Criminal Justice

Man beat murder charge in detective's death, but feds seek life term in drug case, citing slaying

State prosecutors dropped a murder case against Justin “J-Rock” Austin in the 2008 slaying of a Chicago police officer, alleging the defendant and others intimidated witnesses from testifying.

However, federal prosecutors are now seeking a life sentence for Austin in an unrelated Chicago drug case in which he has been convicted, contending that the Traveling Vice Lord leader was indeed responsible for the murders of off-duty detective Robert Soto and a female companion, Kathryn Romberg. Because the evidence is being presented at sentencing, rather than in an effort to convict Austin of the crimes, Austin’s guilt needs to be proven only by a preponderance of the evidence rather than the beyond-reasonable-doubt standard that applies to criminal trials, the Chicago Tribune reports.

The two victims were sitting in Soto’s parked vehicle outside Romberg’s home on the West Side of the city early one morning when they were shot to death. The feds say Austin shot them in a case of mistaken identity, thinking that Soto was a rival drug dealer who was known by his street name of “Quick.”

“It was survival of the fittest, the Wild Wild West. It was kill or be killed,” prosecution witness Jeffery Scott testified during a Thursday hearing. He worked in Austin’s drug operation and is awaiting sentencing after taking a plea in a drug-distribution case.

U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow was also told that Soto described to responding police officers, as he was dying, what his assailant’s vehicle looked like.

Attorney Richard Kling represents Austin. In an opening statement, he said it was police pulling out the stops to make a case in the slaying of a fellow officer who pressured witnesses to point the finger at Austin. Had there been evidence to prove a murder case against his client, Cook County would have pursued it, Kling argued.

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