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People v. Lynch





Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Second District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County, the Hon. William D. Block, Judge, presiding.


Rehearing denied November 30, 1984.

Paul Lynch, Sr. (the defendant), shot Lester Howard in the head, and was tried for murder in the circuit court of Lake County. He claimed self-defense; the verdict was voluntary manslaughter. The circuit court, following People v. Wolski (1980), 83 Ill. App.3d 17, excluded evidence of the victim's three convictions for battery, because the defendant was unaware of them when he shot Howard. The appellate court affirmed in a Rule 23 order (87 Ill.2d R. 23) on a different ground — that the defendant waived the admissibility of those convictions by failing to make an offer of proof (117 Ill. App.3d 1162). We allowed the defendant's petition for leave to appeal (87 Ill.2d R. 315), and we now reverse and remand for a new trial.

Much of the evidence was conflicting; we only sketch enough of it to put the legal issues in perspective. The defendant's son, Paul Lynch, Jr. (Junior), is physically and mentally handicapped. One day, apparently without authorization, Junior took Ernest Bell's car and wrecked it. Bell demanded money from the defendant for repairs. Negotiations broke down when the estimates turned out to be more than the Lynches could pay quickly. According to the defendant, Bell was very angry and said he would get his money or kill Junior.

Some time later, the defendant noticed, in front of Junior's apartment, a parked car that Bell had used when he visited the defendant. Fearing for his son's safety, the defendant went to the apartment. He had a gun in his pocket that he had planned to give Junior for protection, but had changed his mind. Junior, Bell, and Lester Howard, a friend of Bell's whom the defendant had seen sitting in Bell's car when Bell left the defendant's home earlier, were discussing the repair problem when Lynch arrived. Bell and Howard were both bigger than the defendant, and both had been drinking. Howard stood blocking the only door to Junior's one-room apartment while Bell paced up and down, the defendant sat on top of a dresser, and Junior on top of a small table. Howard made an angry remark, and the defendant told him that they would deal only with Bell. Howard started toward the defendant, but Bell stepped between them and Howard went back to the door.

About 15 minutes after the defendant arrived, Howard said, "I don't have to sit here and listen to this g____ b____ any further." The defendant testified that Howard lunged forward, reaching behind his back and beneath his coat with his right hand. The defendant thought that Howard was going to shoot him. Bell testified that Howard's hands were in front of him but admitted that he had told the police shortly after the incident that he did not see Howard's hands. Falling off the dresser, the defendant pulled his gun and shot once at Howard. Then he went to the door, gun in hand, and he and Bell stayed there while Junior and a neighbor went for the police. When the police arrived, the defendant went out to meet them, and Bell appears to have had a few seconds alone in the room with the body. The defendant was arrested. Bell was never searched. No weapon was found on Howard's body.

In his statements to the police and at trial, the defendant admitted the shooting, but claimed that he shot in self-defense. The testimony was conflicting about the progress of the negotiations and about the details of the events just before the shooting.

On cross-examination, defense counsel asked Bell if he was aware that Howard had prior battery convictions. The State objected. The ensuing colloquy outside the presence of the jury established that there were three such convictions, and that the defendant's theory was that Bell brought Howard along for that very reason, as "muscle" to help shake down Junior. Because the defendant was unaware of them when he shot Howard, the circuit judge ruled that the prior convictions were irrelevant and inadmissible.

The convictions were important to the defendant's case, however. They might have affected the jury's judgment of how credible the various versions of the facts were, and they would have helped to complete the picture provided by the testimony. This could have affected the decision as to whether the defendant acted reasonably under the circumstances. Given the state of the law in the appellate court (see People v. Gossett (1983), 115 Ill. App.3d 655, and cases cited therein), we cannot fault the trial judge for his ruling, but it was nevertheless error.

A victim's aggressive and violent character may tend to support a theory of self-defense in two ways. First, the defendant's knowledge of the victim's violent tendencies necessarily affects his perceptions of and reactions to the victim's behavior. The same deadly force that would be unreasonable in an altercation with a presumably peaceful citizen may be reasonable in response to similar behavior by a man of known violent and aggressive tendencies. One can only consider facts one knows, however, and evidence of the victim's character is irrelevant to this theory of self-defense unless the defendant knew of the victim's violent nature, which is not the case here.

Second, evidence of the victim's propensity for violence tends to support the defendant's version of the facts where there are conflicting accounts of what happened. In this situation, whether the defendant knew of this evidence at the time of the event is irrelevant. If the jurors could see for themselves exactly what the defendant saw at the time, such circumstantial evidence would be unnecessary. However, the evidence of what happened here, as is often the case where self-defense is raised, is both incomplete and conflicting. Everything happened in an instant — during which the defendant, according to his testimony, fell off a dresser while getting out his gun and firing it. The witnesses could hardly analyze the scene in any great detail, or remember and describe it with precision. They could only form quick impressions. To decide what really occurred the jury needed all the available facts, including evidence of Howard's prior convictions for battery.

We hold that when the theory of self-defense is raised, the victim's aggressive and violent character is relevant to show who was the aggressor, and the defendant may show it by appropriate evidence, regardless of when he learned of it. (State v. Miranda (1978), 176 Conn. 107, 405 A.2d 622; 1 A Wigmore, Evidence sec. 63 (Tillers rev. ed. 1983); Annot., 1 A.L.R.3d 571, sec. 8 (1965).) It is consistent with the related rule that a victim's threats against the defendant are admissible even if they were not communicated to the defendant. (Neathery v. People (1907), 227 Ill. 110, 116-17.) This case is closely analogous to a threat case, because the defense was trying to show not simply that Howard was a violent man, but also that Bell took him along for precisely that reason. There is little distinction between an inference that someone who has made a threat is likely to do as he threatened and an inference that someone chosen to play a role because he is violent or frightening will behave accordingly.

There was evidence here that Howard was the aggressor, made a threatening remark, and went for the defendant at close quarters, reaching behind his back. The evidence does not exclude the possibility that Howard was reaching for a weapon, which Bell later removed. But even were it clearly established that Howard was not armed, his character would still be relevant to the question of whether he was the aggressor. Conduct not amounting to a deadly assault may nevertheless look like ...

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