Nearly six months after it started, the trial of a New Lenox man charged with punching a Joliet man into a coma drew to a close Monday afternoon.
But the fate of Joseph Messina won't be known until Will County Judge Sarah Jones hands down her verdict Jan. 3. Messina, 24, waived his right to have a jury decide his guilt or innocence before the trial started in June.
Messina allegedly punched 29-year-old Eric Bartels in the face outside the Mokena bar 191 South in July 2009. When Bartels fell, his head struck the the concrete and he suffered a fractured skull.
A half-dozen witnesses, including two men working for a car service and a 191 South bouncer, testified to seeing Messina throw the fateful punch. But one of Messina's closest friends, Steve Raymond of Frankfort, said it was actually another man—Michael Glielmi—who hit Bartels and knocked him to the ground.
Messina, Raymond, Glielmi, three other men and Raymond's girlfriend had gone to 191 South that night to celebrate Messina's 21st birthday. When questioned by police in the aftermath of the incident, Raymond told officers he did not see who struck Bartels. But he changed his story on the witness stand last week.
Raymond said he kept quiet about Glielmi because he expected his friend to come forward on his own to clear Messina. When that didn't happen, and despite Messina spending two months in jail before his family bailed him out of jail, Raymond still held his tongue.
But Raymond explained how he felt a sudden empathy for Bartels' family after his sister suffered severe brain injuries in a July 2011 motorcycle accident.
"Right there, I felt Eric Bartels' pain," a choked-up Raymond said as he looked out at Bartels' family and friends in the gallery.
Assistant State's Attorney mocked Raymond's "moment of clarity."
"This moment of clarity, this moment of 'I'm going to do the right thing,' and he doesn't do anything for a year," Koch said.
Koch also questioned Raymond's reliability in light of his testifying that he was so close to Messina that he considered him a "brother."
But Messina's attorney, Dave Carlson, told Judge Jones that Raymond was even closer to Glielmi than he was to Messina.
"If Joey's like a brother, than whatever is stronger than a brother is what Mr. Raymond felt for Mr. Glielmi," Carlson said in his closing argument.
For his part, Glielmi, 24, was having as little to do with the trial as he could. He showed up in court last week with Joliet attorney Steven Haney, who told the Judge his client would dodge testifying by hiding behind his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself.
Carlson also pointed out that when a Mokena police detective showed up at Glielmi's house to talk to him after the incident at 191 South, he refused to meet with him.
Glielmi has since moved to St. Louis.
Closing arguments came as a surprise Monday as Carlson said he had at least one, and as many as three more witnesses in store. Prosecutors had subpoenaed Raymond's former girlfriend, Lauren Grenda, to testify for them Monday, but then said she was not needed. Judge Jones called Raymond and Grenda into court together to dismiss them as witnesses just before closing arguments started.
Once they did, Carlson argued that way the Mokena police handled their investigation made it virtually impossible to determine who punched Bartels. He pointed out that the police have been unable to produce photographs of Messina's hands. A Mokena police detective previously testified that such photographs had been taken but no one could find them. Carlson also criticized the way the police processed Messina's clothes and possible blood evidence removed from the garments.
Carlson also said that witnesses only identified Messina after the police removed him from the van he was sitting in and placed him in handcuffs outside the bar. He said the police should have removed all of the van's occupants, including Glielmi.
"All the testimony is, the guy who hit Mr. Bartels ran into the van and they pulled someone out and it was Joe," Carlson said. "It's like a magic trick. Two people go in, one person comes out and they walk him around (and they say), 'Yeah, that's him.'"