BLOOMINGTON - A DeWitt County judge did not err when he refused to allow a jury to consider involuntary manslaughter in the trial of a man convicted of drowning three children in Clinton Lake in 2003, an appellate panel ruled this week.

The 4th District Appellate Court turned down Maurice LaGrone Jr.'s appeal of his 2006 first-degree murder conviction.

LaGrone and former girlfriend Amanda Hamm were charged with drowning Hamm's children. LaGrone was behind the wheel of Hamm's car when it sank in the lake with Christopher Hamm, 6, Austin Brown, 3, and Kyleigh Hamm, 23 months, inside.

LaGrone was convicted by a McLean County jury in April 2006 and sentenced to life in prison. A Macon County jury rejected murder charges and found Hamm guilty of child endangerment in December 2006. She later was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Attorneys for LaGrone appealed his conviction on several grounds, including arguments that DeWitt County Judge Stephen Peters should have allowed the jury to consider involuntary manslaughter as a possible verdict.

For LaGrone to be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, his actions on the boat ramp must have been deemed reckless, a conclusion Peters rejected.

The defense explanation of the incident precluded the possibility of involuntary manslaughter, the three-judge panel ruled.

LaGrone claimed he tried to back up the ramp, but the car accidentally rolled into the water. If that were the case, the act of backing up a surface police said was dry and grooved would not have been reckless or something that was likely to harm or kill the children, the judges said.

LaGrone "caused the children's death by his operation of a motor vehicle," the appellate judges ruled.

The appellate judges also declined to fault decisions by Peters to allow testimony of jailhouse informants and witnesses who chronicled abuse by LaGrone against Hamm.

In arguments before the appellate court in December, Assistant Appellate Defender Stuart Shiffman said the verdict in the Hamm case indicates a jury could find the pair guilty of lesser offenses.

Shiffman was unavailable Wednesday to comment on the ruling issued Monday. The defense may ask the state Supreme Court to hear further appeals.

Law enforcement officers who worked on the case and relatives of the children were relieved that LaGrone's request for a new trial was denied.

"I don't think he should have an appeal at all," said Greg Hamm, father of Christopher Hamm.

Hamm said he follows developments in the cases. After more than four years, the family still is "taking it day by day," Hamm said.

"No one would look forward to having to retry a complicated case like this," said DeWitt County Sheriff Roger Massey.

The sheriff agreed with the court's ruling on the involuntary manslaughter verdict option.

"We just didn't believe that the circumstances, when taken together, set an accident. We didn't feel that way in the beginning, and we still believe that today," he said.

Edith Brady-Lunny can be reached at eblunny@pantagraph.com.

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