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People v. Zielinski





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. BENJAMIN S. MACKOFF, Judge, presiding.


At issue here is what to do when a criminal defendant absconds in the middle of his trial. The defendant absented himself during the last part of his jury trial. He was convicted of armed robbery (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 38, par. 18-2) and aggravated battery (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 38, par. 12-4) and sentenced to concurrent terms of 20 to 40 years and 3 years and 4 months to 10 years in the penitentiary. On appeal, Zielinski contends he was denied a fair trial (i) because the court did not wait two full court days in his absence before proceeding with his trial, as he claims is required by section 115-4.1 of the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1963 (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 38, par. 115-4.1), and (ii) because the court admitted evidence of defendant's absence and permitted the State to argue to the jury during closing argument that defendant's absence during trial constituted flight indicative of a consciousness of guilt.

Jury selection began on Tuesday, January 11, 1977, and continued through Thursday, January 13, 1977. The State presented its first two witnesses on the latter date. The court then informed the jury that because of a court holiday the following day, Friday, January 14, there would be no proceedings and court would reconvene on Monday, January 17, 1977.

When the trial resumed, the defendant did not appear. His counsel said he had spoken to Zielinski's wife, who told him the defendant was on his way to court. Thereafter, the court found defendant's absence was for the purpose of avoiding prosecution and entered a bond forfeiture; the case was continued until the following day to give the defendant an opportunity to appear and explain his absence. The court also directed the five prosecution witnesses who were prepared to testify to return the following day.

On January 18, 1977, Zielinski again failed to appear, and at 2 p.m. defense counsel represented that he had made efforts to locate him, and had no personal knowledge of his whereabouts. The defendant's wife had told counsel her husband had not come home the previous evening. The assistant State's Attorney then represented that his office, after checking with the local penal facilities, had determined the defendant was not in custody and had not been arrested by Chicago police. The court was also advised that a police investigator had gone to the defendant's address at 11 a.m. on January 18, and no one answered the door.

The trial court ruled that it had complied with section 115-4.1 of the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1963 by waiting a period of two successive days and should now proceed with trial. The court added it did not believe the legislature had intended that the court was required to wait for 48 hours to elapse before continuing the trial. The court denied defense counsel's motions for a mistrial and for a continuance as well as counsel's motion to withdraw. The court instructed counsel to represent defendant as if he were present. The State then presented the rest of its evidence.

The following day, January 19, defense counsel informed the court that the defendant's wife told him the defendant had not been home the previous evening. The court again found that Zielinski had willfully absented himself. The assistant State's Attorney represented that he had called a doctor who had formerly treated the defendant and the doctor said he had not recently treated the defendant. The court instructed the jury that the defendant was not present in person but was represented by counsel and through counsel maintained the plea of not guilty which he had previously entered. The court also informed defense counsel that if the defendant appeared or was located it would allow counsel to present the defendant's evidence if the defendant wished. On January 20, 1977, defendant had still not appeared and proceedings again resumed.

Cook County sheriff's policeman Richard Lobes testified for the State that on January 17, 1977, he was assigned to try to locate the defendant and went to his address around 9 a.m. and again at 9:15 p.m. He also unsuccessfully contacted the House of Correction, the Cook County Hospital, and the Cook County Jail.

During closing argument, the State argued defendant was a coward based on his actions and because he had "fled, we don't know where he is." Defense counsel in turn argued that to conclude the defendant was guilty of the charges because he was not present was wholly unwarranted. The State responded:

"Counsel says well, Victor might be somewhere else and don't jump to conclusions that he is guilty because he is not here. I couldn't agree with him more. Let's get the facts straight here. Victor, we don't know where he is but I think Victor bears some responsibility for not knowing — for our not knowing where he is. We know that he is not at his home, we know that he is not in jail, he is not in custody and we know that he was with us last Thursday and I submit to you the law entitles you to consider flight as one circumstance in weighing your verdict."

The court instructed the jury on the presumption of innocence and concerning the State's burden of proof; the court also instructed the jury that the defendant's failure to testify should not be considered by the jury in any way in arriving at its verdict. (Illinois Pattern Jury Instructions, Criminal, Nos. 2.03, 2.04 (1968).) On January 20, 1977, when the jury returned its verdicts, the defendant was still absent.

At the sentencing hearing on June 24, 1977, the assistant State's Attorney told the court that defendant was returned to the jurisdiction on May 2, 1977, after he was arrested in another State on the bond forfeiture warrant. Defendant denied being apprehended in another State, and claimed that he did not appear because he had a drug problem.

Defendant contends that the trial court was required to wait an additional day, after defendant had been absent on two successive court days, before proceeding to trial. The relevant statute provides:

"In any criminal trial, where a defendant after his trial commences willfully absents himself from court for a period of 2 successive court days, the court shall proceed with the trial. The absence of such defendant shall not operate as a bar to concluding the trial, to a judgment of conviction resulting therefrom, or to a final disposition of the trial in favor of the defendant. * * * The court may, after hearing and notice to ...

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