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06/26/87 the People of the State of v. Joyce Eckhardt

June 26, 1987





509 N.E.2d 1361, 156 Ill. App. 3d 1077, 109 Ill. Dec. 349 1987.IL.906

Appeal from the Circuit Court of De Kalb County; the Hon. John A. Leifheit, Judge, presiding.


JUSTICE UNVERZAGT delivered the opinion of the court. HOPF and INGLIS, JJ., concur.


The defendant, Joyce Eckhardt, appeals for the second time her conviction for the murder of her husband, Harold (Vern) Eckhardt. Her first appeal resulted in reversal and remand for a new trial when we determined the prosecutor's misstatement of law regarding the insanity defense during closing argument was plain error which deprived her of a fair trial. People v. Eckhardt (1984), 124 Ill. App. 3d 1041.

On retrial, she waived her right to a jury and again raised the defense of insanity. As in her first trial, the sanity issue was heatedly contested. Substantial lay and expert testimony was presented on both sides of the issue. She contends here the State failed to meet its burden of proving her sane beyond a reasonable doubt.

At the outset, we note that prior to certain 1984 amendments to the Criminal Code of 1961 (the Code), when a defendant introduced evidence of insanity, the State was required to prove the defendant's sanity beyond a reasonable doubt in addition to the elements of the offense. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 38, pars. 6-2, 3-2.) On January 1, 1984, Public Act 83-288 added section 6-2(e) to the Code and amended section 3-2(b). (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 38, pars. 6-2(e), 3-2(b).) These sections place the burden of proof upon a defendant, when the defense of insanity has been presented during trial, to prove by a preponderance of the evidence he is not guilty by reason of insanity. Although the retrial of the defendant here occurred after January 1, 1984, it has been held that a shift in the burden of proof relating to the insanity defense would be an ex post facto application of the statute if applied to a trial for an offense which was committed prior to the amendment to the law. (People v. Hickman (1986), 143 Ill. App. 3d 195, 198; People v. Hollins (1985), 136 Ill. App. 3d 1, 4-5; see also People v. Palmer (1985), 139 Ill. App. 3d 966, 972.) Consequently, in contrast to current practice, the State here bore the burden of proving the defendant sane beyond a reasonable doubt at her retrial.

Testimony adduced at the four-day bench trial showed that the defendant and Vern Eckhardt had been married for 18 years. They lived in a trailer park in Kirkland, Illinois, and had three children: Janelle, age 18; Julie, age 15; and Christopher, age 7. Vern worked as a process server for the De Kalb County sheriff's department.

A short time before Vern's death, the defendant had expressed some fear of her husband and also suspected that he might be involved with someone else, although she apparently did not express this latter suspicion to anyone. None of the witnesses at trial were aware of any threats the decedent had made toward the defendant or his family, nor were any of them aware of marital problems between the defendant and her husband.

At 2:45 a.m. on March 29, 1982, Christine Patten, a communications deputy with the De Kalb County sheriff's office, received a telephone call from the defendant. She asked that an officer be sent to her home in Kirkland because she had just shot her husband in the head; her tone of voice at the time was calm and unemotional.

Upon being advised of the defendant's phone call, Mary Mackler, another De Kalb County deputy, called her back. After one or two rings, the defendant answered the phone. Mackler engaged in the following conversation with the defendant:

"Mackler: Hello, Joyce?, Defendant: Yes.

Mackler: This is Mary from County. How are you?, Defendant: I'm okay.

Mackler: Is Harold there?, Defendant: Yes he is. He's in the bedroom.

Mackler: Is he alright?, Defendant: No. I just shot him.

Mackler: Well, did you check to see if there was a pulse?, Defendant: No, I don't want to go back in there, because I want to think he had a heart attack. I wanted to get him before he got me."

When Mackler asked the defendant whether she had told the children what happened, she responded that she had told them he had a heart attack; she would not let Mackler speak to any of the children. Mackler ended her phone conversation with defendant upon the arrival of De Kalb County Officer Joe Arundel at the defendant's home.

A number of other De Kalb County officers also arrived at the defendant's home. Vern Eckhardt was found lying face down in bed, dead from an apparent gunshot wound to his head. David Munch, an investigating officer, spoke with the defendant upon arrival. He advised the defendant of her Miranda rights, and she indicated that she wanted the children taken out of the house before talking to him. Thereafter, Munch asked the defendant, "What's been going on?" She responded, "It's been going on for a long time."

The defendant told Munch where the gun she had used was located. It was found in a cabinet underneath the bathroom sink, lying on top of a number of items, and the holster was found on the countertop near the sink. The gun contained one empty shell casing and five live rounds. An autopsy performed on March 29 confirmed that Vern Eckhardt died from a bullet wound to the head.

The defendant gave a statement to Detective Gary Yeiser later that day. During the interview, she said several times that "Vern was going to hurt us," giving as her reason that he had worn his guns on Saturday around the house. On that day, March 27, Vern received a call informing him that his new gun grips were ready, and he left the trailer. Afraid that Vern was going to harm her and the children, the defendant barricaded the door and would not let him back into the trailer when he returned a few minutes later after having gone uptown. She also had called the sheriff's department to inform them of Vern's behavior. In her statement to Yeiser, she said Vern told her she better let him in the trailer or he would kill her or put her back in the "psych ward."

The defendant told Yeiser that on the following day, March 28, Vern was still attempting to straighten out the problem they were having, and that the children and she went shopping for shoes for the kids. Later, the defendant thought that Vern was upset with their daughters and that he might start yelling or throwing things, and she put Chris to bed so he would not get on Vern's nerves. Vern went to bed before the defendant. She could not sleep; she was upset and didn't know what she was going to do, but she felt something had to be done. She sat around for a while, thinking, trying to plan some course of action. She then went to bed.

Sometime later, early in the morning of March 29, she got out of bed, turned on the gas in the house, blew out the pilot lights, and then went back to bed. She then told Yeiser that she decided she didn't want to kill herself and the kids, so she thought some more and decided that she would kill Vern. She turned off the gas, and she found the key to the small cabinet next to their bed where Vern kept his guns. She opened the cabinet and removed a gun. She took it to the bathroom where there was light to see if it was loaded. It was, so she walked back into the bedroom, put the gun to the right side of Vern's head and pulled the trigger.

Yeiser said that during her statement, the defendant told him the last time she was in the hospital was about the time her son, Chris, was born, but she also told him about the time Vern was supposed to go to civil process school with Sharon Miller and another person from the sheriff's office in October 1981. She told him that she had gone into the hospital in an attempt to keep Vern home with the family; she didn't want him to leave. She told Yeiser that when Vern tried to talk to her about divorce or separation, she did not respond. She also did not feel that she was being helped during her stays at the psych ward and that she would not be going back there. She further mentioned to Yeiser that about a week prior to the shooting, Vern had turned on the gas in the stove and had blown out the pilot light.

She told Yeiser that Vern talked about a divorce and about taking the kids away. She also told him that she had to kill Vern before he killed her; she could not give a reason for this belief. When asked why she was afraid of him, she referred to his wearing the gun and his asking her about a separation or divorce. She was afraid he was going to use the gun on her or the kids. When questioned whether she knew that what ...

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