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People v. Peter

OPINION FILED OCTOBER 1, 1973.

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, APPELLEE,

v.

GEORGE H. PETER, JR., APPELLANT.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. HARRY S. STARK, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE RYAN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Rehearing denied November 28, 1973.

The defendant, George H. Peter, Jr., was convicted of murder by a jury in the circuit court of Cook County, and was sentenced to death. He has appealed directly to this court. 43 Ill.2d R. 603.

On the morning of September 16, 1967, the body of a young girl was discovered in the Chicago River in LaBaugh Woods, a forest preserve area in Chicago. Death was caused by asphyxiation due to strangulation and submersion. She had last been seen alive the night before by three friends (two boys and a girl) with whom she had been walking. At approximately 11:30 that evening, she decided to "hitch" a ride, and was picked up by a person driving a Volkswagen convertible. When she entered the automobile, she was carrying a purse, a brown sweater, and a paperback book entitled "Valley of the Dolls."

On September 17, responding to an anonymous telephone call, the police went to an address where they had been told a person having information about the murder could be found. At that address they spoke with Diane Manuel, who related that shortly before the arrival of the police the defendant had been there, and had told her brother, David Manuel, that he had committed the crime.

Shortly thereafter David Manuel contacted the police. When interviewed he told them that defendant owned a 1967 blue Volkswagen convertible, and had confessed to him that he had committed the crime. He stated that the defendant had described how he killed the victim. In addition, he related that the defendant had informed him that he had placed the victim's missing sweater and purse in a garbage can near his home and that he had in his glove compartment a book, "Valley of the Dolls," which belonged to the girl and which he had shown him.

The police were also told that the defendant was at his father-in-law's house. The police immediately went to that location and arrested the defendant and charged him with the crime. When arrested, the defendant was asked if he owned a car. He stated that he owned a blue Volkswagen convertible which was parked at the curb and gave the keys to the automobile to the police. The defendant's wife, who was present when the arrest was made, accompanied by an officer, drove the car to police headquarters where it was locked pending investigation by the crime laboratory. Shortly after the defendant's arrival at police headquarters, the crime laboratory arrived, took pictures of the car, and dusted it for fingerprints. The arresting officer also searched the car and recovered from the glove compartment a paperback edition of the book "Valley of the Dolls." He also found, behind a seat, an empty box that was labeled "handcuff with keys." Both of these items were inventoried, sent to the crime laboratory for examination, and later introduced at trial.

The appellant urges 17 primary grounds for reversal, several of which are subdivided into multiple issues. Also, his brief exceeds the 75-page limitation for printed briefs established in our Rule 341 (50 Ill.2d R. 341). We are well aware that defendants often charge that they were represented by incompetent counsel and we are sympathetic with the desire of attorneys to avoid such a charge. We do not feel, however, that it is necessary to make an appellant's brief a catalogue of every conceivable error. A defendant is not entitled to an error-free trial and few trials are free from error. A more selective presentation involving substantial rights or matters prejudicial to the defendant would more precisely define the issues.

The defendant raises several questions concerning fingerprints. The book "Valley of the Dolls" which had been seized from defendant's Volkswagen was examined by the police for fingerprints. One of the pages was found to contain the fingerprint of the victim's left little finger. The defendant first contends that he was denied the opportunity to obtain the book for inspection by experts to ascertain if other fingerprints were on the book which would tend to exculpate the defendant. He testified at the trial that the book belonged to his wife and had been in his car for several days. There was other testimony that his wife and another person had handled the book. The defendant contends that if he would have been permitted to examine the book, prints other than those photographed by the police may have been found. The record contradicts the defendant's contention that he was denied access to the book. The public defender was permitted to examine the physical evidence in the crime laboratory. At that time the book was sealed in a container. The public defender and the prosecutor agreed that they would not at that time break the seal. The defendant was furnished with copies of photographs of the fingerprints found on the book. At a subsequent hearing on a motion to produce the physical evidence defense counsel indicated that he did not at that time have an expert to examine the evidence requested. He inquired of the court that if he were to procure the services of an expert would the court at a later date permit the expert to examine the original items, including the book. The court informed the defense counsel that in such an event if the expert finds it necessary to examine the originals he should so inform the court. This does not amount to a denial of a request to make an examination of the book for other fingerprints. The defendant also contends that the photographs of the fingerprints which were furnished to him were inadequate. He says that he should have been furnished with the original impressions. The court made the same offer as it did with regard to the book. At the hearing on the motion the court informed defendant's counsel that if the expert found the copies inadequate he should so inform the court. These rulings do not amount to the withholding of potentially exculpatory evidence.

The officer who identified the fingerprint on the book as that of the victim's left little finger testified that he found 12 points of comparison between the prints lifted from the book and the impression taken from the body of the deceased. The defendant now contends that he was limited in the cross-examination of this officer to the extent that he was not permitted to show that some authorities hold that more than 12 points of similarity are necessary for identification. Here again, the record does not support the defendant's contention. The witness was extensively cross-examined on this point and admitted that in England and in other countries 16 or more points of similarity are required for identification.

During the cross-examination of this same witness the defense counsel suggested that if the jury were to view these fingerprints through a magnifying glass or to view an enlargement of the exhibit showing the fingerprints they would be able to see the points of similarity. In objecting to this question the prosecutor stated that it was not within the province of the jury to analyze the fingerprints. That, he stated, was the function of the expert witness and it was for the jury in turn to determine the expert's credibility. The court sustained the objection. The defendant now contends that by sustaining this objection the court gave the jury the impression that the prosecutor's comments were a correct statement of the law. He further contends that this led the jury to believe that they could not make comparisons of the prints. The mere act of sustaining an objection does not indicate the court's approval of the comments made by counsel. We do not draw from the court's rulings the conclusion which defendant urges. Obviously, the jury cannot be permitted to engage in unlimited speculation as to the presence of points of similarity between two photographs of fingerprints. The jury must be assisted by the testimony of experts in the field. Identification by means of fingerprints is a science. Those who are experts in the field have peculiar knowledge not common to the world. (People v. Jennings, 252 Ill.2d 534.) This court held in People v. Speck, 41 Ill.2d 177, that it was not error for the court to refuse to permit the jury to compare fingerprint exhibits with the aid of a magnifying glass. (See Wigmore, Evidence (3d ed. 1940), sec. 414(a).) When the court sustained the prosecutor's objection in this case he did no more than to indicate to the jury that it did not have the unlimited prerogative to speculate as to the presence or absence of points of similarity in the fingerprint exhibits. This was not error.

During the cross-examination of this same witness the defense counsel asked him how often he had testified in court as to his findings during the past year or two. He stated he had not testified in court during this period because he was informed that the defendants in the other cases he had investigated had pleaded guilty. The defendant now objects that this is hearsay and was designed to influence the jury to believe that the witness's fingerprint evaluation was correct. We do not think that this is a legitimate inference to be drawn from this statement, which was elicited from the witness by the defense counsel during cross-examination. The defendant also complains that during cross-examination this same witness gave further damaging hearsay testimony when he stated that another officer who did not testify corroborated his conclusions. This witness was asked: Question: "Who else was assigned to this case?" Answer: "Officer Mortimer. He corroborated me in this particular instance." This statement was volunteered in response to a question put to the witness by defense counsel on cross-examination. If he felt that the answer was not responsive or was prejudicial he should have moved to strike the answer at the time it was given. We consider that any objection to this comment has been waived. People v. Anderson, 48 Ill.2d 488.

It is next contended that the attempts of the defense counsel to investigate the case were frustrated by the refusal of police officers to answer questions. This court stated in People v. Glover, 49 Ill.2d 78, 83, that a police officer, as well as the State's Attorney, has a duty to protect the innocent, and should within reasonable limits with respect to time and place be available for interview by the defense counsel. We there held that the court should have entered an order requiring the police officers to confer with counsel. In Glover, while defense counsel was talking to police officers the chief of police interrupted the interview and informed counsel it was his policy and the policy of the police department that ...


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