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People v. Johnson

MAY 22, 1974.




APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. JAMES D. CROSSON, Judge, presiding.


Rehearing denied June 26, 1974.

Defendant, Sammie Johnson, was charged by indictment with the offense of murder. After a jury trial in the Circuit Court of Cook County, he was found guilty and sentenced to serve a term in the Illinois State Penitentiary of not less than 14 years nor more than 40 years. Defendant appeals this conviction claiming that:

(1) The testimony of the State's witnesses was not sufficient to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt;

(2) The use at trial of a statement made by defendant was a violation of his right to due process of law; and

(3) Certain remarks by the trial judge made at trial were prejudicial to defendant and as a result, defendant was denied a fair trial.

The facts were as follows:

At about 9:45 on the evening of August 31, 1970, Herron Jackson was stabbed to death in a bar on the south side of Chicago. Several months later, the defendant surrendered to the authorities in Los Angeles, California and after extradition proceedings was flown back to Chicago aboard a commercial airliner accompanied by two Chicago police officers. During this flight, defendant was alleged to have made an oral statement to the officers. He made substantially the same statement when he reached Chicago, though he declined to make a formal written statement. A motion to suppress this statement was made prior to trial. After a hearing, the motion was denied.

At trial, Herron Jackson's "common-law wife", Gladys Williams, testified on behalf of the State. She had entered "Shorty's" bar with Jackson at about 8 P.M. on August 31, 1970. The two of them sat down at the bar and drank for the next hour and a half. During that time Jackson consumed one or two "shots" of whiskey and a glass of beer. Defendant entered at about 9:30 P.M. and sat down to the left of Jackson at the bar. Gladys Williams stated that when she got up to look for her address book in her purse, defendant stood up beside her and looked into her purse. She said that defendant did not speak to her and he did not reach or attempt to reach into her purse. At this point, Jackson jumped up and said twice, "Hey man, what the hell are you doing in my old lady's purse?" Following a brief verbal altercation between Jackson and the defendant, the owner of the bar asked the defendant to leave.

About 20 minutes later, defendant re-entered the bar. Gladys Williams tapped Jackson on the knee to bring this to his attention. As Jackson spun around to face him, defendant walked up to him and began to cut him with a knife. Jackson attempted to rise but fell to the floor, because of his wounds. Defendant continued to cut at Jackson as he lay on the floor. He finished this and walked out of the bar. Josh "Shorty" Williams (no relation to Gladys) and his wife Fannie testified to the same basic sequence of events, though their versions differed as to several details.

Sammie Johnson testified in his own behalf at the trial. His version of the incident differed in several important aspects. He claimed that after Gladys Williams had stood up and opened her purse, Jackson and he got into an argument at the bar. Jackson jumped down from his barstool, grabbed defendant, and threatened to "break his neck." At this point "Shorty" Williams stopped the fight and defendant walked to a pool table at the back of the room. He did not leave the bar, nor did Herron Jackson. Jackson walked towards defendant from the bar. Though defendant wanted to "talk" about it, Jackson refused and continued to approach. Defendant said that he was frightened because of Jackson's prior threats; warned him to get back and told him that he had a knife. Jackson struck the defendant several times. Defendant tried to evade the attack but Jackson continued to hit him. Defendant stabbed Jackson several times and fled, throwing away the knife.

Defendant went home, where he stayed for several hours until he fled to California. He stated that he did so because he had been told that Jackson was a member of a street gang and he feared possible retaliation. He further stated that at this time he did not know that Jackson was dead. He surrendered himself in California after learning he was sought in Chicago.

Defendant first claims that he was not proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt since the testimony of the State's witnesses was improbable and unworthy of belief. To quote defendant's brief, this testimony is characterized as being, "* * * replete with self-impeachment; teeming with glaring contradictions; [and] it is conflicting to the point of confusion." Defendant examines in great detail portions of the testimony presented by the State's witnesses and points up each and every instance where the testimony of one witness differs, even slightly, from that of another. The same is done with the evidence that defendant believes is improbable or unbelievable, either in light of the testimony of the other witnesses or with defendant's version of the occurrence.

• 1 We find that defendant was proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The basic question at issue here is the credibility to be given the testimony of the witnesses. Determination of the credibility of witnesses is the function of the jury and, as such, a reviewing court will defer to this judgment (People v. Stewart, 46 Ill.2d 125, 202 N.E.2d 911), unless it is palpably erroneous. (People v. Ostrand, 35 Ill.2d 520, 221 N.E.2d 499.) The defendant acknowledges this but submits that: "[T]he law is not so vain that it insists upon blind obedience to such an unyielding and simplistic standard ...

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