Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Second District; heard
in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County,
Hon. John L. Hughes, Judge, presiding.
JUSTICE SIMON DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
Defendant, Nola Jean Weaver, a high school physical education teacher, was convicted by a jury of the Lake County circuit court of the murder of her husband, Larry Weaver. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 38, par. 9-1(a).) She was sentenced to serve 40 to 60 years in prison. On appeal, the conviction was reversed and the cause remanded for a new trial. (90 Ill. App.3d 299.) We granted the People's petition for leave to appeal and now affirm the appellate court's judgment.
Defendant's first contention is that she was not proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Unlike many contentions of this type that reach this court, her argument is not frivolous, and therefore it must be addressed with much care.
The evidence was entirely circumstantial. At approximately 1:30 a.m., on December 5, 1977, Cindy Goodfellow, the defendant's next-door neighbor, was awakened by the defendant, who was clad only in a nightgown and carrying her 9-year-old daughter, knocking loudly on the front door of the Goodfellow residence. Mrs. Goodfellow described the defendant as "full of panic and scared to death." The defendant told her there was a fire at her home and asked her to call the fire department and the police. She also said there were two men in her house with guns. The details of what the defendant said about these men, however, were, on the State's motion, excluded from Mrs. Goodfellow's testimony as hearsay. Mrs. Goodfellow said she called the fire department and then looked out her window at the Weaver home, but saw nothing unusual, only a dark house.
The police and fire department arrived shortly. Police officers testified that they entered the home through the slightly ajar sliding glass door, the one that the defendant and her daughter used in leaving the house. Finding the door to the master bedroom to be hot to the touch, they called in the firefighters. The firemen broke the bedroom window from the outside and entered through that window. They found the bed glowing with a smoldering fire, which they extinguished with a hand-held extinguisher and a stream of water from a 1 1/2-inch fire hose. On the right side of the bed, the body of the defendant's husband, Larry Weaver, was found, lying on its back. He had been shot in the head.
Police looked around the house for evidence of what had happened. They found all the doors were locked from the inside except the sliding door the defendant had exited. There were no visible signs of tampering with either the windows or the doors. Nothing in the house was disturbed; papers on the desk were stacked in neat piles. In the garage, they found two cars, a 1975 Ford and a 1973 Oldsmobile. An officer raised the hood and felt the engine blocks of both cars. The Ford was cold to the touch, but the Oldsmobile was warm. Inside the Oldsmobile, the floor around the driver's seat was wet, presumably from melted snow tracked into the car. Its seat was in a full forward position. It was later learned the victim was 6 feet tall and the defendant 5 feet and 7 inches. A thorough search of the house, including the basement and the crawl space, did not reveal any gun or .22-caliber ammunition, even though Larry Weaver was known to have owned a .22-caliber rifle at least as late as a month and a half before his murder. The car and the house were dusted for fingerprints. None were found. Outside, Mrs. Weaver's eyeglasses were found in the snow in the area of the yard closest to the Goodfellow residence. Although other footprints in the snow were also found by police leading from the back of the house to the garage, not the route the defendant would have taken in her escape, no casts were made.
The State theorized that the defendant killed her husband with his own .22 rifle while he was sleeping, with bullets she obtained herself, perhaps in Arkansas, a State that does not require a gun owner's license to purchase bullets. The family had spent Thanksgiving there. She then drove to some unknown place to dispose of the weapon and returned to burn his body. After starting the fire, she awakened her daughter and carried her over to the Goodfellow home. On her way to the Goodfellow's, aware that the fact she had her glasses on might be incriminating, she dropped them in the snow.
The State presented evidence that the defendant was unhappy in her marriage to the victim. The victim's sister testified that, a few weeks after the murder, the defendant told her that she had had an affair with the athletic director of the high school where she worked.
Evidence was also introduced that the defendant and her sister's husband, Dennis Johnston, shared some sort of a relationship which Judy Johnston, the defendant's sister, and Larry Weaver had attempted to put a stop to. On the witness stand, Dennis Johnston testified that he had been infatuated with the defendant, but because of the infatuation had moved out of the Weaver house, which he and his wife had shared with the Weavers during the summer of 1977 when the Johnstons first moved to Illinois. He also testified that on October 16, 1977, less than two months before the murder, on the day after he and his wife moved out, the Weavers came to visit them in their new apartment and that Mrs. Weaver had a red mark under her eye. The victim told him that he had beaten the defendant. He emphasized that he had beaten her, not just hit her. She had broken away from him and retrieved his rifle from the closet. According to the victim, neither he nor the defendant believed the rifle was loaded; the defendant was merely using it as a symbol. Mr. Weaver thought she was fully justified. When he grabbed the gun from her, however, it went off and a bullet lodged in the ceiling of the bedroom.
Police later found this bullet. It was not the same sort of bullet that killed the victim. The bullet used to kill the victim was copper covered, and manufacturers never mix such bullets. It was impossible to tell whether it was fired from the same gun. The State theorized that the defendant had to buy new bullets to kill her husband after this incident, because her husband threw away the bullets he had on hand.
Additionally, the State introduced evidence that the defendant would be financially benefited by her husband's death, or at least not substantially burdened. She had a $70,000 insurance policy on his life. They owned the home they lived in, a Florida condominium and land in Arkansas and had other assets.
In order to prove that the defendant and no other actually committed the murder, the State called on Dr. Euphil Choi, the pathologist who examined the victim's body. He testified that a bullet wound from a copper-covered .22 bullet was the cause of death and that the victim had probably died instantly. From the stipplings around the bullet hole, Dr. Choi determined the gun was very close, near contact, to the victim's head. Because he did not know what sort of gun was used in the shooting, he was unable to state exactly how close the gun was. The doctor also stated that the fire was started "very close in time" after the shooting, but defined "very close in time" to mean anywhere from a minute to an hour. This was consistent with the State's theory that the defendant disposed of the rifle between the shooting and the burning. On cross-examination, however, he admitted that in his grand jury testimony he had stated that the burns to the body occurred immediately after death. The doctor was unable to say whether the body was sitting, standing, or lying when the shot was fired.
The State also called on Michael Johnson, chief chemist of the Northern Illinois Police Crime Lab. He testified that he removed charred material from the legs of the victim. Upon analysis, he found it to consist of three layers of fabric: the bottom pajama material, the middle layer sheet material and the top layer white blanket material. This, the State argued, was consistent with its theory that Larry Weaver was asleep when he was shot. On cross-examination, it was admitted that, when the firemen were extinguishing the fire, they tossed burned debris out the window and that conceivably they could have thrown the material analyzed on the bed. Photographs of the bed, however, show the body in what appears to be a restful position, and ...