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06/29/87 the People of the State of v. Randy L. Brackett

June 29, 1987





510 N.E.2d 877, 117 Ill. 2d 170, 109 Ill. Dec. 809 1987.IL.921

Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Fifth District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County, the Hon. Philip J. Rarick, Judge, presiding.


JUSTICE RYAN delivered the opinion of the court. JUSTICE GOLDENHERSH took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.


The defendant, Randy Brackett, was originally charged in the circuit court of Madison County with the rape, deviate sexual assault and aggravated battery of Mrs. Elizabeth Winslow. Approximately five weeks after the events giving rise to these charges, Mrs. Winslow died. The defendant was then additionally charged with four counts of murder. Pursuant to defendant's motion, the murder charges were severed from the original charges and separate bench trials were held. The defendant was convicted of rape and aggravated battery at the first trial. He was subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to an extended term of 60 years. His separate appeals were consolidated in the appellate court, which affirmed the murder convictions and vacated the rape and aggravated battery convictions. (People v. Brackett (1986), 144 Ill. App. 3d 442, 449.) We granted leave to appeal.

On the evening of October 20, 1981, defendant Randy Brackett, age 21, entered the home of Elizabeth Winslow, an 85-year-old widow, for whom he had previously done yard work. During the course of that evening, he raped and severely beat Mrs. Winslow, forced her to write him a check for $125, cooked himself some food and fell asleep for a time in an arm chair. He finally left in the early hours of the morning. The first policeman on the scene found Mrs. Winslow lying naked on the living room hide-a-bed. She was severely bruised about the face and appeared to have a broken arm and various other injuries to her body. She said she had been raped, choked and beaten.

She was admitted to the hospital, where medical examinations revealed she had a broken arm, broken rib, bruises on her face, neck, arms, trunk and inner thighs. There are no issues on appeal to this court involving the rape and aggravated battery convictions; therefore, it is unnecessary to recite the details of the physical and medical evidence involved in the proof of those charges. That evidence will be germane only to the extent that it may be involved in the issue on appeal concerning the cause of death.

Dr. Robert William Elliott was one of the doctors who treated Mrs. Winslow while she was hospitalized. Dr. Elliott had been Mrs. Winslow's physician for 20 years. He testified that prior to the events of October 21, 1981, Mrs. Winslow was a "feisty" old woman who lived alone and took care of herself. He further stated that during her stay in the hospital Mrs. Winslow became depressed and resisted efforts to feed her, and her condition progressively weakened. After receiving maximum benefit from hospital treatment, Mrs. Winslow was transferred to a nursing home on November 13, 1981. Her prognosis was poor, according to Dr. Elliott, even though her injuries were healing. Dr. Elliott accounted for the poor prognosis by relating the effects of trauma to elderly patients and the depression of elderly patients when they are removed from their homes for any type of hospitalization. The nursing home staff noted Mrs. Winslow's continuing declining condition and reported to Dr. Elliott her refusal to eat. He, in turn, ordered a nasal gastric tube to be used to try to feed her. The staff reported back that they could not use the tube because Mrs. Winslow's nasal passages were too small, and her facial injuries made it too painful to insert. Dr. Elliott withdrew the order because he did not want to cause Mrs. Winslow any further pain. It was his medical opinion that her death was imminent. He testified that, to a reasonable medical certainty, the tube could not be inserted because of her injuries. Two days later Mrs. Winslow's family was called to the nursing home because her condition had worsened, she had become cyanotic (a condition where the extremities turn blue and the blood pressure drops) and they expected her to die.

The next day, November 24, 1981, Mrs. Winslow's family was with her in the nursing home while she was being served lunch. For approximately 20 minutes a nurse's aide was feeding her small portions of pureed food on a spoon, which Mrs. Winslow was accepting without choking or gagging in any way. She eventually spit out some vegetables, which the aide interpreted to mean that Mrs. Winslow did not want any more. The aide tried to give Mrs. Winslow ice cream but she noticed Mrs. Winslow had stopped moving her mouth. The nurse's aide went to summon the nurses, who determined Mrs. Winslow had died.

There was an autopsy conducted by Dr. Steven Neurenberger. He determined her immediate cause of death to be asphyxiation, which resulted from six ounces of food being aspirated into her trachea. He found evidence of the internal abdominal bruises around the colon and kidney, a broken rib, and facial bruises. He testified that none of these injuries of themselves caused her death. He also testified as to the mechanics of clearing the trachea when food enters it. This requires a sufficient volume of air to be present in the lungs, which, when expelled, pushes the food out of the trachea and back into the mouth, thus preventing asphyxiation. He also testified that the pain associated with a broken rib generally inhibits deep breathing, which limits the amount of air available to the lungs. He further testified that the volume of food lodged in Mrs. Winslow's trachea was very large and would have been difficult for a normal, healthy person to expel. He stated the amount of food in her trachea would have led to her unconsciousness within 30 seconds, and death would have soon followed.

In this appeal, the defendant first contends he was not proved guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt because there was insufficient evidence to prove a criminal agency caused Mrs. Winslow's death. He also contends that even if there was sufficient proof of causation, he had no intent to kill, nor did he know his acts created a strong probability of death, nor could he have foreseen that death was a likely consequence of blows from his bare fists. We disagree and affirm the decisions of the circuit court of Madison County and the appellate court.

The State must prove that death was caused by a criminal agency. (People v. Benson (1960), 19 Ill. 2d 50, 58.) The defendant contends the State did not meet its burden of proof on this issue of causation. Briefly stated, the defendant claims that death was caused by an intervening event, namely asphyxiation, which was totally unrelated to the crimes of rape and aggravated battery, which the defendant acknowledges he perpetrated against Mrs. Winslow five weeks before she died.

It is a matter of common knowledge that a person can accidentally choke to death while eating. Moreover, that type of accidental death could be the type of intervening cause which would relieve a defendant of criminal responsibility for death. (W. LaFave & A. Scott, Criminal Law sec. 35, at 257 (1st ed. 1972).) The courts in Illinois have repeatedly held that an intervening cause completely unrelated to the acts of the defendant does relieve a defendant of criminal liability. (People v. Meyers (1946), 392 Ill. 355; Cunningham v. People (1902), 195 Ill. 550; People v. Gulliford (1980), 86 Ill. App. 3d 237; People v. Paulson (1967), 80 Ill. App. 2d 44.) The converse of this is also true: when criminal acts of the defendant have contributed to a person's death, the defendant may be found guilty of murder. (People v. Schreiber (1982), 104 ...

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