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People v. Strange





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Warren County; the Hon. U.S. COLLINS, Judge, presiding.


At approximately noon on July 5, 1977, defendant, Robert Strange, entered the Kroger Grocery Store in Monmouth, Illinois, where his ex-wife worked and, in the presence of a number of witnesses, shot her to death with a .22-caliber pistol as she attempted to flee from him. Pretrial hearings were held on defendant's competency to stand trial and on his motion for change of venue. Defendant was found competent and the change of venue was denied. At trial defendant sought to raise the defenses of intoxication and insanity and requested a jury instruction on voluntary manslaughter. An intoxication instruction was given, but insanity and voluntary manslaughter instructions were rejected. The jury returned a verdict finding defendant guilty of murder, and after a sentencing hearing, the Circuit Court of Warren County sentenced defendant to a term of 75 to 150 years in prison. Defendant appeals.

Defendant raises numerous claims of error which he contends contributed to a denial of his right to an impartial jury. First defendant claims the trial court erred in denying his motion for a change of venue. During a week-long pretrial hearing on the motion, defendant presented testimony from local newspaper editors who detailed their coverage of the murder and of the hunt for defendant who evaded police for several days after committing the crime. Defendant also presented the results of a survey he had made of the potential juror community. The survey indicated that virtually everyone in the community had heard or read of the case and that more than half of those interviewed had formed an opinion as to defendant's guilt. The State countered with 48 affidavits from county residents who said they had not formed an opinion on the case. At voir dire the great majority of veniremen said they knew of the case, and many were excused when they said they could not impartially evaluate the evidence and make a decision on it. All of the jurors selected said they could put aside what they had read or heard about the case and could make an impartial determination based solely on the evidence presented in court.

On appeal, defendant notes the relatively unpopulous nature of the Warren County community, the extensive press coverage of the case, the fact that most potential jurors knew of the case before trial, and the fact that many jurors were excused for cause. Defendant argues that, despite their contrary averments, the jurors actually selected must have been prejudiced against defendant by the pretrial publicity surrounding the case.

• 1 "The basic consideration, however, is not the amount of publicity in a particular case, but whether the defendant in that case received a fair and impartial trial * * *." (People v. Speck (1968), 41 Ill.2d 177, 183, 242 N.E.2d 208, 212.) In Irvin v. Dowd (1961), 366 U.S. 717, 6 L.Ed.2d 751, 81 S.Ct. 1639, the Supreme Court held that a juror need not be totally ignorant of the facts and issues involved in the case before him. It is sufficient if the juror can lay aside the impression or opinion he has of the case as a result of pretrial publicity, and render a verdict based on the evidence presented in court. (Irvin; Speck.) Section 14 of "An Act Concerning Jurors * * *" (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 78, par. 14) provides:

"It shall not be a cause of challenge that a juror has read in the newspapers an account of the commission of the crime with which the prisoner is charged, if such juror shall state on oath that he believes he can render an impartial verdict according to the law and the evidence. In the trial of any criminal cause, the fact that a person called as a juror has formed an opinion or impression, based upon rumor or upon newspaper statement (about the truth of which he has expressed no opinion,) shall not disqualify him to serve as a juror in such case, if he shall upon oath state that he believes he can fairly and impartially render a verdict therein, in accordance with the law and the evidence, and the court shall be satisfied of the truth of such statement."

The determination of the impartiality of potential jurors rests within the sound discretion of the trial court. People v. Johnson (1976), 43 Ill. App.3d 649, 357 N.E.2d 151.

All of the jurors actually selected in this case stated they could render a fair and impartial verdict in accordance with the evidence presented in court. The trial court was satisfied with the truth of the jurors' statements, and we find no reason to differ with that judgment. The fact many potential jurors were excused for cause does not indicate that the jurors actually selected were prejudiced, but merely demonstrates the care which the court exercised in assuring defendant a fair and impartial jury. Speck; People v. Berry (1967), 37 Ill.2d 329, 226 N.E.2d 591.

• 2 Although the murder was widely publicized, most of the publicity consisted of routine factual accounts which were published many months before the trial began. (See Berry; People v. Driver (1978), 60 Ill. App.3d 381, 376 N.E.2d 803.) Moreover, defendant in the instant case admitted shooting his ex-wife, and the only issue at trial was whether he possessed the requisite mental state at the time of the crime. The effect of pretrial publicity on the jury's determination of such an issue may well be minimal. We believe defendant was tried by a fair and impartial jury and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying a change of venue.

Defendant next contends he was denied his right to an impartial jury by the improper conduct of the trial court during the voir dire examination. Defendant claims the trial court improperly propounded leading and suggestive questions to the veniremen, that it improperly restricted defense counsel's questioning of the veniremen, that it improperly admonished defense counsel in the presence of the jury, and that it improperly advised the jury that defendant would not receive the death penalty.

We have considered the entire record of the trial court's voir dire examination, and we find no impropriety. The record indicates the trial court properly questioned the potential jurors to determine if each one would be able to reach a fair and impartial verdict on the evidence. The trial court did not improperly restrict defense counsel's examination of the jurors, nor did it improperly admonish defense counsel in the presence of the jury. Furthermore, it was not error for the trial court to correct a juror's misimpression concerning imposition of the death penalty. People v. Dewey (1969), 42 Ill.2d 148, 246 N.E.2d 232; People v. Lykins (1978), 65 Ill. App.3d 808, 382 N.E.2d 1242, aff'd (1979), 77 Ill.2d 35, 394 N.E.2d 1182.

Defendant also contends the trial court erred in denying his motion for a mistrial based on juror prejudice. Near the end of the trial defendant moved for a mistrial on the grounds that one of the jurors had previously expressed a strong dislike of defendant. During an in-chambers examination by the trial court, the juror denied making any statements about the defendant or being prejudiced against him. Nevertheless, the State moved to discharge the juror, arguing that the juror might be disturbed by the accusation against her and as a result might be prejudiced against the State. The juror was allowed to return to the jury room, but was subsequently removed from the jury and did not take part in its deliberations, although this fact was disregarded in defendant's lengthy brief.

• 3 We do not believe the court erred in denying defendant's motion for a mistrial, particularly in light of the juror's subsequent discharge from the jury. The juror denied having any prejudice against defendant, and there is nothing to indicate she discussed the accusation against her or her reaction to it with any of the other jurors. As the State's request to discharge the juror indicates, there is serious question as to whether the juror's reaction to the accusation against her would have been of detriment to the State or the defendant or of no consequence at all. We believe the trial court properly excused the juror prior to the jury's deliberations and properly denied defendant's motion for mistrial.

Defendant's second major contention on appeal is that he was denied his right to defend and to cross-examine witnesses by the improper restrictions placed by the trial court on the scope of his direct and cross-examinations. Defendant refers to at least 20 instances of allegedly improper rulings by the trial court, and urges us to consider the entire record, which defendant ...

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