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People v. Howard

OPINION FILED JULY 24, 1979.

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

EUNETA HOWARD, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Kendall County; the Hon. REX F. MEILINGER, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE LINDBERG DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THIS COURT:

Rehearing denied September 18, 1979.

Defendant Euneta Howard was convicted by a Kendall County jury of the January 27, 1977, murder of Christopher Wayne Alfter, her four-year-old son. She was sentenced by the court to serve a term of 15 to 45 years imprisonment in the State penitentiary. On appeal, the defendant contends that the evidence presented at trial failed to establish her guilt of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. We agree and reverse.

Christopher Wayne Alfter was murdered on the morning of January 27, 1977, while he was sleeping on a sofa in the living room of defendant's home located at 79 Sheffield in Boulder Hill. Defendant, who worked a late shift at a nearby Western Electric plant, was home alone at the time and called the police herself. She told the police officers who responded to her call that she drove her mother to work in the morning, returned home, and left her son sleeping on the living room couch while she showered; when she finished her shower, she walked into the living room, discovered the boy's body together with a threatening note, and then called the county sheriff's police for help.

Prosecutorial suspicions soon focused on defendant and she was subsequently indicted by a Kendall County grand jury for her son's murder. Defendant pleaded not guilty to the charge contained in the indictment. A six-day jury trial was held, at which the testimony of numerous witnesses was presented; the trial transcript alone, excluding the common law record and hearings on motions, is over 1,000 pages. At trial, the prosecution endeavored to prove that defendant did not shower on the morning of the 27th, and that the other evidence pointing to an unknown intruder as the killer had been fabricated by defendant. It also attempted to show that no one but defendant could have killed her son. The defense adhered to the story given by defendant to police on the morning of the murder: that her son was killed by an intruder while she was in the shower. In addition, the defense attempted to show the existence of prior threats against defendant. Although the length of the record prohibits a comprehensive recitation of the evidence adduced at trial, we have set forth the salient facts below with as much detail as is possible under the circumstances.

The prosecution's evidence showed that about 10:55 a.m. on January 27, 1977, Sergeant Thomas W. Burgholzer of the Kendall County sheriff's police received a call from the defendant while he was working in the police communications center. Defendant told him that she needed help, that her son was injured and she thought he was dead. Police were immediately dispatched to the Howard residence located at 79 Sheffield in Boulder Hill; an ambulance was also called. About 15 minutes later, defendant placed a second, similar call to the Illinois State Police in Elgin, asking why the police had not yet arrived. She was told that she must have called someone else and that police officers would respond to her call.

Burgholzer arrived at the house at about 11:12 a.m. that morning. An ambulance and another Kendall County police officer, Sergeant John Taylor, had arrived immediately before him. Upon entering, Burgholzer saw the body of the victim lying on the couch in the living room, covered by a sleeping bag. On top of the sleeping bag was a white piece of paper upon which the following words were printed: "I GOT YOUR SON CAR I KILLED YOUR SON BUT NOW I'M DONE." A knife was found under the bag by an emergency medical technician. The medical technician was unable to detect any signs of life upon examining the body of the child. Although the boy's body was still warm at the time, it was not possible to estimate how long the boy was dead. An autopsy later determined the cause of death to be complications resulting from five stab wounds in the boy's back.

Sergeant John Taylor, who had arrived at the same time as the ambulance, had an opportunity to observe and question defendant at the time. Defendant was neatly dressed, wearing a sweater, blouse, and slacks. Although she was able to answer the officer's questions, she was visibly distraught and broke down weeping at least two or three times.

Sheriff Thomas N. Usry of the Kendall County Police arrived at the Howard residence at 11:36 a.m. One of the officers already on the scene gave him a brief summary of what the investigating officers had found. Usry then inspected the home himself, beginning with the bathroom as defendant had been reported to be in that part of the house. Upon entering, he noticed a full-size bath towel on the floor with one end draped over the side of the tub. The towel was dry at one end but wet at the end inside the bathtub. The shower curtain was drawn across the full length of the tub; Usry was unable to detect any water clinging to it. Usry then opened the curtain and felt along the faucet and the walls, but again did not detect the presence of water. However, he did observe a small layer of water, less than one-sixteenth of an inch in depth, in the bottom of the bathtub. He examined the soap holder and touched the soap; both were dry. A second towel of medium size was found on the floor. This towel was "quite damp." There were no windows in the room and the exhaust fan was not on when he entered.

In a front dresser drawer of a secretary desk in the living room, Usry found a piece of paper towel with the word "WE" printed in one corner of the paper. A kitchen towel was also found in the area of the kitchen sink.

Robert Cabanne, a "questioned document examiner," tested both notes found at the scene. He said that both notes were once part of the same paper hand towel, and that they were written by the same individual. However, he was unable to identify the writer. He also stated that he could not say that the notes were written with two pens found in the Howard residence, as the ink used in the pens was obtained from common sources. He compared the paper towels used in the notes with paper obtained from the Western Electric plant at which defendant worked, and found them to be the same type of paper. However, the examiner stated he was "definitely not" testifying that the towels used for the notes came in fact from defendant's place of employment.

Joseph Ambrovich, an evidence technician, examined the two notes, the butcher knife, and the victim's face, neck and hands, but was unable to detect the presence of latent fingerprints. No prints were found in the couch area of the living room. However, six separate sets of prints, found near the kitchen sink — three fingerprints and three palm prints — could not be matched to any of the occupants of the house (i.e., defendant, her mother, brother, and son). No prints were taken from the front door or back window.

A criminologist testified that the blood found on the kitchen towel matched that of the victim. A blood impression on the towel was also found to match that of the knife found near the victim's body. There was no positive testimony, however, that this knife was used in the killing.

Defendant gave two statements to the authorities, the details of which were introduced into evidence at trial. The first statement was made on the day of the incident, and the second six days later during an interrogation by the state's attorney. Defendant's version of what occurred on the morning of the 27th was substantially the same on each occasion. Defendant told the police that she got up about 6 a.m. that day, drove her mother to work, and returned home at about 6:45 a.m. She worked on some bills while her son watched television. (These bills were found on the secretary desk.) At about 10:30 a.m., she saw that her son had fallen asleep and she decided to take a shower in the bathroom. After finishing her shower, she heard the sound of the television blaring quite loudly from the living room. She called to her son to turn down the volume but got no response. Upon entering the living room, she found the front door open, so she closed it. She then walked to the couch where she found the knife and the ...


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