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The People v. Price

OPINION FILED JANUARY 23, 1962.

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, DEFENDANT IN ERROR,

v.

CLARENCE PRICE, PLAINTIFF IN ERROR.



WRIT OF ERROR to the Circuit Court of Peoria County; the Hon. JOHN T. CULBERTSON, JR., Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE SOLFISBURG DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

The defendant, Clarence Price, was found guilty by a jury of the crime of murder by arson, and sentenced to the Illinois State Penitentiary for the term of his natural life. Upon this writ of error defendant contends that his four statements or confessions were elicited by coercion, and that their admission in evidence violated the constitutional guarantees of due process, as well as certain procedural rules; and that there was insufficient evidence to sustain the verdict.

The evidence developed during the pretrial hearing on the admissibility of the confessions and at the trial itself is conflicting. It is uncontroverted, however, that on November 23, 1959, at about 2 A.M., the Arion Hotel in Peoria, and a frame building adjacent to it, which were both owned by LaVerne Caldwell, were destroyed by a fire. Inasmuch as the buildings were engulfed in flames and the windows were out when the fire equipment arrived, it was the opinion of the fire officials that the fire had been caused by an explosion. The following day the charred and partially dismembered body of James Stevens, a 70-year-old resident of the hotel, was removed from the rubble. His death, in the opinion of the coroner's physician, was the result of extensive burns.

Defendant was employed by Caldwell to do the janitor work on these properties, to tend the boiler at Caldwell's residence, and to clean up the offices of his wife, known as Dr. Sanders. Defendant lived on other Caldwell property known as Caldwell Acres. He was a 33-year-old colored man who was born in Jackson, Mississippi. He knew nothing of his father, his mother died when he was five, and his grandmother reared him until her death when he was nine or ten. He quit school in the fifth grade and shifted for himself doing odd jobs. In February, 1944, when he was 16, he enlisted in the Navy, where he attended night school and qualified for 9th grade. Upon his discharge in November, 1947, he went to California, where he remained until May 1959. He then came to Peoria and started work for Caldwell. Defendant had no previous criminal record.

With reference to defendant's activities before and after the fire, we shall note first his testimony at the trial, and then consider his various other accounts. According to defendant's testimony, at 4 P.M. on November 22, 1959, Caldwell said that he was leaving for Detroit and that defendant was to be in charge of the properties. Defendant was at the hotel intermittently through the evening. A guest testified that shortly before 1 A.M. defendant showed him a room in the absence of the desk clerk. Defendant claims that while lying down in one of the rooms he heard a door slam. A few minutes later he heard some glass breaking. He looked out and saw something brown against the building. Defendant armed himself with a stick and went down the stairs into the basement. As he neared the bottom of the basement steps there was a flash and explosion, and then fire came up all around, setting his hair and clothing afire. He claims he ran out the back door into the alley, saw a man running, and chased after him for help.

In this connection, two off-duty taxi drivers, testifying for defendant, stated that as they entered the alley from the rear door of a tavern in the early morning hours they saw a white man run out of the basement door of the hotel followed by a colored man who was yelling. A resident of the hotel, testifying for the People, said she heard glass breaking in the building next door, and that while she was on her way to tell the desk clerk there was an explosion.

Defendant testified further that he drove his car first to Dr. Sanders's office to get some salve, and then to Caldwell Acres where he dressed his burns and changed clothes. He was frightened that night, and again the following night by two men who drove up to Caldwell Acres. He hid in the woods and eventually hitchhiked to St. Louis. There he asked someone to buy a bus ticket for him, and spent the night in the DeLux Hotel under the name of Paul Jones. The next morning he rode by bus to Rhodessa, Louisiana, and stayed for a week at the residence of the "Reverend Lee," later identified as L.L. Caldwell, to whom defendant had a letter of introduction given him by Caldwell in connection with a previous trip.

On defendant's return to St. Louis, he registered at the same hotel, but transferred during the night because of noise. The next morning he telephoned Caldwell, who told him to return to Peoria. Defendant was afraid to come alone, and on Caldwell's suggestion, defendant placed himself in the custody of the St. Louis police on December 5. On December 7 the Peoria police, at Caldwell's notification, came for defendant with a warrant charging him with arson. Officer Macklin asserts, but defendant denied, that the warrant was read to him. Defendant waived extradiction and rode back in a car, handcuffed, beside an officer holding a submachine gun. Defendant claims that when he told his story of the fire, the officers laughed and said that if he told that story he was heading for the electric chair and should get ready to meet his Maker.

They reached the Peoria jail at 1 P.M. on December 7th. It is undisputed that no return was made on the arson warrant, and that defendant was not taken before the magistrate, even though that office was close to the detention room where defendant was held in custody for some eleven days. The evidence respecting what transpired during that period is controverted.

Shortly after defendant's arrival at the Peoria police quarters, attorney Taylor from Chicago advised the police that defendant was his client. He was not permitted to see defendant on the ground that defendant was ill. Defendant claims that he was not told that Taylor was there. After two hours of questioning by police, defendant signed the first controverted confession.

While he admitted no guilt or knowledge of the fire in his statement, he did state that after the fire Caldwell came to Caldwell Acres and told defendant that he didn't want defendant questioned. Defendant was put in the trunk of Caldwell's car and driven to St. Louis, where Caldwell bought him a bus ticket to Texarkana, Arkansas, and Rhodessa, Louisiana, and told him to stay with Lee Caldwell. Defendant remained there until Thursday, when a man brought him $20 and a note from Caldwell telling him to return to St. Louis and stay at the same hotel until Caldwell contacted him. While there defendant heard noises and feared for his life because of Caldwell's underworld contacts. That was why he changed hotels.

Although the police testified that defendant was given medical attention before that interrogation, the hospital records show that defendant was not admitted there until 6:10 P.M. He had two degrees of fever and was treated for first and second degree burns on his head, hands, feet, back and buttocks, and was given a tetanus shot. He was then returned to jail in the company of an officer carrying a submachine gun.

At 8:30 P.M. that first night reporters were permitted to see defendant. They testified that defendant said he wanted to remain in jail. Defendant denied this, and explained that the captain told him, "How long do you think you would live when you get on the street? We can't protect you on the street but we can protect you here." Defendant testified that he was also assured that it was Caldwell the police wanted, and that he didn't need a lawyer.

On December 8 defendant was taken to the office of State's Attorney Pratt. According to defendant's testimony, which is denied by Pratt, the latter offered to let defendant go "scot free" if he would state that Caldwell told him or anyone else to set the fire, and offered to see that defendant was safe in Carolina with a friend until Caldwell's trial. Defendant claims that Officer Macklin, who was also ...


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