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People v. Meeker





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Jasper County; the Hon. GEORGE W. KASSERMAN, JR., Judge, presiding.


Defendant, Don Charles Meeker, was charged by information with arson and burglary (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 38, pars. 19-1, 20-1), involving the destruction by fire of the Hidalgo Independent Christian Church, Hidalgo, Illinois. Following a jury trial in the circuit court of Jasper County defendant was convicted on both counts and sentenced to a single term of six years imprisonment. On appeal he raises three issues: (1) whether he was proved sane beyond a reasonable doubt; (2) whether the trial court's refusal of defendant's tendered jury instruction regarding the consequences of a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity caused the jury to convict him because they believed he would be set free otherwise; and (3) whether defendant's burglary conviction must fail for lack of proof that his entry into the church was unauthorized.

First, we consider whether defendant was proved sane beyond a reasonable doubt. A person is not criminally responsible for conduct by reason of insanity if at the time of such conduct, as a result of mental disease or mental defect, he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 38, pars. 6-2(a), 1005-1-11.) This is, to say the least, a "vexed question," (Ill. Ann. Stat., ch. 38, par. 6-2, Committee Comments, at 326 (Smith-Hurd 1972)), and each case must necessarily be decided on its own facts and circumstances. (United States v. McCracken (5th Cir. 1974), 488 F.2d 406.) What follows below is defendant's version of the church fire and the events leading up to it summarized from his testimony at trial and a lengthy statement he gave to an arson investigator several hours after the fire. The statement was tape recorded and was played to the jury at trial.

The idea of burning down the church first came to defendant while he was speaking to his mental health counselor at Carbondale. Days later, after walking on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, he decided that if he was ever to return to college or lead a normal life he would have to "deal with the incest that hangs over my life." He bought four five-gallon gasoline cans and three screwdrivers (to be used to force entry to the church) at a Central Hardware Store on Lindberg Avenue in St. Louis. That night at a St. Louis filling station he had an attendant fill the cans without removing them from the trunk of his car. Some gas spilled in the trunk. Defendant was concerned that he could not smoke cigars with the trunk open; he placed a wetted "cover" over the cans to deaden gasoline fumes. Driving toward Hidalgo he stopped in Vandalia at about 1:15 a.m. and refuelled his car, spending $9. He stopped at a "76" truck stop in Effingham where he ate a butter roll with coffee and orange juice. When he reached Hidalgo he parked the car behind an evergreen tree west of the church. He took a 10-minute walk, smoking his pipe. Then he entered the church. The door was not locked. He poured out all four cans of gasoline at the wall that separated the sanctuary from the other half of the church, intending for that entire structure to be destroyed. He poured a gasoline trail to the center of the sanctuary and lit it with a yellow lighter ("colors of Communism"). There was an explosion which surrounded him with flames and blew out the church windows and doors. He drove to the county jail at Newton where he removed from his car his luggage packed with tobacco and other items for his stay at the jail. He parked his car across the square and waited there to give the church time to burn. When he saw a fire truck leave he returned to the jail and told the sheriff he had set fire to the church.

Defendant explained at length the events over several years which led to the church fire. When he was 16 years old three well-respected neighbors saw him in bed with his sister. Both were unclothed but they were not touching. He felt he had had "that incest hanging over me ever since." He felt a consequent hostility in the community prevented him from living a normal life. This caused him to set four or five fires, each of which, he felt, had helped to alleviate his problem relating to incest.

Defendant stated he had spent the last seven years in and out of mental hospitals. He called the medications forced on him there "torture." The drugs caused him intense sexual fantasies such as homosexual promiscuity and severing his penis. He knew each fire would bring commitment to a hospital and more drug "torture." He perceived three possible results from burning the church. First, since he was on probation he might be sent to the prison farm at Vandalia. Second, he might be sent to the State mental hospital at Chester. Third, he might get his version of the incest story publicized — a goal he continually emphasized. He thought the possible prison sentence for arson was one to 20 years and that a sentence of five to 10 years was quite possible. If convicted he expected to be placed in the psychiatric ward at Menard, a result he greatly feared. He did expect the church fire to cause some shift in community attitude regarding the incest as he perceived each previous fire had done.

According to defendant, about two months before the near-incest, his father started "beating my mother insane." She had been in and out of mental institutions since then and was under heavy medication.

Defendant stated his high school record was very good — "straight A" — and that he wanted to go to a good college. His father insisted he go to Eastern Illinois University, an alternative defendant found unacceptable. In 1965, "as a kind of call for help," he set fire to his father's warehouse and shot himself in the shoulder with a .22-caliber rifle. "And by that I did get myself a college education." After a stay at Renard mental hospital in St. Louis he attended Washington University for three years. He achieved straight A's his freshman year and a B average in his sophomore year because of extracurricular activities. In the third year "my incest started catching up with me." He left college in 1970, going to live in a farmhouse owned by his father. In 1971 he set that house on fire "with a heavy atmosphere of incest hanging around * * *." He spent the next three months in two mental hospitals, Renard and St. Vincent's. After he returned home his brother told him that one Mick Healey had said defendant and his sister had had mutual oral-genital contact. Defendant shot Healey's house windows out with a shotgun, aiming high to avoid the occupants. On the way he shot his own family's dog. Defendant spent the next seven months in the Alton State mental hospital. While there he cut his wrists. After his return home he took $1200 from his father and drove to San Diego where he lived in his car. When he ran out of money he returned home where he was injured in an automobile accident. He was taken to a hospital. He left wearing Bermuda shorts and a small blanket. The police found him and took him to jail ("I must have looked a bit off"). He was placed in the State mental hospital at Anna for 13 months, his stay ending in 1974. When he came home he spent one month in a shelter-care home. He thought senior citizens there were deliberately trying to annoy him. He found the place intolerable and in 1975 burned down his family's residence. A criminal prosecution was initiated. He was found unfit to stand trial with the result that he was committed to the State mental hospital at Chester for 13 months and Anna for six months. In February 1977 he pleaded guilty to arson regarding the 1975 fire and was sentenced to three years probation. He moved to Carbondale where he attended a mental health clinic until just before the church fire.

During defendant's 13-month stay at Chester he was advised to get his version of the incest story out into the community and see whether anyone believed him. When he was released he asked the Jasper County State's Attorney for a trial for incest. He was refused. He also called the Attorney General's office in Springfield, Illinois, in an attempt to get an incest trial. He was again refused. He asked the pastor of the church to let him tell his version of the incest story before the congregation. He was refused. He stated in his taped statement: "In other words, he sort of sentenced me to be damned for the rest of your life. And so, as a symbolic gesture, I set fire to the church last night."

At trial defendant testified he "had to" set the church fire to get his version of the incest story out in the open. He did not want to go to a mental institution, "but I don't know of any other way to have dealt with the problem." He knew it was unlawful to burn down a church. Questioned why, with his awareness of the law and consequences, he set fire to the church, he testified, "I felt I didn't have any choice." When he decided while in St. Louis that the time had come to set the church fire he went to bed for two days. When he awoke the day before the fire he packed a suitcase and a duffel bag "full of stuff I would need in the county jail," including clothing, shampoo, toothpaste, tobacco and cigars.

Samuel Nick Carter, a Jasper County sheriff's deputy, testified he received a call that the church was burning at 3:58 a.m. About 4:30 he saw defendant leave his luggage on the ground near the jail building. Defendant stated in response to Carter's shouted question that he would probably be moving in with him. Later, defendant returned, picked up his bags, carried them inside the jail, and stated he had burned the church. Sheriff Mulvey's testimony regarding defendant's two visits to the jail corroborated that of his deputy.

Helen Meeker, defendant's aunt, testified regarding defendant's long history of mental illness. She related numerous incidents from defendant's past of an eccentric or bizarre nature. She stated that during arguments between defendant and his father regarding defendant's college choice defendant received head injuries when he was pushed through a glass door. She testified that after defendant burned down the farmhouse he told her he had wanted a different heater and that the one he had had there was not pleasing to him. She testified defendant's mother and one sister had had mental treatment.

Two expert witnesses testified at trial regarding defendant's mental condition. Dale Sunderland testified for defendant. He testified he had practiced psychiatry, his specialty, since 1967. He was not certified by the American Board of Psychiatry. He had examined defendant for about 40 minutes two weeks before trial to determine whether he was sane when he set the church fire. Defendant wanted to tell his story in open court — not about the fire but about the incest. Sunderland classified defendant's disorder as schizophrenia, either chronic or differentiated type. He found defendant exhibited poor judgment, poor logic, and bad insight, and had difficulty conforming to society and reality. In Sunderland's opinion, at the time of the fire, defendant could not appreciate the criminality of his actions and could not conform his actions to that area of the law. Sunderland was sure defendant knew burning a building was unlawful. Sunderland stated that despite that awareness defendant was capable of deluding himself and rationalizing his unlawful action. The State's Attorney asked Sunderland to assume defendant told him that if a State trooper had come by when he was preparing to burn the church, he would not have burned it. Sunderland responded that even if defendant made such a statement, it did not show defendant would have waited had a trooper passed by.

Edward Rowan testified for the State in rebuttal as an expert witness. A practicing psychiatrist since 1967, he was certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. He had examined defendant for an hour and 20 minutes about five weeks before trial. He agreed with Sunderland that defendant's affliction was a form of schizophrenia, though he differed as to type. In his opinion, defendant at the time of the church fire was able to appreciate the criminal nature of his conduct. Rowan cited the fact that defendant packed his luggage and expected to go to jail, conduct which showed that defendant knew the act was wrong and expected to be arrested for it. Rowan was also of the opinion that at the time defendant burned the church he was able to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. Rowan noted in this regard defendant's answer to Rowan's question as to what defendant would have done if a deputy sheriff or someone else had come along while he was pouring the gasoline. Defendant answered that if someone had come along he would not have done it, that he would have waited until the "coast was clear." Dr. Rowan also stated that mental illness in a medical sense did not necessarily prevent a person from ...

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