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People v. Despain





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Kendall County; the Hon. WILSON D. BURNELL, Judge, presiding.


Leroy Despain was convicted of murder, following a jury trial, and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. He appeals, contending only that he was not proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Defendant argues that the State's evidence is entirely circumstantial, both as to the criminal agency and as to defendant's involvement in the death of Margaret Lawton; and that the evidence does not clearly and convincingly show his guilt, but is consistent with a hypothesis of innocence.

On October 4, 1978, Dale Henricksen, a farmer in Kendall County, while "combining" his cornfield near Route 47, observed an object between corn rows, "raised the combine and went over it." He thought it was an animal of some kind whose legs were sticking out from a decaying blanket. He directed Tom Pedersen, an employee, to "disk" the cornfield, and, specifically to "disk" the object he had seen and "check it out." Pedersen testified that he did not see anything unusual while he was disking and asked Henricksen to describe the location; he then got off the tractor, found some papers and then the body, later identified as Margaret Lawton.

Pedersen also testified that at about 2:15 p.m. approximately two to four weeks before the body was found he had a conversation with the person whom he identified as defendant; that defendant, in a car, stopped in front of Pedersen's house, asked and received directions to Indianapolis. This was 300-400 yards west of the place where the body was found. The witness recalled this some two days before the trial. He said the person he described to the state's attorney and police was driving a "blue" car.

An officer testified that, on October 4, 1978, Pedersen showed him the body, located 326 yards from Route 47 which ran past the cornfield. It had been there for "quite some time." It was "badly decomposed," and parts of the skeleton were "scattered about." A spring-loaded silver clip held together some personal papers which showed the victim's name and address. Included was Margaret Lawton's receipt for her driver's license application. Another officer testified that he removed two beads which were imbedded in the flesh of the body.

Later, in Margaret Lawton's apartment, officers found the title to a 1970 Pontiac, registered to the victim, and various other papers and objects.

Dr. Morgan, a dentist and forensic odontologist, examined the bones and skull of the victim as well as previous X rays of the head and spine of Margaret Lawton. In his opinion, the X rays and the jawbone and skull all belonged to the same individual. It was also stipulated that a serologist would testify that hair strands on combs and brushes found in Lawton's apartment were similar to hairs found on the victim's body. A rib bone fragment found in the victim's clothes was examined and a forensic scientist gave the opinion that the victim had type "A" blood.

The defendant, claiming to be "Jerry Keller," was arrested after a traffic violation in Campbellsville, Kentucky, on September 10, 1978, driving a white-over-blue 1970 Pontiac. Police officers testified that defendant had no identification papers for himself or the car; the car was later established to have belonged to Margaret Lawton; that defendant said he was in Kentucky to visit his parents and claimed to have purchased the car from a man in an Aurora bar, named "Olson," who was to have mailed him the bill of sale or registration. An officer recognized defendant as a previous neighbor in Campbellsville he knew as Leroy Despain, but defendant said his name was "Keller." At the Campbellsville police station defendant asked an officer to obtain his shirt and cigarettes seen by the officers in the back seat of the car. The defendant's sister testified that defendant had long used the name "Jerry Keller."

After the car was returned to Kendall County, investigating officers found a number of personal items including photographs, books, records, pots and pans in the trunk of the automobile which had belonged to Margaret Lawton.

Various blood stains were found on the upholstery, door posts and interior of the car, including papers which, on examination, were found to contain type "A" human blood. A stain on the cuff of a black shirt found in the car was also determined to contain type "A" human blood.

The coroner testified that the investigation had been unable to determine the cause of death; that while numerous fractures were found, it was assumed that these could have been caused when the disk ran over the body.

The State produced a number of witnesses to show the familiarity of the victim and the defendant. Carolyn Salewski, a bartender at the Fife and Drum Tavern, testified to the victim's habit of coming into the tavern after work and spending most of the evening at the tavern. There was other testimony that Margaret Lawton regularly came into the tavern, which was across the street from her residence, that she would leave to eat dinner and then come back, usually staying until around 9:30 or 10 p.m. There was testimony that the victim was not a heavy drinker and would sometimes not drink at all while in the bar. Salewski testified that she saw the victim and the defendant approximately three times. She testified that she last saw the victim about two or three weeks before the police came to interview her about the victim's death. Another witness testified that he saw the victim and the defendant together in the bar once in September, that they left together and that this was approximately three or four weeks before the police came to interview the witness about the death. Another witness testified that the last time she saw the victim, the defendant was in the bar and he came over to have a drink with the victim. She testified that it was approximately 1 1/2 to two months between the disappearance of the victim and the time when police interviewed her about the victim's death.

The manager of the apartment house in Aurora where Margaret Lawton was a resident from 1974 to 1978 testified that some time after her disappearance a black male possessing a front door key to Leland Towers came into the lobby, went directly to the mailboxes located on one side of the lobby and used a key to open the box for Room 904, Margaret Lawton's mailbox, and removed her mail. He then asked the manager if he would let him through the door allowing access to the elevators so that he could deliver Margaret Lawton's mail to her apartment as he said he had been requested. The manager refused. The manager testified to having seen a picture, but the context of the testimony did not clearly show that he was referring to a photograph of the black man rather than the defendant. When he answered the person's request as to what he should do with the victim's mail, by stating that he should put it back in the mailbox, the person did put it back in the mailbox and walked out of the lobby saying something about being hired to answer Margaret Lawton's phone and answer her mail. There is testimony that the individual waved to or greeted another tenant in the building, a "Reverend" Wesby who, when ...

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