WATERLOO — Nine-year-old Jennifer Lewis was supposed to come home before the street lights came on.
Her mother, Sheri McCormick, started to worry when night fell on Sept. 17, 1990, and the Rock Island girl hadn’t come home after going to a nearby liquor store to buy gum for Stanley Liggins.
“Jennifer knew she was supposed to be home by dark and she wasn’t home yet,” she told a Black Hawk County jury Thursday. “I asked (my husband) Joe, ‘Where’s Jennifer?’ and he said she never came back from getting the gum.”
McCormick would never see her daughter alive again. Lewis’ body was found around 9 p.m. that night in a grassy field near Jefferson Elementary School, which she attended at one time.
She had been sexually abused and strangled before being doused with gasoline and set on fire, according to prosecutors.
Liggins, 56, an acquaintance of McCormick and her then-husband, Joseph “Ace” Glenn, is on trial a third time in Lewis’ death.
He was tried and convicted twice in the girl’s death in the 1990s and sentenced to life in prison. The Iowa Supreme Court overturned the first conviction, and on Nov. 6, 2013, the Iowa Court of Appeals reversed the second conviction.
His third trial was moved from Scott County to Black Hawk County due to extensive publicity surrounding the case.
McCormick, the only witness to testify Thursday on the ninth day of testimony in Liggins’ trial, cried as she recounted the events of Sept. 17, 1990, the last day Lewis, her first-born child, was alive.
She said her daughter was excited about her upcoming birthday on Sept. 21 and her new baby brother who was born in August 1990.
McCormick testified that she and Glenn, Lewis’ stepfather, had picked up Jennifer from her Rock Island elementary school around 2:30 or 3 p.m. that day.
The family then went to a restaurant in East Moline and then to a nearby furniture store before arriving to their 7th Avenue home sometime between 5:20 and 5:45 p.m., McCormick testified.
A friend and his nephew were in the back yard working on a car, and another friend and his son were in the front yard when they arrived, she said. Liggins arrived 15 or 20 minutes later in a maroon Peugeot, McCormick said.
She said that she first met Liggins in June through a friend and that he was a frequent visitor to the house.
At some point Lewis left on her bike to go to a friend’s house. McCormick said the bike was her daughter’s “pride and joy.”
“She’d always bring it into the house,” McCormick said. “She didn’t want to leave it outside cause she was afraid it’d get stolen.”
Liggins left around the same time. Lewis came back a short time, McCormick said.
Liggins did, too, she said.
“Then I think Joe yelled at me and asked if I had any gum,” McCormick said “I said, ‘no,’ then Jennifer comes in and asks me if she could go get the pack of gum for Stanley because he told her she could keep the change.”
She said Lewis had a dollar in her hand.
McCormick said she was in Lewis’ bedroom feeding her son; Liggins was on the front porch and Glenn was playing foosball with two other men inside the house.
When she finished feeding the baby, everyone but Glenn was gone and Lewis still had not come home.
“I started making phone calls — maybe somebody knew where she was at or seen her, maybe she was playing with a friend,” McCormick said and started to cry. “Then I decided to take a walk and go look for her.”
She said Glenn stayed home with the baby while she searched. McCormick said she made several calls, including to Mac’s liquor store where Lewis had gone to buy the gum.
Liggins, at one point, had come back to the house, she said. McCormick said when she told Glenn that she though she should call 911, Liggins said, “Yeah, I think you better” and “kind of laughed” and left.
McCormick said Glenn later took Lewis’ bike to go check a home to see if she was there and got a ride from someone to help look for her.
A Rock Island police officer had come to the house, gotten information and a picture of Lewis, and had left.
Police later came back and said that they found a little girl in Davenport.
“I didn’t want to believe it was her,” McCormick said.
“They took me to the morgue. They wouldn’t let me go in there and hold her, tell her goodbye. Now I could tell it was her by her teeth.”
Lewis was buried on what would have been her 10th birthday, she said.
Scott County Attorney Mike Walton and Assistant Scott County Attorney Julie Walton will rest their case Friday morning.
Black Hawk County public defenders Aaron Hawbaker and Nichole Watt will then begin to present their case.
During their cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, the defense has sought to highlight the lack of forensic evidence in the case and show that there was a lack of follow-up regarding other suspects, such as Glenn.
After the jury was dismissed for the day, Judge Marlita Greve denied prosecutors’ renewed motion to allow jurors to hear evidence of Liggins’ prior sexual abuse conviction in Rock Island County.
A month before Lewis’ death, he was charged with sexually abusing a 9-year-old girl. He was convicted in May 1991 and sentenced to seven years in prison, according to court records. He already had been charged in Lewis’ death at the time of that trial.
Prosecutors sought to have the evidence introduced at trial to prove identification, motive and intent in relation to Lewis’ murder. The defense argued that the evidence is prejudicial.
Greve, as she did in April 2017, said that presenting the evidence to a jury hearing the case of a child who was “brutally” sexually abused, strangled and set on fire would “certainly be enraged, disgusted and prejudiced against Mr. Liggins.”
“A jury could convict Mr. Liggins on that basis alone, believing he’s a child molester and not necessarily on the evidence in this case or the lack of evidence in this case.”