People v. Middleton, 2018 IL App (1st) 152040 (June). Episode 503 (Duration 17:07)
Here’s the photo…
Reversible error for the state to spring a doctored image before the jury on rebuttal argument.
Defendant was arrested and then charged with murder after allegedly shooting to death his girlfriend’s brother on the sidewalk outside the victim’s home.
A jury found defendant guilty of the first degree murder while personally discharging a firearm and sentenced to 53 years in prison.
The Eye Witness
At trial, the victim’s neighbor testified that he was standing on his front porch around when he saw defendant near the sidewalk across the street and several houses east from where he stood.
The witness was 13 years old.
He testified that there was nothing blocking his view and he described defendant as an African-American male, with long dreads half pinned back, who was wearing black jogging pants, and a gray hoodie bearing black writing and the hood was hanging down.
Defendant wore a ski mask that covered only the lower half of his face, which the witness described as going up “right here to the nose.” The witness saw defendant look in his direction as he drew a silver revolver from his hoodie. The witness said he saw defendant as he “rammed up on” the victim, who was standing on the sidewalk.
The 13 year old heard the victim plead with defendant not to shoot but defendant fired at his chest, causing the victim to fall to the ground. Defendant returned to his car but “came back like he wasn’t *** finished with him,” and shot the victim again in his upper body.
The witness then saw defendant get into a white car and drive off.
At this point, the witness moved from his porch to the hallway and looked out the window, noting he could see the whole block from that vantage point. He saw defendant, still wearing the half-ski mask as he drove west past his house. The 13 year old could see defendant’s whole upper body and from his nose “all the way up.”
The State did not present the ski mask at trial or ask the witness to identify any image of defendant wearing a ski mask.
Less than three months later, the witness identified defendant as the shooter from a photo array.
One month later, the witness identified defendant from a lineup.
During closing argument, defense counsel honed in on the key question of whether the 13 year old was actually capable of identifying defendant as the shooter.
During its rebuttal argument, the State asserted that the identification was sound notwithstanding the half-ski mask. The State argued the witness “could see the defendant’s hair, the defendant’s eyes, the defendant’s forehead, defendant’s legs, his chest, his shoulders.”
To emphasize this point, the State presented the jury with two, side-by-each photographs. One was defendant’s mug shot taken the day of his arrest. The other photo showed the same mug shot, but in the nature of a crude “photoshop” edit, it blacked out the bottom portion of his face, in an obvious effort to show what defendant might look like if wearing a “half-ski mask.”
The court did not strike the exhibit or the related argument, and it denied the motion for mistrial.
The exhibit showed a black half-circle superimposed over the lower portion of defendant’s face in his arrest mug shot and cannot be described as a graphic representation of a mask.
Defendant contends the trial court’s denial of defense counsel’s motion for a mistrial on the basis of introducing this exhibit during rebuttal closing argument without having introduced this exhibit at trial constitutes reversible error.
Defendant specifically argues the altered mug shot was inadmissible in the first place as a demonstrative exhibit because it did not depict the “physical facts as they actually existed at the time of the crime” and the display was at the heart of this identification case.
Defendant argues that even assuming the altered mug shot was admissible, the State failed to properly tender it to the defense prior to trial or lay a foundation for its introduction during trial, instead springing the surprise exhibit on the jury during rebuttal argument.
He argues he was deprived of the opportunity to object to the exhibit, move for its exclusion prior to trial, or prepare a counter demonstrative exhibit depicting defendant wearing full ski mask.
Defendant thus asserts the introduction of the exhibit was prejudicial error which could not be cured with any remedial instruction.
The State responds that the State’s conduct was not improper because the altered mug shot accurately reflected the victim’s testimony that defendant wore a half-ski mask during the shooting and, moreover, was used as invited comment, in response to defense counsel’s closing argument.
We note that demonstrative evidence has no probative value in itself but rather serves as a visual aid to the jury in comprehending the verbal testimony of a witness. See Cisarik v. Palos Community Hospital, 144 Ill. 2d 339, 341-42 (1991).
The overriding considerations in admitting demonstrative evidence are relevancy and fairness. People v. Burrows, 148 Ill. 2d 196, 252 (1992). Thus, before a demonstrative exhibit like the present one can be introduced, a foundation must be laid, by a knowledgeable witness, that it accurately depicts and portrays what it purports to show.
In addition, the exhibit is only admissible if its probative value is not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.
The court agreed with defendant that it was error for the State to introduce a demonstrative exhibit during its rebuttal argument without having produced the exhibit to the defense and without laying any sort of foundation for its use during the trial.
While the State and the court found the exhibit to be consistent with Conner’s testimony as to the half-ski mask, we question the wisdom of that conclusion, as it strains credulity that any ski mask could possibly look like a blacked-out half-circle over an individual’s face.
As set forth above, there is no indication that this witness reviewed any photographic or graphic images of defendant wearing a ski mask, when he identified defendant as the shooter to police. At trial, the State did not introduce any mask into evidence or ask the witness to testify about the altered mug shot, let alone defendant’s unaltered mug shot.
Moreover, we cannot say that the witness would not have testified that the altered mug shot, apparently created some two years after the shooting, reflected how the half-ski mask looked or how defendant looked while wearing the half-ski mask when the crime occurred.
The witness testified that defendant had his hair half pulled back and a hoodie on at the time of the shooting. In the arrest photo, by contrast, defendant’s dreadlocks are down, and he’s wearing a white v-neck T-shirt.
The State thus deprived the defense of questioning the accuracy of the image, moving to exclude it or forcing the State to create the image to the defense’s satisfaction, cross-examining the witness regarding the image, and likewise presenting a counterimage of a full ski mask.
The image was central to this prosecution, which revolved almost entirely around the accuracy of Conner’s identification of defendant as the shooter.
Here, the evidence was closely balanced, as there was no physical evidence linking defendant to the crime, and the 13 year-old witness was the only eyewitness to the shooting. The testimony, while competent, was impeached by the State’s own police reports indicating the shooter wore a full ski mask with velcro and the defense’s two witnesses.
The closely-balanced nature of the evidence made the error especially harmful.
In addition, the side-by-side presentation to the jury of the altered mug shot, introduced absent any evidentiary foundation, with the exact same properly admitted mug shot immeasurably enhanced the prejudice. The jury was then forced to compare how defendant appeared wearing the supposed ski mask to how he looked without it, not on the day of the crime but the day of his arrest, thus boosting the credibility of the State’s main witness.
No Instruction Could Fix This
Furthermore, the judge did not instruct the jury to disregard the altered photo but rather emphasized it was demonstrative, making this case arguably more prejudicial. Putting the trial court’s instruction aside, it is difficult to conceive of any instruction that would be curative of this rebuttal sucker punch.
Based on the totality of the circumstances, the State failed to maintain its burden of proving the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, and the court abused its discretion in both allowing the State to utilize the undisclosed demonstrative exhibit in rebuttal and also in denying defense counsel’s motion for a mistrial.
The gravity of the error resulted in a denial of fundamental fairness.
While we reverse and remand for a new trial on the basis of the improper admission of the altered arrest photo, remand for a new trial.
In reaching this conclusion, we find the State’s argument that the use of the exhibit was “invited” comment on rebuttal is palpably offensive, as this specific argument was surely expected given the defense theory of the case, announced in opening statement, as being all “about identification” and that “no one could have actually seen the face of the person who shot [the victim].”
Almost all of the evidence related to the identification issue.
The State Had This Ready
If such an argument was unanticipated, the State would have had no opportunity to spring this doctored exhibit on the court because they would not have been on notice.
Instead, it is clear that the prosecution knew the defense would focus on the eyewitness identification, so they prepared this exhibit ahead of time and displayed it without disclosing it and without ever laying a foundation for it. This patently improper tactic would surely be highly prejudicial to defendant’s right to a fair trial.
There’s a picture!