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People v. Knowles





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Woodford County; the Hon. WILLIAM T. CAISLEY, Judge, presiding.


The defendant, David Knowles, was charged by information on October 17, 1975, filed in the circuit court of Woodford County, with two counts of arson in violation of section 20-1(a) of the Criminal Code of 1961 (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 38, par. 20-1(a)), arising out of his acts in the early morning hours of October 14, 1975. The defendant was found guilty of both counts following a bench trial held on November 30 through December 1, 1977. On January 31, 1978, he was sentenced to a single term of imprisonment of 2 to 12 years to run concurrently with a previously imposed sentence and with credit for 32 days served.

On October 14, 1975, two fires were ignited resulting in damage to Ford Hall and DeWeese Hall, residence dormitories on the campus of Eureka College. The defendant was charged with arson for both fires. He was convicted by a jury for the offense of fire to personal property in Ford Hall and acquitted of arson to the building. The conviction in that case was affirmed by this court, but the sentence was vacated and the cause remanded for resentencing in a Rule 23 order (People v. Knowles (1977), 49 Ill. App.3d 1131 (order under Supreme Court Rule 23)). The trial court subsequently sentenced the defendant to 4 months' incarceration in the county jail and 3 years' probation.

This appeal is brought following the defendant's conviction for arson to personal and real property — DeWeese Hall. The defendant raises three issues for consideration by this court.

First, he contends that the trial court erred in denying his pretrial motion to suppress evidence of his admissions. This motion was filed, heard, and ruled upon in the trial court as it pertained to the fires in both Ford and DeWeese Halls. We affirmed the trial court's ruling on appeal from the defendant's prior adjudication for the fire in Ford Hall. In this appeal, we adhere to our prior view. Although the defendant argues that his admissions were involuntary and the product of coercion, in our judgment the record does not support his argument.

The defendant further argues that the evidence presented was insufficient to establish that a crime had been committed. There was no evidence that accelerants were used to start the fire, no threats were made, and no one saw the defendant start the fire. However, the testimony of an expert arson investigator was that the fire began under a couch in the lounge area of the dormitory and was of human origin because there was no heating or electrical unit at the point of origin. The investigator did concede that in addition to arson a fire started "accidentally" would be a fire of human origin.

• 1, 2 Where there is no evidence tending to prove that a crime has been committed other than a defendant's confession, the evidence is insufficient to support the conviction. There must be evidence to show that the fire was of criminal origin. (People v. Lueder (1954), 3 Ill.2d 487, 121 N.E.2d 743; People v. Hougas (1968), 91 Ill. App.2d 246, 234 N.E.2d 63.) Aside from a confession, however, the corpus delicti need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. People v. Nachowicz (1930), 340 Ill. 480, 172 N.E. 812.

In People v. O'Neil (1960), 18 Ill.2d 461, 165 N.E.2d 319, a conviction was upheld where the defendant was able to re-enact the origin of the fire and where he subsequently attempted to commit suicide. His confession plus these factors established the corpus delicti.

In this case, the defendant admitted that he threw a book of matches on the rug near the couch which subsequently caught fire. The testimony at trial further reveals that shortly thereafter the defendant returned to a group of students and attempted to establish a false alibi by stating that the door to DeWeese Hall had been locked and he was unable to enter. Moreover, the fact that the defendant had started a fire in Ford Hall two hours earlier by setting a chair in the lounge afire established a modus operandi for the second fire.

• 3 The expert testimony established that the fire was of human origin, either deliberate or accidental. The defendant's admission, his false alibi, and his modus operandi negate any inference that the fire was an accident. From this evidence, the trier of fact could properly conclude that a crime had, in fact, been committed.

Finally, the defendant asserts that the sentence imposed by the trial court was excessive and it was an abuse of discretion to deny him probation. At the time the offense in this case was committed, the defendant was 18 years old, and a freshman in college, away from home for the first time in his life. He had led an exemplary life and had no prior criminal or behavioral problems. He was raised in a strong family environment, and his family and friends have continued to support him and maintained their concern for him throughout the proceedings in this case.

Prior to sentencing the defendant in this case, the trial judge expressed his concern that the defendant set the fire in DeWeese Hall with the knowledge of the property damage and the personal anxiety which resulted from the fire he started two hours earlier in Ford Hall. This fact should, and does, bear upon the issue of sentence. While this should increase the defendant's awareness of the consequences of his actions, we note that the time frame involved did not afford the defendant the opportunity to fully reflect upon the consequences upon himself nor did it allow society and our correctional system the opportunity to express disapproval of his actions and to provide treatment for his behavior.

The defendant's personal history, his close family ties, and his behavior in the time period after the fire and through his second trial lead to the inescapable conclusions that a 2- to 12-year sentence of imprisonment is unnecessary to rehabilitate the defendant and his imprisonment is unnecessary to protect society. These two conclusions were recognized by the trial judge in pronouncing judgment. The reason given by the judge in sentencing the defendant was that to grant the defendant probation or conditional discharge would deprecate the seriousness of the defendant's conduct:

"The Court certainly has considered the full panoply of penalties which the Court has available to it to impose, including not only a sentence to imprisonment but periodic imprisonment as well, the possibility of a fine or conditional discharge or probation, and the Court in going through those not simply to give lip service to them but to indicate that the Court has fully considered whether or not some of those lesser penalties other than imprisonment would be appropriate. The Court has concluded that it would deprecate the seriousness of the crime and that persons who do place other students in danger of their lives that in order to prevent that sort of thing, in other words, to let people know ...

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