In handing down two life sentences to convicted killer Marni Yang Friday, Judge Christopher Stride said the case stood out in his 20 years of experience in criminal courts.
It wasn’t unusual because of the amount of media attention that surrounded the killing because the victim, Rhoni Reuter, was pregnant with the unborn child of former Chicago Bears player Shaun Gayle. It was, he told Yang, becauase of “the methodical, meticulous and maniacal manner in which you committed this crime."
Yang received two concurrent life sentences — one for Reuter’s death and one for the death of her unborn child — nearly five years after she plotted to kill Reuter in her Deerfield condominium. Yang, who had been romantically involved with Gayle, saw Reuter as a rival and plotted the murder for months, prosecuters said.
Among the preparations that Stride noted in his comments were that Yang went target shooting before the murder and changed the grip on her gun to something more comfortable. She hacked into Gayle’s emails and wrote messages to Reuter and other women he was involved with, including herself, in an attempt to deflect blame. Yang also rented a car and donned a disguise for the day of the murder.
At any point, Stride said, Yang could have realized that she was doing something wrong and backed out of her plan.
Lake County Assistant State’s Attorney Patricia Fix, who asked for a life sentence, said after court that she was “thrilled” with the verdict. The crime “cries out for the maximum sentence,” she said, explaining that it involved, “the maximum amount of planning, the maximum amount of deliberation.”
Yang’s attorneys asked for the minimum sentence of 45 years, acknowledging that for Yang, who is 43, that would likely be the equivalent of a life sentence.
For her part, Yang displayed no reaction to the verdict. She chose to have her attorney, Bill Hedrick, read a statement to the judge that she had written instead of reading it herself. It said: “I would like to express my sorrow to the family. This is a tragic thing for anyone to experience. I am truly sorry for their loss.”
Statements of pain and anger
Thad Reuter, Rhoni’s brother, took the stand before the judge made his decision to detail the devastating impact the murder had on his family.
He spoke of having to plan a double funeral when days earlier the family had been talking excitedly about Rhoni’s pregnancy. The funeral fell on the date of Thad and Rhoni’s parents’ anniversary. He spoke of his and his mother’s depression and anxiety since the murder and how no one in his family has been able to resume life as normal.
He explained how he talked to his sister every Sunday and how on the Sunday before her murder, “We ended as we always did by saying, ‘I love you and I’ll talk to you soon.’ ” But the next call he got about Rhoni was to say she’d been killed.
Thad Reuter said he has “a heart that has two pieces broken off.”
Gayle did not attend the hearing, however his lawyer read a statement from him after the verdict. He would have read it himself, attorney Donna Rotunno said, if the defense had not moved to bar his testimony because his paternity had never been legally proven. Rotunno called the move by defense attorneys “despicable” and said Gayle chose not to attend the hearing so the issue wouldn’t be a distraction from the sentencing.
In his written statement Gayle addresses Yang directly.
“How could you shoot a woman seven months pregnant who had never harmed you?” he wrote. “I will just continue to tell myself that you are an evil, sick, deplorable woman.”
Questions of hair and makeup
The few moments in court that were not emotionally laden happened after defense attorney Bill Hedrick detailed the 60 reasons why he was asking the judge for a new trial. The judge dismissed them all, but not after a lengthy discussion of one point.
Hedrick complained that Yang was not allowed to wear makeup or get her hair cut, styled or colored before the trial, which prejudiced the jury and may have made them think that she was mentally unsound.
“No female in her right mind would appear at a trial without makeup,” he said.
Fix brought in the chief of the Lake County Jail to explain that hair color and makeup aren’t allowed in jail, in part because of the possibly harmful chemicals they contain. The official said Yang had access to a haircut whenever she wanted.
Judge Stride did little to hide his frustration at the line of inquiry.
“It’s a little remarkable to me that we’ve spent 45 minutes talking about Ms. Yang’s hair on a day when we’re determining the sentence of her murder of a woman and her unborn child.”
Later, Stride again emphasized the gravity of the case.
“Nothing that this court does today is going to change these undeniably heart-breaking facts,” he said. “My heart goes out to all those affected by this, including you, Ms. Yang, and your family.”