By Allyson Chiu, Claire Hansen, Jun Tae “Walter” Ko, Samantha Max and Jamie Schmid
The Medill Justice Project
BERWYN, Ill. — Ysole Krol didn’t kill anyone but she’s serving 35 years for murder.
Looking back, she says she didn’t want to be in the car that snowy and rainy night in December 2009. She says she almost let her boyfriend, Sergio Martinez, take their 3-year-old daughter to his mother’s house alone, but he convinced her to join him for the ride. Martinez also picked up his brother and a friend, and as the group cruised around in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn and smoked marijuana, Krol, then 19, says she sat silently in the passenger seat, playing her favorite game on her phone, Diner Dash. The object of the game is to move up in its world.
She says she looked up when she heard yelling followed by a bunch of popping noises. A confrontation had erupted with Martinez’s former neighbors.
Martinez ordered Krol to hand him the gun in the glove compartment, he would later testify.
Then Martinez fired a shot, the loud bang echoing through the street. Christopher Rivera fell dead, a bullet hole through his forehead spilling blood on the asphalt.
Prosecutors charged Martinez and Krol with first-degree murder, asserting Krol was accountable, along with her boyfriend, for Rivera’s death because she handed Martinez the murder weapon.
Krol was found guilty in a bench trial and sentenced to 35 years in prison, the mandatory minimum in Illinois for first-degree murder while in possession of a firearm. Krol had no prior criminal history. When she finishes her sentence, her daughter Sorayah will be nearly 40 years old.
There’s little dispute that longstanding accountability laws in Illinois and throughout the country give prosecutors broad authority to charge those they believe assisted in carrying out a crime, leaving it up to the courts to determine if someone is an accomplice or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“The most important person in the courtroom is the prosecutor,” said Joshua Dressler, professor emeritus and Frank R. Strong chair in law at Ohio State University.
In Krol’s case, it’s unclear whether she handed the weapon to Martinez.
“As [Krol] was reaching—she froze. She reached for it. I reached with her,” Martinez testified at his jury trial where he was found guilty and received a 60-year sentence. “She probably slightly touched it. I grabbed [it] and that’s when I heard multiple pops again. I stuck my arm out the window and shot one time.”
Krol’s attorney said he didn’t think he needed to call Martinez to the stand at her trial in part because he already had other witnesses who offered testimony favorable to Krol. Martinez did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Krol, who didn’t take the stand at her trial, told police in a video interview a day after the shooting she didn’t know Martinez had a gun, let alone stored it in her car, records show.
“I opened the glove compartment, and I just, I didn’t even touch it, because I didn’t want to,” she told detectives. Later in the police interview, Krol said her fingers might have briefly brushed the gun; she also made a gesture that appeared to indicate that she somehow passed the gun to him.
Whether Krol handled the gun, just opening the glove compartment may have been enough for prosecutors to consider her an accomplice, said Dressler, the Ohio State professor.
“Once you’re involved even trivially … it’s like turning the lightbulb on,” said Dressler, who has written about criminal accountability law. “It’s all the way on and you are now completely involved.”
Prosecutors did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Krol told The Medill Justice Project she didn’t know Martinez was going to shoot Rivera.
“You’re saying I killed a person when I didn’t,” Krol said in an interview at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois.
What’s hard for Krol to reconcile is that others have been punished far less severely even when they have admitted to pulling the trigger.
“It’s sad to me,” she said. “… In my view, the accountability law is just something they throw out there to get a conviction.”
In one example, a day before Rivera was killed, 17-year-old Blake Curran and his friends were playing Russian roulette some 200 miles away in Michigan, records and news accounts show. It’s a game of chance in which players pack a single bullet into a revolver, spin the cylinder and fire away, hoping to avoid the loaded chamber.
When it was his turn, Curran pointed the gun at his 19-year-old friend and pulled the trigger. The bullet delivered a fatal shot to his friend’s torso, piercing his heart and lungs.
Curran, who had a record of minor offenses, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and felony firearm possession and was sentenced to a maximum of 17 years in prison—less than half of Krol’s sentence.
Fifteen years were automatically added to Krol’s prison time because of a 2000 Illinois law that increases sentences when a gun is present during a crime. Most states have sentencing enhancement laws for crimes committed with deadly weapons in an effort to reduce violence.
Experts who have studied the effect of the laws say such practices minimally impact crime rates.
“A lot of people are convinced that criminals don’t think about—potential criminals—don’t think about sentence length,” said David Abrams, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who has studied the issue. “They don’t think about getting caught, and therefore, it doesn’t matter at all.”
It was drizzling as the car headed west on 26th Street toward Berwyn on its way to a split-second decision that would fracture Krol’s life. A week before Christmas in 2009, Martinez, then 20, was at the wheel of Krol’s black Mitsubishi Lancer. Krol sat in the passenger seat and Martinez’s younger brother, Jose Martinez, sat next to their friend, Joshua Bzdusek, in the back. An empty car seat for Krol and Martinez’s 3-year-old daughter occupied the space behind the driver.
While stopped at a red light at Ridgeland Avenue, Martinez testified he saw one of Rivera’s brothers cross the street which prompted Martinez to call Christopher Rivera to collect $250 Rivera owed him.
Rivera, 19, an aspiring rapper, was around the corner at home preparing for a performance in a nearby neighborhood later that night when he answered the phone, Rivera’s brothers, Isaac Sanchez and Jonathan Rivera, testified.
Martinez testified, “I told [Rivera], ‘I’m here already. I’m downstairs. I need [the money] for Christmas,’ and then [Rivera] stated, ‘Well, meet me downstairs in front. Don’t keep me waiting.’”
Putting on a hoodie, Rivera ran outside yelling Martinez’s name, and his two brothers followed, according to Sanchez’s testimony.
The three brothers approached the black Mitsubishi, which had stopped near the apartment at the corner of 26th and Cuyler, trial records show.
Bzdusek, Jose and Martinez testified they thought they saw Rivera holding what looked like a gun. Sanchez had a brick in his hand, according to Martinez at trial.
All but Krol were yelling and taunting Rivera and his brothers, according to Sanchez at trial.
[The people in the car were] “egging us on,” Jonathan testified.
Neither Sanchez nor Jonathan saw Krol yell or gesture, trial records show. Both brothers, who knew Krol through Martinez, said they were unaware she was in the car.
Everyone in the car denied any taunting, trial records show, but remembered the following: A flurry of popping sounds. An object striking the car with a thud. Krol saying they should get out of there. And Martinez asking Krol for the gun in the glove compartment.
“It just happened so quick, like I said, I just seen people chasing after the car, so I look back, then I just hear this loud thud, and I was just like, ‘What was that?’” Jose said in an interview for this story. “And that’s when I heard the gunshot.”
When he heard the popping noises, which he took to mean gunshots, Bzdusek ducked in the back of the car. He testified he did not see Krol pass the gun to Martinez. However, in his police statement, Bzdusek said he observed Krol hand Martinez the gun.
Bzdusek said in an interview for this story he felt pressured at the police station to say in a statement written by a prosecutor that Krol handed the gun to Martinez, and he worried he too would be charged as an accomplice.
“It all happened so fast, and so I guess that was put down in my statement, but to my recollection, I don’t remember it completely, to be honest with you,” he said. “I can’t say for sure that Ysole was the one who handed it to him.”
He added, “I can’t remember saying that, like that didn’t happen, you know? I was, you know … cops were telling me they were going to charge me at one point with, what, 10 to 15 years when they picked me up.”
Police did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Martinez said he was scared as Rivera and his brothers approached the car. In his trial, he said he was trying to protect the people in the car with him, and he said he believed Rivera and his brothers were shooting at the car.
Martinez stuck his head out of the window and fired the gun. A bullet hit Rivera square between the eyes, and he fell dead on the street, autopsy records show.
Martinez drove off with Krol and the other two in the black Mitsubishi.
Rivera’s brothers denied in court Rivera had a gun in his hand that night. Authorities recovered a broken BB gun near Rivera’s body. Fingerprints were inconclusive. No brick was found at the scene.
In a 2015 affidavit obtained by Martinez’s defense, a witness, Hugo Mandujano, said he was at a bar near the crime scene when he saw men shouting at the black car that night. A man threw a brick at the car and another had a gun in his hand, Mandujano said in his statement.
About five minutes after the shooting, Martinez and Krol switched places in the car as he was too shaken to keep driving, Krol told police. Moments later, Martinez got out of the car, took the gun and met another friend, Jose said at trial. The police didn’t recover the murder weapon.
Krol parked the car in her garage and she, Bzdusek and Jose wiped it down with a sweater to make the car look as if it hadn’t been taken out that night, Krol told police.
The next day, after interviewing Rivera’s brothers, police brought in Jose and Bzdusek for questioning, according to police records. That evening, police interviewed Krol. Two days later, she was charged with first-degree murder.
Within hours, Martinez turned himself in.
Rivera’s family could not be reached for comment for this article.
“Me and Josh were both in the car, so if they wanted to charge Ysole, they could have charged me and Josh,” Jose said in an interview for this story. “ … I’m not saying I want to be in jail, but just to make it fair, you know like, why does she got to be in there?”
When Krol was 15 growing up in Chicago, she dreamed of graduating from college. She inherited this aspiration from her mother, Rosa, the child of Mexican immigrants who had not attended college herself. Rosa started saving for college tuition when Krol and her sister were infants.
“That’s all I asked of them, when they were growing up, I’m like you know, just go to college,” Rosa said. “‘You don’t have to worry about anything; just you know, we’ll take care of it.’”
Krol did have to worry about her sister, Amaris, who was three years younger. Krol took on the mantle of “second mom,” Amaris said, because Rosa was working full-time at a hospital handling personnel records.
“Ysole was a big provider when it comes to, like, our family,” Amaris said. “ … She made sure everybody was fed; she kept everybody on their toes. She was really, like, the head of the household at one point.”
After giving birth to her daughter while she was in high school, Ysole Krol graduates and enrolls in a community college with plans to become a radiology technician. (Photo courtesy: Krol family)
Amaris added, “We had to mature quickly.” At 15, Krol started dating Martinez, whom she met through a mutual friend. Martinez was the clown among their friends; he enjoyed pulling practical jokes, for example, popping out from behind things to scare people. Martinez made Krol laugh because he would be affectionate in a silly way, biting her cheeks. At 16, Krol found out she was three months pregnant with Martinez’s child.
Krol held on to her dreams, graduating from high school on time and enrolling at nearby Morton College, a community college, with plans to become a radiology technician.
Now 27, with nearly three decades yet to serve in prison, Krol’s dreams revolve around her daughter. Pink letters are tattooed on the inside of Krol’s left wrist, copied from a birthday card Sorayah wrote for Krol: “I ♥ U.”
I love you.
“I feel happy that I get to see her, but then I feel sad when she has to stay here and when I have to leave,” said 10-year-old Sorayah, who usually visits her mother once a month.
“Look at where I’m at,” Krol said, her voice breaking. “I tell her, ‘I want you to be better than me. I want you to do great things.’”
Like her mother before her, Krol has drilled into her daughter the need to get an education and forget about dating.
“Boys cause trouble, you don’t need them,” Krol said she tells Sorayah, adding. “ … I don’t want [her] to make the same mistake I did. If I did things differently, I might not be here.”
Krol was convicted under a law that has raised questions among scholars for decades: When should the law hold someone accountable for the actions of another?
The Illinois criminal accountability law largely hinges on whether an accomplice intentionally assisted in the crime. Similar measures are in place throughout the United States and other countries. Like much of American law, accountability laws were brought over from England, said Dressler, the Ohio State University law professor.
Apart from the main perpetrator of a crime, “there can be other people who are involved in the crime, assisting in the crime, supporting the crime, who ought not to be able to walk away free from any punishment,” Dressler said.
Accountability law is an “enduring puzzle” for the courts, said Nicholas Almendares, a visiting assistant professor at Seton Hall University School of Law who has studied the issue. The vocabulary of the law is vague, Almendares said, and it’s the court’s job to decide who qualifies as an accomplice. Under the law, the line between being an accomplice and merely being present during a crime is “very, very thin,” Dressler said.
Accountability laws don’t differentiate between accomplices whose actions are inconsequential to a crime and those more involved, Dressler said.
“A person can assist in a crime in the most trivial way, so trivial that you can safely say the crime would have occurred anyway,” Dressler said. “ … But that trivial assistance, even though it didn’t cause the crime to occur, makes that person 100 percent responsible and 100 percent punishable, just as much as if they had pulled the trigger of the gun or had done something that was, you know, truly crucially essential for the crime.”
At Krol’s bench trial, Judge Carol A. Kipperman determined Krol handed Martinez the gun he used to shoot Rivera. Though Kipperman said she found no evidence of a plan between Krol and Martinez to shoot and kill Rivera, she ruled Krol “knew or should have known” Martinez intended to use it to harm Rivera, according to trial transcripts. Passing the gun to Martinez, Kipperman ruled, made Krol responsible for Rivera’s murder.
In addition, Kipperman said in her ruling criminal intent could be inferred because Krol drove the car after the shooting and cleaned it.
Kipperman declined to comment for this story.
Krol said in her police statement she had no idea the gun was loaded or that Martinez was going to shoot Rivera.
“After the first couple ‘pows,’ he’s like, ‘Give it to me so I can scare them.’” Krol told police.
Michael Heyman, professor emeritus at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago who has written about accountability law, said the judge’s language, that Krol “should have known” Martinez was going to shoot Rivera, doesn’t prove Krol’s intent to commit murder.
Even when putting the issue of intent aside, Krol’s case is an example of how “unjust” accountability law is because Krol’s involvement was insignificant, Dressler said.
“[Krol] could just have sat there, but instead she does the most trivial thing and that’s enough [to make her an accomplice] even though he could still have pulled out the gun himself,” Dressler said.
He added, “I think most laypeople, if they really understood accomplice liability, would find it shocking that all accomplices are treated alike whether they are very much involved or only trivially involved.”
There’s been little action on reforming accountability laws because lawmakers don’t want to appear “soft on crime,” Dressler said.
In the absence of reform, defense attorneys have had some success appealing these convictions.
In a case cited by Krol’s defense at trial, 15-year-old Tory Taylor was driving a car in Rockford, Illinois, in 1993 when a passenger got out and fired a weapon at another driver, according to appellate records. Taylor drove away after the passenger got back in the car. Taylor testified he knew his passenger had a weapon but did not know he was going to fire it, but Taylor was convicted of aggravated discharge of a firearm. In 1999, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled Taylor could not be found guilty on an accountability theory solely because he drove the perpetrator away.
When Krol was sentenced in 2011, then-prosecutor Joseph Lattanzio wanted the judge to send a message to potential offenders not to follow in her footsteps.
“[W]e’re asking you to provide a sentence in this case that provides an adequate deterrent to the future use of guns and murders on the street and provides adequate justice for the family in this case,” Lattanzio said.
Of Krol’s 35-year sentence, 15 years were automatically added because a firearm was present during the murder. In other states, such as Montana, sentence enhancements range from an average of two to 10 years for first offenses; in New Mexico, the firearm enhancement for a first-time offender like Krol is one year.
Before the night of Rivera’s death, Krol had never come in contact with a firearm, she told police.
“I’ve never touched a gun,” she said. “I’ve never seen a gun.”
Firearm sentence enhancements don’t deter potential offenders in the way they are intended to, according to Gary Kleck, professor emeritus at Florida State University’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, who has studied the issue.
“People don’t have accurate perceptions of what the risk of legal punishment is,” Kleck said.
Lengthier sentences for offenses involving firearms became popular in the 1970s, following a surge in violence nationwide, experts said.
Most states have enacted such laws. Federal sentences were introduced in 1968 and have increased multiple times since, largely in response to movements in the 1980s and 1990s to lengthen mandatory minimum sentences for crimes ranging from firearm offenses to drug trafficking.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the most recent federal law which established mandatory minimum sentences for first-time offenders ranging from five to 10 years if a firearm such as a semi-automatic was present during a crime.
Illinois enacted its own firearm enhancement penalties in 2000, adding anywhere from 15 years to life in prison.
Advocates of firearm enhancements say longer sentences for crimes involving guns target dangerous gun owners. Conservative lawmakers and prosecutors endorse such penalties for “moralistic” reasons, according to Kleck, the criminologist.
“Being tough on crime is a political winner,” he said. “It’ll gain you more votes than it’ll lose you.”
Proponents also argue firearm enhancements keep offenders in prison and deter future violent crimes, said Abrams, the economist at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Abrams’ 2011 study found armed robberies decreased by about 5 percent in the first three years following the implementation of firearm enhancements in several states over 37 years.
But offenders don’t often weigh the possibility of a harsh penalty before committing a violent crime, Kleck said.
“Legal punishment of crime is a long-term consequence,” he said. “It’s not an immediate consequence. Whereas, you know, you commit a crime of passion, it immediately feels good or you relieve that tension due to frustration or fear or anger.”
Opponents of mandatory gun enhancements argue they place too much power in the hands of prosecutors.
“They don’t allow the judges the opportunity to individualize or to tailor, particularly in extremes,” said Milton Heumann, a political science professor at Rutgers University who co-authored several studies in the 1980s examining the impact of firearm enhancements.
Heumann’s 1983 study on Michigan’s laws found little evidence firearm sentence enhancements could lower violent crime rates. A 1992 analysis by two of Heumann’s co-authors and another researcher reviewed data from Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and they found a slight collective drop in the number of homicides after the enactment of the states’ firearm enhancement laws.
But a later study in 1995 examined the impact of extended prison terms nationwide for crimes committed with a weapon and found firearm sentencing enhancements failed to reduce crime rates or gun use in most states. Little research on extended sentences for firearms has been conducted since.
“Among scholars, it was just regarded as a settled issue,” Kleck said. “These kinds of measures don’t reduce crime.”
A 2013 federal report found community policing and programs proved more effective at decreasing violent crime rates than mandatory minimum sentences.
“The real solutions to crime are expensive and difficult,” Kleck said. “They take a long time to have impact, and so, you know, they’re not politically popular for that reason.”
Sentence enhancements call into question how much prison time an offense merits, Heumann said.
“The real question is … what a case is worth,” he said. “ … that’s a whole different issue—about how you figure out the value of a case, about what price is right.”
With 29 years in prison left, Krol said she tries to remain upbeat for her mother, sister and daughter. Krol said she wonders if, sometimes, she does it more for herself.
“I’m trying to be strong for everyone else … I’m always trying to reassure them,” Krol said. “ … I cry to myself at night, but I’m fine. I can handle this.”
On the outside, Krol’s lawyer, Jodi Garvey, is still fighting her conviction following the loss of Krol’s trial, direct appeal and post-conviction petition. Garvey is appealing the denial of Krol filing a second post-conviction petition and has filed a federal habeas corpus.
Krol is nearing the end of the process, Garvey said.
“Me knowing I didn’t do it [the crime] is what’s keeping me going,” Krol said, adding that her Roman Catholic faith helps to keep her “afloat.”
Missing Sorayah’s major life moments, she said, is the hardest part.
“Losing her first tooth, graduation, I saw that in pictures,” Krol said.
She has started to write an “advice journal” for Sorayah, penning entries on topics ranging from friends to self-respect.
“I plan on giving it to her when she’s 16,” Krol said. “That’s the age my life changed.”
The first entry in the journal is titled, “Not being there.”
Krol said, “I’m apologizing for all the things I’m missing out on.”
This investigation was conducted by five undergraduate interns at The Medill Justice Project under the guidance of Northwestern University Prof. Alec Klein, director of MJP, Amanda Westrich, director of operations at MJP, and MJP associates Allisha Azlan and Rachel Fobar.