OTTAWA — Kenneth Cusick walked out of a La Salle County courthouse a free man Friday, but even a two-week trial (and nearly 14 years under a cloud) wouldn’t break his silence.
Minutes after a jury acquitted him of murder, the 52-year-old Ottawa man was approached for comment. Family members immediately swept in, clasped his arms and pulled him away from the media throng. Swarmed by supporters, Cusick backed into the corner of a courthouse elevator without a peep.
Cusick’s lawyer wasn’t much more talkative. Ottawa defense lawyer Ryan Hamer confirmed Cusick had not prepared a statement of any kind. For himself, Hamer said he was “pretty tired” and expressed surprise the jury returned its not-guilty verdict after only an hour of deliberation.
“I’m just happy it’s over,” Hamer said wearily. “I think everybody did a good job and we could finally put it to rest. At this point, I’m going to get out of here, guys.”
Friday’s verdict puts an end to a case begun not when he was charged with first-degree murder in 2017, but when wife Tracy Cusick died Jan. 17, 2006.
Tracy was rushed from her Ottawa home to a hospital where she was pronounced dead. An autopsy conducted hours later concluded she drowned, and Kenneth Cusick, in a pair of taped interviews played at trial, told Ottawa police he found his wife unresponsive with her mouth and nose in the water of a downstairs toilet.
Both interviews ended without Cusick being charged; but Ottawa police were wary of the facts and circumstances.
“The rumors are you killed her,” Sgt. Patrick Hardy told Cusick in a video-recorded statement taken in March of 2006.
Onscreen, Cusick nodded (“Mm-hmm”) and appeared unsurprised to learn he was the subject of such rumors but then denied killing his wife. “It’s the truth, I swear to it.”
They might not have believed him, but another 11 years passed before he was charged.
Evidence presented over the past two weeks showed why. The investigation was dogged by missed pieces of evidence, disputed forensic findings and a problematic set of facts.
Prosecutors told a jury at Dec. 4 opening statements that Tracy drowned in the toilet and there was no way it could have been an accident.
An engineering consultant later testified toilets were designed to prevent accidental drowning and there had never been a case of an adult drowning. A biomechanics expert said Tracy could have stuck her face into the toilet (though not easily) but couldn’t have remained there after losing consciousness.
“The simple answer is (after passing out) you would fall back and out of the toilet,” Dr. Wilson “Toby” Hayes testified.
But the forensic evidence of Tracy’s death wasn’t quite so open and shut. Tracy’s first pathologist missed a couple of findings that weren’t spotted until her body was exhumed and re-examined in 2010. These included deep bruises and cartilage damage in her neck.
Prosecutors said these injuries supported their theory that Kenneth held his wife underwater; but a defense witness told jurors the neck region is susceptible to post-mortem damage and warned it would be a mistake to treat the belatedly-discovered damage was evidence of foul play.
“You only have one go at this,” pathologist Christopher Milroy said. “After that, you have to be very careful.”
Then there was the toxicology. Tracy’s blood came back positive for methadone, which she’d been using with a prescription, and for alcohol at a level just below the drunk-driving threshold.
Prosecution witnesses were adamant: Tracy didn’t die of an overdose and the quantity of methadone was in the toxic range but not the lethal one.
“It’s not, ‘Oh my God, it’s so much methadone,’” toxicologist Christopher Long had testified. “It’s nowhere near that.”
But Long and other witnesses acknowledged some overlap in the toxic and lethal ranges. Shaku Teas, a pathologist for the defense, said combining methadone with alcohol could have lowered the lethal threshold and killed her.
Friday, lawyers addressed the jury at close and asked which was more likely: Drowning or overdose?
Prosecutor George Mueller said Cusick might not have plotted out the scenario that unfolded — “I don’t think he planned for months to murder her in the bathroom” — but said a flash of anger, on the heels of well-documented marital problems, could well explain her death.
But Hamer said to jump to that conclusion was to overlook many deficiencies in the state’s case.
“The state’s theory is mere fantasy,” Hamer said.
Whether the jurors agreed wasn’t divulged — none of those who filed out of the courthouse responded to requests for comment — but they made up their minds quickly. Except for one question (jurors asked to see autopsy photos) jurors lingered behind closed doors less than 60 minutes, a duration that included lunch.
La Salle County state’s attorney Karen Donnelly said afterwards she was disappointed in the outcome, “but I had to take my shot. Tracy deserved it.”
Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or TCollins@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.
For more local news, visit News Tribune at https://www.newstrib.com.