New Lenox Man Guilty in Coma Punch Case, Family Rails Against System
The family of Joseph Messina was distraught after a Will County judge found him guilty of punching a Joliet man into a coma more than three years ago.
Three and a half years after he was punched into a coma outside a Mokena bar, Eric Bartels sat propped in a wheelchair in a crowded Joliet courtroom. After the judge found the New Lenox man charged with striking him guilty, Bartels blinked his eyes once.
"There are times when he knows what's going on," Bartels' mother, Janet Bartels of Tinley Park, said after Judge Sarah Jones delivered her verdict against Joseph Messina, 24, Thursday morning. Janet Bartels wasn't sure if that was one of those moments, but said she saw Messina going down from the start.
"I knew this would be the outcome all along," she said.
All along began back in July 2009 at the Mokena bar 191 South. Messina and five friends went to 191 South to celebrate his 21st birthday. By the end of the night, Bartels had been punched in the face outside the bar. When he fell, he struck the back of his head against the concrete and fractured his skull.
Friends of Bartels and other witnesses unfamiliar with either man identified Messina as the man who threw the fateful punch. One of these witnesses, a Chicago Heights resident working that night for a car service, said he looked on as Messina straddled the prone Bartels, struck him in the head again and then "raised his arms above his head in victory."
But in the final days of the lengthy trial, a Frankfort friend and former schoolmate of Messina's came forward and said his pal, whom he described as a "brother," did not actually punch Bartels. The surprise witness, Steve Raymond, laid the blame for beating Bartels at the feet of another friend, Michael Glielmi.
Glielmi, 24, formerly of Manhattan but now a resident of St. Louis, showed up in court with a lawyer of his own after Raymond accused him of throwing the punch. Glielmi refused to testify, invoking his constitutional to not incriminate himself.
Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow issued a statement on how repulsed he was by the crime.
“This was a senseless and unprovoked act of aggression on the part of Joseph Messina that literally destroyed Eric Bartels’ life. The defendant’s conduct—striking the victim while he lay helpless on the ground and then cheering victoriously over him—reflects the culture of violence woven into every aspect of our entertainment and media,” Glasgow said. “Fortunately, Judge Jones found him guilty after weighing the totality of the evidence as well as the crediblility of defense witnesses. She wisely saw through the fraudulent statements made by a defense witness, who changed his story in order to blame someone else three years after the crime.”
When he talked to detectives in 2009, Raymond said he had not seen who punched Bartels. But once on the witness stand, he sang a different tune. After the verdict, Janet Bartels said she found Raymond's testimony "extremely disturbing."
While Janet Bartels was dubious and troubled by what Raymond had to say, Messina's father, Joseph Messina Sr., still blamed Glielmi for committing the crime that could land his son in prison for as long as five years when he is sentenced on March 6.
"We thought he would come forward and do the right thing," Messina Sr. said of Glielmi, claiming his son's former friend hired a lawyer before the Messina family retained counsel.
"How much doubt do you have to have?" the elder Messina wanted to know, pointing his finger at prosecutors he claims focused on the wrong man.
"There's too much political garbage that goes on with a case," he said.
"All the evidence goes down the tubes," he said. "They didn't go by any of the evidence."
Messina Sr. said his son was holding up well after the conviction but that "it's not going to last."
"My son didn't do this. He didn't do it," he said. "It's completely ludicrous."
Messina's sister, Nicole Messina, was also visibly upset after the verdict.
"He's such a good kid. He's been the best big brother I could ever ask for," Nicole Messina said. "He's been so strong through all of this. He's been so brave."