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People v. Stapelton

MARCH 27, 1972.




APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Will County; the Hon. MICHAEL A. ORENIC, Judge, presiding.


This is an appeal from the Circuit Court of Will County, Illinois.

The defendant was found guilty after trial by jury of the crime of armed robbery and sentenced to a term of not less than seven nor more than twenty years in the penitentiary. This conviction and sentence resulted from an occurrence on the evening of June 16, 1969, at which time the defendant allegedly committed an armed robbery of a gasoline service station in Joliet, Illinois. At the time of the alleged crime Dana Tucker, age 16, and another young man, Mark Hines, were attendants at the service station. The record discloses that the defendant was at the station from one and one-half to two hours immediately prior to the alleged crime. During this period the defendant borrowed a pencil and pad of paper and wrote something upon the pad. Apparently dissatisfied with what he had written, he threw a sheet of paper into the wastebasket and again wrote something upon the pad. Eventually the attendant Hines left the station to get a pizza at a place of business some two or three blocks away from the service station, but before he departed he gave the key to the cash register to his fellow employee, Tucker.

The testimony of the witness Tucker is that during Hines' absence the defendant asked that he be given change for a nickel and upon the cash register drawer being opened the defendant told him he might as well leave the drawer open and he was then given a note which stated:

"This is a stick up just be quiet and open up your cash register and hand me all your money, then just go into the mens room and stay there, do this and you won't get hurt. I have a gun under my shirt and if I have to draw it I'll use it.

This money will be paid back.

I need it in a"

Tucker further testified that he thought the defendant was joking and asked him if he had a gun, to which the defendant answered yes, pulling back his shirt which displayed that the defendant did in fact have such a weapon. The testimony of Tucker is that the defendant first asked for $70.00, then increased his demand to $80.00, which was then given to him. Tucker testified that he was then ordered to go into the washroom but prior to obeying this demand he asked defendant for the note because he did not believe his boss would believe his story of the holdup unless he could produce the note. The defendant honored this request and gave the note to Tucker. On cross examination Tucker testified that he did not know what happened to the piece of paper the defendant threw into the wastebasket.

The record discloses that the defendant admitted he had been in the service station and had written a note, but it is the defendant's contention that the note was to be delivered to his brother and that it merely informed his brother that he, the defendant, was going to attend a movie. Defendant further testified that there might have been a prior note which he discarded because it contained some discrepancies. He denied that he had a gun or that he committed the alleged crime. While in jail the defendant wrote to the State's Attorney and this letter was used for purposes of handwriting comparison during the course of his trial. During the trial the defendant was asked to examine the alleged "stick up" note and testified that the same "looks like my handwriting or looks like it could be my handwriting, but it is definitely a forgery. It is not my handwriting."

Other evidence disclosed by the record regarding the alleged crime will be recounted as it becomes material to the issues raised by this appeal.

The defendant contends that the court committed reversible error when a witness, Dolores Morran, was permitted to testify as a handwriting expert. As to the qualifications, this witness stated that she had worked at a local bank and from the year 1944 to 1959 she had been employed as a teller. During that fifteen year period she had the responsibility of making comparison of signatures in order to determine their genuineness. The signatures on checks would be compared with signatures which were on file at the bank. She stated she had to do this many times. She further stated that if there appeared to be any discrepancy the supervisor or someone in the bookkeeping department would also assist in making a determination. During this period of time she made thousands of comparisons. Since 1960 she served as an assistant vice president of the bank and among her duties was required to approve checks and was authorized to solve some of the problems of the banking field, which included problems of forgery. It was her testimony that when there was any doubt as to the authenticity of a signature she might ask for a person's drivers license or other identification and compare the signatures appearing on such document with the signature that the bank had on file. Respecting forgeries she stated that on occasions a customer will claim that a check which cleared his account is a forgery and she would then compare the check with an affidavit. The foregoing is the substance of the testimony of the witness, Dolores Morran, as to her qualifications.

• 1 It has been well established that the admissibility of expert testimony is to be determined by the trial judge and a wide latitude of discretion is given to the court in the determination of such admissibility unless it is clearly and prejudicially erroneous. People v. Oberlander, 109 Ill. App.2d 469, 248 N.E.2d 805; People v. Harges, 87 Ill. App.2d 376, 231 N.E.2d 650. In First Galesburg National Bank & Trust Company v. Federal Reserve Bank, 295 Ill. App. 524, 15 N.E.2d 337, the court stated:

"There is no test by which it can be determined with mathematical certainty how much experience or knowledge of handwriting a witness much (must) have in order to qualify as an expert for comparison. * * * In order that a witness be competent as an expert in respect to handwriting, it is not necessary that he should belong to any particular calling or profession; it is only necessary that the business opportunities and intelligence of the witness should be such as to enable him to have reasonable skill in judging of handwriting."

• 2, 3 Expert testimony is admissible when the subject matter of the inquiry is of such a character that only persons of skill and experience in it are capable of forming a correct judgment as to any facts connected therewith. It is elementary that where the court or jury can make their own deduction that shall ...

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