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People v. Watson





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Champaign County; the Hon. HAROLD L. JENSEN, Judge, presiding.


The defendant was convicted of the involuntary manslaughter of 23-month-old Shalita Stewart. He was sentenced to 2 years' imprisonment.

Shalita died of an infection which resulted from burns suffered while she was under the defendant's care. Medical testimony showed that Shalita suffered circumferential burns on her lower extremities caused by immersion in a hot liquid. She had no burns above the waist. Very few of her burns were splash burns, i.e., those that might be caused by the splashing of a hot liquid.

Several witnesses at trial testified regarding the defendant's out-of-court statements. Shalita was burned on September 3, 1980. Shortly after Shalita was admitted to the hospital on that date, the defendant spoke with a registered nurse there. The defendant told the nurse that, at the time of Shalita's accident, a pan of eggs was boiling on the stove. The defendant heard another child in the apartment crying and went to investigate. When the defendant left the kitchen, Shalita apparently pulled the pan of boiling water off of the stove and onto herself.

Also on September 3, the defendant told a hospital social worker a somewhat different story. Shalita and her brother were in the bathroom. The toilet overflowed. While the defendant went into the bathroom to see what was going on, Shalita went into the kitchen. There, she grabbed a pan of boiling eggs and tipped the contents of the pan onto herself.

On September 4, 1980, a Department of Children and Family Services' investigator for Child Protective Services visited the defendant at home. The defendant related the previous days' events to the investigator. The defendant and Shalita were in the bathroom. When the defendant flushed the toilet, it overflowed. While he was cleaning up, he heard a scream coming from the kitchen area. There, he found Shalita sitting on the kitchen floor with a pot, that had formerly held boiling water and eggs, overturned between her legs. Water and eggs were on the floor. The defendant wrapped Shalita in a blanket and put her on the sofa. Then he went downstairs to ask a neighbor to call an ambulance and to call Shalita's mother. When the investigator entered the kitchen, she observed a ring of a sticky substance on the kitchen floor along with some eggshells. The defendant showed her a two-quart sauce pan with a handle which had, according to the defendant, contained the eggs. The ring of sticky substance was located in front of the stove. The circumference of the pot fit the circumference of the ring on the floor.

The paramedic from the ambulance service who answered the call about Shalita also testified. He stated that, when he drove up to the house, he was told that a baby had been burned and was inside. When he entered the house, he looked into the kitchen area but did not notice any water or a pan on the floor.

On appeal, the defendant argues that the admission of his out-of-court statements resulted in improper impeachment by contradiction. The defendant's characterization of this evidence is incorrect. As the defendant did not testify, he could not be impeached.

• 1 The defendant's various versions of how Shalita's injury occurred were attempts to absolve himself of any blame. He told several people that Shalita pulled a pan of water off of the stove and onto herself. However, Shalita's burns were not of the type which would result from the splashing of hot liquid. Also, the paramedic testified that he saw no water or pan on the floor. Thus, other evidence presented at trial showed the falsity of the defendant's out-of-court statements. A defendant's false exculpatory statement has independent probative value as evidence of consciousness of guilt and is admissible. (People v. Mitchell (1975), 35 Ill. App.3d 151, 341 N.E.2d 153.) Therefore, we find that the trial court did not err when it admitted these false exculpatory statements into evidence.

The defendant next claims that the evidence was insufficient to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of involuntary manslaughter.

A reviewing court will not set aside a guilty verdict unless the evidence is so palpably contrary to the verdict or so unreasonable, improbable, or unsatisfactory as to create a reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the accused. (People v. Vriner (1978), 74 Ill.2d 329, 385 N.E.2d 671.) After a careful review of the record, we find the verdict to be supported by the evidence. Medical testimony showed that the child had been immersed in a hot liquid. There was no evidence to support any other theory as to how the injury occurred. Shalita was under the sole care of the defendant at the time she was injured.

In his closing argument, the prosecutor referred to defendant's out-of-court statements. He said, "what we do have in the way of explanation of how these burns took place to her is a totally unbelievably, at best improbable tale. Realistically and based upon the medical testimony you have heard, an out-and-out lie what was told [sic]." A defense objection to this statement was overruled. The prosecutor made several other references to the improbability of defendant's version of events and also constructed a scenario regarding the origins of Shalita's immersion burns. The defendant argues that the prosecutor's closing argument was improper and unduly prejudicial.

• 2, 3 While we would wish for more restraint and less theatrics from the prosecutor, we do not find the State's closing argument to be improper or unduly prejudicial. As the medical evidence so completely refuted defendant's out-of-court statements, legitimate inferences could be drawn to suggest that the defendant was lying. The prosecutor's closing argument was properly based upon evidence in the record and legitimate inferences therefrom. (People v. Mitchell (1975), 35 Ill. App.3d 151, 341 N.E.2d 153; People v. Bost (1980), 80 Ill. App.3d 933, 400 N.E.2d 734.) The scope, substance, and style of closing argument must be left to the discretion of the trial court, who is in a superior position to determine the real effect of any statement which might be considered prejudicial. (People v. Bloodworth (1979), 68 Ill. App.3d 341, 385 N.E.2d 904.) In the case at bar, we find no abuse by the trial court of this discretion.

The defendant next argues that the trial judge improperly granted the State's motion to excuse a juror who had already been selected and sworn; the basis for the motion was the juror's failure during voir dire to reveal the ...

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