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People v. Johnson





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Phillip J. Carey, Judge, presiding.


Following a jury trial, defendant was convicted of murder and sentenced to 30 years in the Department of Corrections. On appeal defendant argues that (1) he was not proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, (2) he was not adequately represented by counsel, and (3) the court erred in admitting into evidence a check purportedly issued to defendant.

On June 2, 1983, at approximately 10 p.m. relatives of 76-year-old Helen Baker went to her house in Chicago, after being informed by a neighbor that Baker had missed an appointment and had not been seen all evening. Donald Cunningham, Baker's brother-in-law, testified at trial that he found Baker lying on the floor of the den, with blood on either side of her body. A Cook County medical examiner later testified at trial that Baker had died from nine stab wounds to her neck, chest and back. Cunningham told the police who arrived at the house that the victim had received both a threatening letter which attempted to extort from her $5,000 and a phone call a month earlier in which the caller said he had sent the letter, that he was holding the son of her next door neighbor, and that the son would be harmed if Baker did not follow the letter's instructions. The letter was admitted into evidence. Cunningham testified that defendant's family had been neighbors of the victim for almost 15 years. Cunningham also stated at trial that, as executor of the victim's estate, he received from the bank one cancelled check for the month of June. This check was dated June 2, 1983, was made out to defendant for $1,000, and was endorsed "Mark Johnson." Below the endorsement was a number which was the same as defendant's driver's license number in defendant's wallet. He testified that he had opportunities to recognize the victim's signature in the past and that he did not recognize the payor signature on the check as hers. The checkbook was never found.

Refugia Vitella testified that he had been taking care of the victim's lawn since 1979. He came to her home around 10:30 a.m. on June 2, 1983, to cut the lawn but did not see or speak with the victim that morning. Shortly after he arrived, he saw a 20- to 22-year-old man knock on the front door, the door open and the man enter. He never saw the man leave the house. When asked in court to identify the man, he identified one of the jurors. He testified that he viewed four to five individuals in a lineup at the police station on June 3, 1983, and picked out two men.

Detective Tony Maslanka testified that around 11 p.m. he went to the defendant's residence a couple of houses south of the victim's home and spoke with defendant and defendant's family. Defendant told him that he knew that a few months earlier the victim had received a threatening letter which said $6,000 cash should be left in a trash can in the rear of her house. He also reported that a month earlier two men had tried to abduct him while he was walking to a friend's house. He and two friends struggled with the men and got away before he could be dragged into a waiting car. Defendant refused to say who his friends were. The defendant told Maslanka that he had returned home around 4 a.m. on June 2, that he stayed there sleeping all day and that no one else was home.

Detective Joseph Digiacoma testified that when he learned about the extortion and abduction attempts, he asked defendant shortly after midnight if he would go to the police station for further questions. Defendant was not under arrest and agreed to accompany Digiacoma. At the station, defendant said that on June 2 he had come home at about 4 a.m. while his father was getting ready to leave for work. His girlfriend called between 10 and 10:30 a.m. and asked him to take her downtown to classes. Defendant left his house around 11 a.m., arrived at his girlfriend's around noon, and stayed in the Loop until 2 p.m., when he met her again. He returned to his family's house for dinner. After dinner they shopped. Defendant said he had last seen the victim about 9 p.m. on June 1 when he went to her home to explain that he did not have $200 he owed her. She said not to worry about it and he left. He said he could identify the two men who tried to abduct him, and he began viewing photographs in the photo room. Defendant was cooperative and acted normally.

Detective Peter Dignan testified that the victim's body was lying on a postcard which had a rippled pattern footprint. Dignan also found three sequentially numbered one dollar bills in a bible. At the police station, Dignan spoke with defendant in the presence of other detectives. Defendant said he worked for two Italians who paid him to deliver packages. When Dignan said it was essential to know the identity of the two people who had helped defendant escape abduction, defendant drove with Dignan and two other detectives to a house on East 93rd Street and pointed it out as where his two friends, the two Italians, lived. Defendant was informed that no Italians lived there and defendant did not respond. Defendant signed a consent-to-search form at 4:30 a.m. Defendant's mother let Dignan and another detective into defendant's bedroom, where the officers recovered a wallet with defendant's driver's license, clothing defendant had worn that day, and a pair of gym shoes. The soles of the shoes had a ripple pattern like the print on the postcard and were stained with human blood.

After conducting a lineup for Refugia Vitella to witness, from which Vitella identified defendant as looking like the male he saw coming from the south and entering the victim's home, and identified another person as looking similar, Dignan told defendant he was under arrest for murder and gave him Miranda warnings. Defendant said he understood and would answer questions. Confronted with the evidence gathered, defendant confessed at 8:12 a.m. He said he went to the victim's home on June 2 and told the victim he could not repay $200 he had borrowed. She became angry and accused him of trying to extort $5,000 from her. They were in the kitchen and defendant took a steak knife, walked with the victim to the front door, then turned, closed his eyes and began to stab her. He did not remember what he did with the knife. He said he was wearing the gym shoes. Dignan left the room and when he returned, defendant asked him if he would believe a weird story. Defendant said he really did not kill the victim and had gone there to repay her when he found her dead. He said he could prove it and pulled four new, sequentially numbered $100 bills from his sock. Because they were like the $1 bills Dignan had found in the bible, he told defendant the $100 bills had also come from the victim's house. Defendant responded, "You're right, Detective, I'm sorry." Dignan said that he and another detective were present when assistant State's Attorney Margaret Stanton spoke with defendant after Stanton arrived at the station around 9:30 or 10 a.m.

Stanton testified that she identified herself to defendant and explained that a specific named attorney or someone calling himself that name had called the station. She asked defendant if he was aware of any family member contacting an attorney by that name and he said no. She asked him if he wanted to speak with an attorney by that name and he said no. She was aware that that attorney sometimes practiced criminal law but did not tell defendant this. She advised defendant of his rights and asked if he was willing to talk to her. He said he was. She did not notice anything unusual about defendant's appearance and had no trouble communicating with him. He appeared alert. Defendant repeated what he had told Dignan, adding that the victim told him she was going to inform the police and his parents that she thought he had threatened her with the extortion letter. He also said that he was wearing blue jeans, a blue jeans jacket and some gym shoes, and that he changed clothes at home after the stabbing. Defendant said he took four $100 bills from the victim. He denied phoning her for $5,000.

Expert witnesses for the State testified that a pair of blue jeans, a pair of cut-offs, and socks found in a garbage can behind defendant's home revealed a blood stain on the rear pocket of the blue jeans. The blood stain on the defendant's gym shoe was type O human blood and the victim had type O blood, but no test was taken of defendant's blood. The sole pattern on the postcard had the same pattern as defendant's gym shoes, but no individual characteristics enabled positive identification. A police department documents examiner compared the known signature of the victim with the signature on the June 2 check made out to Mark A. Johnson and stated that the signatures were not made by the same person. He also compared the handwriting of defendant's writing exemplar and defendant's signature on the consent-to-search form, with the endorsement on the check. He found similarities between the writings, but was unable to definitely identify the endorsement as the defendant's writing. He compared the extortion letter with defendant's writing exemplars and opined that the handwriting was the same.

Defendant's father, Eddie Johnson, testified for the defense that defendant's wallet was missing a few days before June 2 and that on the evening of June 2 defendant told him he had found it. Mr. Johnson said he informed the police of an attempted abduction on May 4, 1983, and later told them his son had come home.

Defendant's mother testified that she was told by defendant's girlfriend's mother that the girlfriend was out of town at the time of trial. When police arrived with the consent-to-search form, they said they just needed evidence and that defendant was not under arrest. Defendant called around 9 a.m. and told her he was under arrest. She and her husband called the police station five times and were never allowed to talk to defendant. They went to the station around 10 a.m. She contacted an attorney whose associate said he would put her in touch with defendant's counsel. Defendant's counsel called her after she returned from the police station.

Defendant testified that he was beaten at the police station. He received several blows to the ribs, ears, and head, and nobody but Dignan was present when defendant was being struck. When he first got to the station he was in a detaining room and was told he would look at photographs of known extortionists. He sat there a couple of hours and no one paid any attention to him until he left the room around 2 a.m. to use a pay phone. As he picked up the phone he was told he could not call his parents as he had intended, he was taken to another room, and he was handcuffed to the wall. He did not hear anything for two more hours and then the police asked him where he had been and what he had done. He told them about coming home late, sleeping until his girlfriend called, and then taking her to school. The police told him he way lying and that they were going to get the truth one way or the other. Officer Dignan took out one of his guns, pointed it at him and cocked it. Later, the detectives threw all his clothes on his lap, and told him he had done it because they had found blood all over his clothes and shoes. He was stunned and afraid. When Dignan was alone in the room with him, he told defendant to say that he was part of an extortion plot, that he had closed his eyes and that he had stabbed the victim. Dignan threatened him and told him he had no rights even though he wanted to call home and wanted to speak to a lawyer. However, he did not tell assistant State's Attorney Stanton the story but told her basically what she had testified to.

Defendant testified he went to the victim's house between 9 and 10 a.m. on June 2. There was no gardener. He saw a man parked in front of the house in a red pickup truck, and the man drove away as defendant approached. Defendant saw that the door to the house was cracked and that the door jamb was torn away. He went inside and to the back of the house to a scuffling noise and saw the gardener kneeling over the victim, stabbing her. The gardener saw defendant, lunged at him with the knife and cut defendant's arm. Defendant ran as Vitella fell to the floor. He never reported seeing Vitella or anyone else stabbing the victim in the house because he was in a daze all day and was scared. He kept the information secret until ...

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