Inexplicably, Jury Finds Speeding Cab Driver Who Killed Eric Kerestes Not Guilty

It appears that Kereste was the second victim of John Kesse's recklessness

Eric Kerestes with his wife Tatijana. Photo courtesy of the Kerestes family.
Eric Kerestes with his wife Tatijana. Photo courtesy of the Kerestes family.

In what looks to be a stunning miscarriage of justice, on Friday a Cook County jury acquitted taxi driver John Kesse, who struck and killed pedestrian Eric Kerestes, 30, while speeding at a terrifying velocity in August 2012. It appears to have been the second time in 14 years the cabbie had inflicted grievous harm to an innocent person while behind the wheel. Yet, after a four-day trial, the jury found Kesse not guilty of reckless homicide and aggravated reckless driving in the Kerestes case.

At 6 a.m. on the day of the fatal crash, Kesse was speeding downtown on Milwaukee Avenue, witnesses said. He blew a red at the Milwaukee/Chicago/Ogden intersection, jumped a curb and struck Kerestes, an engineer and grad student who was walking to the Blue Line’s Chicago Avenue station. The pedestrian was thrown 200 feet; he died at the scene. The impact from the crash demolished the station entrance.

After I published a post about the crash, Noel Thomas emailed to say that he was seriously injured while driving in 1998 when Kesse ran a stoplight at Inner Lake Shore Drive and Chicago Avenue. Thomas suffered a shattered femur and a broken hip and spent six months in a wheelchair. Yellow Cab eventually paid Thomas a $400,000 settlement but did not admit liability. Kesse did not lose his cab license after the 1998 crash because he was not ticketed, due to conflicting witness reports.

Kesse, who began working as a taxi driver in 1987, racked up 33 tickets for moving violations, most of which were dismissed or pleaded down to supervision, prior to striking Kerestes in 2012. According to a Chicago Tribune report he had amassed $10,000 in unpaid Chicago parking tickets by that time.

Unfortunately, it appears that Thomas’ ordeal wasn’t used as evidence against Kesse in his trial for Kerestes death. “The law tries to keep prior acts from coming in as much as possible,” Howard Weisman, a former Cook County state’s attorney, told me in 2013 . “We want to judge the defendant on his current case, not because we think he’s a bad guy.” He added that prior legal issues are usually only considered in court if they are felonies that occurred during the last decade. “I would say almost certainly that the 1998 crash won’t be a factor.”

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The aftermath of the 2102 crash. Photo: Chicago Tribune

This week Kesse testified that the Ford Crown Victoria he was driving when he killed Kerestes malfunctioned accelerated to a deadly speed on its own accord, while he helplessly tried to pump the brakes, the Tribunes’s Megan Crepeau reported. “All of a sudden I heard ‘voom,’ and the cab took off,” Kesse said in court. “It was speeding. … I tried to keep on braking, but it doesn’t stop.” An expert witness for the defense testified that the cab must have sped up due to an electrical malfunction.

Prosecutors told the jury to disregard Kesse’s testimony, noting that an expert who examined the cab following the collision found that there was nothing wrong with its acceleration mechanisms, according to the Tribune. “This is not a case about a random, unrepeatable accidental alignment of a whole bunch of bad things that just were bad luck,” said Assistant State’s Attorney Eric Sacks. “This is a real case about an unjustified, reckless crash caused by this defendant.”

After the acquittal Eric Kerestes’ father Bob told the Tribune that, along with the 1998 collision, this is the second time that Kesse has failed to admit fault in a horrific crash. “If you make a mistake, you should own up to your mistake. He didn’t own up to his mistake the first time, and… he didn’t own up to it the second time.”

“I was just shocked,” Eric’s mother Carol Kerestes told the Tribune. “We just don’t understand what it was that made (the jury) decide that.” She said that after the verdict family members were too stunned to speak to each other.

It truly is baffling that, despite the preponderance of evidence that Kesse was once again acting with reckless disregard for other road users, the jury declined to hold him accountable for cutting short the life of a promising young man.

  • Lisa Curcio

    “It truly is baffling that, despite the preponderance of evidence that Kesse was once again acting with reckless disregard for other road users, the jury declined to hold him accountable for cutting short the life of a promising young man.”

    This was a criminal trial. The State’s burden of proof was “beyond a reasonable doubt”, not “preponderance of the evidence”. Prior actions are almost never admissible at trial, as Mr. Weissman said. If he had been convicted, it might have been admissible at a sentencing.

    Every criminal defendant is innocent until proven guilty. Did you attend the trial, hear all of the evidence that was presented to the jury, and disagree with its decision? Or is this a trial by public opinion because the very sad death of Eric Kerestes was so horrific?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “An expert who examined the cab following the collision found that there was nothing wrong with its acceleration mechanisms.”

  • If you don’t consider how cab drivers often drive as “reckless,” then I’m unsure how else a person would describe their driving.

  • planetshwoop

    One of the more horrible experiences of my cycling life was coming across this scene as I was coming to work. I had left earlier than usual for a meeting, and had to cycle through the CVS parking lot because the street was blocked from the terrible crash. I saw Eric on the street, covered. Truly truly awful.

  • Joe Davis

    My name is Joe Davis and I was a Taxi Driver for 13 years for a competitor of yellow cab . One day while driving from ohare up Mannheim Rd between I-90 and Higgins Rd
    The Ford Crownvictoria I was driving suddenly began to accelerate.
    Pumping the breaks did nothing as it continued
    Holding the break finally brought the car to about 40 miles per hour but it continued as if I were holding the accelerator down. I called 911 as I was battling to stop the car. I believe I was connected to Desplaines 911 center. Frantically telling the operator what was happening he replied almost in a way that made me feel stupid for not thinking of it, Can you turn the power off?

    That did the trick.
    The end result was the mechanic found the the Throttle position sensor was faulty and explained he had seen that multiple times before.
    I have no doubt that what the driver here described was a case of that. If that part could be removed and tested I think you’d have the answer to what caused this accident.
    A faulty component from ford motor company

  • Joe Davis
  • Joe Davis

    Mr Greenfield this is a real thing. If you do some research I’m certain you will uncover many more instances where the report of sudden acceleration occurs.
    I experienced it first hand.
    Given that cabbies and police officers drove crown Vic’s I’m sure there are more cabs that suffered this as they were usually higher mileage.
    The tps can get stuck either not allowing the car to accelerate or causing it to go full acceleration. It’s a scary and unpredictable situation.

  • David Henri

    Jesus Christ all you have to do is put the car in neutral.

  • spencerrecneps

    The sudden acceleration myth has been debunked many times. Most famously by Malcolm Gladwell in his recent podcast series:
    http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/08-blame-game

    In short, brakes on a car are far more powerful than the torque applied by the engine. In other words, Even if your car _did_ randomly start accelerating outside of your control, if you apply the brakes it will come to a stop.

  • David P.

    A car’s brakes will always bring it to a stop even when full throttle is being applied. I have experienced stuck throttles twice and it was easy to stop the car in each case. (and if you’re “pumping” the brakes you’re not doing it right) And, as someone else pointed out, you can just put the car in neutral. I understand the panic that can set in in the first few seconds in such a situation, but this driver was going block after block.

  • Yes, but the defense also hired an expert, who gave the opposite opinion, as is detailed in the article. The jurors are then left to decide which expert is more credible. Apparently they didn’t feel that the state met its burden of proof.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    From the previous Tribune piece:

    A forensic engineer who testified for Kesse’s defense said the car likely sped out of Kesse’s control due to a freak electrical issue that would not have been detectable in the days after the crash. Interference within the car’s electrical system sent an “unwanted signal” to the car’s computer, Samuel Sero said, the kind of problem that would have left no trace.

    “This is sort of the consummate random event,” Sero testified Wednesday.

    He reached his conclusion by process of elimination rather than running tests, he said, but the lack of physical evidence for such an occurrence is unimportant: “Whether you can see damage or see a footprint is irrelevant,” he said.

    That analysis doesn’t meet the basic scientific standards of proof, testified Thomas Livernois, an electrical engineer called by prosecutors Thursday to rebut Sero’s testimony.

    “It’s sheer speculation,” Livernois said of Sero’s conclusions. “It’s not scientific.”

    There has never been a confirmed case of electromagnetic interference causing the kind of unintended acceleration Kesse described, Livernois said.

    “It cannot happen in the real world, no one’s been able to make it happen even in a laboratory,” Livernois said. “And believe me, people have tried.”

  • Carol Kerestes

    This is Carol Kerestes. I am Eric’s mother. I have several comments about the judicial system and this case.

    1. In 2012, John Kesse was charged with reckless homicide and aggravated reckless driving. At that point, his license was taken away. Yet on June 3, 2015, Kesse’s attorney asked that he be able to get his license back. The judge agreed. We were appalled.The State’s Attorney then argued that Kesse at least be banned from driving a taxi, and the judge agreed. Now, with the not guilty verdict, this man is now free to be a taxi driver again.
    2. Kesse filed a civil lawsuit against Ford two years after he killed Eric. Note that neither we nor the injured passenger did anything of the sort. This lawsuit has been limited to some extent by the civil court, but he now is free to collect money, if possible, from killing Eric and injuring Michael Kim.
    3. We attended every day of the trial. Sero, the defense’s “expert” witness, was hired to determine the cause of the accident.He stated that electromagnetic interference caused the vehicle to accelerate rapidly. He reached this conclusion 18 months before he talked to the cabdriver. He did not look at the vehicle, inspect the crash site, or even look closely at the route the taxi took. Under oath, he even stated that Kesse drove the car into a park, to try to get control of the vehicle. There is no park on that stretch of Milwaukee Ave.
    4. As Kesse himself testified, he never did any of the following things: He did not honk the horn or flash his lights to warn anyone to get out of the way; he did not turn off the ignition, put the car in neutral or reverse; he did not warn the passenger to put on his seatbelt or brace himself; he did not press hard on the brakes. He did pump the brakes.

    5. My husband and I have been at Cook County Courthouse over 60 times in the last five years. At no point, even after the not guilty decision was reached, has Kesse ever shown any remorse.
    We truly do not understand the decision of the jury. Our son was a good, kind person who did not deserve to die like this. Meanwhile, Kesse is free to roam the streets of Chicago. He has already seriously injured three innocent people and killed our son.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Mrs. Kerestes, I’m very sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this information.

  • spencerrecneps

    For my part, the shock and disappointment is less about the specifics of the defendant and more about what this says about our society. It’s clear that the jury was more sympathetic to the “plight” of the driver than the victim–and that speaks volumes about where our collective priorities are.

  • I’m so sorry for your family’s loss, Mrs. Kerestes. Truly heartbreaking. I knew Eric and Tatijana at UIUC, for a brief time before they graduated. I will never forget his wonderful spirit.

  • neroden

    Prior record of reckless driving is absolutely relevant to the propensity of a defendant to commit reckless driving. The DA sandbagged the case by failing to include the evidence of the defendant’s prior reckless driving.

  • neroden

    Actually, prior actions are admissable at trial if they are sufficiently closely tied to the assessment of likelihood of behavior. If the question is whether the defendant drove recklessly, and the defendant has a long history of driving recklessly, that’s admissable.

    Just as you can admit evidence that a defendant has been repeatedly caught firing guns in anger, if you’re claiming that the defendant shot someone in anger. It speaks to a pattern of behavior.

  • neroden

    Sero failed the Daubert standard and the Frye standard. Why was he allowed to testify?

  • neroden

    Yeah, this seems to have been a jury of reckless drivers who like killing people. I guess it happens.