Jury gets case of former Northwestern professor charged with murdering boyfriend
CHICAGO — After a week and a half of testimony, Cook County jurors have begun deliberations to answer the question: Who is ex-Northwestern professor Wyndham Lathem?
Is he, as prosecutors described him, a coldblooded murderer animated by despair who stabbed his young boyfriend to death?
Or is he, as his defense argued, 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.
Those arguments summarized wildly different narratives about what happened that night in July 2017 when 26-year-old Trenton Cornell was stabbed nearly 80 times and left for dead in Lathem’s Near North high-rise.
Prosecutors noted that whatever the motive, the physical evidence points to Lathem having an active role in the slaying. He also sent a video confession to his parents in the days after the stabbing.
And Lathem went on the run with his co-defendant, Andrew 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.
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 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.”
While jurors heard extensive testimony from forensic experts and law enforcement officials, their verdict may come down to a credibility contest between Lathem and Warren. They were the only two other people in the apartment when Trenton Cornell was killed, and both took the stand to tell strikingly different stories about his death.
Warren took the stand last week and said Lathem flew him to Chicago to fulfill a suicidal death pact. Both were experiencing severe depression, Warren said, and they discussed Warren shooting Lathem while Lathem stabbed Warren. But during the course of Warren’s visit, he said, Lathem began speaking about killing other people, and in the middle of the night texted Warren to say he wanted to kill Cornell.
Warren went over to Lathem’s apartment, he testified, and Lathem showed him a jagged drywall knife, told Warren to take video, then walked into the bedroom and began stabbing Cornell while he presumably slept. Warren testified that he could not bring himself to take video, but he did come into the bedroom to try and restrain Cornell as he struggled, then went to grab a knife and stabbed Cornell twice himself.
“I don’t know why. I’ll never know why,” he testified.
Lathem, however, told a very different story. Far from being suicidal, he said, he flew Warren to Chicago as part of a budding online romance — one that would have been within the boundaries of his open relationship with Cornell, though he testified that he was not honest with his boyfriend about the nature of Warren’s visit.
When Warren touched down at O’Hare International Airport, Lathem was disappointed in his looks, and there was no chemistry between them in person, he testified. But the two spent a few days together before Lathem let Warren know there would not be a romantic future, Lathem testified. After that, he invited Cornell over to his apartment, where Cornell woke him in the middle of the night wanting to have sex. Lathem texted Warren to invite him over for a three-way, he testified.
When Warren came over, they did some crystal meth and Lathem showed Warren the drywall saw, suggesting they could use it, Lathem testified. Lathem said he intended the knife to be used as part of safe, consensual kinky sex, but did not make that explicitly clear to Warren.
Lathem got in bed with Cornell and began running the dull side of the drywall knife down his back, then felt Warren get in bed with them, he testified.
“All of a sudden Trent, he freezes, and a split second later he starts screaming,” Lathem said on the stand Tuesday, breaking down in tears. “... His head is right next to mine screaming in my ear. He’s screaming in my ear.”
Lathem managed to get out of bed during the “melee” and went to hide in the bathroom, he said.
The two men then fled town for more than a week, during which Lathem sent tearful videos to his parents and friends about his role in the slaying.