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People v. Palmer





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Union County; the Hon. ROBERT CHASE, Judge, presiding.


After a jury trial in the Circuit Court of Union County, the defendant was convicted of murder and three counts of aggravated battery. He was sentenced to concurrent terms of 100 to 150 years imprisonment for murder and 3 1/3 to 10 years for each aggravated battery. The victim of the offenses was Jason Bruce, the 22-month-old son of Catherine Bruce, who resided with the defendant at his trailer home in rural Anna.

On appeal, the defendant alleges numerous errors: that the prosecution failed to prove that the defendant inflicted the fatal injuries on the child; that the evidence as to the defendant's mental state was insufficient to support a murder conviction; that certain testimony presented in rebuttal was erroneously admitted; that the court improperly entered judgments of conviction on the aggravated battery counts; and that the court abused its discretion in imposing a sentence of 100 to 150 years imprisonment for the offense of murder. Our resolution of these issues requires that we summarize the evidence at some length.

Linda Reynolds was the registered nurse in charge of the emergency room at Union County Hospital on the morning of July 16, 1977. She testified that she received a telephone call at 9:15 that morning, alerting her that a sick baby was about to be brought to the hospital. About 9:40 a.m., Jason Bruce was brought in to the emergency room by the defendant, Walter Palmer. The child was not breathing and had a very faint pulse. His head, torso, legs, back, and buttocks were covered with bruises, and there were bite marks on his leg and arm. The defendant told Nurse Reynolds that the baby had choked on a ham and cheese sandwich. Emergency room personnel began cardiopulmonary resuscitation procedures and worked to revive the child for about 50 minutes. Nurse Reynolds stuck her finger in the child's mouth and determined that his airway was clear. One speck of bread was removed from the child's mouth and another crumb was found on a tube inserted into the child's trachea. The bread had not blocked the passage of air. The child was pronounced dead at 10:30 a.m.

Catherine Robinson, another registered nurse who was on duty at the hospital, administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation during the attempts to revive the child. She also testified that there was no obstruction of the child's air passageway, and that no food particles were removed from the airway.

Edna Havilland, a licensed practical nurse, also took part in the attempts to revive the child. Her testimony as to the absence of any obstruction in the air passageway was consistent with that of the other two nurses. Nurse Havilland talked to the defendant after he brought the child in. He told her that he had been feeding the child a ham and cheese sandwich, had left the room, and had returned to find the child choking. He told her that when he tried to give the child a drink of water, he noticed that he was not breathing very well, so he brought him to the hospital. The defendant explained the bite marks on the child's body by telling Nurse Havilland that he had bitten the child in an attempt to break him of his habit of biting people. Nurse Havilland also talked to the child's mother, Catherine Bruce, who told the nurse that she had been at work earlier that morning and did not know what had happened to the child. Mrs. Bruce explained the bruises on the child's body by stating that he had fallen numerous times during the previous two weeks.

Dr. Carroll Loomis was called to the emergency room to treat the child. There were no signs of life when he arrived. Dr. Loomis described the bruises on the child's body and identified photographs as accurately depicting the child's appearance on July 16. Dr. Loomis expressed the opinion that the extensive bruises all over the body of the child could not have been caused by falls. He identified the following entry on the emergency room report as made by him, based in part on what he was told on his arrival by other hospital personnel:

"When first seen the nurses were doing mouth-to-mouth and the airway was open with breath sounds. There was never any signs of life. * * * A large wad of bread was removed from the back of the mouth which may have been the cause of airway obstruction initially and was probably dislodged with the Heimlich maneuver on arrival."

Dr. Jerry Goddard arrived at the emergency room about 9:50 a.m. He placed an intravenous line into a vein in the child's neck in an attempt to insert medication which would aid in resuscitation. He pronounced the child dead at 10:30 a.m. He testified that in his opinion falls could not have caused the number of bruises and the pattern of bruises found on the child's body.

Catherine Bruce, the child's mother, testified that she and her son moved from Marion to the defendant's residence in Anna on June 29, about 2 1/2 weeks prior to the child's death. They lived with the defendant in a trailer near the defendant's mother's house. Mrs. Bruce obtained employment and began to work on July 5. The defendant or his mother would take care of Jason while Mrs. Bruce worked. According to Mrs. Bruce, although Jason did bruise easily because of his fair complexion, he had not had extensive bruises before they moved in with the defendant. She began to notice bruises on Jason after she began leaving him with the defendant or the defendant's mother. They would explain to her that the child had fallen. She recalled seeing the child fall on two occasions. She thought his falling was normal for a child his age. She was never told that Jason had fallen down the basement stairs at the defendant's mother's house.

On the Thursday night before the child's death on Saturday, Mrs. Bruce was in the room with the defendant when he whipped Jason. She heard a "thud" which she thought was Jason hitting the wall. She asked the defendant not to spank Jason so hard. The defendant told her that the bed had bounced against the wall.

About 5:30 p.m. on the day before Jason's death, Mrs. Bruce went to the store with the defendant's mother, while the defendant stayed to baby-sit with Jason. When Mrs. Bruce returned about an hour later, she found Jason lying between the bed and the wall. The defendant told her that Jason had gotten himself caught there. The defendant did not at first want Mrs. Bruce to extricate the child. When she did so, she found that he had a mark under his right eye and a "busted upper lip." The defendant refused to explain to her what had happened to Jason. Jason had appeared to his mother to have had difficulties in hearing for two or three days before his death. On Thursday and Friday, he would ignore her when she talked to him.

Mrs. Bruce had told the nurse at the emergency room that Jason's bruises had been caused by falling. She testified that her reason for saying that was that she had herself been given that explanation. She had been shocked by the extent of the bruises she saw on Jason's body on the morning of his death.

Mrs. Bruce testified that she did not place any bruises on the child. She had not been suspicious about the explanations given her for the bruises because the defendant had always been good to Jason when she was around. She had planned to move away from the defendant because she felt that he did not really want her or Jason with him. She felt guilty because she thought that she should have known that the child was being mistreated.

The next witness for the prosecution was Dr. Alden Thompson, a forensic pathologist, who performed an autopsy on the afternoon of the child's death. He found the stomach and intestines empty, indicating that the child had not eaten for many hours prior to his death. The body was covered with subcutaneous hemorrhages. The doctor observed four pairs of bite marks on the upper left arm, which had caused hemorrhages, but had not punctured the skin. There were several large hemorrhages on the cheek and scalp, one on the left arm, several on the chest, and approximately 30 in the soft tissue of the abdomen. One very large subcutaneous hemorrhage extended from the lower back, over the buttocks, and to the thighs. Large diffused hemorrhages appeared at the front and vertex of the scalp. A large subdural hematoma (blood clot), approximately three-eighths of an inch thick, covered virtually the entire surface of the brain.

Some of the multiple injuries to the abdomen had caused hemorrhages in the small intestine. The abdominal bruises were about 3 inches deep. Dr. Thompson testified that it takes "quite a sharp blow to cause that type of hemorrhage." The injuries were caused by poking or thrusting with an object such as a pencil, stick, or finger. They were "too multiple and too diffuse to have been caused by bumping into something" or by falling, according to Dr. Thompson. The subdural hematoma covering the brain was caused by at least a dozen distinct hard blows with a large blunt object to the top of the child's head.

The pathologist testified that it was difficult to state precisely when the various injuries had occurred. He estimated that the injuries to the abdomen were two days old, that the injuries to the buttocks were at least one day old, and that some of the injuries to the head were at least a day old, while others were 12 to 24 hours old.

The cause of the child's death, according to the pathologist, was cerebral edema, or excessive buildup of fluid in the brain. The cerebral edema resulted from the subdural hematoma brought on by the multiple head injuries. The child did not die of choking, and his injuries were not the result of falling. The doctor explained that the conditions which he found took place over a period of time while the fluid accumulated in the brain. Eventually respiratory cardiac paralysis resulted. A person suffering from conditions such as the doctor described would become unconscious some hours before his death. It would not be possible for him to eat in that state.

Dr. Renato Katubig, a pediatrician in Marion who had treated Jason Bruce, testified that he had advised Mrs. Bruce of the possibility that Jason might suffer from a congenital hip dislocation. He had referred the child to a crippled children's hospital for flat feet and an outside rotation of the foot, but the hospital did not recommend treatment. The hip condition was not evident as the child grew older. His records showed no evidence that the child had any problem with abnormal bruising. Dr. Katubig last saw Jason on June 10, 1977, about five weeks before his death.

The defendant's mother, Florine Palmer, was the first witness on her son's behalf. She testified that she had taken care of Jason Bruce almost every other day from July 5, when Mrs. Bruce began to work, until July 16, the date of the child's death. He appeared to her to have balance and hearing problems. She saw him fall on numerous occasions. On the Tuesday or Wednesday before his death, he fell down Mrs. Palmer's basement stairs and hit the cement floor, according to her testimony. She did not take him to the hospital after that fall. She testified that she never saw her son whip, beat, or hit the ...

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