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The People v. Tilley





WRIT OF ERROR to the Circuit Court of Sangamon County; the Hon. DEWITT S. CROW, Judge, presiding.


Plaintiff in error, Ronald U. Tilley, to whom we shall refer as defendant, was found guilty by a jury in the circuit court of Sangamon County of murder by abortion and sentenced to a term of eighteen years in the penitentiary. He brings the cause here for review assigning countless errors in his trial, which did not occur until three and one-half years after the commission of the alleged crime.

The evidence shows that on July 20, 1946, Renee Stanley, an unmarried woman nineteen years old, died at St. John's Hospital in the city of Springfield as the result of an abortion. She had been confined to the hospital on July 17, 1946, by Dr. Franz K. Fleischli, her family physician, who considered her to be dying from the effects of peritonitis. A subsequent autopsy indicated that she had been pregnant and had expelled a foetus, and that a small wound or tear on the inner wall of the cervix had been the source of the fatal infection. At this time defendant was a licensed and practicing osteopath who maintained an office in two rooms of his residence at Springfield. In a statement made by the deceased on the evening before her death, she revealed to Dr. Fleischli and to Frank M. Pfeifer, an assistant State's Attorney who was present as the result of having received a complaint from the dying girl's father, that she had become pregnant and because she was unmarried felt that she had to do something about it; that on July 9, 1946, she had gone to the combined home and office of the defendant and asked him to perform an abortion; that defendant then used an instrument on her private parts, packed her with gauze or cotton and told her to go home. She related that nothing happened, so she returned to defendant's office a few days later; that the procedure was repeated, and the following day she became violently ill. In response to questions by Pfeifer she stated that she had paid defendant $200, and denied that she had made any attempt to abort herself. Although this statement was not reduced to writing and signed, Pfeifer made notes of it which he later used while testifying. The foregoing statement of the deceased was also testified to by Dr. Fleischli, and was admitted into evidence by the trial court as a dying declaration.

For the defendant, his wife, Lula Tilley, who acted as his office receptionist, testified that a few days after July 3, 1946, a young woman who gave the name of Hazel Reynolds, but whom she later identified as Renee Stanley, came to the office and was admitted to see defendant for a period of thirty minutes. She stated that four or five days later the same young woman returned and asked to see defendant; that, while waiting to be admitted to the private office, the young woman, who appeared very pale and nervous, said: "I have missed my period and I have taken all kinds of medicine and I have even used a knitting needle. * * * I have used a knitting needle and I must have help." When defendant was free, the witness stated that she accompanied the young woman to his office, where the remarks about the medicine and knitting needle were repeated; that defendant looked at the girl, told her she was very sick and advised her to go to her family physician or to confide in her mother; that the doctor then assisted her through the reception room to the street where she got in a car and drove away. The witness professed to have remained with the young woman during the entire second visit and denied that defendant had then treated her.

Defendant, who stated that he was licensed in Illinois to perform osteopathic manipulation, but not to perform surgery or prescribe drugs, testified that he had seen a young woman whom he later learned was Renee Stanley, at his office in the early part of July, 1946; that at the time she complained of a pain in her back, for which he gave her an osteopathic treatment; that following the treatment he was asked to examine her female parts as she thought there might be some trouble there; that he examined her, inserting a speculum to keep the vaginal area open, but could see nothing wrong and so informed the patient. He made a charge of $2 for the treatment. Defendant testified that he next saw the young woman four or five nights later when his wife brought her into his private office; that she was pale and crying, and said: "Doctor, I am in an awful lot of trouble. * * * I have taken everything — all kinds of medicine, and I went as far as using a knitting needle on myself and I want you to help me." He recounted that he advised her that she was very sick, to see her physician, and to confide in her mother; that he made no examination of her, made no charge for the visit, and assisted her to the street where she entered a car. The witness said that he next heard of her when he was arrested on the day of her death.

In rebuttal, Dr. Aloysius Vass, who performed the autopsy, testified that in his opinion it was not likely that the wound found on the cervix of the deceased had been caused by a knitting needle, stating that such a needle would cause a puncture wound rather than a tear such as he found. When cross-examined he admitted that knitting needles come in different sizes and that he had stated when previously examined that he did not know what sort of an instrument had been used to produce the wound he had described.

The principal contention of the defendant is that there is no competent evidence which in any manner connects him with the offense charged in the indictment, his position being that the alleged dying declaration of the deceased was not properly qualified, was mere hearsay, and as such not properly admitted into evidence. The admissibility of this declaration into evidence, its weight and credibility, must, despite our conclusion that a new trial is necessary, be determined in this opinion, for without it the People readily admit that there is insufficient evidence to support a judgment of conviction against the defendant. The law with respect to dying declarations has been firmly established in this State. They are defined as statements of fact by the victim, concerning the cause and circumstances of a homicide, including homicide by abortion. To make them admissible into evidence as dying declarations, and as an exception to the rule against hearsay evidence, it must appear that they are made by the victim under the fixed belief and moral conviction that death is impending and certain to follow almost immediately, without opportunity for repentance and in the absence of all hope of avoidance, when he has despaired of life and looks to death as inevitable and at hand. (People v. Hubbs, 401 Ill. 613; People v. Savant, 301 Ill. 225; Starkey v. People, 17 Ill. 17.) In People v. Corder, 306 Ill. 264, the fact that the declarant did not die until four days after making the statement, was held not to change the rule. It is the state of mind of the deceased and not that of any other person, which determines admissibility. (People v. Maria, 359 Ill. 231; Brom v. People, 216 Ill. 148.) The declarant must be in possession of his mental faculties sufficiently to understand what he is doing and to be able to give a true and correct account of the facts to which the statement relates. (Tracy v. People, 97 Ill. 101.) It is further well established that evidence that persons, whose dying declarations are offered into evidence, had received extreme unction or the last rites of their church is admissible to show the circumstances under which the declaration was made. (People v. Kreutzer, 354 Ill. 430; People v. Buettner, 233 Ill. 272; People v. Corder, 306 Ill. 264.) Courts will look to all the facts existing and surrounding the party giving the dying declaration at the time, before and after the declarations are made forming the res gestae and tending to show his true state of mind. (Starkey v. People, 17 Ill. 17.) Finally, the court, upon a preliminary hearing outside the presence of the jury, must first be convinced beyond all reasonable doubt that all the elements of a true dying declaration are present, before such statements may be heard and considered by the jury. People v. Maria, 359 Ill. 231; People v. White, 251 Ill. 67.

In the foundation evidence in the record before us, the testimony of Sister Joel and Sister Berlindas of the hospital staff, and of Monsignor William J. Cassin, a clergyman, shows that on the evening of July 17, 1946, shortly after her admission to the hospital, Renee Stanley was given the final rites of her church, which rites are given only to a person in danger of death. It was shown that the deceased desired such rites; that during their performance she was fully aware of what was going on; and that at their conclusion she seemed grateful and relieved and thanked the priest. Sister Berlindas testified that after the rites the deceased had asked the nuns to pray for her. Defendant urges that this request indicates that the deceased had not despaired of life and abandoned all hope of recovery. Whether such request was for deceased's physical or spiritual well-being cannot be determined from the record before us, nor could the request, of itself, establish that the deceased believed she would survive. She was aware that she was given the rites reserved by her church for people who are in danger of death. We find nothing in the evidence relating to these rites, or to the later religious incidents, which shows that the deceased retained hope of recovery which would destroy the evidentiary value of such rites as a circumstance under which the declaration was made.

Dr. Fleischli testified that he had accompanied Pfeifer, the assistant State's Attorney, to the hospital on the afternoon of Friday, July 19, 1946, at Pfeifer's request, for the express purpose of telling Renee Stanley that she was dying and to enable Pfeifer to take what he considered a "death-bed statement" of what had preceded the girl's hospitalization. To that end the doctor stated that he introduced Pfeifer to Renee, told his mission, and then said to the deceased: "You know that everything has been done for you, that you are — in spite of everything, are dying, and at the same time everything will be continued to be done for you." To which the girl either nodded her head or said "Yes, I know," which, in the opinion of the witness, made manifest that she knew she was dying. He further testified that although the deceased had a temperature of 105 degrees at the time and was dying, and had been dying since he had seen her at his office the preceding Wednesday evening, she was alert, lucid, and knew what she was saying. He stated that she had been treated with sulfa and oxygen, and was bright and alert, which was not unusual in a peritonitis case so treated. Except for the testimony relating to the medical treatment, Pfeifer's version of what was said, and of what occurred when the deceased's statement was given, was substantially in accord with that of Dr. Fleischli.

Defendant urges that the foregoing testimony does not show that the deceased was in sufficient possession of her mental faculties to understand what she was doing or to give a true and correct account of the facts relating to the defendant. We see little in the record to support such a contention, for both witnesses testified that the deceased was mentally alert and lucid. The testimony of Dr. Fleischli that a patient with high fever, who is being treated with sulfa and oxygen, remains mentally alert, is uncontradicted. Undoubtedly the deceased was under great emotional stress, and the fact that she could not remember the exact day of her second visit to defendant's office, does not, as defendant urges, destroy the credibility of the balance of her statement, which we find to be rational and cohesive.

The declaration of the deceased is next attacked on the ground that the evidence fails to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Renee Stanley had, in her own mind, abandoned all hope of recovery. The contention is that the evidence shows the state of mind of the witnesses but not that of the deceased. It is true that a fixed belief in inevitable and imminent death must be entertained by the declarant. We have further held, however, that such a mental state may be induced by the statements of a physician or nurse; that it is not necessary that the approaching death be presaged by the personal feelings of the deceased. (People v. Borella, 312 Ill. 34.) We are of the opinion, from a consideration of all the circumstances surrounding the taking of the statement from Renee Stanley, notably the advice of her doctor, the fact that she received the final rites of her church, and her understanding of both, that such circumstances indicate that she viewed death as certain and impending when the statement was made. The fact that she did die seventeen hours later strongly supports such a conclusion.

The remaining argument advanced in regard to the dying declaration is more or less an assertion that the testimony of Dr. Fleischli and Pfeifer is not worthy of belief. The doctor admitted on cross-examination that at the coroner's inquest he testified that on the occasion of the taking of the declaration he had told the deceased "words to the effect of my telling her that her condition was very serious; we would do everything we could to help her, but she might not get well * * *." He stated he had not testified at the inquest that he had advised the deceased she was dying because the question was not asked him. The defense urges that this testimony gives rise to a belief that the doctor, in fact, did not tell Renee Stanley that she was dying. Such argument overlooks that, previous to the statement quoted above, the doctor testified at the inquest that his very purpose in accompanying Pfeifer to the hospital was to tell the deceased that she was dying. The fact remains also that the testimony given by the doctor at the trial was corroborated by Pfeifer. Defendant also holds forth the testimony of his witness Dragoo, the coroner, as impeaching that of Dr. Fleischli. Dragoo testified that in a telephone conversation shortly after Renee Stanley's death, the doctor stated that he had told deceased that she might get well or might not get well. The doctor testified that he did not remember this telephone conversation. It was also brought out during Dr. Fleischli's examination that he, Pfeifer, and the State's Attorney who brought the cause to trial, engaged in four pre-trial conferences. The defense infers that it was not until then that it was decided that the doctor had told the deceased she was dying. When the doctor was rigidly cross-examined along this line, he was unshaken in his testimony that he had given the deceased such advice, and that the pre-trial conferences were merely to enable the State's Attorney to find out what was said, inasmuch as a great length of time had elapsed between the date of the declaration and the trial.

Pfeifer's testimony is attacked largely on the basis of his failure to take a written statement from the deceased and of his preference, as he stated it, "to rely on my memory." We know of no rule of law which requires a dying declaration to be reduced to writing, nor has any been cited. In addition, the defense's effort to minimize the testimony ignores the fact that Pfeifer took notes of his interview with the deceased and used such notes while testifying at the trial.

The questions which go to the credibility of these two witnesses, and the weight to be given their testimony, were matters for the court on the preliminary examination and later for the jurors when the witnesses testified before them. In such function this court will not substitute its judgment for that of the court or jury. (People v. Potts, 403 Ill. 398; People v. DeMarios, 401 Ill. 146; People v. Simmons, 399 Ill. 572; People v. Buzan, 351 Ill. 610.) ...

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