The parents of Colin Nutter, who was murdered in Highwood on June 3, talk about their son and the ongoing trial for the three men accused in the crime. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

Philip Vatamaniuc, one of three young North Shore men accused in the murder of 20-year-old Highland Park resident Colin Nutter, said in court last week that he was a witness to the shooting but not part of a murder plot.

Vatamaniuc, 17, took the witness stand at a hearing on Nov. 26 at which his attorney, Robert Ritacca, sought to have statements his client made to police excluded from use at the teen's upcoming trail.

The Highland Park teen, along with Benjamin Schenk, 20, of Highwood, and Michael Coffee, 17, of Highland Park, are accused of killing Nutter after arranging to buy pot from him on June 3.

"I was in shock, tired, scared, nervous, stressed-out, high off my medicine," Vatamaniuc said of his mental state when police took him in for questioning before midnight on June 5.

Ritacca said Vatamaniuc was drowsy as a result of pain medication he had been taking for a broken jaw from a previous incident. The attorney said police officers also deprived his client of sleep and repeatedly denied him the opportunity to see his father, despite several requests.

Ritacca also argued that Vatamaniuc was of below-average intelligence, pointing to his 1.7 grade point average as a Highland Park High School junior.

The combination of the factors show his statement was not given "knowingly and voluntarily," the lawyer said.

"Nine times, he asked for his dad, asked for a lawyer, none was ever given to him," Ritacca said, referring to the transcript and video of the police interview of Vatamaniuc.

Lake County Assistant State's Attorney Reginald Mathews disputed those claims, saying Vatamaniuc was intelligent and coherent enough to provide a statement to police. He pointed to the fact that Vatamaniuc had previously been read his Miranda rights for juvenile crimes and also appeared to understand them as read to him in the video of the June police interview.

Mathews read Vatamaniuc excerpts from the transcript in which Vatamaniuc appeared to demonstrate an understanding of his Miranda rights.

"You understood that, correct?" Mathews asked him repeatedly, after reading bits of the Miranda rights interaction from the transcript.

"I wouldn't say I completely understood because I was in a daze," Vatamaniuc replied.

In closing, Lake County Assistant State's Attorney Rod Drobinski said Vatamaniuc should not have been afforded the protection of having a parent present given his age, previous experience with criminal justice system and reasonable intellect.

"The defense wants your honor to believe that somehow (Vatamaniuc's) knowledge of the criminal justice system phases in and out," Drobinski said.

Under oath, Vatamaniuc offered up at least one significant departure from his prior statement given to police: He said at the hearing that he was in the rear passenger side seat – not directly behind Nutter, who was in the driver's seat, as he had previously told police.

Schenk was sitting behind Nutter, Vatamaniuc now says, and Coffee was in the front passenger's seat.

Both Vatamaniuc and Coffee have said Schenk was the shooter, the state's attorney's office has said. But a recent notice filed by the state to increase the penalties sought against Vatamaniuc said it was he who discharged the weapon.

In a subsequent interview, Mathews said the state maintains Schenk was the shooter and that the notice to increase penalties against Vatamaniuc was made out of caution because of new information.

Nutter would have turned 21 on Nov. 3.

As Vatamaniuc gave grisly testimony about the shooting at the hearing last week, Michael Nutter, Colin's father, became overwrought with emotion and had to be escorted from the courtroom.

During a break, Angie Nutter, Colin's mother, and Sara Nutter, his older sister, said it had been hard hearing the details of Colin's death in the pretrial hearings.

"We have to relive that moment again and again," Angie Nutter said. "That was the moment we lost Colin."

After hearing Vatamaniuc's testimony and arguments from lawyers, Lake County Circuit Court Judge Victoria Rossetti said she would rule on the motion on Dec. 16 which happens to be Vatamaniuc's 18th birthday.

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