People v. O’Donnell, 2015 IL App (4th) 130358 (March). Episode 381 (Duration 12:56)
Officer says she could tell defendant was not telling the truth when he told her his story.
Single Car Accident
Beckett testified he responded to a car accident at approximately 12:46 a.m. and no driver was found at the scene. At 1:12 a.m., he was notified by the local fire department an individual had been located walking approximately one mile away.
Beckett proceeded to that location, where he found defendant.
Beckett testified defendant told him a friend had been driving his car, he had been a passenger, and after the crash, he exited the car to go to a business district to find a way home. Beckett stated, at the time he located defendant, defendant was not near a business district, but was walking deeper into a residential area.
Arresting officer Rebecca Bragg of the Mahomet police department testified next for the State.
She stated she observed skid marks across the road and a crashed vehicle in a bean field. She identified the vehicle as a white Grand Prix and testified the outside of the vehicle was damaged–the hood was crushed, the mirrors were broken, the front windshield was shattered, and the passenger’s side window was “busted out.”
Bragg testified she observed both the driver’s side and passenger’s side air bags had been deployed. She stated the driver’s side air bag looked like it had been tampered with and pushed in between the handles of the steering wheel. Bragg also observed a cushion and cell phone on the driver’s seat and miscellaneous items on the passenger’s seat.
She explained the passenger’s side air bag appeared not to have been tampered with and there was a path from the car through the bean field, leading away from the road, where it appeared someone had walked and broken the beans.
In Bragg’s opinion, the accident occurred when “the driver was going entirely too fast, couldn’t make the curve, went off the roadway, tried to overcorrect the steering, and causing [sic] them to skid, and it collided with a fire hydrant, which caused the car to flip and roll.”
Defendant’s Statements At The Scene
Bragg testified she spoke with defendant, the registered owner of the car, after her assisting officer brought him back to the scene.
Defendant explained he went to Uncle Buck’s Sports Bar and Grill (the bar), where he played five or six games of pool with three or four different individuals. Bragg stated defendant could not describe or name any of the people he played pool with, except for one, “John.”
Bragg testified she asked defendant about his alcohol consumption, and defendant admitted he drank “approximately five, twelve-ounce Busch can beers” and was too drunk to drive.
Defendant told Bragg he was ready to leave the bar and talked to the man he had just met playing pool, John, who told defendant he would drive defendant’s car to an address on Prairie View Road. Defendant told Bragg he was not sure where that location was.
It was “John”
Bragg testified defendant told her John was driving too fast and he told him to slow down.
He then explained, once the car went off the roadway, he closed his eyes and did not open them until after the car landed. When he opened his eyes, John was not in the vehicle.
Defendant then told Bragg the car doors would not open, so he crawled out the passenger’s side window and started walking to try to find a business area so he could call a friend. Bragg testified defendant went in the opposite direction of a business area after the accident.
The only information defendant could give Bragg about John was he was a male, about 6 feet 2 inches tall, and wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Bragg testified after defendant said he had gone looking for help, she asked defendant if he had a cell phone. Defendant responded he had one on his person while he was at the bar, but he did not have it on him any longer.
Human Lie Detector Testimony
“Q. While you were questioning the defendant at this time, did he admit that he was driving the car?
Q. Okay. What did he do instead?
A. When I would ask him questions, he would show deception. When I would ask him about certain things that would reflect him being the driver, he would always look away from me, or look down, and he would just state, ‘I wasn’t the driver.’
Q. Based on your experience and training, is that a common tactic when somebody’s lying?
A. Yes, it’s a sign of deception when someone won’t look at you, when they look away to answer you.
Q. Okay. When you asked the question–or excuse me, when you asked the defendant questions about the car accident, did you specifically ask him where he was sitting?
A. I did.
Q. What did he tell you?
A. He told me he was sitting on his cushion.
Q. Where was that cushion?
A. In the driver’s seat.
Q. When you–when he answered that question, what did he do?
A. He looked away, and looked down.
Q. And officer, again, what was the defendant’s demeanor like during this conversation?
A. It was the same, showing deception. Sometimes I would ask him questions that I already knew the answer to, that he would not show deception [sic]. He was looking at me perfectly fine and would answer those, and when it came to proving that he was the driver, or even when I would state that he was the driver, he would look away from me, or look down.”
Defendant argues he was denied a fair trial because the State was allowed to present evidence in the form of a “human lie detector.” This was unfair opinion testimony.
Specifically, defendant contends the court should not have allowed Bragg to testify regarding her belief defendant was lying when he stated he had not been driving his vehicle at the time of the accident. Defendant contends the trial court erred when it allowed Bragg to testify defendant’s body language during his interview indicated he was being deceptive.
Defendant specifically argues, like a polygraph, Bragg was purporting to determine he was lying when he stated he was not driving his car at the time of the accident and such testimony is inadmissible.
The appellate court agreed.
In People v. Henderson, 394 Ill. App. 3d 747, 753, 915 N.E.2d 473, 478 (2009), we explained the uselessness of “human lie detector” testimony.
There, a police officer was allowed to testify at trial a defendant’s vague responses and body language during his interrogation indicated he was being deceptive.
A videotape of the interrogation was played for the jury and the officer was allowed to point out the segments where he believed the defendant was lying. On appeal, we concluded the testimony was inadmissible. We explained,
“An investigator’s testimony should be presented only to communicate what was said during an interrogation. Using such a witness as a ‘human lie detector’ goes against the fundamental rule that one witness should not be allowed to express his opinion as to another witness’s credibility.”
The court said Bragg’s testimony, like the officer’s testimony in Henderson, was “inadmissible opinion testimony by the officer that defendant’s story was not true.” These observations are improper characterizations of the defendant and useless in the determination of innocence or guilt, and in fact, they tend to prejudice the jury.
Accordingly, the court concluded the trial court erred when it allowed this form of testimony.
But It Was Not Plain Error
Although this was error it was not plain error.
The defendant’s explanation of events was highly implausible.
Defendant, the registered owner of the vehicle involved in the accident, admittedly drove his car to the bar. He admittedly became intoxicated. However, he claims he was not driving his vehicle at the time of the accident because he let a man he did not (and still does not) know drive his vehicle–a man who, after crashing the vehicle, conveniently immediately disappeared and was never found.
In one version of events, defendant opened his eyes and John was gone. In another version, John explained to defendant he was not going to “stick around” and then he was gone.
Several inconsistencies appear in defendant’s explanation of the accident.
Among these inconsistencies are defendant
(1) initially told Bragg he was sitting on his cushion (which was found in the driver’s seat) at the time of the accident but later claimed he misunderstood the tense of her question;
(2) initially told Bragg he exited the car through the passenger’s side window but later claimed he exited through the driver’s side door (even though Bragg testified none of the doors would open); and
(3) testified he was walking back to the bar to use the phone but was found walking deeper into a residential area away from the road. Defense counsel explicitly recognized these inconsistencies at trial but stated defendant had “tried to explain [them] away” during his testimony.
Both the police and the local fire department had searched the area surrounding the accident and the only person located was defendant.
There was only one footpath from the car through the bean field, and the officer was clear that none of the doors would open.
When the State asked defendant at trial whether his initial statement and Bragg’s testimony meant John had to crawl over him to exit the vehicle, defendant claimed both he and John exited the vehicle through the driver’s side door.
He did not dispute the doors to the vehicle would not open for Bragg, he simply could not explain it.
The Photos Strongly Suggest One Person In The Car
Inconsistent and conflicting testimony aside, when we view the photographs taken of the scene, we see defendant’s wrecked vehicle sitting in a bean field.
The doors to the vehicle are closed, the passenger’s side window is “busted out,” and the roof is completely smashed into the frame.
The rows of beans near the driver’s side door appear completely undisturbed, while the beans on the passenger’s side are visibly trampled and broken.
Defendant’s cushion and cell phone are sitting in the driver’s seat, and several random items, including papers, an ashtray, and two towels, are sitting in the passenger’s seat.
The driver’s side air bag was stuffed into the openings of the steering wheel, and the passenger air bag appeared undisturbed.
Holding On Plain Error
In short, the State presented testimony from two police officers and several photographs of the accident scene to support its position defendant was guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol.
Defendant, on the other hand, repeatedly admitted he had been drinking but claimed he was not in physical control of his vehicle at the time it exited the roadway and crashed into a bean field.
His only support for this contention was an incredible story about a man named John who basically evaporated into thin air following the accident.
The jury was not obligated to accept defendant’s account merely because it was possible.
Absent any other explanation and based on the record before us, we cannot say the evidence was so closely balanced that Bragg’s improper testimony tipped the scales of justice against defendant. Thus, we cannot find plain error.
This is not to say we condone the actions of the State in introducing this type of evidence.