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People v. Liddell

OCTOBER 23, 1975.




APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Rock Island County; the Hon. ROBERT J. HORBERG, Judge, presiding.


This is an appeal from a judgment of the Circuit Court of Rock Island County, finding defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter, with a consequent sentence of 3 to 10 years in the penitentiary. The action was based upon the fatal stabbing of Willie Sims in Rock Island on the evening of January 16, 1974.

On appeal in this court, defendant basically contends that the State failed to disprove his theory of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. From the record it is apparent that the incident occurred in the back yard of a friend of defendant named Shorty Jenkins. Jenkins had a shed in his yard where his friends often congregated for a few drinks, conversation, and perhaps some friendly gambling. On the evening of January 16, 1974, Jenkins and J.C. Buchner were in the shed cleaning up when defendant and James Oliver arrived. Later the decedent, Willie Sims, came in.

Jenkins, who was the only one present who testified at the trial, had first made a statement to police in which he mentioned hearing the defendant and the decedent arguing about some money and also that Sims left the shed first. In his testimony in court, Jenkins indicated that he did not hear an argument and, also, that he didn't notice which one of the two men left first. The two men went outside the shed and the fatal stabbing occurred thereafter. According to the statement made by defendant, Sims owed him a couple of dollars as a result of shooting dice, but that he "just forgot about that" when Sims said he wouldn't pay. When they left the shed, however, according to defendant's statement, Sims grabbed the defendant by the neck and choked him and said "I am going to knock you out." At that point defendant claimed that he pulled a pocket knife from his right pants pocket and "cut" Sims.

Defendant said he was unaware of the extent of Sims' injury, if any, and he left the premises immediately. Shortly thereafter the victim was discovered on the front porch of the Jenkins home where a trail of blood was found. Police were called and Sims was taken to a hospital. Despite intensive efforts by a cardiac arrest team, Sims died 15 minutes later. The examining doctors determined that the cause of death was a 2" knife wound which penetrated Sims' chest at the base and to the left of the breast bone.

Two and a half hours after the police had arrived on the scene, a detective went to defendant's house and picked him up for questioning. After he was advised of his rights twice, defendant consented to make a statement. Besides the detective, his stenographer and defendant's sister, Carrie Silas, were present. In his statement, defendant Liddell admitted stabbing Sims, but said he did so entirely in self-defense. The only evidence presented by defendant was the testimony of three character witnesses, including the probation director of the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit of Illinois, the Assistant State's Attorney for Rock Island County, and defendant's employer on the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. They all testified to knowing defendant and knowing his reputation for peacefulness in the community.

• 1, 2 The sufficiency of evidence to disprove defendant's theory of self-defense is a difficult issue, particularly in cases where there are no eyewitnesses to the incident other than defendant himself. The various elements of self-defense as outlined in People v. Dillard, 5 Ill. App.3d 896, 901, 284 N.E.2d 490, appear to be present in the instant case, if defendant's version of the incident, as recounted in his statement, is believed. Since self-defense is an affirmative defense, where it is raised, the burden is on the State to disprove it beyond a reasonable doubt in order to show defendant's guilt. (People v. Warren, 33 Ill.2d 168, 173, 210 N.E.2d 507.) Where, as here, defendant testifies as to what occurred at the scene of the crime, he must tell a reasonable story or be judged by its improbability. (People v. Morehead, 45 Ill.2d 326, 330, 259 N.E.2d 8.) This rule would seem applicable to a statement by a defendant, introduced in evidence, where defendant does not take the witness stand and where the statement is the only direct evidence of what occurred at the time of the stabbing. The trier of fact need not believe defendant's version even though it was the only one, and it may consider other facts and circumstances in the record which tend to contradict defendant's story or at least raise serious questions about its probability (People v. Towers, 17 Ill. App.3d 467, 474, 308 N.E.2d 223; People v. Halley, 13 Ill. App.3d 719, 723, 300 N.E.2d 645; People v. Young, 11 Ill. App.3d 609, 615, 297 N.E.2d 298). There need not be actual rebuttal of defendant's testimony, but only a sufficient showing of circumstances from which defendant's guilt might be concluded by probable deduction. People v. Warren, 33 Ill.2d 168, 174-75; People v. Halley, 13 Ill. App.3d 719, 723, 300 N.E.2d 645.

• 3 Where, however, there is only one version of the incident, and it is not improbable nor contradicted in material part, and is in fact corroborated by evidence in the record, the trier of fact may not disregard or reject that version (People v. Jordan, 4 Ill.2d 155, 162-63, 122 N.E.2d 209; People v. Halley, 13 Ill. App.3d 719, 724-25). Even if defendant's story here is wholly rejected, that fact alone does not supply the necessary proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and the remaining evidence would not be sufficient to prove guilt of defendant beyond reasonable doubt. To conclude otherwise on the record would require a resort to speculation and conjecture. Under such circumstances, there cannot be enough proof to sustain a conviction. People v. Jordan, 4 Ill.2d 155, 163; People v. Hess, 24 Ill. App.3d 299, 303, 320 N.E.2d 344; People v. Halley, 13 Ill. App.3d 719, 724; People v. Dillard, 5 Ill. App.3d 896, 903, 284 N.E.2d 490.

Defendant's version of the stabbing, as presented in the instant case, is neither improbable nor is it contradicted in material part. His version is in fact corroborated substantially by the testimony of the State's own witness, Dr. Kaplan, who examined the defendant on the day following the incident. Dr. Kaplan, using a Creato-phospho-kinase (CPK) test found an abnormally high level of kinase in Liddell's blood, which positively indicated injury to the muscles or the brain tissue within the previous 12 to 24 hours. He also found tenderness in the neck area and a limited range of motion. Thus, even if defendant's complaints about a sore neck are given little weight as being self-serving, it appears that he did suffer some neck injury, consistent with his story that Sims jumped him and began choking him. The hoarseness and unusual character of defendant's voice when he was first interviewed by the police also tends to support his contention that he was choked by Sims. If we also consider that defendant was 54 years of age, 5' 4" tall and weighed 140 to 145 lbs., it seems unlikely that he would attack Sims, who was only 25 years of age, over 6' tall, weighing 180 to 185 lbs. and who was muscular and well developed.

Defendant's position was also supported by strong character testimony. His employer testified that defendant had worked well at his job on the railroad for over 17 years. An Assistant State's Attorney who worked with defendant for several summers on the railroad testified that defendant was "probably the only individual who never in fact did get angry and want to fight." The circuit probation director also testified, as did the other two witnesses, to defendant's long-time reputation for peacefulness in the community. Defendant had no criminal record.

The fact that a motor was running in an unidentified car resembling one which may have been driven by Sims is of no probative value other than to speculate that Sims got in his car and then decided to leave it quickly to assault the defendant. The only evidence which is asserted to support the State's theory of the stabbing, consists of a couple of statements made by Shorty Jenkins to the police after the incident, that Sims left the shed first and later, at the trial, that he couldn't remember who left first. Nothing of value in determining defendant's guilt could be established by such testimony and any conclusion from such testimony would involve only conjecture and supposition. Similarly, the fact that a hat, presumably belonging to Sims, was found next to him on the porch to which he walked while a hat which presumably belonged to Liddell was found on the ground just outside the shed where Liddell said the struggle took place and where he said he was choked violently, would only operate to support defendant's version of what occurred.

On the basis of our consideration of the entire record, we can only conclude that evidence tending to establish guilt on part of defendant is so unsatisfactory as to leave us with a grave and substantial doubt as to defendant's criminal culpability. Such being the case, we have concluded that we must reverse the conviction, and, accordingly, the judgment of the Circuit Court of Rock Island County is reversed. See People v. Lewellen, 43 Ill.2d 74, 78.


STOUDER, P.J., ...

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