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People v. Williams





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Francis Glowacki, Judge, presiding.


After a jury trial, defendant John L. Williams was convicted of three counts of murder and aggravated arson. Defendant was sentenced to a term of natural life imprisonment for murder. On appeal, defendant argues: (1) he was not proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; (2) the trial court erred in not allowing defendant to introduce into evidence the alleged confession of Michael Cuniff; (3) the trial court erred in not granting defendant a continuance to try to locate Cuniff; (4) the trial court erred in quashing defendant's subpoena for Cuniff's psychiatric records; (5) the trial court's finding that police did not tape conversations between themselves and two witnesses was against the manifest weight of the evidence and denied defendant access to important discovery; (6) the trial court erred in excluding testimony as to the possible destruction of evidence; (7) the trial court erred in restricting the cross-examination of David Saunders; (8) the trial court erred in admitting evidence which was unduly prejudicial; (9) defendant was denied a fair trial through improper argument by the prosecutor; (10) the trial court erred in entering convictions on three counts of murder based on a single act of aggravated arson; (11) defendant's conviction for aggravated arson must be vacated; and (12) the trial court erred in imposing a sentence of natural life imprisonment.

We affirm.

John DeJonge testified he considered defendant to be "like a brother, one of my good friends." On the evening of January 20, 1981, the witness was sitting in a car with defendant and a mutual friend, Wayne Mills. Defendant stated "he wanted to go light a fire." The three went to a complex of apartments in Hanover Park. Defendant had previously lived in the complex. They cruised around the parking lot and left. They left because there were about 50 people in the lot. They returned to the complex about 15 minutes later. The lot was empty of pedestrians. They parked the car next to a building that eventually burned. Defendant got out of the car and went into the building. He was in the building for about 30 seconds. Defendant returned to the car. They left and passed the building about 20 minutes later. At that time, the witness saw thick black smoke pour out of the windows. Defendant was asked whether he started the fire and defendant replied, "Yeah." Later, defendant told the witness not to talk about the fire because defendant "did not want to get blamed for something he didn't do."

On cross-examination, the witness stated he knew a person who lived in the complex who had previously lived with defendant. The witness knew that person sold marijuana. The witness denied they went to the complex to buy marijuana. The witness denied telling either a policeman or an attorney that they went to the complex to buy marijuana.

Defendant did not carry a container or anything else when he entered the building. Defendant did not hurry when he returned from the building to the car. The witness had previously heard defendant say he had robbed a bank. To the best of the witness' knowledge, defendant had never robbed a bank.

Wayne Mills testified both defendant and John DeJonge were his friends. He, DeJonge and defendant were driving in the witness' car on January 20, 1981. They went to a gas station. The witness believed defendant pumped gas into the car and went inside the station to pay for the gas. The witness did not see defendant obtain a container. The witness heard defendant state, "Let's go smoke out some Spics." The witness stated defendant said, "Come on, let's go burn a building, torch a fire or something like that!" They drove to the apartment complex, and parked the car about 10 feet from the door. Defendant went into the building and stayed less than a minute. Defendant returned to the car and said, "Let's go."

The next day, the witness asked defendant whether he was bothered that three people died in the fire. The defendant shrugged his shoulders and said that the only thing he regretted was that he had not had the chance to have sex with the teenage girl who died in the fire. The witness believed a large number of Latinos lived in the complex.

On cross-examination, the witness stated the defendant did not carry a container into or out of the building. Defendant did not smell like gasoline. The witness drank beer and smoked marijuana on the evening in question.

David Saunders testified he was a friend of defendant. At about 10 a.m. on January 21, 1981, defendant, Wayne Mills and John DeJonge came to his home. Defendant told the witness there was something defendant wanted to show him. They drove to the burned building. Defendant pointed to the building and stated, "I did that." The witness expressed his disbelief and defendant insisted that it was true. Defendant, Mills and DeJonge made jokes about defendant's being a baby killer. Later, defendant gave the witness a newspaper article about the fire.

About a week later, the witness reported what he had heard to the Streamwood police department. The witness received several telephone calls from defendant while defendant was in jail. Defendant threatened the witness and told the witness not to incriminate him.

On cross-examination, the witness stated he had a case pending against him in Streamwood when he reported the conversations he heard. However, the witness denied he called to help himself in the case against him. He did not believe he could have been sent to prison for the charges against him.

On redirect examination, the witness stated the charge pending against him was criminal damage to property. The witness pleaded guilty, paid a restitution of $75 and was placed on supervision for a year. The witness stated he talked to defendant's mother and did not give her correct information because he did not want her to know he informed on defendant.

On recross, the witness stated he lied to defendant, saying he had not informed on him. Defendant told the witness he thought the witness was "messing with" defendant's girlfriend. Defendant threatened the witness with violence if defendant found it to be true.

Saunders, Mills and DeJonge each testified defendant told them he started the fire by throwing a lighted rag into a storage room.

Rojald Russell testified he is a fire investigator. He was hired to determine the cause and origin of the instant fire. He inspected the premises and concluded the fire was deliberately set. He believed between one and five gallons of a liquid accelerant was used. Accelerant was placed in the lower level storage area, in hallways and stairways. The witness believed the fire was started in the ground level storage room. The witness found the charred remains of a cardboard box with remnants of charred rags scattered in and around it. The box was about four or five feet from the outside door of the storage room.

Hanover Park police officer Vern Koenen testified he investigated the instant fire and interrogated defendant. Defendant denied any connection with the fire. He admitted being in the parking lot of the complex. He liked to watch the Hispanics "with their lights and candles * * * their heads turn like a bunch of cows watching you go through." Defendant stated that he did not particularly dislike Hispanics "but they could all go back where they came from."

Carpentersville police officer Robert Wiggins testified he executed an arrest warrant on defendant. The officer went to the residence where defendant's girlfriend was baby-sitting. The officer found defendant hiding under a baby's crib.

John DeJonge was recalled as a court witness. He testified he previously talked to defense attorneys. He told the attorneys that defendant had previously said he committed crimes he had not in fact committed. He also told the attorneys he, defendant and Mills were at the complex to buy marijuana. Finally, the witness stated he understood the term "burn some Spics" meant to rob people. He had never heard the term "smoke some Spics."

Diane DeJonge, John DeJonge's mother, testified defendant lived in their home for a few months. Defendant often said he had committed or was about to commit crimes. The witness never knew defendant to commit the crimes he mentioned. Defendant's sister and mother also testified to instances where defendant talked about crimes which he did not commit.

Daniel Machowiak testified he was at a party on the evening of the fire. Michael Cuniff was at the party. Cuniff made homosexual overtures to the guests. The witness and James Gustafson left to get gasoline and beer. At the request of the host, they took Cuniff with them. Cuniff rode in the back of a pickup truck. After they put gasoline in the truck, they dropped Cuniff off about two or three miles from the complex in Hanover Park. Then they got some beer for the party. On the way back to the party, about one-half hour later, they noticed Cuniff walking within a block of the complex. They picked him up, and Cuniff asked to be taken to a pool hall. When they passed the complex, Cuniff banged on the roof of the truck and yelled, "Fire." The witness did not see any fire at the time. After they dropped Cuniff at the pool hall, they returned to the party. As they passed the complex, they saw the building on fire. They related the situation to the people at the party. The police were called. The witness and Gustafson went to the police station and made reports.

On cross-examination, the witness testified his report indicated Cuniff had said "Look at the fire" as they passed the complex.

James Gustafson testified Cuniff was "acting like he was drunk, and was snorting glue, and was on drugs definitely." When they picked him up in the truck, Cuniff was "out of it. He was walking sideways and everything."

On cross-examination, the witness stated he had heard of Cuniff about a year before the instant fire. He "heard his wife making statements about him in court. * * * He started a fire into [sic] an apartment building in Hanover Park." The statement the witness made to police ...

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