People v. Felton, 2019 IL App (3d) 150595 (January). Episode 590 (Duration 11:02)Subscribe: Apple | Google | Spotify | Android | RSS | Direct Download
Other crimes evidence was excessive here but it was a bench trial and the evidence was overwhelming against defendant.
The State charged defendant with attempted first degree murder (720 ILCS 5/8-4(a), 9 1(a)(1)) and aggravated battery (id. § 12-3.05(e)(1)), alleging defendant shot Jeremy Wade in the face, causing great bodily harm. The State also charged defendant with home invasion (id. § 19-6(a)(2)) and residential burglary (id. § 19-3(a)).
The Home Invasion
Defendant participated in the home invasion and burglary of a 93 year old victim.
They tied her up and for 45 minutes took things from her home. The home invasion trial went without a hitch and defendant was convicted.
Admitted In The Murder Trial
In the bench trial for the attempted murder the state was allowed to get into some aspects of the home invasion to prove the motive for the attempt murder. The first 30 pages of the victim’s trial testimony consisted of his detailing the planning and execution of the home invasion. This testimony was largely identical to his testimony at defendant’s home invasion trial.
The State once again played the surveillance footage from the Joliet Walmart.
Two Ottawa police officers also testified solely regarding the details of the home invasion. The victim testified that he was taken into custody following a drug raid. He was questioned about the home invasion but did not cooperate and was eventually released.
Immediately after his release, defendant contacted him wanting to know what he disclosed to the police.
Defendant didn’t show up but sent someone to give the victim a phone. They talked on a phone after the victim was searched for a wire.
Later the victim is called again by the defendant. Again defendant asked him about his interaction with the police three days earlier. The victim told him for the first time that the police had shown him a photograph of a codefendant. Defendant “kind of freaked out and called an F’ing idiot.”
Finally, defendant wanted to meet to talk.
The Live “Meeting”
The victim and another man remained in a truck, waiting for defendant.
When a red car passed them, they followed it. The red car led them to the Streator area. There were two people in the car, defendant and another man. Both vehicles stopped on a bridge, and the victim and defendant each alighted from their respective vehicles.
Victim observed a rubber glove on defendant’s hand.
Defendant instructed him to stand against the railing and then told the victim’s companion to leave. At defendant’s direction, the victim took his shirt off so defendant could check for a wire. Defendant had a plastic bag around his other hand and was holding a firearm in it.
He told the victim to open his mouth. Victim testified: “I refused to open my mouth, and he kind of like grinned and giggled at me a little bit and said something about don’t cry.”
The victim recalled seeing a white flash.
His next memory was of waking up in the water underneath the bridge. He had pain in his face and pelvis. He heard tires squealing and believed defendant had left. He thought his pelvis was broken and described his teeth as “dangling by threads of my gum line.”
The victim walked to a house where he could see lights. He yelled for help. He entered the house and called 911.
He testified that he eventually received surgery on his mouth and had his pelvis reset. The State played two 911 calls made by the victim in court.
In the first call, he immediately tells the operator “I just got shot in the face.”
When the operator asks where the firearm was, he replied, “he’s got it.” When the operator asked who had the firearm, victim replied, “his name is Merch. *** He shot me in the face.”
In the second 911 call, the operator asked him who shot him. Victim replied: “His nickname is Merch. M-E-R-C-H. *** He shot me on the bridge and I fell off the bridge in the water. I made my way to these guys’ house and they’re standing here with me.”
The Home Owners
The home owners testified that testified that the victim could not talk very well because “his mouth or his teeth were shattered.”
He was on the telephone with a 911 operator but was becoming frustrated when the operator could not understand what he was saying. The home owner testified: “The only thing that he really said to me was Merch did it.”
Police Get There
When police got there they saw a bullet hole through his upper lip.
Victim was also shirtless and complaining of pain in his hip.
Victim told police that Merch had shot him and Merch was “trying to eliminate him.” He was able to explain that Merch had been driven to the bridge, pulled a firearm out of a bag, and shot him in the face.
In a letter written to the court, defendant maintained his innocence for home invasion and attempted first degree murder. In his statement of allocution, defendant referred to the proceedings as a “modern-day lynching, castration, beheading in relation to due process of law.”
He blamed the unfair proceedings on “shape-shifting humanoids,” Satan, “energy vampires among the political elite,” and “the Children of the Greys.”
The circuit court noted defendant had no remorse and found he was a danger to the public. The court sentenced defendant to a term of 45 years’ imprisonment for home invasion. For attempted first degree murder, the court sentenced defendant to a concurrent term of 30 years’ imprisonment. The court added a firearm enhancement of natural life in prison to the attempted murder sentence.
Defendant contends that an excessive amount of other-crimes evidence was introduced at his attempted first degree murder bench trial. Specifically, he maintains that the evidence regarding the home invasion created a home invasion trial within the attempted murder trial.
He argues the amount and detail of that evidence rendered his trial unfair.
Other Crimes Evidence
Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or bad acts is not admissible for the purpose of demonstrating a defendant’s propensity to commit a crime. Ill. R. Evid. 404(b) (eff. Jan. 1, 2011); People v. Donoho, 204 Ill. 2d 159, 170 (2003).
Such evidence is generally inadmissible because it carries an extreme risk of prejudice in that it can lead to “the jury convicting a defendant because he or she is a bad person deserving punishment.” Donoho, 204 Ill. 2d at 170; see also People v. Lindgren, 79 Ill. 2d 129, 137 (1980) (noting that other-crimes evidence tends to “overpersuade[ ] the jury, which might convict the defendant only because it feels he or she is a bad person deserving punishment”).
As the United States Supreme Court has explained: “The inquiry is not rejected because character is irrelevant; on the contrary, it is said to weigh too much with the jury and to so overpersuade them as to prejudge one with a bad general record and deny him a fair opportunity to defend against a particular charge.” Michelson v. United States, 335 U.S. 469, 475-76 (1948).
Other Purpose Admissibility
Other-crimes evidence is admissible, however, for other purposes, “such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident.” Ill. R. Evid. 404(b) (eff. Jan. 1, 2011).
When introduced for such purposes, othercrimes evidence is directly probative of a defendant’s guilt of the charged offense, rather than merely his character.
Still, while the evidence can be admissible, it remains subject to the overarching rule that its probative value must not be substantially outweighed by the risk of undue prejudice. Ill. R. Evid. 403 (eff. Jan. 1, 2011); People v. Robinson, 167 Ill. 2d 53, 63 (1995) (“Even where relevant for a permissible purpose, the trial judge must weigh the prejudicial effect of admitting the other-crimes evidence against its probative value.”).
In addressing the danger of undue prejudice in the context of otherwise admissible othercrimes evidence, courts have consistently found that the amount and accumulation of such evidence will increase that danger. As this court has explained: “as the probative value of each subsequent piece of cumulative evidence diminishes, the prejudicial effect, if there is any, remains the same, increasing the chances that the danger of undue prejudice will come to outweigh the probative value.” Maya, 2017 IL App (3d) 150079, ¶ 70.
Thus, reviewing courts have instructed that “[w]hen weighing the prejudicial effect of admission, a court should consider whether the other-crimes evidence will become the focus of the trial, or whether it might otherwise be misleading or confusing to the jury.” People v. Perez, 2012 IL App (2d) 100865, ¶ 47. Further, “[c]ourts have warned against the dangers of putting on a ‘trial within a trial,’ with detail and repetition greatly exceeding what is necessary to establish the particular purpose for the evidence.” People v. Boyd, 366 Ill. App. 3d 84, 94 (2006) (quoting People v. Bartall, 98 Ill. 2d 294, 315 (1983)).
In the present case, the home invasion was unquestionably probative of defendant’s motive and intent to shoot and kill the victim. The evidence of defendant’s commission of the home invasion had significant probative value. It demonstrated a clear motive for defendant to attempt to murder the victim, out of fear that his accomplice would implicate him in the home invasion.
We also note the evidence presented by the State regarding the home invasion was highly detailed, featuring the testimony of the victim and a codefendant, testimony from authorities who investigated that offense, and video evidence.
In short, the evidence was akin to what one would expect to see in an actual home invasion trial. The risk of undue prejudice normally accompanying the admission of large amounts of other-crimes evidence is significantly diminished where the trier of fact is not a jury but a judge. The prejudicial effect of other-crimes evidence is almost exclusively discussed in terms of impact on a jury.
This Was A Bench Trial
In this context then, it is presumed the trial judge considered the evidence of other crimes only for its proper, limited purpose. The law thus presumes that a judge, unlike a jury, is not likely to find a defendant guilty simply because he or she is a bad person deserving punishment.
Similarly, the admission of large or detailed amounts of other-crimes evidence that is properly admissible is not likely to mislead or confuse a trial judge. The law presumes that that evidence is not likely to lure the judge into declaring guilt on a ground different from proof specific to the offense charged.
Judge Knew The Law
The logic surrounding a rebuttable presumption that the trial judge knows and correctly applies the law is demonstrated by this case. When ruling on the State’s motion to introduce evidence of other crimes, the trial judge correctly noted the law holding that the consideration of other crimes evidence for improper purposes by a jury is a great concern.
It is relevant that the trial judge in defendant’s attempted murder bench trial also presided over his home invasion jury trial. This judge, of course, had already heard all of the State’s evidence relating to the home invasion. We would be remiss if we did not point out that, optimally, the State would have tried defendant for attempted murder before a different judge.
Practically speaking, this would not have been a burdensome course, as there was surely not shortage of available judges in La Salle County. Nevertheless, defendant chose to proceed with a bench trial, even knowing the bench trial would be before the same judge. There was no motion for substitution, and defendant does not raise any contentions of error on appeal relating to these circumstances. Defendant apparently accepted the judge’s ability to consider the home invasion evidence only for its proper purpose heading into the attempted murder trial.
His argument on appeal, essentially, is that the judge’s hearing that evidence for a second time created an unacceptable risk of undue prejudice. This position strains credulity. If anything, the trial judge’s prior knowledge of the home invasion evidence would serve to soften the impact of that evidence the second time around. It is highly unlikely the result would have been different absent the introduction of other-crimes evidence.
The flip side of that coin, however, is there was absolutely no need for the State to introduce such detailed evidence regarding the home invasion. Defendant’s motive for shooting the victim could have simply been established by a brief summary of the earlier events from the victim himself. Indeed, defendant would have been found guilty even if the State had produced no evidence of motive.
While we do not find reversible error on the facts of this case, this should not be read as a general endorsement of the introduction of the massive amount of other-crimes evidence.
While the evidence of defendant’s home invasion was of clear probative value at his attempted murder trial, that probative value continued to diminish as further detailed evidence of the home invasion was introduced.
However, the risk of unfair or undue prejudice attendant to that evidence was low where the finder of fact was a judge rather than a jury and a judge who was already aware of the home invasion evidence. Accordingly, the probative value of the evidence was not substantially outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice, and the circuit court did not err in admitting that evidence.
The judgment of the circuit court of La Salle County is affirmed with respect to defendant’s convictions and sentences.
Episode 587 – People v. Kelley, 2019 IL App (4th) 160598 (January) (Propensity To Commit Sex Crimes Liberally Admitted Into Evidence)