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People v. Minnis





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Champaign County; the Hon. Robert J. Steigmann, Judge, presiding.


Defendant was convicted of the offense of murder (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 38, par. 9-1(a)) by a jury in the circuit court of Champaign County. The State did not seek the death penalty and the trial court declined to impose an extended sentence which was argued by the State. After considering factors in aggravation and mitigation, presentence reports and the arguments of counsel, the court sentenced the defendant to 25 years' imprisonment.

On appeal defendant has raised a variety of issues: (1) error by the trial court in excluding evidence of what has been called in the record the "battered woman syndrome"; (2) reasonable doubt; (3) misbehavior by a spectator; (4) improper closing argument by the prosecutor; (5) admission of inflammatory photographs; and (6) errors in the instructions. We regard the question of the battered woman syndrome as reversible error; the instructional issues contain error but not reversible error; and the other issues are without merit.

Since the question of reasonable doubt has been raised, a recitation of the facts as developed at trial is necessary. One pivotal fact which casts its influence over the entire record is that the body of the victim, Movina Minnis, defendant's husband, was dismembered by the defendant, parts of it placed in plastic refuse bags and the bags deposited in garbage dumpsters in various locations around the city of Decatur. Some parts, namely the head and neck, upper torso, and the hands were never recovered. Defendant testified that she threw these into the Sangamon River at Decatur. The parties lived in Rantoul where, defendant testified, the death occurred.

The fact of dismemberment arose very early at the pretrial stage. Defendant filed a motion in limine to exclude the evidence. The State demanded its admission in order to establish consciousness of guilt on the part of the defendant. The trial court denied the motion.

The State filed a motion in limine to exclude evidence of the "battered woman syndrome." It appeared that the defendant was ready to admit dismembering her husband, but claimed that she was a victim of this syndrome. The trial court indicated that evidence of the syndrome should be admissible in cases where the battered woman killed her husband in a nonconfrontational situation, the classic example being where a battered woman has killed her husband as he slept. The judge stated that he assumed the evidence would follow that pattern and denied the State's motion, but cautioned that he might change his ruling. That is, in fact, what occurred.

At trial the People built a largely circumstantial case, coupled with certain admissions by the defendant, as their case in chief. Certain Decatur residents stated that they observed a black woman fitting defendant's description place two garbage bags in the dumpster at their apartment house at about 1:15 p.m. on October 13, 1981. Their curiosity was aroused and when the garbage collector arrived a short time later, they asked him to open the bags. He did so and retrieved therefrom a black human leg. The Decatur police were immediately notified and instituted a systematic search of other dumpsters in the Decatur area. Six additional bags were discovered at four locations; these contained other body parts and one bag contained miscellaneous items: a dovetail saw, a hack saw, shower curtains and bathroom rugs, several pairs of plastic gloves, one right-hand vinyl glove, a woman's caftan robe, and a pair of men's swimming trunks. These items were identified as belonging to defendant and her husband. The lower torso was clothed in jockey shorts and the genitalia were present and unmutilated.

Other witnesses placed a brown van which matched the description of one owned by defendant and her husband and driven by a black woman in various locations about Decatur between 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on October 13.

A pathologist assembled the body parts which had been found and performed an autopsy on October 14 at 6 a.m. From prior medical records obtained from Burnham City Hospital in Champaign it was later determined that the partial, dismembered body was that of Movina Minnis. The doctor was unable to determine the cause of death because anything involving the missing body parts, i.e., head, neck, upper torso, could have been the cause. He doubted that the dismemberment itself was the cause but could not rule it out completely.

It was likewise difficult to determine the time of death. Because there appeared to be no decomposition of the parts, he estimated that death had occurred within a 24- to 36-hour period prior to the autopsy and that dismemberment had occurred shortly afterwards.

A co-worker of Movina, Michael Simlin, testified that they both worked at Kraft Company in Champaign on the 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. shift, Monday through Friday. They also had a car pool arrangement, each driving alternate weeks. Simlin drove the week of Monday, October 5, through Friday, October 9. They were returning home on Friday, October 9, when Simlin's car broke down about six blocks from Movina's home. Movina walked home and returned in his van to give Simlin a ride home. The following morning, Saturday, October 10, Movina picked Simlin up and helped him to repair his car. He left about noon and asked Simlin to come to his house to watch television since he had no plans for the weekend. Simlin never saw Movina again.

The next week, October 12-16, it was Movina's turn to drive. On Monday morning, October 12, at about 8 or 9 a.m., defendant appeared at Simlin's house and stated that Movina would not be able to drive since he was ill with tonsillitis. According to Simlin, defendant appeared normal at that time. She appeared again at Simlin's house on Wednesday morning, October 14, and reported that Movina's condition was worsening; again, according to Simlin, she appeared normal. Later in the day she informed Simlin that Movina had been offered a job at the power plant in Clinton, and on Thursday, October 15, she informed Simlin that he had accepted the job at Clinton and would not be returning to work at Kraft in Champaign. She admitted to Simlin, upon his inquiry, that Movina had not given any notice to his supervisor at Kraft.

Certain employees of Kraft testified for the State. Movina's supervisor stated that he had an outstanding attendance record and would always notify him if he were unable to come to work. He further stated that defendant called him and advised that Movina was ill with tonsillitis and would not be at work. This occurred on Monday, October 12. He asked to speak to Movina personally because of such a company policy regarding excuses, and asked that Movina call him later. That call was never made. Defendant called the supervisor again on Tuesday and Wednesday with the same information that Movina was too ill to come to the phone and talk; she also stated that he would probably not return to work until the following week. Movina never returned to work.

Kraft's personnel clerk testified that defendant appeared at the company's office on October 23 to turn in Movina's uniforms and to pick up his payroll check for a one-week pay period which was still due to him. She refused to turn over the check until Movina had talked with his supervisor. Consequently, the check was not delivered to defendant. She also testified that Kraft was still holding a check for about $2,000 representing Movina's contributions to an employee thrift plan. According to the clerk, defendant's demeanor was cool and collected; she had known defendant as a former employee of Kraft.

A significant witness for the State was Diana Hinton. She testified that she was acquainted with both defendant and Movina, having met them at a homosexual bar in Champaign about two years prior to October 1981. Shortly after this first meeting, she had spent two weekends with the Minnises at their home during which the three of them had engaged in trilateral sexual conduct. Hinton stated that she felt Movina was not partial to this form of sexual encounter but that defendant was the moving party; she was also aware that defendant had been beaten by Movina and that their marital problems were the result of "Mo's sexual preferences."

Hinton saw defendant and Movina at the same bar on October 7, 1981, at approximately 1 a.m. She never saw Movina after that occasion, but she did see defendant there on October 11 from about 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Upon inquiry by Hinton, defendant stated that Movina had left her and gone to California with another woman. She stated that defendant's conduct was nothing out of the ordinary.

On October 13 (the day on which the body parts were discovered) Hinton telephoned defendant at about 6:30 p.m. and arranged to meet her at the apartment of Athena Wade in Champaign. During the conversation defendant stated that she had spent the day visiting a friend in Decatur. After meeting at Wade's, defendant and Hinton left, returned to defendant's home, and there engaged in homosexual conduct at defendant's instigation. At defendant's invitation, Hinton lived with her from October 13 to November 2, 1981, and then returned home to live with her mother. After moving in with defendant, Hinton noticed that the bathroom rugs and shower curtains were missing and that all of Movina's personal belongings were still in the house. During the same period defendant gave away Movina's clothing and weight benches and had a bug shield labeled "Pleasure Pleaser" removed from the brown van; she explained that it reminded her too much of Movina and had "too much of a manly image." Defendant also instructed Hinton that if anyone, particularly his family members, asked about Movina's whereabouts, she was to say that he was not at home but would return "in a little while."

Hinton's testimony continued; on November 4 she, Athena Wade, and Carrie Starks had lunch together and began to voice doubts as to the whereabouts of Movina. Hinton had heard of body parts being discovered in Decatur and placed a telephone call to the Decatur police concerning the matter.

On November 6, 1981, the Decatur police obtained a search warrant for defendant's home. The complaint for warrant, executed by Sergeant Donald Coventry, recites most of Hinton's testimony as set forth above and also similar statements by Athena Wade concerning the presence in the home of Movina's personal property; both Hinton and Wade stated to the police that the bathroom shower curtains and rugs were missing and that the bug shield had been removed from the van. The police, of course, had possession of the garbage bag containing the miscellaneous items, including shower curtains and rugs.

A service station attendant from a station in Rantoul testified that he had removed a bug shield from a brown van early in October 1981 at the request of a black woman. The shield bore the legend "Pleasure Pleaser." A few days later he replaced a headlight in the same van for the same woman who explained that she had been stopped and given a ticket by the police for having only one headlight. A deputy sheriff testified that he had stopped defendant on October 15 at approximately 1:45 a.m. and had given her a warning ticket for having only one headlight. He stated that the van had no bug shield.

A supervisor from Vetter Corporation in Rantoul testified that defendant had been employed there during the month of October 1981. She stated that defendant had told her she was a divorcee and that her ex-husband lived in California with their two children; also that she was dating a man who worked at Kraft Company on the second shift.

Athena Wade testified that she was a friend of defendant and on November 17 picked defendant up to take her for a drink. During the course of the conversation defendant stated to her that she had killed her husband by strangling him with some pantyhose while he slept. On cross-examination Wade admitted that defendant and Movina at one time invited her to participate "in a three-way" with them but that she had declined.

Deborah Lomax, a friend of defendant since high school, testified that defendant visited her home on November 4 and that her husband had inquired of defendant as to the whereabouts of Movina. The husband worked at Kraft Company. Initially defendant stated that Movina was working at the Clinton power plant but later stated that he had gone to California. Defendant returned the next day, November 5, to the Lomax home for another visit. At that time she stated that she was meeting a "new man in her life" and that this man was going to "do nice things for her and take her nice places."

The police executed the search warrant on November 6. At about 9 or 9:30 p.m. on that date defendant called Lomax on the telephone and told her that the police were at her home. When Lomax asked what was wrong, defendant stated to her that she was "in a lot of trouble" because she had killed Movina.

During the same search, defendant made another telephone call which was overheard by an investigator from the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement. According to the investigator, defendant said, "Athena, girl, Mo's dead, and I'm in a lot of trouble."

Another officer from the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement described the bedroom in the Minnis home. He stated that it contained a king-sized waterbed with a wooden headboard but that the sides were padded "rather well."

That was the State's case. Defendant took the stand in her own behalf. She commenced by describing her marital problems with Movina which had their origin in her failure to bring enough women home for sexual encounters with him. She claimed that he had repeatedly subjected her to beatings on account of this. She stated that he wanted other partners because she was not pleasing him enough and that the other women were to teach her how. She approached other women regularly for the purpose and when they declined, Movina would beat her again because he felt she was not trying hard enough.

She then recounted her version of the events commencing with Movina's return from work about midnight on Friday, October 9 through Saturday, October 10 as follows: she was asleep but he awakened her and told her that he had company. She got up, dressed, and went into the living room where Movina introduced her to his friend, Duane, who, he said, was a male prostitute. She sat on the floor watching television, while Movina and Duane went to Movina's weight room. They returned shortly thereafter and placed a heavy set of barbells across her legs which were outstretched on the floor. She was unable to move. They then engaged in homosexual intercourse. Movina stated to her, "If you just do what you're supposed to do, I wouldn't have to do this." After the unnatural act was completed, Movina removed the barbells and she fled to the bathroom to vomit. When she came out, she attempted to leave the house but was restrained by Movina. Both he and Duane then attacked her ...

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