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People v. Sangster

OPINION FILED APRIL 22, 1981.

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

WILLIE T. SANGSTER, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Macon County; the Hon. ROBERT J. STEIGMANN, Judge, presiding.

MR. PRESIDING JUSTICE TRAPP DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

The jury found the defendant accountable for murder, armed robbery, and aggravated kidnapping, and the trial judge sentenced him to consecutive terms of 40, 30, and 15 years respectively. On appeal the defendant argues that the evidence is insufficient to sustain his conviction, that prejudicial evidence, a letter, was admitted, that the prosecutor made improper comments during closing arguments, and that the imposition of consecutive rather than concurrent prison terms was incorrect. We affirm the convictions and find no error with regard to the letter and closing arguments, but agree with the defendant that accomplices may not be given consecutive sentences under the statute in question.

At about 8 a.m. December 14, 1978, two persons alleged to be Bernice and Cornelius Lewis, siblings, robbed the Citizens National Bank in Decatur of $62,061.32. They attacked a van used to transport tellers from the main building to a branch bank a short distance away and seized the money transported in black suitcases. The guard who drove the van was shot and killed, and the Lewises took several of the suitcases. They drove a car they had stolen earlier that morning; the owner of the car, a woman, was locked in the trunk.

Although the defendant himself did not physically participate in the commission of the crimes he was accountable for what happened through planning the robbery and recruiting the principals. The State therefore had to prove the commission of the crimes and the defendant's prior or contemporaneous aid. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 38, par. 5-2(c).) The bulk of the evidence against the defendant came from two witnesses, Maurice Farris and Margaret Morgan; Farris was the driver in the robbery and received complete immunity in exchange for his testimony. The Lewises, implicated by Farris' testimony, slept at Morgan's house several nights, and she drove them out of Decatur after the robbery. Morgan was not immunized. The defendant did not testify.

Farris described in detail the planning and commission of the crime. He lived in a basement apartment in the defendant's home. According to Farris' testimony, the defendant recruited him to drive a car in the robbery. The defendant explained to Farris the morning routine at the bank and showed him the route the Lewises were to drive, where the Lewises were to abandon their car, and where they were to rendezvous with Farris.

Morgan testified that the defendant asked her to lodge two persons, the Lewises, for several nights in the middle of December. The morning of the robbery the Lewises sat in Morgan's house counting money; then at the Lewises' request, she delivered a paper bag to the barber shop where the defendant worked. She did not look inside the bag. That night Morgan drove the Lewises to a bus station in Davenport, Iowa. Several weeks later the defendant twice spoke to Morgan about these events, describing the Lewises as dangerous persons and reassuring Morgan that she would be safe.

The State introduced other evidence that the defendant knew the Lewises. Telephone bills showed long distance calls from Farris' and the defendant's telephones to Bernice Lewis' and Cornelius Lewis' respective residences during the middle of December 1978. It should be noted that Farris testified that the defendant had access to his phone. Admitted into evidence over defense counsel's objection was a letter written by the defendant to Cornelius Lewis in April 1978; the testimony of FBI handwriting and fingerprint experts established that the defendant had written this letter. Sharon Bowen testified for the State; she lived with Cornelius Lewis from April 1976 through December 1978, and accompanied Cornelius to Decatur in April 1976. At that time they met with the defendant, whom Bowen identified in court. Cornelius Lewis did not see, telephone, or write the defendant frequently. Bowen did not know whether Cornelius received any letters from the defendant during the time she lived with him.

• 1 The defendant first argues that he was not proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, attacking the strength of Farris' and Morgan's testimony. Because Farris was an accomplice in the crime, his testimony must be regarded with "skepticism and suspicion." It is urged that the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice:

"* * * is fraught with serious weaknesses such as the promise of leniency or immunity and malice toward the accused. (People v. Gleitsmann (1935), 361 Ill. 165.) Such testimony should be subject to careful scrutiny, `acted upon with great caution' (People v. LaCoco (1950), 406 Ill. 303, 313), and have the `absolute conviction of the truth' (People v. Zaeske (2d Dist. 1966), 67 Ill. App.2d 115, 121). It is also true that whether accomplice testimony, corroborated or uncorroborated, is a satisfactory basis for conviction goes to the weight of the evidence and is, therefore, in the province of the jury or the court." People v. Wilson (1977), 66 Ill.2d 346, 349, 362 N.E.2d 291, 292.

The State correctly points out that Morgan could not have been held accountable for the principal offenses and thus the weaknesses of accomplice testimony do not affect her own. Although the Lewises stayed at her home two nights preceding the robbery, nothing indicates that she knew their criminal purpose. At most, she was an accessory after the fact for driving the Lewises to Iowa when she had reason to suspect that they had robbed the bank. For accessories after the fact, the jury need not receive an instruction on accomplice testimony. (People v. Malcom (1973), 14 Ill. App.3d 378, 302 N.E.2d 352; People v. Coddington (1970), 123 Ill. App.2d 351, 259 N.E.2d 382.) Morgan's testimony was impeached, however, with her prior inconsistent statements. Although she denied it at trial, Morgan told the public defender in February 1980 that she had been under the impression that the police wanted her to implicate the defendant.

As Wilson suggested, Illinois follows the common law rule that uncorroborated accomplice testimony may be sufficient to convict. (People v. Hermens (1955), 5 Ill.2d 277, 125 N.E.2d 500.) Yet the courts> repeatedly emphasize that accomplice testimony is weak stuff; it is "inherently suspect" (People v. Outlaw (1979), 75 Ill. App.3d 626, 394 N.E.2d 541), should be viewed "with caution and suspicion" (People v. Kiel (1979), 75 Ill. App.3d 1030, 394 N.E.2d 883), and is to be relied on only with the "utmost caution" (People v. West (1977), 54 Ill. App.3d 903, 370 N.E.2d 265), for the accomplice's credibility is "subject to inherent doubt" (People v. Seymour (1977), 53 Ill. App.3d 367, 368 N.E.2d 1018). To be sure, leniency and rewards do not by themselves automatically raise a reasonable doubt. (People v. Pavelich (1979), 76 Ill. App.3d 779, 395 N.E.2d 202; People v. Yancey (1978), 57 Ill. App.3d 256, 372 N.E.2d 1069.) In this case Farris was given total immunity for his testimony.

During the several days immediately following the robbery Farris was questioned. The police continually mentioned the defendant, but Farris mentioned then that the defendant had not been involved in the crimes. Farris feared greatly for his own life. He thought that if he went to trial he would be sentenced to death. Farris did not implicate himself until March 1979 when the police suggested that if he revealed all he knew they might grant him immunity in exchange for his testimony. Although the promised immunity was complete, Farris' testimony had to fulfill certain conditions. He was told that he would not be immunized if it developed that he had shot anyone that morning. When he gave the police his statement Farris believed that implicating the defendant was crucial to the agreement. Also, he had been informed that a chemical test on both his hands showed that he may have fired a gun with his left. Farris was also permitted to examine all the information on the crime before giving his statement. This information included Morgan's statement, the telephone bills, and the results of the laboratory test on his hands.

• 2 It is for the jury to determine the credibility of Farris and Morgan. The evidence is not so implausible or improbable as to suggest a reasonable doubt of guilt.

The defendant next argues that the trial judge erred by allowing into evidence a letter written by the defendant to Cornelius Lewis in April 1978. The prosecutor read ...


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