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12/09/87 the People of the State of v. Millie R. Lee

December 9, 1987





517 N.E.2d 628, 164 Ill. App. 3d 155, 115 Ill. Dec. 217 1987.IL.1811

Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County; the Hon. John J. Hoban, Judge, presiding.


JUSTICE WELCH delivered the opinion of the court. HARRISON, P.J., and KARNS, J., concur.


This cause comes before this court on remand from the United States Supreme Court. (Lee v. Illinois (1986), 476 U.S. 530, 90 L. Ed. 2d 514, 106 S. Ct. 2056.) The Supreme Court held that the admission in defendant Lee's trial of a codefendant's confession which implicated defendant Lee, where the co-defendant did not testify, violated defendant Lee's sixth amendment right of confrontation. (See Bruton v. United States (1968), 391 U.S. 123, 20 L. Ed. 2d 476, 88 S. Ct. 1620.) The cause was remanded to this court for a determination as to whether this error, in the particular facts of this case, requires reversal of defendant's conviction(s), or is merely harmless. To decide this question it is necessary to review the facts of the case and the evidence adduced at trial.

Defendant, Millie Renee Lee, and her codefendant, Edwin Thomas, were indicted on two counts of murder. The alleged victims were defendant's aunt, Mattie Darden, and Mattie's friend, Odessa Donahue Harris. The two co-defendants were tried jointly to the court sitting without a jury. The State's evidence consisted mainly of the confessions of defendant and her codefendant. Neither co-defendant presented any evidence in defense.

On the night of February 13, 1982, a fire was discovered in a closet of an apartment at the Roosevelt Homes in East St. Louis. It was discovered that the item on fire was a human body later identified as that of Mattie Darden. The body was clothed in an orange and blue nightgown and was wrapped in two blankets. There was also a piece of white cloth wrapped around the victim's neck.

An autopsy revealed multiple stab wounds to the anterior thorax, a stab wound to the posterior thorax and three lacerations to the skull. The lacerations to the skull were caused by a blunt instrument, possibly a skillet. These injuries were the cause of the victim's death.

Also discovered next to the closet door was a can of charcoal lighter fluid. James Trione testified that he is the operator of Bunkum Liquor Store near the Roosevelt Homes. On the night of February 11, 1982, he sold just such a can of lighter fluid to a young female whom he recognized as a regular customer, although Trione could not remember her name when first asked by the police. After conferring with a store employee, he remembered that her name was Renee. At trial, Trione identified the defendant as the woman who had purchased the lighter fluid.

On February 14, 1982, a purse was discovered at a bus stop approximately 150 feet south of the apartment where the burnt body had been found. The purse contained papers indicating it belonged to Odessa Donahue Harris. At this time the police suspected that the burnt body found in the closet might be that of Odessa Donahue Harris. They began an investigation into Odessa's whereabouts, during the course of which they proceeded to defendant's apartment at the Roosevelt Homes.

The door to defendant's apartment was opened by codefendant Edwin Thomas. Defendant was summoned and was asked if she knew Odessa Harris. Defendant responded yes, but that she had not seen Odessa in months. Defendant explained that the apartment actually belonged to her aunt, Mattie Darden, who was in Peoria. Defendant agreed to go the police station to attempt to identify the burnt body as that of Odessa Harris.

While at the police station, the police learned from the coroner's office that the burnt body was not that of Odessa Harris. Defendant had begun acting suspiciously, so she was advised of her rights and questioned as to the whereabouts of her aunt, Mattie Darden. Defendant gave several conflicting explanations as to her aunt's whereabouts before confessing to her part in the murders.

Defendant's written confession was admitted into evidence at her trial. The confession explained that on the night of the murders, she and co-defendant Edwin Thomas, were at Mattie Darden's apartment watching television. Mattie and Odessa came in and went ...

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