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People v. Rhoads





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Brian L. Crowe, Judge, presiding.


Defendant David Rhoads was accused of killing his wife Vickie, and he was convicted upon retrial (see People v. Rhoads (1979), 73 Ill. App.3d 288), of murder (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 38, par. 9-1(a)) and arson (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 38, par. 20-1) after a trial by jury.

The crucial issue of fact at trial was whether defendant (who admitted that he tied up his wife and soaked her with gasoline while he was high on L.S.D.) acted with criminal intent when he started the fire that killed her, or whether, as he claimed, it was just an accident. The jury returned a verdict of guilty, and the trial court, entering judgment on the verdict, sentenced defendant to imprisonment for a term of 50 years to 50 years and a day.

Defendant now appeals from the results of his second trial, contending that the charges against him should be dismissed, or his convictions reversed, based on the following arguments:

(1) He was deprived of equal protection of the laws under the Federal Constitution (U.S. Const., amend. XIV, sec. 1), and was deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law under the Illinois Constitution (Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, sec. 2), when the trial court refused to calculate the speedy-trial term in this case with the new procedure established by Public Act 79-842 (codified at Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 38, par. 103-5(f)).

(2) The trial court erred when it admitted into evidence, under the dying declaration exception to the rule against hearsay, testimony about accusatory statements made by Vickie Rhoads concerning the circumstances under which she suffered her fatal injuries.

(3) Defendant's mother-in-law was permitted to give improper rebuttal testimony.

(4) The prosecutors made improper comments during closing arguments.

(5) The evidence is not sufficient to prove defendant guilty of murder and arson beyond a reasonable doubt.

Based on the reasoning set forth below, we affirm the judgment of the circuit court. The following evidence is material to our decision.

Eighteen-year-old Vickie Rhoads suffered massive burns as the result of the fire, fueled by one or two quarts of gasoline, which occurred in her parents' home in Palatine, Illinois, at about 5:30 p.m. on July 17, 1976. A neighbor rescued her from the burning building, and it was discovered that Vickie had been hogtied with an electrical cord.

Another neighbor, David Bone, testified that after Vickie was carried out into the yard she said, "I think I am going to die. Get me to the hospital. I think I am going to die." Bone also testified that he heard Vickie say that "it was an accident."

It was stipulated that Vickie suffered burns over 80% of her body: 10% third degree burns, 50% second degree burns, and 20% first degree burns.

Dr. James Kozlowski, a physician who examined Vickie in the emergency room of Evanston Hospital within an hour of the fire, testified that after his initial examination he concluded Vickie would probably die from her burns. But she was not in much pain because the fire destroyed the nerve endings in her skin, and Dr. Kozlowski testified that Vickie was alert and lucid. He further found that she showed no signs of disorientation, shock, hallucinations, or psychic derangement.

The paramedic who worked on Vickie on the way to the hospital testified that she answered all of his questions, and was alert and lucid at all times. As part of Vickie's emergency treatment, he gave her Talwin (a pain killer) and Decadron (a drug that reduces swelling and inflammation caused by severe burns).

Although, on cross-examination, Dr. Kozlowski stated that Talwin and Decadron could cause psychic derangement, there is no evidence in the record that such symptoms could be caused by the dosages administered to Vickie.

Dr. Kozlowski further testified that he asked Vickie what had happened, and "She replied that her husband had tried to kill her, that he tied her into a chair, that he poured gasoline on her and had set her on fire and then tried to burn the house down."

Emergency Room Nurse Patricia Halevy testified that Vickie was asked what had happened, and that she replied, "My husband tied me to a kitchen chair, poured gasoline from a boat all over me, and lit a match and, the pain, the pain." Halevy explained that Vickie was not in pain when she made this statement, and that her reference to "the pain" was to the agony she suffered during the fire. Additionally, Halevy testified that Vickie was alert and lucid at all times while being treated in the emergency room.

Palatine Police Officer Dale Ott testified that he interviewed Vickie at Evanston Hospital at about 8 p.m. the day of the fire. She had tubes in her nostrils and she signaled, by shaking her head, that she could understand his questions, but that she could not talk. During this interview, Vickie signaled "yes" when Ott asked if defendant had tried to kill her; if he had tied her up; and if he had poured gasoline on her. She indicated "no" when asked if defendant had poured gasoline all over her body, but answered "yes" when asked if defendant had just poured the gasoline over the lower portion of her body.

Officer Ott concluded the interview by asking Vickie why defendant did these things to her. On direct examination the police officer stated that "she responded by visualizing I don't know." He clarified this on cross-examination by explaining that (despite the tubes in her nostrils) Vickie answered the last question by speaking the words "I don't know."

Palatine Fire Captain William DePue testified that he questioned defendant at the scene of the fire, and asked what had happened in the house. In response, defendant "said he was carrying a can of gasoline through the house and his wife lit a cigarette and the gas ignited."

A neighbor, Terry Dineen, testified that he also questioned defendant at the scene of the fire, and defendant claimed, "I was fixing a motor, I love her, it wasn't suppose [sic] to end this way, I love her, we were folling [sic] around and I love her."

Captain DePue also testified that he questioned defendant a second time about the cause of the fire:

"He said it was just a game and I responded back questioning it's just a game. And he said he had gotten the gas can and brought it into the house and said something to her like this is it. And then he said he lit a match and the gas ignited."

Cindy Jerard, a friend of both Vickie and defendant, testified that she wrote defendant asking what had happened, and defendant responded with a letter from jail in which he stated:

"I would like to tell you what really happened that day, but first you would have to promise me you wouldn't tell anybody. It would be incriminating if the wrong people heard about it. That's no line of B.S. either."

Testifying on his own behalf, defendant admitted that he drank beer all morning long on July 17, 1976, and that he took some L.S.D. around noon. Vickie was drinking that morning, and defendant claimed that she also took some L.S.D.

Vickie's parents were away on vacation, and he and Vickie went to her parents' house. He drank more beer and watched static lines on a television set. According to defendant, watching static lines on a television set is "a real trip when you're taking L.S.D."

Defendant gave the following explanation of the cause of the fire that killed his wife:

Vickie asked him to move things from the yard because her family had been having trouble with neighborhood children. Among the things he brought into the house was a can of gasoline from the family motor boat. He placed this can in the kitchen, took another beer from the refrigerator, and went back to watching television static.

Vickie approached him with an electrical cord and asked him to tie her up and make love to her. This was not unusual for them, and defendant complied by binding her legs, tying her hands behind her back, and (using the same piece of cord) tying a noose around her neck. Vickie also asked him to get some rubbing alcohol because she enjoyed the astringent feeling it produced when rubbed on her skin.

When he could not find any rubbing alcohol, he suggested that they try gasoline instead. She agreed, and defendant poured gasoline on a rag. Some of the gasoline spilled on the floor and, at Vickie's suggestion, defendant placed her in the puddle of ...

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