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People v. Sanchez





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County, the Hon. William D. Block, Judge, presiding.


Rehearing denied January 30, 1987.

Hector Reuben Sanchez, along with a co-defendant, Warren Peters, Jr., was charged under an indictment with two counts of murder (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, pars. 9-1(a)(1), (a)(3)), aggravated kidnaping (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, par. 10-1(a)(1)), rape (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, par. 11-1(a)), deviate sexual assault (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, par. 11-3(a)), and attempted murder (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, par. 8-4(a)). The charges stemmed from the abduction and slaying of Michelle Thompson on February 3 and 4, 1984. Rene Valentine, an acquaintance of Ms. Thompson, was shot and wounded during the incident. Peters' case was severed, and he was tried and convicted of murder on July 14, 1984.

Sanchez, who was tried later, was found guilty of all charges by a jury in the circuit court of Lake County. He waived a jury as to the first phase in his sentencing hearing, and the trial judge found the existence of statutory aggravation factors. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, par. 9-1(b)(6).) The jury then determined that there were no mitigating factors sufficient to preclude imposition of the death penalty, and the defendant was sentenced to death. He was also given concurrent terms of 60 years for the other offenses. The sentence was stayed (87 Ill.2d R. 609(a)) pending direct appeal to this court (Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, sec. 4(b); 87 Ill.2d R. 603).

Subsequently, Sanchez sought relief under section 2-1401 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 110, par. 2-1401). His petition was dismissed without an evidentiary hearing. An appeal from that dismissal was taken to the appellate court, and we granted a transfer of the appeal to this court under Rule 302(b) (87 Ill.2d R. 302(b)). That appeal has been consolidated with his direct appeal, and both cases are now before this court.

Rene Valentine testified that on the evening of February 3, 1984, he went to a nightclub known as D. Laney's in Gurnee, Illinois. While there, he met the deceased, Michelle Thompson. Valentine knew her because she was dating Pablo Martinez, with whom Valentine was then living. At about 12:30 a.m., Valentine and Thompson went out to Valentine's car in the parking lot. Two men approached the car and entered it from opposite sides. One, a black man, grabbed Thompson, while the other, a Puerto Rican, produced a gun. Thompson was taken into another vehicle by the black man. The Puerto Rican escorted Valentine at gunpoint to a more secluded area of the parking lot and shot him twice in the chest but did not kill him. Valentine later identified the assailant as the defendant, Hector Reuben Sanchez.

Warren Peters, Jr., the black man in Valentine's narrative, provided the bulk of the evidence against Sanchez. He had been tried and convicted of the murder of Thompson before Sanchez' trial but was not sentenced until after he testified for the State against Sanchez. He testified that on February 3, Peters, Sanchez and another person named Forest Heinz had been planning to burglarize a restaurant in the vicinity of D. Laney's. They had "cased" the restaurant earlier in the evening, and later Sanchez and Peters returned to D. Laney's. They were sitting in Peters' car in the parking lot when they spotted Valentine and Thompson. Sanchez proposed going over and talking to them. Peters did not know that Sanchez had a gun, or what Sanchez' intentions were.

Sanchez instructed Peters to take the woman to his car, while Sanchez went off with Valentine. Within seconds, Peters heard what sounded like a gunshot. Sanchez returned to Peters' car, produced a pair of handcuffs from his coat and put them on Thompson. They then proceeded to Sanchez' home. Sanchez took Thompson into the house. By the time Peters entered, Thompson was nude from the waist down. Sanchez then raped her on the family-room floor. He then produced a nylon strap, tied Thompson's still-handcuffed wrists to her feet and dragged her behind a chair. The two men then went outside to put Peters' car in the garage. When they returned, they discovered that Thompson had escaped.

Peters and Sanchez went outside to search and found that she was in the back yard of the house next door. She was near the back door, and was screaming "Help me." According to Peters, Sanchez went over and dragged her back by the handcuffs. Sanchez then told Peters he would have to go back and "blow the neighbors' heads off" because the girl had been pounding on the door and had probably been seen. Sanchez took a gun from the kitchen and went out. He returned a few minutes later, saying he had explained the disturbance.

Sanchez then carried Thompson to the basement. Peters went down several minutes later. He observed the still half-nude woman leaning over the washing machine with Sanchez behind her. She had been gagged with a strip of cloth. Sanchez asked Peters if he "wanted any" and, when Peters declined, announced that he would "have to kill her." Sanchez strangled her with a nylon strap. He also wrapped a coat hanger around her neck, slammed her head to the floor and kicked the lifeless body in the side.

Peters also testified that when the two men began to move the body, he noticed that she had defecated on the basement floor. Peters went for some tissue, and Sanchez cleaned up the excrement. They then dragged the body upstairs. Sanchez burned Thompson's clothes and jewelry in the fireplace. The body was placed in the backseat of Sanchez' car. The men drove to an isolated location in Wisconsin and disposed of the body. As Sanchez drove away, he ran over the body.

After returning to Sanchez' house, Peters took Sanchez' car to his home and kept it for several days, leaving his own car in Sanchez' garage. When Peters' car was returned to him, the formerly white top had been painted black.

Gene Gonyo, Sanchez' neighbor, also testified. He said that he was awakened by his dog barking at about 1:30 a.m., February 4. He saw a man and woman near his back door. The woman was nude from the waist down and the man was wearing a green jacket. Gonyo heard a scream and heard the woman say the word "Larry," which was the nickname by which Sanchez was known to Gonyo. He did not hear cries of "Help me" at any time. Gonyo watched the pair move to the front of his house and walk in the direction of Sanchez'. The woman was walking behind Sanchez. She did not appear to be wearing handcuffs. Gonyo thought to call the police, but was interrupted by a knock at the door. It was Sanchez, who apologized for the disturbance and explained "she either had an epileptic seizure, or she was on drugs, or she was on booze." Sanchez did not have a gun, but as he left he turned and picked up something "dark." Gonyo could not tell what the object was. In Gonyo's estimation, only a few seconds elapsed between the time he saw Sanchez and the girl, and the time when Sanchez was at his front door. There would not have been enough time for Sanchez to have returned to his house, have a conversation, locate a gun and return.

At about 2:15 a.m., Gonyo was again awakened by the barking dog. He saw a car he recognized as Sanchez' pull out of the driveway with the headlights off. The car paused at the corner, then turned toward Wisconsin.

The balance of the prosecution's evidence was of a forensic or otherwise scientific nature. Briefly summarized, the doctor who performed the autopsy testified that the cause of death was strangulation with a fairly wide ligature. Other bruises and abrasions were found which were consistent with events as described by Peters. There was also evidence of anal penetration.

However, the examination found no trace of excrement. Neither was there evidence of injury to the genitalia, as is commonly found in rape victims. Swabs were taken from all the victim's body cavities, but only the vaginal area showed the presence of semen. Later testimony established that chemical factors in the semen were consistent with Sanchez' blood type.

Another witness was an FBI microscopic analysis expert. His investigation involved comparisons of hairs, fibers and other materials collected from the victim's body and the scene of the crime. Briefly stated, fibers found on the body were consistent with fibers from a number of sources in Sanchez' house and car. Also, the victim's hair was consistent with hair found in Sanchez' house and car, Peters' car and on Gonyo's property. Finally, buttons and fibers consistent with the victim's clothing were found in Sanchez' house.

An FBI paint expert also testified that the paint which had been used on the top of Peters' car was consistent with paint in cans found in Sanchez' garage. Other witnesses testified that they had seen handguns and handcuffs in Sanchez' possession.

For the defense, a witness testified that both Sanchez and Valentine applied for jobs with her company on the same day. Valentine had denied knowing Sanchez. A woman who worked as a bartender testified that a man who appeared to be Sanchez was in her saloon on the night of February 3. A patron of the bar identified Sanchez as having been there but was uncertain of the date.

The proprietor of D. Laney's testified that he had seen Valentine go in and out of the bar's inner door several times during the night. From his vantage point, he could not say whether Valentine went outside each time, only that he at least went to the vestibule area. He also did not see Sanchez at D. Laney's on February 3. A D. Laney's bartender testified that drugs were commonly trafficked there. The common method was for dealers to "take orders" at the bar, go to their cars for the merchandise and return.

Pablo Martinez testified that he was in love with Michelle Thompson. Martinez, who was underage, had been to D. Laney's in the past because Valentine knew the doorman. On the night of Thompson's slaying he had spoken with Valentine but had been told he would not be able to get in that night. He had also received a call from Thompson during the evening. He denied any feelings of jealousy because Thompson and Valentine were at D. Laney's together.

Based upon these facts, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts. The death penalty hearing was set to commence the next day. Upon reconvening, the court announced that Sanchez had attempted suicide during the night by breaking his eyeglass lens and attempting to cut his arm. Defense counsel, asserting that Sanchez was distraught and unable to cooperate, moved to discharge the jury and postpone the sentencing hearing. The court determined that Sanchez, who had received medical attention and was present, was fit to proceed and denied the motion.

The defendant waived a jury determination of whether aggravating factors were present. The court then found as an aggravating factor that Thompson had been killed in the course of another felony and that Sanchez had actually performed the acts causing her death.

The jury then reconvened and heard testimony for the second phase of the death penalty hearing. The focus of the State's evidence in aggravation was on the previously unsolved murder of Sharon Egerer in Milwaukee in May 1975. Francisco Morales, a former business partner and acquaintance of Sanchez, testified that Sanchez had been involved in a relationship with Egerer from about 1970 or 1971. In May of 1975 Morales learned that Egerer had initiated a paternity action against Sanchez. Sanchez attempted to enlist Morales to testify on his behalf.

William Garris testified that he participated in the Egerer killing. He and Sanchez went to Milwaukee on a Friday in May of 1975. They met Egerer after she left work and followed her to her apartment. Sanchez went inside with her and sometime later summoned Garris. Garris saw Egerer's body lying in a pool of blood. Sanchez admitted killing her, and threatened to kill Garris if he did not provide an alibi.

The next witness was Suzi Holton Eckerle. She testified that when Garris and Sanchez returned to her house on May 30, 1975, Sanchez told her he had "taken care of Sharon." He demanded that she too provide him with an alibi. When the police investigated the Egerer slaying, Sanchez, Garris and Eckerle claimed that they had been at Eckerle's house the entire evening of the incident. Shortly after the Egerer crime, Sanchez and Eckerle became intimate and carried on a relationship until 1981. It ended in a dispute over another woman. When news of Sanchez' involvement in the Thompson homicide came out, Garris and Eckerle came forward.

Sanchez, who did not testify at his trial, did take the stand at the sentencing hearing. He has never learned to read and write. Nonetheless, he managed to keep a job at Johnson Motors for 14 years and, through thrift, saved enough money to purchase land and build the house in which he lived.

Sanchez testified about the Egerer homicide. He claims that when Garris was told of the paternity suit, he proposed going to Milwaukee and talking to Egerer. When they located her, she refused to talk to Sanchez, but agreed to speak with Garris. It was Garris who went into Egerer's apartment while Sanchez waited outside. When Garris came out he was covered with blood. He told Sanchez he had killed Egerer because she intended to extort money from Sanchez. Garris, knowing that Sanchez had saved a bit of money, hoped to earn Sanchez' favor.

When they returned to Eckerle's house, Garris told her that Sanchez had committed the crime. Over the years, Eckerle refused to let Sanchez explain. Sanchez had never come forward because he realized that, due to the paternity-suit motive, he would be suspected of having committed the murder.

Sanchez also testified that Forest Heinz and Peters had committed a number of burglaries. Sanchez denied involvement but stated that he occasionally let Heinz and Peters borrow tools. He also admitted having had an affair with Heinz' wife but had terminated it when he met Heinz. He stated that on February 3, 1984, Heinz and Peters were planning to burglarize a restaurant near D. Laney's. They kept their equipment and masks at Sanchez' house and had access to the house because they knew where Sanchez kept a spare key. Sanchez had been invited to participate but declined. He did not want to be around when Heinz and Peters came for their burglar tools.

Sanchez stated that on the night of February 3 he went to several bars in Wisconsin and Lake County. He eventually met a woman who returned to his house with him. After a time, Heinz walked in and sat down. Sometime later, when Sanchez was out of the room, the woman disappeared. Sanchez noticed her shoes and pants near the open patio door. He followed her tracks in the snow to Gonyo's back yard and brought her back to his house. He then went over and apologized to Gonyo.

When he returned, Heinz was still there. A short while later the woman left and, with Heinz still present, Sanchez fell asleep on the sofa. In the morning Sanchez discovered that Peters' car was in the garage and his own car was missing. The next day, Heinz came over with several cans of black paint, and he and Sanchez painted the top of Peters' car. Sanchez later spoke with Peters, who explained that he had left his car at Sanchez' because it had been in a hit-and-run accident. Sanchez saw no signs of damage. Sanchez cleaned out the back seat and trunk of Peters' car and returned it to him. Sanchez concluded his testimony by denying any involvement in the Thompson slaying.

Based upon this testimony, the jury decided to impose the death penalty.

The defendant's initial contention is that the evidence was insufficient to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He argues that Peters' testimony is subject to serious question, especially in light of the fact that he testified prior to his own sentencing and believed he might escape the death penalty by cooperating in the case against Sanchez. Defendant also notes that Mr. Gonyo heard no screams of "Help me," but rather heard the woman at his back door call the defendant by his nickname, "Larry." He argues that the sequence of events described by Peters would not lead to social introduction, which would have been the only way Thompson could have learned that he was called "Larry." Also, Mr. Gonyo did not see the woman being dragged back to Sanchez' house in handcuffs; rather, she followed some distance behind Sanchez and was walking normally.

Defendant also contends that the activities of Forest Heinz on the evening of February 3 create questions. He alleges that Peters changed his story several times in order to protect Heinz. At his subsequent sentencing hearing, Peters admitted that he lied at Sanchez' trial to help the State. In addition, the defendant points to the testimony of the witnesses who tentatively placed him in a saloon in Wisconsin at 8:30 on February 3. If he was there, he could not have been with Peters in Gurnee as Peters testified. Moreover, the defendant asserts that the activities of Rene Valentine create doubts as to his credibility. His behavior fits the pattern employed by persons selling drugs at D. Laney's. He was also carrying an unusually large amount of cash for a person who was unemployed. Finally, the defendant challenges the scientific evidence. He notes that fiber and hair comparisons can never be conclusive and also points out that Peters' description of Thompson's involuntary defecation was belied by the absence of fecal matter on her body or on the basement floor.

The thrust of defendant's sufficiency argument is that his convictions rested in large part on Peters' testimony, and that the totality of the evidence creates so many inconsistencies in Peters' story that the resulting conviction cannot stand.

The scope of our review of the sufficiency of the evidence to support a conviction is limited by principles which are by now well established. A conviction will not be set aside unless the evidence is so improbable or unsatisfactory that it creates a reasonable doubt of guilt. (People v. Collins (1985), 106 Ill.2d 237, 261; People v. Vriner (1978), 74 Ill.2d 329, 342.) In assessing sufficiency, it is not the function of this court to retry the defendant. (People v. Collins (1985), 106 Ill.2d 237, 261.) The relevant inquiry is "whether, after [re]viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." (Emphasis in original.) Jackson v. Virginia (1979), 443 U.S. 307, 319, 61 L.Ed.2d 560, 573, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 2789; People v. Collins (1985), 106 Ill.2d 237, 261.

With regard to Peters' testimony in particular, we have acknowledged that the testimony of an accomplice is to be viewed with suspicion (People v. Collins (1985), 106 Ill.2d 237, 261; People v. Baynes (1981), 88 Ill.2d 225, 232), but we have repeatedly held that it may be sufficient to sustain a conviction if it satisfies the jury of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. (People v. Collins (1985), 106 Ill.2d 237, 261; People v. Farnsley (1973), 53 Ill.2d 537, 544-45.) It is the role of the fact finder to weigh all the evidence. That role is preserved by the "legal conclusion that upon judicial review all of the evidence is to be considered in the light most favorable to the prosecution." (Emphasis in original.) Jackson v. Virginia (1979), 443 U.S. 307, 319, 61 L.Ed.2d 560, 573, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 2789; People v. Collins (1985), 106 Ill.2d 237, 261.

Applying these principles, we conclude that there is sufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict. Whatever conflicts may have existed in the evidence, resolution of such inconsistencies is wholly within the province of the jury. (People v. Collins (1985), 106 Ill.2d 237, 262; People v. Kubat (1983), 94 Ill.2d 437, 468.) Moreover, the jury is also entrusted with determinations of credibility. (People v. Collins (1985), 106 Ill.2d 237, 261-62; People v. Ellis (1978), 74 Ill.2d 489, 496.) Here, the jury was fully aware of the circumstances underlying Peters' testimony, and the question of his believability was fully and capably argued by counsel. The jury chose to believe Peters, and we are not prepared to say that its conclusion was unsupported or unreasonable.

Defendant's next contention, related somewhat to the sufficiency issue, is that the trial court's refusal to reset Sanchez' trial to a date after Peters' sentencing hearing was prejudicial and a denial of due process. Defendant argues that Peters' was led (or at least permitted) to believe that he might be facing the death penalty. He would thus perceive the benefit to himself from cooperating in the case against Sanchez. He was thereby induced to testify more favorably to the prosecution than would otherwise be the case. He goes on to argue that the request for a continuance was reasonable and would not have prejudiced the prosecution's case.

The general rule is that the decision whether to grant a continuance is within the discretion of the trial court. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 38, par. 114-4(e); People v. Williams (1982), 92 Ill.2d 109, 116.) Neither of the parties has cited any case in which the issue here presented has been considered. Defendant cites a Federal habeas corpus decision, Linton v. Perini (6th Cir. 1981), 656 F.2d 207, in which the denial of a continuance was held to amount to a due process violation. However, in that case the denial unreasonably interfered with the defendant's right to effective assistance of counsel.

In contrast, the denial in the instant case does not implicate a specific constitutional guarantee. We also are not persuaded that the defendant was prejudiced in any other way by the denial. The jury was fully apprised of Peters' circumstances and the interest he had in testifying. Peters' conviction and pending sentencing were brought out in both direct examination and cross-examination. Also, defense counsel vigorously stressed the point to the jury in closing argument. Thus, the jury was able to view Peters' testimony in the proper light and give it whatever weight and credence it thought it deserved.

The defendant's next contention is that he was denied a fair trial because the extensive pretrial publicity made it impossible to obtain an impartial jury. The defendant's motion to transfer venue or to bring in a jury from another county was denied.

The question of when pretrial publicity has reached a point which precludes obtaining an impartial local jury is a most vexing issue. This court has observed that "[c]rimes, especially heinous crimes, are of great public interest and are extensively reported. It is unreasonable to expect that individuals of average intelligence and at least average interest in their community would not have heard of any of the cases which they are called upon to judge in court. Total ignorance of the case is exceptional, and it is not required." (People v. Taylor (1984), 101 Ill.2d 377, 386; Irvin v. Dowd (1961), 366 U.S. 717, 722-23, 6 L.Ed.2d 751, 756, 81 S.Ct. 1639, 1642-43.) It is sufficient if the juror can lay aside his impression or opinion and render a verdict based on the evidence presented in court. (Irvin v. Dowd (1961), 366 U.S. 717, 723, 6 L.Ed.2d 751, 756, 81 S.Ct. 1639, 1643.) In assessing a claim of partiality due to pretrial publicity, a reviewing court has an obligation to evaluate the voir dire testimony of the jurors (366 U.S. 717, 723, 6 L.Ed.2d 751, 756, 81 S.Ct. 1639, 1643; People v. Taylor (1984), 101 Ill.2d 377, 390), and to review the entire record to determine independently whether the defendant received a fair trial (101 Ill.2d 377, 391).

Based upon such a review, we conclude that the level of awareness of the case on the part of the venire and the jury ultimately selected was not so great as to establish partiality and to deny the defendant a fair trial. We are guided in our determination by People v. Taylor (1984), 101 Ill.2d 377.

In Taylor, the defendant was granted a new trial because of extensive, prejudicial pretrial publicity. The manager of a Peoria radio station described the case as the most widely publicized case he had seen in Peoria. (People v. Taylor (1984), 101 Ill.2d 377, 383.) The defendant conducted a survey which revealed that of 382 voters questioned, 378, or 98.9%, had heard of the case. Moreover, 72% of those polled thought the police had arrested the right person.

The problems presented by the sheer amount of publicity were compounded by the nature of what was reported. Much attention had been devoted to the fact that a co-defendant had been released after taking a polygraph examination, while the defendant's polygraph test was "inconclusive." (People v. Taylor (1984), 101 Ill.2d 377, 383.) Such information would of course be inadmissible at trial. Despite exhaustion of all the defendant's peremptory challenges, six of the 12 jurors eventually impaneled had knowledge of the co-defendant's release. 101 Ill.2d 377, 391.

The defendant argues that, as in Taylor, the pool of persons from which his jury was drawn was exposed to extensive publicity regarding inadmissible, prejudicial matters. The media coverage of his case included reference to the Wisconsin murder of Sharon Egerer, and evidence of that offense could not be admitted in the prosecution's case in chief of the guilt phase of the trial. We are not persuaded, however, that the publicity rose to the extraordinary level that existed in Taylor.

As mentioned, the publicity in Taylor was described as "unprecedented" in intensity. While we accept that the coverage of the instant case was extensive, the record does not establish that it reached truly unprecedented proportions. As we stated in Taylor, the record must establish more than "the bare potential for bias." (People v. Taylor (1984), 101 Ill.2d 377, 395.) Also, we note that the defendant did not exhaust his peremptory challenges, but rather had three remaining at the close of jury selection. This factor, while not conclusive, tends to belie a claim of unfair prejudice. People v. Madison (1974), 56 Ill.2d 476, 487.

The most basic fact distinguishing this case from Taylor, however, lies in a comparison of the juries that actually heard the evidence. In Taylor, fully half of the panel had detailed knowledge of the case, and were at least somewhat cognizant of inadmissible information. Here, the record indicates that only two of the eventual jurors had read of the crimes in the local newspaper, and neither had extensive recollection of what had been reported. Moreover, there was no indication that any of the jurors had an awareness of the Egerer slaying.

In sum, the review of the entire voir dire and record convinces us that the degree of publicity was typical for a case of this nature, and that awareness on the part of the venire was minimal and did not deny the defendant a fair trial.

The defendant next asserts that his jury was improperly biased in favor of the prosecution because of the exclusion of prospective jurors who expressed opposition to the possible imposition of the death penalty. He argues that so-called "Witherspoon excludables" — those jurors who admit to absolute scruples against the death penalty — should be allowed to participate in the guilt-innocence phase of a trial. Exclusion of such persons results in a jury which does not represent a fair cross-section of the community. Further, the defendant asserts ...

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