APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County; the Hon.
ROBERT C. GILL, Judge, presiding.
MR. JUSTICE UNVERZAGT DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
The defendant was convicted of arson and sentenced to four years probation. He appeals on the grounds that (1) the trial court erred in admitting evidence of three other fires, the prejudicial effect of which outweighed their probative value and (2) the evidence adduced at trial was not sufficient to prove the charge of arson beyond a reasonable doubt.
We agree with the defendant's contentions and reverse the conviction of the defendant.
The fire which was the basis of the information charging the defendant with arson occurred at about 6:15 a.m. on November 19, 1977, at an apartment building known as the Rock River Towers, 913 North Main Street, in Rockford. Prior to the commencement of trial, defense counsel presented a motion in limine to exclude any evidence of fires which occurred subsequent to that one. The motion was denied by the trial court on the ground that the subsequent fires could be relevant to show a pattern of conduct or design.
Thereafter, on trial, evidence was introduced of fires occurring on November 19, 1977, at 7 a.m., at a residence located at 1108 North Main Street, and on April 12, 1978, between 12:30 and 1 a.m., at a residence at 1112 North Main Street, and a second fire occurring at the Rock River Towers building.
The fire which the defendant was convicted of causing was discovered at about 6:15 a.m., on November 19, 1977, in an elevator and a front hall at the Rock River Towers apartment building.
Rick Rogers, the tenant of a third-floor apartment, had been host at a party which began about 1:30 a.m., and lasted until about 6 a.m. His guests were night people, musicians, bartenders and waitresses who worked until closing hours. During the course of the party, 30 or 40 people were in attendance.
The defendant, while not an acquaintance of the host, knew some of the people who were invited to the party and accompanied them to it. The party gradually wound down to about five or six persons by about 6 a.m. One of the female guests testified that she became annoyed with the defendant because he was "hanging around" and butting into a conversation between her and her sister. The girl asked Rogers, the host, to get the defendant to leave and Rogers told the defendant the party was over and he should leave. The defendant did so but immediately returned and demanded to know why he was being asked to leave. Another guest, Parlapiano, who was a friend of the host, told the defendant again to leave and "escorted" him to the door firmly and conducted him to the elevator. There was testimony that the defendant returned a third time and was again told to leave by Rogers and again escorted to the elevator by Parlapiano. There was no testimony indicating any violence or belligerence on either side. No threats were made by the defendant and he left quietly.
Within 10 to 15 minutes of defendant's departure, a fire alarm sounded in the building. The party guests stayed in the apartment until the firemen came and told them there was a fire in the building.
Ruth Snygg, an employee of the building, discovered the fire. She arrived at about 6:15 a.m. She unlocked the entrance door and immediately smelled smoke. She went to the basement and searched for the source of the odor. She pushed the elevator button and discovered flame and smoke in the elevator. She rushed upstairs and called the fire department. Two men passing the building rendered assistance and put out a fire in the front hall curtains.
Charles Parrovechio, of the Rockford fire department, testified as an expert in detecting the cause of fires, and said that in sifting through the debris on the floor of the burned elevator, he came to the conclusion that the fire was of incendiary origin. He could not give any reason for his conclusion and could not tell the source of the ignition. There was no evidence that an accelerant had been used. This witness was unable to determine the actual cause of the fire and there was no other evidence adduced that the fire was of an incendiary origin.
Evidence was introduced of another fire on the same morning at about 7 a.m., two blocks from the Rock River Towers at a residence at 1108 North Main Street. This location was next door to the house in which the defendant lived. A Rockford police officer found smoldering newspapers under a wooden porch. The officer testified he talked to the defendant at the scene. Another witness, George Ellis, testified he had seen the defendant that morning at about 8 a.m., at the scene of the fire, and the defendant's clothes smelled of smoke. However, Ellis, on cross-examination, said the smell was like that of a burning house.
The defendant was arrested on the morning of November 19 and questioned regarding the fire at Rock River Towers. He denied any responsibility for the fire. He was charged by information with arson. He was released on bail, a condition of the bond being that he remove himself from his apartment at 1112 North Main Street and move in with his parents at 1225 Cunningham Street.
On April 12, 1978, while the defendant was out of jail awaiting trial, two fires occurred, one at his former apartment building at 1112 North Main Street, and a second fire at the Rock River Towers. ...