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People v. Willis





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Williamson County; the Hon. William A. Lewis, Judge, presiding.


The defendant, William Willis, Jr., appeals from his conviction for the offense of armed violence following a jury trial in the circuit court of Williamson County. He asserts on appeal that he was denied his right to a fair trial because (1) the trial court erroneously admitted evidence of a prior crime and (2) the prosecutor made improper remarks during closing argument. We affirm.

The events giving rise to the armed violence charge against the defendant occurred on March 12, 1981, when the defendant and four other boys decided to drive from Flora, Illinois, to Oklahoma in a car belonging to one of them. On the way, at 2 a.m. on March 13, 1981, the boys stopped at Johnston City, Illinois, behind Huck's Convenience Store. Two of the boys, David McCormick and Chris Lagle, got out of the car. Chris Lagle stood look-out while David McCormick, armed with a gun, went into the store and told the night cashier to give him the money out of the register. McCormick grabbed the $37 placed on the counter by the cashier, and he and Lagle ran across the field behind the store back to the car. The boys drove off but stopped down the highway to get gasoline, candy bars, Cokes and coffee. They then drove on to Oklahoma.

Prior to trial the defense counsel made a motion in limine to preclude the State from offering testimony as to other crimes committed by the defendant with the people present at the time of the armed-violence offense. One of these crimes involved the siphoning of gasoline from a car on March 12, 1981, in Flora, Illinois. The court reversed ruling on this motion on the basis of the State's argument that such evidence might be admissible for a limited purpose under the rule regarding the admissibility of evidence of other crimes.

At trial the prosecutor made an opening statement to the effect that the defendant would be proved accountable for McCormick's armed robbery of the Huck's store. The defense counsel asserted that the defendant neither committed acts nor had the requisite intent to aid or abet McCormick in the commission of the crime. He contended, therefore, that the defendant could not be held liable for McCormick's actions on an accountability theory.

The court subsequently ruled that evidence of the gasoline siphoning incident in Flora, Illinois, was admissible to show the defendant's intent or motive in the offense charged. James Dulaney, one of the four boys accompanying the defendant on the night in question, testified that during the evening hours of March 12, 1981, he, Chris Lagle, David McCormick, Nelson Pruitt and the defendant were riding around in Flora, Illinois, in Dulaney's automobile. The five boys eventually decided to go to Oklahoma although they had no money for the trip. Before leaving Flora they stopped at Grubb's Salvage where the defendant and another one of the boys siphoned gasoline into a 10gallon can. Dulaney then put the gasoline into his car for the trip to Oklahoma.

The witness testified further that when the boys started to run low on gasoline around Johnston City, Illinois, they went into Johnston City and looked around for a place to siphon some more gasoline. When they were unable to find such a place, they agreed to rob a Huck's store to get money for gasoline. Dulaney testified that the defendant handed Lagle a gun that the defendant had put into the car and that Lagle gave the gun to McCormick, who robbed the store. The boys then used the money to buy gasoline and candy bars.

Another witness for the State, Detective Marc Oliva, testified that on May 31, 1981, he had talked with the defendant in the Clay County jail in Louisville, Illinois. Oliva stated that on that occasion the defendant discussed the armed robbery of March 13, 1981, in Johnston City and discussed "his participation in the said armed robbery." When asked what the defendant's participation was, Oliva responded:

"He said that on that date about 2:00 A.M. he and four other friends were involved in the armed robbery. That while he was seated in the car parked on the west side of Huck's in Johnston City, Chris Lagle and Dave McCormick left the car and committed the armed robbery of the Huck's store."

Detective Oliva continued to testify concerning the details of the armed robbery as related to him by the defendant. He stated that the defendant told him he could hear Lagle and McCormick discussing something in the back seat prior to the robbery but that he (the defendant) "didn't know what was going on * * *." The prosecutor asked Oliva:

"Q. Did he [the defendant] say anything to the effect that he knew they were going to rob the store when they got out of the car?

A. Yes, he did. He said he didn't know they were going to do it."

During closing argument the prosecutor made the following comment:

"You then heard from Detective Oliva, who testified that he interviewed the defendant in Louisville, Illinois, * * * the defendant admitted, admitted participation in the crime. He ...

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