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CHICAGO — A former Northwestern professor was convicted Thursday of murder in the gruesome 2017 stabbing death of his boyfriend.
Cook County jurors deliberated for less than two hours before returning the guilty verdict for Wyndham Lathem, an accomplished microbiologist who was fired from Northwestern when he fled town after the killing.
Jurors heard about a week and a half of testimony, during which prosecutors described Lathem as a coldblooded murderer animated by despair who stabbed defenseless 26-year-old Trenton Cornell.
By contrast, the defense argued, Lathem was simply a traumatized bystander who was framed by the actual killer, a catfishing gold-digger who committed the stabbing in a “jealous meth-fueled rage.”
Jurors were sent back to deliberate about 3:30 p.m. Thursday after a few hours of closing arguments and reached their decision at about 5:15 p.m.
Cornell’s mothers, Charlotte Cornell and Mischelle Duranleau, told The Chicago Tribune after the verdict that they are grateful for the work of the prosecutors’ office and the jurors, who spent days viewing extraordinarily graphic crime scene and autopsy photos.
“The jurors, I wouldn’t even know what to say to them,” Charlotte Cornell said. “I feel so bad for what (they) have seen. And I know their lives are going to be changed just like ours.”
Cornell and Duranleau said they were hopeful the case would prompt parents to have frank conversations about safety with their LGBTQ children.
“I think that (Trenton’s) end was very tragic, and he was a naive country kid, and he was a gay man,” Duranleau said. “We tend to look over some of the LGBT community when they’re coming of age. And I’m hopeful that maybe his story can ...”
“Help other parents and kids to the dangers that could be out there,” Cornell said, completing the sentence. “Just having conversations with their children about safety ... when living the life that the life they want to live.”
In a statement, defense attorney Adam Sheppard said the team was “disappointed but we are going to pursue all available remedies on our client’s behalf.”
Closing arguments Thursday summarized wildly different narratives about what happened that night in July 2017 when Trenton Cornell was stabbed nearly 80 times and left for dead in Lathem’s Near North high-rise.
Prosecutors said Lathem and his co-defendant, Andrew Warren, had made a suicidal pact to kill each other, but instead killed Cornell. And whatever the motive, they said, the physical evidence points to Lathem having an active role in the slaying. He also sent a video to his parents in the days after the stabbing saying “I killed him” and that it was not an accident.
Lathem ditched his phone and fled town with Warren for more than a week after Cornell’s death.
“Eight days he spends on the run with Andrew Warren, the real killer,” Assistant State’s Attorney Yolanda Lippert said, holding up her fingers to put air quotes around the words “real killer.”
“That is not the action of an innocent person. It is not the actions of a victim of circumstance. It is the actions of a murderer,” she told jurors Thursday.
By contrast, the defense attorneys focused much of their efforts on discrediting Warren, who testified against Lathem after pleading guilty to first-degree murder himself.
Defense attorney Barry Sheppard characterized Warren as, alternately, a “moral leper,” a “homicidal creep” and a “depressed psychopath.”
Lathem escaped to another room while Warren, who had used meth, killed Cornell in what was supposed to be a kinky knife-play threesome gone terribly wrong, the defense argued.
Lathem was frozen with fear, then felt despondent and morally responsible for the slaying, Sheppard argued.
“He’s flown (Warren) in, he’s furnished him with drugs, he didn’t act courageously in defending his boyfriend,” Sheppard told jurors. “You could say he was cowardly. You could say he feels lousy about it, he froze, he panicked. But doesn’t panic sound like a real thing given that? He doesn’t want to be apprehended.”
Toward the end of trial, prosecutors introduced evidence showing that Lathem had chatted online with people about “snuff” fantasies — which Lathem characterized as safe role-play involving people pretending to die.
In closing arguments, prosecutors said that showed Lathem’s interests had escalated from BDSM and safe “knife play” to something deadlier, and he recruited Warren not to romance him but to carry out their death pact.
“He can’t kill himself. Andy can’t kill himself. But they both want to. So what can they do for each other? They can help each other out, they can take care of each other,” Assistant State’s Attorney Craig Engebretson said. “… Maybe (Lathem) could kill somebody else and maybe it would be enjoyable to do that, before he dies, to somebody else.”
But any talk of fetishes at trial was merely “white noise” from prosecutors, Sheppard told jurors.
“It might be weird to you and uncomfortable ... that does not make him likely to be guilty; the prosecutor will never say to you that you should use that in any way against him,” he said. “It really doesn’t mean anything, it’s one of the surrounding circumstances of this case.”
And, Lippert noted, there may never be a clear answer about the motivation for what happened in Lathem’s apartment that night.
“How could this be? How could this world-renowned microbiologist do such a thing? Our brains don’t want it to be possible,” she said. “But as (the defense) told you and I will repeat, the state does not have to prove the motive. You did not get instructions that to find someone guilty of murder it has to make sense.”