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People v. Blackwell





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. WILLIAM E. COUSINS, JR., Judge, presiding.


Defendant, Leon Blackwell, was convicted by a jury of burglary and the murder of Agnes Bookham. Defendant received concurrent sentences of 6 1/2 to 20 years for burglary and 60 to 70 years for murder. Defendant appeals from both convictions and also from the sentence for murder.

Harris Orange, a witness for the State, testified that he was defendant's accomplice in both crimes. Orange stated that at 9 p.m. on June 4, 1975, he went to the apartment of William Gandy, defendant's uncle, in order to buy some preludin (speed) from Gandy. When he arrived, defendant, whom he had known for six months, was already there. Charlita Ponce, another friend, arrived shortly afterwards. Orange was unable to buy any preludin from Gandy because he had no money, so he, Charlita and defendant left Gandy's apartment together around midnight. This testimony was corroborated by William Gandy, who, in addition, stated he had also refused to sell any preludin to defendant or Charlita because they, too, had no money.

Orange further testified that after he, Charlita and defendant left Gandy's apartment, they first went to Charlita's boyfriend's apartment to get some money, but were unsuccessful. At Charlita's suggestion, they next went to "Al's" apartment to get some money and pills, but Al was not at home. Charlita at this time said they could get some money from an old lady who lived on Winthrop Avenue. They then proceeded to 4933 Winthrop, the home of Agnes Bookham, the victim.

Charlita and defendant waited in front of the house while Orange went to get his burglary tools, including a crowbar, screwdriver and pliers, which were stored under a porch at Gandy's. When Orange returned, he, defendant and Charlita each put on a pair of workmen's gloves that Orange had in his burglary kit. After this, they moved to the side of the house. Defendant searched for the telephone cable, while Orange removed the screen on a basement window and laid it against the side of the house. Orange then entered the basement through the window. Defendant and Charlita went around to the front of the house.

The door at the top of the basement stairs was locked, but Orange forced it open and entered the first floor. He went through the living room and opened the front door, allowing Charlita and defendant to enter. Orange told defendant he had just seen an elderly woman walking down the hallway toward the back of the house. Defendant then went in that direction, while Orange started taking out his burglary tools. Defendant soon returned to the living room, holding Agnes Bookham. Defendant had a hand over her mouth and was pinning one of her arms behind her.

Orange began searching the living room for a safe and tore a hole in the wall over the mantelpiece with a crowbar. After searching for the safe for about 15 minutes, Orange started back toward the kitchen and saw defendant on top of Agnes Bookham "going up and down on her." When Orange reached the kitchen, he searched around for a while and then took some lunchmeat from the icebox. While he was eating the lunchmeat, he looked into the living room and saw defendant and Charlita with Agnes Bookham. Charlita had placed her head between the victim's legs, and the victim was saying, "Please leave me alone."

Orange soon returned to the living room and took a drink from a bottle of "Early Times" that was there. After that, he went into the bathroom. When he came out, he saw Charlita tying the victim's hands with an extension cord. Orange searched around the house for a while and then re-entered the living room and had another drink. He noticed that the victim was tied up on the floor. Orange at this time went out on the porch for a minute to get some air. When he came back inside, he told defendant and Charlita he was ready to go. Defendant tied the victim's ankles together with a scarf and then tied her ankles to her hands. Charlita subsequently put tape on the victim's face, while defendant searched for pills. After Charlita finished taping the victim, they left the house. Charlita gave Orange $30 and he returned to Gandy's by himself.

Officer Frank Gieb was the first policeman to discover the victim's body. He testified that late in the afternoon on June 5, 1975, he entered the victim's home through the back door and saw that food and dishes were scattered on the kitchen floor. As he walked toward the front of the house, he noticed that the buffet and dresser drawers had been pulled out and that clothing and other items were strewn around.

In the living room, Officer Gieb saw the victim lying on the floor. Her ankles and hands had been tied together, and the upper part of her face and head were covered with masking tape. The lower part of her body was at that time covered with a bedspread, but when it was later removed, he saw that the victim's skirt had been pulled over her waist and that her underwear had been pulled to the side, exposing her vaginal area.

Officer Gieb also went outside to examine the premises and noticed that a screen had been removed from one of the basement windows and placed alongside the house. In addition, he saw that the telephone wires leading into the house had been cut.

Officers Esmagde Christia and Jerry Richards were two of several other policemen who went to the victim's home on June 5, 1975. Officer Christia testified that damage had been done to the door leading from the first floor to the basement. The outside moulding of the door jamb had been ripped from the wall. Also, a rough-edged hole, approximately one by two feet, had been made in the inner portion of the fireplace and plaster and debris were on the floor below it.

Officer Richards testified that he attempted to take fingerprints from various articles in the house. On a number of these items, prints suitable for comparison were present. On other objects, prints were taken but they were not comparable to those of Orange, Charlita or defendant.

Dr. Yuksel Konakciju was the pathologist who conducted an autopsy. He testified that there were bruises in the victim's vaginal area and a small abrasion in the vaginal orifice. There were also two other small abrasions between the vagina and the anal orifice. The victim's lungs contained fluid and were congested. Dr. Konakciju determined that death resulted from a combination of asphyxia, due to gagging, and severe arteriosclerosis. The asphyxia had created a lack of oxygen in the victim's blood, which caused the damage to her heart.

Defendant's first and second contentions are that the testimony of Harris Orange and William Gandy was insufficient to establish that defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of either burglary or murder. Defendant argues that Orange's testimony was unbelievable because Orange admitted that (1) in return for his testimony the State agreed to drop the murder charge pending against him and accept a plea of guilty to burglary, for which crime the State would recommend a sentence of 2 to 6 years; (2) during 1974 and 1975 he was a narcotics addict, although he denied injecting any drugs on the night of the crime; (3) he had previously been convicted of theft, possession of preludin, and of the attempt to gain drugs by the use of a false prescription; (4) in his previous conviction for possession of narcotics he had falsely told the trial judge that he was a heroin addict in an attempt to avoid being sent to the penitentiary.

According to defendant, William Gandy's testimony was also unbelievable because Gandy admitted that (1) he had been selling narcotics and had taken preludin once or twice a day during June of 1975, although he denied taking preludin on the day of the crime; (2) he had previously been convicted of theft.

• 1, 2 These facts concerning Orange and Gandy were all brought to the attention of the jury during cross-examination and closing argument. Also, the jury was instructed that the testimony of an accomplice is subject to suspicion and should be acted upon with caution. Presumably the jury took all this into consideration, but still chose to believe Orange and Gandy. This is entitled to considerable weight on review. (See People v. Hudson (1970), 46 Ill.2d 177, 263 N.E.2d 473.) Moreover, a conviction may be based on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice "even when subject to infirmities of promises of leniency" (People v. Parks (1977), 49 Ill. App.3d 65, 68, 363 N.E.2d 93), and a jury's determination that an accomplice's testimony was credible should not be disturbed by a reviewing court unless the evidence was so improbable as to raise a reasonable doubt of guilt. (People v. Harland (1977), 49 Ill. App.3d 1024, 365 N.E.2d 713.) In our opinion, the testimony of Orange and Gandy was sufficient to justify defendant's convictions for burglary and murder.

• 3 Defendant's third contention is that he should have been allowed to ask Orange whether he knew the prosecutors might be able to help him with a pending charge of violating probation on his prior narcotics conviction. The prosecutor objected to this question, stating there had been no negotiations with Orange concerning the probation charge. This objection was sustained and defense counsel then withdrew the question. By withdrawing the question, defendant cannot now maintain that the trial judge erred in sustaining the objection. Furthermore, after the objection was sustained, defense counsel was nevertheless able to repeat the question and elicit an answer from Orange:

"Q. Mr. Orange, you are aware, are you not, that if you were brought forth on a violation of probation, it would be prosecuted by Assistant State's ...

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