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People v. Merchel





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Jefferson County; the Hon. HARRY L. ZIEGLER, Judge, presiding. MME JUSTICE SPOMER DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Defendant, Arthur Merchel, was convicted following a bench trial of the murder of Rodney Winfree. Pursuant to section 5-8-1(a)(1) of the Unified Code of Corrections (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 38, par. 1005-8-1(a)(1)), the sentencing judge found that the murder "was accompanied by exceptionally brutal or heinous behavior indicative of wanton cruelty," and on that basis sentenced the defendant to a term of natural life imprisonment. On appeal, defendant challenges the constitutionality of the natural life provision and the appropriateness of its application to his individual case.

The record reveals that defendant, convicted of forgery, was to turn himself in to authorities before December 28, 1978, in order to begin serving a term of imprisonment for that offense. On the morning of December 27, a friend, Charles Strope, came to defendant's apartment, in defendant's words, "to drink, 'cause it was my last day before I started serving my time." Strope was later given prosecution immunity for the occurrences of December 27 in exchange for his testimony, and his description of those events generally corresponded to that of defendant.

Strope testified that he had known defendant for about a year and they frequently went out drinking. At approximately 9 a.m. on December 27, he and the defendant drove from defendant's apartment to the Mt. Vernon Fairgrounds. Defendant spoke to several of the men working there, one of whom was Rodney Winfree. After a while, Strope and defendant left, but then returned to the fairgrounds again at about 11 a.m. Winfree got into the car with the two, and they drove to his house so Winfree could get money to buy some liquor. Before he left, Winfree told his boss that he would not be returning to work that day.

The three men spent 20 minutes at Winfree's residence. Winfree's wife testified that while the men were there defendant "kept saying that he wanted ten dollars and that if he didn't get it, he was going to beat the shit out of Rod." Mrs. Winfree gave her husband his billfold and a check for $80, which he was to cash at the bank in order to pay defendant the $10 and so Mrs. Winfree could commute to work.

The three men proceeded to a bank in Mt. Vernon at about 12 noon, where Winfree deposited $60 of the check his wife had given him. The men then went to a liquor store, where they bought two 12-packs of beer, and then continued to Winfree's sister's house at Winfree's behest. While there, something was said that upset the defendant. He described the visit in his testimony:

"We — I pulled up in the driveway; we all went in. I don't know who it was he was going to see or what, and he had mentioned some names that didn't strike well with me or Chuck, cause [sic] when the names was mentioned, I told Chuck, let's go, and he motioned his head, yeah, let's go. There was tension there, and from there we proceeded just ride around, wound up down at Nason."

During cross-examination defendant identified the name mentioned as Jewel Rich, and explained that had upset him because, "I had punched Jewel in the nose at the Spot Tavern here while [sic] back, and at that time I had heard that they was out to get me." Rich had also been involved in the forgery for which defendant was about to be incarcerated, but defendant denied that he thought Rodney was "setting him up:" "No, sir, I didn't think nothing like that. It just kind of hit me wrong, and we got in the car and left."

The three men drove south out of Mt. Vernon until they stopped at a cemetery in Nason, Illinois, where defendant's father was buried. After a few minutes the men drove away; Winfree said that he wanted to return to town, but the defendant said that he wanted to talk to him.

Defendant then drove to the Blue Gill Hole access area adjoining Rend Lake. Strope got out of the car and went to the bathroom; the other two men also got out of the car. When Strope returned, he heard Winfree ask the defendant, "What's the matter, what's wrong, what's the matter with you, or something." Strope then heard the defendant say that he wanted to talk to Winfree. The next thing Strope heard was "the sounds of the scuffle or fight." Strope turned and saw the defendant standing over Winfree, who was lying on the ground. He testified that defendant had apparently just hit Winfree, and that Winfree's face was bloody. Winfree then tried to get away, moving toward the woods. Defendant caught up with him, and the two men struggled down the hill toward the lake. Strope did not see Winfree hit the defendant at any time, as Winfree was trying to get away while defendant was hitting him.

Strope followed the two men down the hill, where they stopped approximately 10 feet from the lake. Defendant was still hitting Winfree. Strope testified that he went over to defendant and said, "What in the hell are you doing to this guy?" Defendant replied, "Hey, I'm not done talking to him." Winfree was then lying on the ground, and defendant was standing over him, striking him with his fist and kicking him in the ribs. Strope testified that as defendant administered the beating, Winfree appeared to be in a "state of semi-consciousness, bloody, his face and head was pretty bloody." Strope could not determine whether there were any wounds on Winfree's face or head, because the victim's head was "pretty well covered with blood."

Strope then returned to the car. About three minutes later, and some five to seven minutes after the men had arrived at the Blue Gill Hole, defendant returned to the car as well. He was wet and muddy. Strope asked where Winfree was, and defendant replied, "I knocked the son of a bitch out down there. He'll get a — he'll get a ride back to town." The two men then left the area.

Defendant gave a statement to police, and later testified, about the beating at Blue Gill Hole. In his statement, defendant said that he and Rodney Winfree engaged in name-calling, whereupon Winfree tried to kick him in the groin. Defendant explained what he then did:

"I then went to the car and got a tire tool out of the back floor board [sic] and hit Rodney in the back of his head. Rodney fell to the ground and I kicked him a few times. While I was kicking Rodney, Chuck came over and grabbed my arm and said let's go. Chuck and myself then got back into my car and we left."

Defendant's testimony at trial differed from his statement to police. He testified that a fight began between Charles Strope and the victim, that he had tried to stop it, and that he had become involved, hitting the victim with the tire iron only after the victim tried to kick him.

After the defendant and Strope left Blue Gill Hole, they soon stopped so they could go to the bathroom, and defendant said, "I think I might have killed him." Defendant then took off his muddy boots and threw them away. The two men drove to Mt. Vernon, where defendant purchased some beer. On reflection, Charles Strope found this unusual, because he had been under the impression that defendant had no money.

The body of Rodney Winfree was found by an employee of the Department of Conservation on December 28, the day after the beating. He found the body lying face down, the head in the water, with the feet just barely out of the water, touching the edge of the shore. When law enforcement officers arrived, they recovered the victim's wallet, which was on the ice some 20 feet from shore. A bank deposit slip was also found.

An autopsy of the body was performed by Dr. James Miller, a pathologist. He concluded that the cause of death was extensive injury to the brain (cerebral trauma) and the attendant swelling of the brain caused by the injury (cerebral edema). He concluded that the deceased was dead before his body entered the water.

Dr. Miller described abrasions, bruises, and lacerations on the back of the victim's hands, on his arms, his hips, and his face. He concluded that the wounds and bruises along the outer surface of both arms reflected "a defensive act rather than an aggressive act" — as if the victim were trying to ward off blows. Dr. Miller noted that the abrasions and wounds to the face and head were quite extensive. The autopsy revealed a "rather extensive hemorrhage in the posterior portion of the brain," accompanied by swelling of the brain's surface. There were also two lacerations on the side of the deceased's head, one of which extended "down to the skull." Both blows contributed to the cause of death.

Following defendant's conviction for murder, a sentencing hearing was held on July 2, 1979. No evidence in aggravation or mitigation was presented, and the prosecution recommended imposition of a natural life sentence. The trial court imposed that sentence. In the written judgment order, the court found that no mitigating factors were present, and found the following factors in aggravation: (1) defendant inflicted serious bodily injury; (2) defendant received compensation for committing the offense; (3) defendant had a prior history of criminal activity; and (4) the sentence was necessary to deter others. The judgment order also indicated that defendant was sentenced to a term of natural life imprisonment because the murder was accompanied by exceptionally brutal or heinous behavior indicative of wanton cruelty.

• 1 Following the filing of briefs on behalf of both parties in this court, the defendant pro se filed a supplemental brief, arguing that he was deprived of due process of law where the State elicited his waiver of Miranda rights by informing him that they were merely investigating a beating, when they knew the victim had died. We address this contention first.

Following discovery of the victim's body and preliminary investigation, two police officers questioned the defendant at the Vandalia Correctional Center. The officers told defendant they were investigating a ...

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