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The People v. Weger





WRIT OF ERROR to the Circuit Court of La Salle County; the Hon. LEONARD HOFFMAN, Judge, presiding.


On March 14, 1960, three women were killed in Starved Rock State Park. On November 18, 1960, the LaSalle County grand jury returned three separate indictments, each charging the defendant, Chester Weger, with the murder of one of the women. He was tried on the indictment that charged him with the murder of Lillian Oetting, was found guilty by the jury, and was sentenced to the penitentiary for a term of life imprisonment. A writ of error has been issued to review the judgment of conviction.

The defendant's principal contention is that his constitutional rights were violated when the trial judge applied an unconstitutional standard in determining that his written and oral confessions should be admitted in evidence against him. A lengthy hearing upon the admissibility of these confessions was conducted by the trial judge out of the presence of the jury. At that hearing the defendant testified that he was first questioned for about two hours on March 17. He was again interrogated on March 19 for about the same length of time, and about a month later he was questioned from about 5:00 P.M. until 2:30 the next morning. On none of these occasions was he physically abused, nor was he threatened in any way.

On September 27, he voluntarily went to Chicago to take a lie-detector test. No threats or promises were made to him on the way to Chicago. He testified, however, that John Reid, who conducted the examination, told him that he had lied, asked him to tell the truth and suggested that he could take "truth serum" if he desired, but that he refused. He testified that Reid then threatened to get a court order to force him to take the serum, and attempted to contact a judge to secure such an order. He also testified that after the test had been concluded, the State's Attorney told him that if he would sign a confession, he would get life imprisonment, but if he did not, he would get the electric chair, and that all the way home from Chicago, a deputy sheriff, Bill Dummett, told him that if he did not sign a confession he would get the electric chair, but if he confessed he would get life, which meant that he could get out in fourteen years. Defendant did not confess at this time and was not placed under arrest.

He was interrogated on and off during the month of October, but no further threats or promises were made until November 16. At about five o'clock in the afternoon of November 16, Dummett and another deputy, Wayne Hess, came to defendant's home and said they wanted to talk to him. They took him to the State's Attorney's office in Ottawa where he was interrogated by Dummett, Hess and the sheriff. At about eight o'clock he was served with nine warrants, three of which were in connection with the Starved Rock murders. He testified that he was then placed in a line-up with several other men and was viewed by witnesses and victims of the other crimes; that following the line-up, he was questioned further concerning the murders, and that at this time, Dummett and the sheriff told him that it would go easier with him if he confessed, and that if he did not confess, he would get the electric chair.

The defendant asked if he could see his wife and his father and was told that they were on the way to see him. They arrived at about one o'clock in the morning of the 17th, and defendant was permitted to talk to them alone. Immediately after they left, at about two o'clock, the defendant orally confessed to the three murders. At the time of this confession, only Hess was present, but when Dummett returned to the room, defendant repeated his oral confession. A court reporter was then summoned and defendant signed a written confession. The following day he was taken to Starved Rock Park for a re-enactment of the crimes and he then signed another written confession.

All of the defendant's testimony with respect to the threats of the electric chair and the promises of leniency was denied by the parties directly charged with making those threats and promises. However, a former assistant State's Attorney who was in the car on the trip back from Chicago after the lie-detector test on September 27, testified that he heard deputy Dummett tell the defendant that he would "ride a thunderbolt," and that the defendant had replied that he did not think he would go to the chair because he didn't kill the ladies. This witness testified that the words "thunderbolt" and "chair" were used several times that night. He denied, however, that there was any threat or promise contingent upon whether the defendant did or did not confess.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial judge ruled that the confessions were voluntary and admissible.

We have repeatedly said that, upon preliminary inquiry into the voluntary nature of a confession, the question of its competency is for the trial court and that, in making its decision, the trial court is not required to be convinced of its voluntary nature beyond a reasonable doubt, (People v. Nemke, 23 Ill.2d 591; People v. Sims, 21 Ill.2d 425,) and the decision of the trial court on the question of admissibility will not be disturbed unless it is manifestly against the weight of the evidence. (People v. Townsend, 11 Ill.2d 30; People v. Gavurnik, 2 Ill.2d 190.) If the record before us contained only the evidence at the hearing on the admissibility of the confession and the bare ruling of the trial judge thereon, we would have no question but that his ruling that the confessions were admissible should be sustained. However, in announcing his ruling, the trial judge undertook to explain the reasons for his ruling. Defendant contends that this explanation shows that the trial judge applied a standard that has been held constitutionally impermissible by the Supreme Court of the United States (Rogers v. Richmond, 365 U.S. 534, 5 L.ed.2d 760,) and that his conviction cannot stand. Because of the importance of this explanation in view of the standards that the Supreme Court of the United States has determined must be applied in determining the admissibility of confessions, we quote the ruling in full. The judge said:

"This Court is well aware of the terrible burden that it has in this matter. This Court and this Court alone stands between the People, who are clamoring for a victim, and the defendant, who is pleading for his rights and for true and proper justice to him.

"This is a case which has had wide publicity and in which the life of this man is on the line. I wouldn't want anyone to think that I have or am deciding in a light or hurried mood. I have personally spent many sleepless nights since these hearings began, and I have personally wrestled with the law and the facts involved for many hours.

"What I am about to do other judges might not do or might do differently. What I can do is use the ability which God gave me to try to do what is right. I have a duty to both the defendant and the State. I have as much obligation to protect the People as I have to protect those charged with the crime, and I might say that I have not leaned over backwards or searched for technicalities to favor the defendant. I have tried to stand up straight and judge these facts in accordance with the law as I find it to be. And what that law is has been set down by the Supreme Court of this State, by the Supreme Court of the United States. And whether I like it or not, I am bound by it.

"Now, there is no better way to cite the law than to quote it from the Supreme Court: `A confession is regarded as voluntary when it is made of the free will and accord of the accused, without fear or any threat of harm, or without promise or inducement by the hope of reward. Whether a confession is involuntary is a preliminary question which must be decided by the trial court from evidence heard outside the presence of the jury, and the real question presented to the Court is not whether there is evidence of threats or promises, but whether there has been any threat or promise of such nature that a prisoner would be likely to tell an untruth from fear of threat or hope of profit from the promise. Thus it has been held that a confession is not rendered inadmissible by the mere fact it was made while in the custody of the police or by the fact that it was made after the accused was illegally arrested or detained without process, or because it was elicited by questions put by the police, or came after exhortations to tell the truth. Upon preliminary inquiry into the voluntary nature of a confession, the question of its competency as evidence is for the trial court, alone, to decide, and, in making its decision, the Court is not required to be convinced of its voluntary character beyond a reasonable doubt.'

"Now, the testimony of the defendant, his father, and the basis for his position insofar as these confessions are concerned, is that through fear he was induced by threats of the electric ...

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