Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Second District; heard
in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County,
the Hon. Thomas Doran, Judge, presiding.
MR. JUSTICE RYAN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
Following a jury trial in the circuit court of Lake County, defendant, Ardice Heflin, was found guilty of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The court entered judgment on the murder conviction and sentenced the defendant to a term of 30 to 60 years' imprisonment. The appellate court affirmed (40 Ill. App.3d 635), and we granted defendant's petition for leave to appeal (58 Ill.2d R. 315).
The charges against the defendant resulted from the death of Clifford Atkinson, who was shot and killed in his home on January 3, 1974. Atkinson's widow, Karolyn, who was indicted on the same charges as the defendant, was found not guilty in a jury trial held subsequent to that of defendant's.
The defendant and Karolyn Atkinson were involved in a love affair which began on September 21, 1973. From that date until the end of October, the two saw each other frequently, many of the meetings taking place at the Atkinson home while Clifford Atkinson was at work. At times, however, the defendant would be in the home while Atkinson was there. When necessary, he would hide in the basement or attic storage area, from which point he often observed Atkinson at work in his yard.
Much of the incriminating evidence proferred by the State against the defendant consists of letters which were written between Karolyn Atkinson and the defendant. Thirty-six such letters were introduced into evidence 24 from Karolyn and 12 from the defendant. Generally, the letters written by both Karolyn and the defendant indicated that the couple planned to be married and live in the house that was being built by Clifford Atkinson. Several of the letters indicated the existence of a sinister design, and are discussed in detail below.
The events surrounding the shooting of Clifford Atkinson were reconstructed at the trial by the defendant, who testified on his own behalf, and Officer Philip Stevenson of the Waukegan police department, who was called on by the defense to testify to what Karolyn had told him following the shooting. Karolyn refused to testify on the grounds that her testimony might tend to incriminate her. The stories are generally consistent, although they differ with respect to some of the details, as noted below.
On January 3, 1974, defendant was met at the airport by Karolyn and her two-year-old daughter. Karolyn drove the defendant back to her house, where the two made love and spent the afternoon together. The defendant removed a hunting knife from a cabinet and told Karolyn that he was going to take it back to Michigan with him. On another occasion he had taken four knives and a gun from the cabinet with Karolyn's permission.
At 4:15 p.m. Karolyn left the house to pick up her husband at work, leaving the defendant in the house. According to Officer Stevenson's testimony, Karolyn thought that the defendant had left the house when she and her husband returned at 9:15, after spending several hours at the site of their new home. Defendant, however, testified that he hid in the basement in order to see Karolyn later that night while her husband would be out of the house at a doctor's appointment.
Defendant fell asleep in the basement. When he awoke, it was dark outside. He became alarmed and decided to leave. The cellar exit leading from the basement was blocked, so he decided to go directly through the house. He ran into something as he moved to the stairs. This aroused Atkinson's attention, who came to the head of the stairs and confronted the defendant as he stood on the first landing. Atkinson jumped on top of the defendant and pushed him down the stairs. As he fell, the defendant grabbed Atkinson and the two men fell together onto the basement floor.
The defendant testified that Atkinson yelled to Karolyn to bring a gun. Officer Stevenson testified that Karolyn had told him that she grabbed her husband's .22-caliber rifle and ran downstairs because she had heard noises in the basement. In any event, Karolyn rushed down into the basement and saw the two men wrestling on the floor. Her husband yelled at her to shoot the defendant. Karolyn, instead, fired a shot that hit her husband in the hip. Atkinson screamed to Karolyn, "You shot me, damn it, shoot him." However, as the two continued to struggle, Karolyn shot her husband a second time. The fighting continued for five or ten seconds, then Atkinson became still. Defendant pushed Atkinson away, ran to the top of the stairs, and collapsed.
The defendant testified that shortly thereafter he returned to the basement, found that Atkinson was dead, picked up the rifle and went back up the stairs. According to the defendant, he dismantled the rifle and attempted to wipe any fingerprints from it. Officer Stevenson testified that Karolyn had taken the gun upstairs immediately after the shooting, dismantled it, and placed it in a closet after attempting to wipe off her fingerprints. At the trial, a fingerprint expert testified that the only identifiable print impressions on the gun were those of the defendant.
The defendant went down to the basement a second time to get his briefcase, wearing a pair of kitchen gloves to avoid leaving any more prints downstairs. He put the knife and rifle clip in his briefcase. The next day he put his briefcase in a locker at a train station in Waukegan.
Shortly after midnight on the same evening, the police responded to a report of a burglary in progress at the Atkinson home. When they arrived, Atkinson was dead in the basement. There were large, deep cuts on his hands, and scratches on his skin. Karolyn told the police that a tall Negro wearing dark clothes and yellowish-orange gloves had burglarized the home, and that her husband trapped him in the basement. She further told the police that her husband had brought a gun into the basement when he went after the burglar. The police became suspicious about the story when they could find no footprints in the snow leading to or from the cellar entrance. Despite the lack of footprints, there were handprints in the snow that had accumulated on the outside of the cellar door, apparently made to give the impression that someone had used that entrance during the evening. Eventually Karolyn admitted to the police that the story about the black burglar was untrue, and that the defendant was involved in her husband's death. During his testimony, the defendant claimed that he and Karolyn were forced to concoct the story of the black burglar, because no one would believe what actually happened. He admitted that he had made the handprints on the outside of the cellar door, but that he had forgotten to make any footprints in the snow leading to or from the entrance.
The first question is whether the State presented sufficient evidence to permit the jury to find the defendant guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt. For reasons discussed below, we agree with the appellate court that enough credible evidence was presented to support the finding of the jury of guilty of murder.
Defendant relies heavily on the cases from this State that hold that where the only evidence in a prosecution for homicide is circumstantial, the guilt of the accused must be so thoroughly established as to exclude every other reasonable hypothesis. (See People v. Willson (1948), 401 Ill. 68; People v. Campagna (1909), 240 Ill. 378.) The defendant argues that the facts as presented do not exclude the reasonable hypothesis that Mrs. Atkinson shot her husband without his aid or connivance when she saw him involved in a struggle with her lover, and therefore he contends he cannot be held accountable for Atkinson's death.
To support his arguments that he did not aid or abet Karolyn Atkinson in the shooting of her husband, defendant presented evidence consistent with his claim that he had intended to break up with Karolyn on the 3rd of January and eventually move back to Michigan. In this regard, one of the girls whom the defendant had said he was dating testified that defendant called her from Michigan and told her he was leaving on January 3 to fly to Chicago and made dates with her for January 4 and 5. Also, Tim Nichols, defendant's cousin, testified that defendant told him in December that he had plans of establishing a permanent residence in Michigan and of breaking up with Karolyn. Nichols also corroborated the defendant's testimony that the defendant had made arrangements to buy a trailer in Michigan in December and had made a down payment. According to the defendant, he was going to move into the trailer some time after the first of the year. Defendant contends that this evidence satisfactorily refutes the theory presented by the State that he and Karolyn plotted to kill Clifford Atkinson, get married, and live in the house that Atkinson was building at the time of his death.
The State presented evidence at trial to support alternative theories of guilt. First, the State contended that defendant was the person who killed Clifford Atkinson. Alternatively, the State argued that Karolyn Atkinson shot her husband, but that defendant aided and abetted her and is therefore accountable for Atkinson's murder (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 38, par. 5-2). Regarding the State's first theory of the case, we point out that the jury was not compelled to accept the defendant's account of what happened at the time of the crime, but was permitted to consider the surrounding circumstances and the probability or improbability of the defendant's story. (People v. Wiggins (1957), 12 Ill.2d 418.) However, even accepting for the moment the account of Atkinson's death as supported by the testimony adduced ...