the acute peritonitis, based on what you saw in the stomach, would definitely kill and definitely was a cause of Gus Karapanos's death?"

"That was the main cause of death, yes," Dr. An says.

"The fact there was a subarachnoid hemorrhage is not necessarily the cause of death of Gus Karapanos, is it?"

"Well, it may not necessarily be the main cause of death, but it contributed to the death."

"How did it contribute to the death?"

"It's an injury to the head and it stresses the body. That could create the cause or causes for death."

"If he didn't have an acute peritonitis, could you say beyond a reasonable doubt that he would have died of the subarachnoid hemorrhage?"

"Well, if I were to allow everything, maybe. I don't know. I can't say," the doctor says.

Dr. An testifies that he found no evidence of injury to the abdominal muscles. But he says it is his opinion that the perforation that caused the peritonitis was caused by a blow to the abdomen. "There was no natural cause of perforation."

"In your opinion?" Dosch adds.

"That is correct," the doctor says.

The judge has some questions of his own. "Doctor, forget the abdomen. Would Mr. Karapanos have died from the subarachnoid hemorrhage?"

"Well, there is a possibility, but with the peritonitis--"

"Forget that," the judge says. "Let's assume there was none. All you have is a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Could he have died of that?"

"It's not impossible, even though it is not likely."

"Would he have died of the wound in the intestine from the peritonitis?"

"That is the main cause of death," the doctor says.

"There is no question that would have caused death?"

"No question," the doctor answers. A few minutes later he is excused.

The next day, after the state rests its case, the defense makes a motion asking for a directed judgment of not guilty.

Dosch argues that the state's case is flawed. "There is doubt as to cause of death," he says. "It is reasonable to assume that the peritonitis is unrelated to any criminal act. That is reasonable doubt, and that is a burden the state has to overcome."

He argues that there was a lack of chain-of-custody evidence guaranteeing the latent print that Officer Thomas Kelly had lifted, letting in the possibility of error and substitution. He argues that the identification itself was flawed. "What Mr. Patterson said existed in the latents only he could see.

"If we view the evidence in the most favorable light to the state and say, yes, that is Wade Stallings's fingerprint on there--what that does and what the state is able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, and this is all they can prove, is that Wade Stallings is a suspect. He is a suspect in this case. That is all they have been able to prove. Thus far they have not been able to prove that he hit anyone, that he was in that apartment at the time of the offense, that he abetted anyone prior to or at the time of the offense. These are all essential elements that the state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. They have not excluded every reasonable doubt.

"There is a multitude of cases that state fingerprint evidence on items that are highly movable is insufficient evidence without other corroboration or without the ability to exclude beyond a reasonable doubt the fact that those prints could not have been made at any other time than at the time and place of the offense.

"In conclusion, every element of this case I feel is flawed: cause of death, chain of custody, quality of identification testimony, most importantly, the inadequacy of a fingerprint standing by itself to prove a person guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

In his response, Assistant State's Attorney Jonathan Lerner says that Dr. An found no natural cause for the hole in the intestine that caused the peritonitis. "He got it June 11th when he was beaten to death."

Further, he says, the actions of the defendant "need not be the sole cause of death, but may just be a contributing factor. . . .

"In effect, you take your victim as you find him. Something you do to a 20-year-old might not kill him. It is murder for an 80-year-old . . ."

Lerner says that every dissimilarity in the fingerprints was explained by Patterson. "Officer Patterson is an expert. He is why we have experts. If there is any other expert that wants to come in and dispute him that's the defense's case. . . .

"Now as to his fingerprints. He is in the apartment. He touched the radio, stereo. The question is, what does that mean?"

Lerner recounts Helen Karapanos's testimony that she had had the stereo for five years and that it had not been out of the apartment in that time. "Therefore, when it came into the apartment, when she obtained it, he was 11 years old. She doesn't know him, never heard the name mentioned, never saw him, isn't familiar with his face. There is absolutely no reason for Wade Stallings to have been in that apartment. In fact, the defendant lies when he tells the detective when he is arrested, and I'm sure everybody in that situation would lie and say . . . 'I was never there.'

"We know he was lying about that. He certainly was there. . . .

"Wade Stallings was never, ever, ever, ever a guest in the Karapanos household and has nothing to do with them. . . .

"In our case, we have a fingerprint that is on what was obviously intended to be an item of proceeds [i.e., to be stolen]. When Helen left for work that day it was on her dresser. It's now on her bed and all of the missing items, everything missing from the house is missing from her room--camera equipment, money, jewelry.

"Unfortunately Sophia Karapanos is not here. Anything she said is lost. That's a pity for one side or the other. . . .

"We know she's out gardening and we're dealing with a circumstantial case and common sense and logic. An elderly woman, June 11th, out gardening, she can go out at six in the morning and garden all day. If she had been out there for hours, all day long, that would be one thing. We know it's not logical she'll be out there for hours and hours and not have contact with her apartment and retired husband. If it's a crime that occurred hours before then she would have seen her injured husband. She would know that her husband was there. We wouldn't have had to wait for Helen to come home from work to find her father; her mother would have known.

"So, again, we shorten that time frame. I don't think there's a situation where somebody decided well, I think I'll break into the place and if Gus wasn't home or around or maybe he won't hear me. I broke in, put my fingerprint on there, and heard a guy and said I think I'll leave now. And with Mr. Karapanos's luck, right after the place is ransacked he doesn't do anything about it and call the police. Then he decides 'Well, I'll go mail letters,' and it's his luck he gets beaten and is the victim of two crimes in one day. That doesn't happen.

"He's beaten and left there bleeding and left there on the floor, and just his luck some other guys come in--'Hey, let's hit that Karapanos place. We'll ignore the old guy bleeding on the rug.'

"That didn't happen either.

"Common sense tells us that this crime occurred a short time before Helen came home. When she comes to the front door, she rings the bell. That's obviously when the bad guys take off. That's why they left the stereo behind, grabbed what has a handle on it. The stereo is portable but it doesn't have a handle. You have to use both hands to carry it. They were carrying other stuff, a typewriter. 'Let's get out of here. Somebody is around here and the bell is ringing.'

"There is no possible innocent explanation of the defendant, no explanation as to how his fingerprints could get there. There isn't one as to why it's there, and why the stereo has been moved from the dresser to the bed. . . . This guy is in there, at the time of the crime. He and his partner, whoever that may be, who had enough brains to not leave fingerprints or just enough luck to not leave fingerprints, whoever he may be, the two of them beat Gus Karapanos, forced him up into the apartment and beat him some more and caused his death."

Judge Stein rules against the defense's motion for a judgment of not guilty.

The first witness for the defense is Sergeant Dennis Porter, a Chicago police officer who was a homicide detective assigned to the Karapanos case in 1979. In his report from June 15 of that year he wrote that Helen Karapanos "found her father in the living room on the floor bleeding from the head. She asked him what had happened, but he was disoriented and unable to tell her at that time."

"That's what I have in my report," he tells the defense, "and that would be a summary of what the conversation was."

"Sergeant," the prosecutor asks on cross-examination, "do you know that was the day of Mr. Karapanos's funeral?"

"Yes, it's in my report," Porter says.

"In fact, Miss Karapanos seemed upset that day, did she not, given the fact that her father was buried in the morning?"

"Yes, sir," Porter says.

After a recess for lunch, Wade Stallings takes the stand in his own defense. He wears gray pants and a white shirt, glasses and a jail-house haircut.

He testifies that he lives in Milwaukee with his fiancee, Carrie Stokes, and their four children. In the late 1970s he lived in Chicago and in Elgin and went to Elgin High School and also Senn High School, which he last attended in 1978.

He testifies that he worked at various jobs. "I did roofing, interior decorating, which consists of painting and drywall, along with exterminating and other side jobs . . . some winter jobs, my brothers and myself would shovel snow. Any kind of work that would come along, we'd do it."

"When you were doing the side jobs, where did you do those jobs?" the defense asks.

"Basically on the north side of Chicago."

"Painting and drywall?"

"Up north and out west as well."

"What about exterminating?"

"Throughout the north side and west side of town."

"Painting and drywall, was that sometimes indoors?"

"Yes, it were."

"Exterminating, what were your duties as an exterminator? What did you do?"

"I would spray the substances that we used for killing pests."

During those same years, Stallings says, he worked at a temporary job service and also at several hotels where he did maintenance and cleaning.

Asked if he was ever in the Karapanos residence, Stallings says, "I can't remember being in that house in particular, no. But I was doing a lot of work through the north side which called for me to be in a lot of apartments . . ."

"On July 11, '79, did you ever hit Gus Karapanos?"

"No, absolutely not."

"Were you with anybody that did?"

"No."

"Did you ever go into his house?"

"Not that I can remember, no."

"On July 11, 1979?"

"Not that I can remember, no."

"Did you ever rob him or take anything from him that day?"

"Absolutely not."

"Did you kill Gus Karapanos?"

"No, sir," Wade Stallings says. "I never killed anyone."

"No further questions," says the defense.

On cross-examination, the prosecutor asks if he is aware that Senn High School is less than a mile from the Karapanos residence.

"I don't have any idea how far it is, sir," Stallings answers.

He testifies that he did interior decorating and exterminating work "before leaving high school and after leaving high school."

"All that plus being on the wrestling team?" the prosecutor asks.

"When I was in school, yes," Stallings says.

"In the summer of '79, June 11th of '79, what job were you doing?"

"I can't--"

"Which of those jobs?"

"I don't remember exactly what I was doing," Wade Stallings says.

The defense asks for a continuance because it has been unable to get in touch with its final witness, Dr. James Hicks, a pathologist at Oak Park Hospital.

"The case has been going on since '79," the judge says. "I don't see the point of continuing the case." He denies the motion.

In October 1987, Hicks had testified at a motion-to-dismiss hearing before Judge Stein. The defense now asks that a transcript of that testimony be entered into evidence. The judge agrees and a brief recess is called while he goes into his chambers to read the testimony.

When he returns the defense rests its case.

In his closing argument the prosecutor says, "From Dr. Hicks you'd think the guy is still alive. Nothing caused him to die.

"Again, you take your victim as you find him. What happened to Gus Karapanos may not have killed me or may not have killed me when I was 17 years old. Now it might. He did it to an 82-year-old man who had no preexisting conditions. . . .

"The actions that occurred in that apartment are what began his slide towards death 35 hours later.

"The case law says you have to just do something to contribute to the cause of death, it need not be the sole cause of death. . . .

"As to the fingerprint I don't think anything has changed. It's the defendant's finger. It's on something that was taken, intended to be proceeds when they were surprised by a bell ringing. He's one of the two guys that was in there and did what they did to Mr. Karapanos. I ask for a finding of guilty."

Jack Carey does the closing for the defense. "Judge, I don't think anybody lied in this case," he says. "I think what we have is a circumstantial evidence case with perhaps the greatest circumstance for the court to consider is the passage of time. Memories fade. People can't remember what happened. People can't remember what they said, where they were. That's what we have here."

Carey says the state "set up an excited utterance."

The prosecutor objects.

The judge says, "I would think if you'd been assaulted by two strangers in your own home, you might be upset and excited. I don't think it's stretching much to say that, really."

"Is it your contention the prints could have been over five years old?" the judge asks Carey at another point.'

"Absolutely," Carey says. "That was Officer Patterson's testimony."

When Carey starts going over Patterson's testimony the judge interrupts. "I don't want to frighten you, but I was impressed with Patterson," he says. "When you do anything a half a million times, in the course of your lifetime, you get to be pretty good, an expert in that field. I have to say that."

"He saw things the trier of fact couldn't see," Carey says of Patterson a few minutes later, "and he didn't see things that were there. . . .

"I mean, they're probably right most of the time," Carey concedes. "What if they're wrong? Wade's sitting there charged with murder."

"That's right," the judge says.

"They're human," Carey says.

"No question," the judge agrees.

There is a long discussion on the cause of death. Dr. Hicks's testimony versus Dr. An's.

"At 1:30 in the morning," says Carey, describing Gus Karapanos's final hour, "his abdomen is distended and the temperature is still on the rise. They call the doctor and he gives no orders. He dies three hours later. That's what happened."

Carey says the fingerprint is the only evidence the state has. "They have to show beyond a reasonable doubt and moral certainty that that print was left at the time of the crime. They haven't done that. Wade Stallings dropped out of Senn High School in 1978. He was an itinerant worker in the Uptown area on the north side of Chicago. He did several jobs which would have taken him into apartments, both as an exterminator, drywaller, and painter, perhaps as someone who shoveled show and goes inside to get payment, perhaps as a kid walking around with his brother with a shovel over his shoulder, walking in and looking at somebody's stereo. Perhaps. Those are reasonable hypotheses."

"Looking wouldn't have caused a print," the judge says.

"Teenage kids look with their hands, your honor," Carey says.

"You don't want me to believe that," the judge says.

"Those are reasonable hypotheses," Carey says again. "That's what the law says. Unless you can exclude all reasonable hypotheses of innocence, he shouldn't be found guilty."

When Jonathan Lerner has the floor again the judge asks him, "Do I have to presume if that is his print that he is the one who struck and assaulted Mr. Karapanos?"

"The mere presence is not enough," Carey says.

"By accountability there is no question," the prosecutor replies. "I take it you're assuming someone up there did the act?"

"Some person beat Mr. Karapanos," the judge says. "I don't think he fell down, frankly."

Lerner attacks Stallings's slender alibi. "Exterminators don't move furniture or radios. They don't move furniture. This is an older building, no drywall being put in. If they thought there was, they could have asked Helen Karapanos, was any work done and who was the contractor? That doesn't come up until--"

"We would object to that, judge," says the defense. "It's not our burden to put on evidence."

"Nobody said it was," Stein says.

"Odd jobs, that recently developed," the prosecutor continues. "This guy should have been president of the future entrepreneurs club at Senn High School." The prosecutor says that Stallings had never told the police who arrested him about these jobs. He didn't give any explanation as to why his fingerprint was there.

"So, you know he didn't come up with it then. These are all things--In my mind it was put there June 11th. . . . He's now manufacturing this later possibility. Even then he doesn't say he was there, or 'The guys I worked with would know I was there.'"

"I'm happy you're satisfied," the judge says. "I didn't think you would be anything less than that. The point is, is there any evidence to when it was made?"

The prosecutor says that Sophia Karapanos was a "meticulous housekeeper. Wade Stallings . . . has never for any reason been in the house. I think Helen's seen her mother dusting. Given that, I think we can rule out fingerprints being put there on any day other than June 11th of '79. . . .

"Gus Karapanos was beaten and the beating led to his death. Therefore, he and whoever else the other guy is are both guilty of murdering Gus Karapanos. No doubt about it, no other time he was there. We know he was there. We know he was moving the stereo from the dresser to the bed. We know he left it behind and we also know other things were taken from the same room and are missing.

"We know Gus Karapanos was killed during the course of this. . . . He's there. He did it. Whether he touched Gus Karapanos or not he did it, because he's accountable for whatever happened to Gus Karapanos."

"Everything you said is fine," the judge says. "How does that show the print was on there from that moment on and not before?"

The stereo has been in the apartment for five years, the prosecutor says, "with a woman who is dusting it, cleaning it. . . ."

"There's no testimony the mother cleans the stereo," says the defense.

The judge agrees. "All we have is she is a meticulous housekeeper."

"The daughter saw her dusting it," the prosecutor says. "The daughter said she had seen it and the mother is a meticulous housekeeper. She had seen her do that. This was not something that 11-year-old Wade Stallings went out and started putting his hand all over the stereo."

The prosecutor goes over the cause of death one more time but eventually he gets back to the fingerprint. "He didn't put it on there before June 11th of '79. There is no reason for him to be in this place. He was Mr. Odd Job of the north side. I don't know if he was there. Granted, it's been a long time. People keep records of these things. Helen has not been asked it, there is no need to put any drywall in this building.

The defense objects. "If they wanted to call rebuttal witnesses, they could have called rebuttal witnesses. They didn't."

"To rebut what?" the prosecutor wants to know. "He says 'I don't know where I was. I did these jobs a lot.' Where are the employers?"

"Where were any of us in 1979?" the defense asks.

"He doesn't have to bring us in," the prosecutor says. "Maybe he's tried to find them, maybe he hasn't. Who knows?"

"It's not our burden to put on this stuff," the defense says.

"You don't have a burden to put on anything," the judge agrees. "The defendant doesn't have to prove anything at all."

"This is an improper comment," the defense says.

The prosecutor says, "They're rebutting me to say something that's nonexistent."

"The defendant said he wasn't there," the judge says.

"On that date," the defense says.

"He said he was never there as far as he knew," the judge says.

"He doesn't remember what apartments he was in," the defense says.

"That's not positive testimony," the judge says. "It doesn't require rebuttal."

"He wasn't there before June 11th, 1979," Jonathan Lerner says. "He was there June 11th of 1979. The guys that were there June 11th of '79 are the guys guilty of the murder of Gus Karapanos."

"OK," Judge Stein says. "I think we've heard enough argument. After weighing all the testimony and listening to all the arguments of counsel, the court finds the defendant guilty."

The verdict comes suddenly. Carey was on his way toward the bench with some cases in his hand. He stops in mid-stride.

Wade Stallings takes his glasses off and holds them at arm's length a few inches above the defense table. With his other hand he rubs his brow.

The only spectators in the courtroom are Stallings's family. A sister-in-law walks back into the court a moment after the verdict; whispers relay the news.

A few minutes later, Stallings is led away, and the courtroom quickly empties.

Out in the hallway the decorum is broken. Bill Stallings, Wade's older brother, shouts, "If that boy killed anyone, everybody in this building killed someone!" A moment later he adds, "He ain't got the heart to do nothing like that."

Carrie Stokes runs crying to a pay phone.

On March 14, Jonathan Lerner asks Judge Stein to sentence Stallings to the maximum term. "This was a terrible crime on an elderly man who never hurt anyone," Lerner says, calling the crime "the nightmare we all have for ourselves. . . . Unfortunately the nightmare came true for the Karapanos family."

"I'm an innocent man," Wade Stallings tells the judge. "I didn't commit this crime nor do I have any knowledge of it.

"I didn't do this crime, your honor. If there was any way I could prove it I would. I have a wife and four children. This has been a nightmare for us.

"I sympathize with the Karapanos family," Stallings says, and he asks the judge to sentence him to "not the maximum sentence."

"Well, I'm not going to give you the maximum," Stein says. He then sentences Stallings to serve 24 years for the murder of Gus Karapanos.

Brian Dosch files a notice of appeal.

Carrie Stokes says she first met Wade Stallings in September of 1981, more than two years after the murder of Gus Karapanos. She is convinced of his innocence. "He's too gentle a person," she says. Since that January night when the police knocked on her door, she has visited Stallings in the Milwaukee County Jail and the Cook County Jail. She doesn't know where he'll be going next, she says outside the courtroom after sentencing. Somewhere farther from home, more than likely. "But wherever they take him, I'll still be going to see him."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

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