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People v. Wolter





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. BRIAN L. CROWE, Judge, presiding.


Following a jury trial defendant, Donna Wolter, was convicted of reckless homicide (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 38, par. 9-3) and was sentenced to a 5-year term of probation. On appeal she contends that she was not proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt because her conviction was based solely on circumstantial evidence which failed to exclude every reasonable hypothesis of innocence.

The homicide occurred shortly before 2:40 a.m. on January 3, 1976, in an underground garage in a suburban apartment complex where defendant lived. Defendant was driving her mother's 1969 Pontiac from its spot in the underground garage toward the electronically operated door to the outside when the car accelerated and pinned her boyfriend, Douglas Moore, between the garage wall and the front of the car, fatally injuring him. Defendant maintains that the acceleration was not voluntary, and that Moore's death was not caused by either her intentional or reckless acts.

On the night of January 3, defendant, accompanied by Moore, attended a surprise birthday party at the Hamler apartment in the building. The party ended about 2 a.m., but both remained for a short time with a few of the other guests. Defendant and Moore left shortly thereafter, at 2:20 a.m. About 20 minutes later, defendant returned to the apartment in a hysterical condition seeking help. Two men, guests at the party, went to assist her in the garage where Moore's body was discovered pinned between the wall near the garage door and the front bumper of the car. The left front part of the car had hit the wall and garage door's vertical support, with the right front impacting on the garage door. The right rear of the car slid into the middle of the garage door following impact.

Marjorie Hamler, the hostess at the surprise party, testified that she had met defendant during the summer of 1975, and defendant had obtained her driver's license between that time and the incident. She also stated that while defendant may have consumed some beer at the party, defendant did not appear intoxicated. Further, it was stipulated that hospital tests performed about 10 hours after the incident did not show the presence of any drugs or alcohol.

Two occupants of adjacent apartments above the garage area testified for the State concerning what they heard that morning. One testified that he was awakened at about 2:30 to 2:40 a.m. by two people shouting in the garage. This sound continued for about 20 minutes. He also stated that he heard loud booming noises, similar to the sound made by pounding on a car hood. Then, at about 2:55, as he was about to doze off once more, he heard tires screeching on concrete as if a car was accelerating rapidly, followed by a tremendous crash and reverberations. The second witness testified that he was preparing to retire for the night when he heard a high pitched voice in the hall. He looked out the door, but not seeing anything, got back into bed. Approximately 10 to 15 minutes later he heard automobile engines in the basement, which seemed to rev to a higher than normal point, and the squealing of tires. Following these noises, there was a crash, "not an extremely loud crash, but a crash * * *." He went into the kitchen and looked at the clock, which said 2:40.

Paramedics arrived at the garage shortly after 3 a.m. In order to back the car up to free the decedent's body from its pinned position, a pair of woman's high-heel shoes had to be removed from underneath the brake pedals. The paramedics were unable to aid the decedent, who showed no vital signs.

Members of the Arlington Heights Police Department investigated the accident and made several photographs of the accident scene and a detailed sketch of the area. These were introduced into evidence and filed as part of the record on appeal for this court's consideration.

Officer Steve Livas testified that he checked the registration of the 1969 Pontiac and found that it was the property of defendant's mother, who resided in the building. He went to interview her, and while he was in the apartment, defendant entered and stated, "He's dead, isn't he, I killed him, I don't want to lose my baby." Officer Livas advised defendant of her Miranda rights after which her mother took her aside for a short conversation. Defendant then left the room, returning periodically to ask if Moore was dead. Each time her mother commanded her to leave the room.

Sergeant Robinson testified that he viewed the accident scene. He observed tire acceleration marks leading from a parking stall to the accident vehicle. Although these marks did not disclose any signs of braking, he was uncertain whether the brakes had actually been utilized. When Officer Robinson spoke to defendant she stated that she had been at a birthday party with Moore. After they left the party to go to Cal's, a nearby bar, she and Moore went to the car and looked for the garage door opener. At this point in the narrative, defendant's mother entered the room and interrupted the conversation. Sergeant Robinson left the room, and later arranged for defendant to be taken to a hospital.

Sergeant Ronald Von Raalte testified that he examined the accident scene in detail, where he noted tire acceleration marks for a distance of 70 feet leading to the vehicle. The windshield above the driver's seat was broken and hairs were embedded in the glass. These hairs were identified as those of defendant. Several witnesses testified that in all probability defendant struck her head on the windshield, causing the glass to shatter, when the car struck the post.

Sergeant Von Raalte indicated that when he examined the car he found extensive damage to the front driver's side and right rear of the car. In addition the front bumper had a design on it matching the pattern of Moore's jacket. When asked about the single post-impact mark, Von Raalte identified it as a continued acceleration mark.

James Stannard Baker, called as an accident reconstruction expert by the State, examined the accident scene and garage floor about two weeks after the accident. Shortly thereafter, he saw the Pontiac at a different location. Finally, nine months later, he was present when the motor mounts were removed from the Pontiac.

His examination of the vehicle consisted of looking at the linkage between the accelerator pedal and the carburetor. He also checked the carburetor. He did not find any sticking or binding of these mechanisms which would have interfered with the vehicle's normal acceleration. He noted extensive damage to the left front part of the car, which had forced the radiator and engine fan ...

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