NOTE: The following are notes, in chronological order, taken by a reporter while watching the trial proceedings. They are not an official or unofficial transcript of the proceedings, and they’re not so thorough as to be interpreted as including everything that was said or seen in the courtroom.
Day 1, Tuesday: Brief debate over the presence of cameras
Two camera crews (WCIA’s included) are setting up behind the back of the last row in the gallery. Michael Henslick is walked in by Champaign County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) deputies. Spectators start to filter in. Holly Cassano’s family and friends sit on stage right, and Henslick’s family and friends sit on stage left.
Judge Heidi Ladd quickly walks in, saying “Please be seated,” almost immediately. Before the jury is walked in, she asks if there are any other orders of business that need to be addressed.
First Assistant Public Defender Lindsey Yanchus raises an objection she says she’d raised previously: she doesn’t want the camera crews there.
“The presence of video cameras in the courtroom could have a chilling effect on jurors,” she argues.
Ladd asks for the State’s response to this. Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz says there are specific rules for the camera operators, and that she’s “not concerned about the jury’s ability to do its job.”
Yanchus reiterates her concerns. Rietz says the camera crews have already agreed not to record the first four witnesses, and notes that the request to have cameras in the courtroom was filed in September 2018.
Judge Ladd says the notice about cameras was appropriately given, and that no formal objections about it had been filed. Ladd officially orders the news media not to record the first four witnesses.
“I think justice thrives in the light of the day,” she says, continuing by citing the Illinois Supreme Court’s intent in allowing cameras in courtrooms. The objection is overruled.
The jury is brought in. 10 women and 6 men; four of which are alternates, which Ladd previously said she wanted to have there in case of inclement weather, or the flu. Ladd gives them a standard set of instructions.
The state makes their opening statement
Julia Rietz begins her opening statement.
“On November second, 2009, Holly Cassano was stabbed to death in the bedroom of her home,” Rietz says, “The evidence that you hear over the course of this trial will prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this defendant, Michael Henslick, is the person who committed that murder.”
Rietz starts relating a narrative of events she intends to present evidence about. She says Cassano worked a shift at Meijer on the night of November 1st, 2009, and went home. Rietz says Holly was supposed to be at her mother’s home the next morning.
“When Holly didn’t show up at her mother’s home,” Rietz says, her mother tried calling her. When Cassano didn’t answer, she says she went over to her house to check on her.
Rietz says Cassano’s mother “Found her daughter’s body sprawled on the floor unclothed, stabbed, covered in blood.”
Rietz says crime scene investigators started processing the scene, and that jurors would hear from those investigators. She says they discovered blood throughout Cassano’s home: the living room, the kitchen, floors, and doorknobs.
Rietz says they didn’t find blood on the porch, and not a trace out of it outside. She says they collected samples of it throughout the house, including on a screen door and a light switch panel.
Rietz says investigators took pictures of a knife block with knives missing, and blood in a sink, “perhaps where the assailant tried to clean himself up,”.
She notes that this happened on Du Page street in the Candlewood Estates Mobile Home Park in Mahomet. She says Holly’s body was taken to the McLean county coroner, and that a Dr. Denton performed the autopsy.
Rietz pauses to check her notes. She says Cassano had wounds on her chest, back, face, and chest. She says vaginal swabs were also taken and sent to a crime lab for evaluation. Those swabs identified semen.
Rietz says investigators took multiple blood samples from the crime scene, analyzed them for DNA, and determined that they were consistent with each other. She says CCSO investigators followed leads for years, and excluded (meaning eliminated) many people they came into contact with from the DNA samples.
“This defendant, Michael Henslick, was one of those leads,” she says, shifting gears.
“Based on [his] own statement,” she says Henslick committed this offense. Rietz says cigarette butts be dropped determined his DNA was consistent with that found in the blood investigators collected at the scene.
Rietz says Henslick waived his Miranda rights during an interrogation. “You will hear him, in his own words, initially deny, then ultimately admit,” she says.
Rietz says the night Cassano died, Henslick went over to Cassano’s home “to seek comfort”. She says Cassano fell asleep on the bed, and Henslick fell asleep on the couch.
She says he got up, went to the kitchen, took a knife, and killed Cassano in a fit of rage.
“The defendant knows things only the person who committed this offense knows,” Rietz says.
She says a cheek swab of his DNA matched the profile of the DNA found throughout the home.
“[You will find that] Michael Henslick committed that first degree murder,” Rietz says, “And that when he did so, he did so with exceptionally brutal and heinous behavior, indicative of wanton cruelty.”
Rietz sits down. Now it’s the defense team’s turn.
The public defender makes opening statements
First Assistant Public Defender Lindsey Yanchus addresses the jury.
“Holly Cassano is dead,” she says, “Michael Henslick did not kill her.”
Yanchus says the state is portraying the case as a simple one. “This case isn’t simple,” she says.
“Pay attention to the leads that were followed. Pay attention to the leads that weren’t followed.”
Yanchus says the jury will see the video of the statement Henslick made to investigators, characterized before by Rietz as an admission to the crime.
Yanchus says after “Hours, and hours,” of interrogation, the investigators physically backed her client into a corner.
“You’ll see investigators invade his personal space,” she says, continuing to say the jury will witness them show Henslick physical aggression.
Yanchus says that interview has to be viewed with the appropriate skepticism.
“You determine if procedure was followed,” she says, “The only verdict you will be able to return is not guilty.”
People’s Witness #1: Amber Nakashian
Rietz calls Amber Nakashian to the stand.
Nakashian says she lived in Mahomet during her high school years, and moved to Chicago in 2007. Rietz presents Nakashian with a picture, and she identifies it as Holly when she was around 20 or 21 years old.
Rietz is about to publish the picture for the jury, when a sidebar conference is called. This is a private conference between the judge and both legal teams that the jury isn’t allowed to hear.
The sidebar ends, and Nakashian testifies that she’s a friend and cousin of Holly Cassano’s, and that she also knew Michael Henslick. She says they were friends in high school, and they flirted with each other, but nothing manifested. She says after high school, they maintained communication through social media and texting.
Nakashian says, months prior to Cassano’s death, they saw each other, and that their relationship was a casual one.
After Nakashian learned of Cassano’s death, she says she began a trip back to Mahomet. On her, way, she received a text from Henslick, aiming to console Nakashian since he heard what happened to Cassano, adding he heard that she was shot or beaten to death. Nakashian says she corrected him, saying she heard she was stabbed to death.
Yanchus cross-examines Nakashian. She has Nakashian confirm that Henslick was a talented artist.
Nakashian says she spoke with the sheriff’s office during their initial investigation into Cassano’s death. Yanchus asks her if she told them about her communication with Henslick at the time. Nakashian says she didn’t mention it, because it didn’t seem relevant at the time.
Nakashian testifies that she originally thought Cassano’s boyfriend could have been the culprit, and that she did mention that to the authorities.
With no further questions, Nakashian steps down.
People’s Witness #2: Oscar Nuku
Rietz calls Oscar Nuku to the stand. He says he also goes by “Joey”.
Nuku says he’s worked at Meijer for the last 21 years, in the “Asset Protection Department”.
He says he was Casano’s friend and coworker, and he also communicated with her outside of work. He says he was at work with her on November 1st, 2009.
Nuku says when he got off work that night, he went to grab some groceries for himself. He says Holly asked him whther he had plans for the evening. Nuku says he last saw her in the Meijer parking lot.
Nuku says he fell asleep later that evening, waking up around 11 PM. He says he checked his phone and had a text from Cassano that said “Hey”.
Nuku says he learned of her death the next day, and that investigators asked him to submit DNA. He says he voluntarily agreed, and they took a swab from his cheek.
Nuku says investigators reviewed security footage from Cassano’s shifts at the store, which went back about 30 days.
Yanchus does not cross-examine him.
People’s Witness #3: Blake Stahler Sears
Rietz calls Blake Stahler Sears to the stand. She says she used to work at Meijer between August 2007 and December 2012.
Sears says she and Cassano were friends. She says on the night of Novermber 1st, 2009, she was at home baking cookies for her coworkers.
Sears says she texted Cassano at 10 PM, and brought the cookies to the store. She says she saw Cassano sometime between 10:30 and 10:45 PM. Sears says they talked for a bit while they ate.
She says she knew of Michael Henslick, and they both went to Parkland College, although she didn’t know him personally.
Sears says she talked to investigators after Cassano’s death.
Yanchus does not cross-examine Sears.
People’s Witness #4: Toni Cassano
Rietz calls Toni Cassano to the stand. She says she’s Holly Cassano’s mother.
Toni says she last saw her daughter on November 1st, 2009, which was a week after her 22nd birthday.
Toni says she planned to meet Holly at 9 AM the next day. When Holly didn’t show up, Toni said that at first it wasn’t “particularly unusual.”
Toni says she tried to call Holly, but couldn’t reach her, so she went over to her house o Du Page street. Toni says she parked her car out front.
The court is then shown pictures of the trailer’s exterior. Toni says she walked up to the door.
She says she opened the door, calling Holly’s name. Toni says she quickly notice red splotches all over the floor. She tells the jury that at the time, she assumed it was fake blood from a Halloween party Holly might have thrown, and that they didn’t clean up yet.
Toni says she walked toward the bedroom, continuing to call Holly’s name. Toni says she saw her daughter lying on her back on the floor, naked and covered in blood. She says her clothing was ripped up.
Toni says Holly wasn’t moving. The jury is now shown pictures of Cassano’s body on the bedrom floor.
“What did you do when you saw you daughter on the floor?” Rietz asks her.
Casano says she sat down, put her hand on Holly’s leg, saying it felt “Very cold, very stiff.”
Casano says she “said a prayer to God,” then called 911.
Cassano says she went outside, taking care not to touch anything because she says she realized it was crime scene. She says she sat on the ground outside the house while she talked with the 911 operator.
Yanchus cross-examines her. Toni confirms she went over to the house around 10:15 AM.
Cassano says at that time, she had no idea who Michael Henslick was. SHe says over the yers, she’s kept in touch with investigators from the sheriff’s office forming a relationship with several of them.
She says she felt that they were working hard to solve the case, and she wanted to help them do it.
Yanchus has no further questions, and Cassano steps down, returning to the gallery.
People’s Witness #5: Doug Bialeschki
Rietz calls Doug Bialeschki to the stand. Bialeschki says he’s a deputy with the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office.
Bialeschki says on November 2nd, 2009, he was assigned to the fairgrounds in Urbana. He says dispatch notified him that a woman called 911, saying her daughter was dead and covered in blood.
Bialeschki says he responded to the house on Du Page street, parking two trailers down. He explains to the jury that this is part of taking a “tactical approach”. He says he then walked up to the home.
Bialeschki says he saw a woman sitting on the porch, and she appeared to be hysterical.
Bialeschki says he entered the trailer. The jury is now shown pictures of the trailer, and Bialeschki explains where he parked in relation to it.
As Bialeschki entered the residence, he says he tried not to disturb the crime scene. He says he stayed out of the “main path of travel” through the rooms, by tip-toeing around the edges and taking half-steps forward as he observed.
Bialeschki says once he saw Casano’s body, he was certain it was a crime scene, and the he knew he couldn’t be any help to Holly. He says he got onto his radio and notified investigative units to come to the scene.
By now, Bialeschki says two medics had arrived. He asked them to confirm Cassano was dead.
Bialeschki says several firefighters had also arrived from the Cornbent department, but he asked them to leave because they weren’t needed. He says typically firefighters shouldn’t walk through crime scenes, because they usually wear their full gear and could trample over evidence.
Bialeschki says he guided the medics back to the bedroom. He says they hooked up a machine to determine if there was any life activity remaining in her body. Finding none, they left, and Bialeschki says he guarded the scene at the trailer’s front door.
Bialeschki says no one else went in or out of the trailer until invetigators arrived.
Yanchus cross-examines Bialeschki. Shas him confirm that the red substance was something he “bserved to be blood,” making an assumption at the time that it was.
With Yanchus having no further questions, Bialeschki steps down, and Ladd calls for a recess.
People’s Witness #6: Mike Kyrouac
Assistant State’s Attorney Troy Lozar calls Mike Kyrouac to the stand. He says he’s retired now, but he used to be an Illinois State Police Crime Scene Investigator.
He says he spent more than 26 years with ISP, and describes his training to the court. He says he’s certified as a crime scene investigator with the International Association for Identification. He says he normally investigated between 70 and 90 crime scenes each year, which means he had been on hundreds of scenes during his tenure.
Kyrouac says he was called out to Cassano’s home on Du Page street on November 2nd, 2009. He says CCSO requested assistance with the investigation.
Kyrouac says the coroner was there as well.
Lozar then directs Kyrouac’s attention to Cassano’s body. “What state was she in?” he asks.
“Illinois,” Kyrouac says.
“No…what physical condition?” Lozar asks.
There is a brief moment of laughter in the courtroom, and Kyrouac confirms Cassano was deceased.
Following Lozar’s qustioning, Kyrouac begins to describe the body, but he’s interrupted when the defense team raises an objection. After a sidebar conference, Ladd says the objection is sustained, whatever it may have been.
Kyrouac begins to confirm he recognizes evidence photographs Lozar is showing him. For the next 20 minutes or so, the jurors sit patiently as a tedious process begins. Lozar walks every individual exhibit over to the defense table to present it to them first, before the walking it to Kyrouac.
“You’re a marathon runner, you’re doing great,” Lozar says about midway through that process.
The exhibits Lozar is showing him include evidence photographs from the mobile home, as well as autopsy pictures and physical items that were taken from the house. At one point, the defense team objects to one of the autopsy photographs, prompting another sidebar, which ends in Ladd overruling it.
The court breaks for lunch. Afterwards, Lozar continues questioning Kyrouac.
Kyrouac explains that there were no broken windows in the mobile home. He says investigators removed a screen door from the house.
The court is shown a floorplan diagram of the home. Kyrouac tells Lozar investigators couldn’t recover sufficient fingerprint evidence from the scene.
The court is shown pictures of what appears to be a dried bloodstain on a door. The actual door is present in the courtroom, wrapped in paper and sealed off in red evidence tape, which Kyrouac says was his doing.
Kyrouac also talks about a doorknob they took, which is present in the courtroom in a paper bag.
The court is then shown pictures of bloodstains in the sink, and a picture of a knife block from the kitchen that appears to be missing multiple knives.
Lozar has Kyrouac point out that it looks like at least three steak knives are missing.
Kyrouac says Cassano’s bedroom TV was on while the scene was being processed.
Kyrouac says he observed Cassabo’s body, noting that it appeared to have puncture wounds.
Prompted by Lozar, Kyrouac begins to discuss his training in the field of identifying and analyzing bloodstains. The prosecutors ask for Kyrouac to be tendered by the court as an expert witness in the field of bloodstains, but the defense objects.
Assistant Public Defender Andrea Bergstrom begins to ask Kyrouac questions to assess his expertise.
Ladd rules that Kyrouac won’t be qualified as an expert witness, and Loar resumes his questioning.
Kyrouac continues to discuss Cassano’s body. He notes that a bra-type top is pushed up around her beck, and that an underwear-type garment is around her leg. Pictures show apparent bloodstains around her body. Kyrouac explains that they refer to injuries as “defects”.
Lozar shows the court pictures of bloodstains on the bed behind where Cassano’s body was found. Kyrouac testifies that a picture of a blanket on the bed appears to have multiple punctures through it. He says the bed’s fitted sheet also appears to have similar puncture slits.
Kyrouac says Cassano’s nail on one of her index fingers was broken. A picture shows a wallet containing more than $100 cash was found at the scene.
Kyrouac now begins to discuss the bathroom adjacent to the bedroom Cassano was found in. He says investigators collected a sample of dried bloodstains on the carpet there.
Kyrouac says there’s a package of hosiery that was found beside the bathroom sink, and the court is shown a picture of it. Kyrouac says, while the box was there, they never located the actual hosiery in the home.
Kyrouac says on November 3rd, 2009, he went to the McLean County Coroner’s Office, where Forensic Pathologist Scott Denton conducted an autopsy.
Kyrouac says he was present while Denton did the autopsy, which included taking vaginal swabs for a sexual assault kit. Pictures of the camisol Cassano was wearing appears to show puncture holes in it. Kyrouac counted between 12 and 18 holes.
Kyrouac says he returned to the crime scene on November 4th. He says boxes of swabs, scrapings, and pieces from the home were turned oer to the crime lab.
Kyrouac says they did not find any blood outside of the home, although they did look for it.
Bergstrom cross-examines Kyrouac. She questions him on how many people were in the home before he arrived. Kyrouac says he wasn’t sure exactly how many.
Bergstrom then addresses the knife block in the kitchen. “You don’t know if the knife block was ever a complete set?” Kyrouac confirms he does not, and can’t tell exactly how many knives were missing.
Bergstrom has Kyrouac confirm that while investigators took a light switch plate, they diddn’t take the actual switch, which Bergstrom says is the piece most people actually touch when turning a light on or off.
Bergstom also has Kyrouac admit they have no way of telling where a drop of blood actually came from.
Kyrouac testifies that there was a lot of blood throughout the residence, on the floor, ceilings, etc. Kyrouac says they collected hairs found on Cassano’s body as evidence.
Kyrouac explains the difference between a crime scene investigator and a forensic examiner, clarifying that it’s his job to identify and collect potential evidence, but it’s a forensic examiner’s job to analyze it.
Given the amount of blood, Bergstrom questions why Kyrouac didn’t take more samples, saying there easily could have been dozens of blood droplets on any given surface. Kyrouac says their aim is to take a “representative” sample, which in the case of a piece of bathroom carpet, was the largest splotch on it.
Bergstrom has no further questions, and Kyrouac steps down.