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02/11/88 the People of the State of v. James B. Ashford

February 11, 1988





520 N.E.2d 332, 121 Ill. 2d 55, 117 Ill. Dec. 171 1988.IL.187

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Sangamon County, the Hon. Raymond L. Terrell, Judge, presiding.


JUSTICE CLARK delivered the opinion of the court. JUSTICE SIMON, Concurring in part and Dissenting in part.


The defendant, James "Pud" Ashford, and Gary Jones were charged by indictment in the circuit court of Sangamon County with four counts of knowing murder (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 38, par. 9-1(a)(2)), four counts of felony murder based on armed robbery (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 38, par. 9-1(a)(3)), and one count of armed robbery (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 38, par. 18-2). The circuit court granted the defendant's motion for a severance and accepted his waiver of a jury trial. A bench trial followed, and the defendant was found guilty of all charges. The defendant waived a jury for the death sentencing hearing. The circuit court found beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was 18 years of age or older at the time of the offenses and the existence of two statutory aggravating factors: the defendant was convicted of murdering four persons (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 38, par. 9-1(b)(3)), and he killed the victims in the course of an armed robbery (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 38, par. 9-1(b)(6)). Finding no mitigating factors sufficient to preclude imposition of the death penalty, the circuit court sentenced the defendant to death for the murder convictions. The defendant was sentenced to a 30-year prison term for the armed robbery conviction. The death sentence has been stayed (107 Ill. 2d R. 609(a)) pending direct review by this court (Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, § 4(b); 107 Ill. 2d R. 603). I. The Guilt Phase

The State presented the following evidence at trial. Ellen Michelle Lawson testified that on the evening of June 12, 1985, she went to buy some marijuana at the home of Lonnie Davis, at 1714 East Stuart Street in Springfield, Illinois. Four persons were there when she arrived, at approximately 10 p.m.: Lonnie Davis; Davis' girlfriend, Annette Singleton; his sister Janetta Leaks; and Bernard Bowen. Bowen greeted Michelle at the front door, which led to the home's living room. After letting her in, Bowen took a seat at the table in the dining room, a room immediately adjacent to the living room. On the dining room table was a scale, a mirror, a large freezer-type bag filled with a white powdery substance, and a briefcase containing several stacks of United States currency. Bowen was weighing the white substance, which Michelle believed was cocaine.

Michelle walked through the dining room to the kitchen, where she saw Leaks and Singleton. The two women were eating. She then went into the bedroom adjacent to the kitchen to talk with Davis. While the two were talking, the front doorbell rang several times. Michelle testified that Bowen answered the door and then exchanged a few words with Davis. Shortly afterwards, Michelle heard a voice outside, which she recognized as that of Gary Jones, say: "F -- k that, let me in." Two gunshots followed. Davis, Leaks and Singleton all ran to the living room. Michelle remained in the bedroom and, from there, she heard the two women scream and run back into the kitchen.

Michelle attempted to flee the house by a door in the bedroom that led to the outside. The door, however, was locked with a dead-bolt and could not be opened without a key. After hearing three or four more gunshots, Michelle retreated down the basement stairs and hid behind the washer and dryer. Michelle heard screaming and three or four more shots. She heard Annette Singleton beg for her life to be spared, followed by four more shots. She then moved to the bedroom in the basement and hid between the bed and a wall.

As she lay on the basement floor underneath the bed, Michelle heard still four more shots and then the sound of footsteps descending the basement stairs. She testified that from underneath the mattress, she could see a pair of feet wearing canvas-type tennis shoes and the bottoms of a pair of black pants or jeans. While the feet were still in her sight, Michelle heard a voice from upstairs, which she recognized as that of Gary Jones. She then heard a voice, which she recognized as that of the defendant's, respond from the basement: "I'm coming. I'm coming, man." The defendant went back upstairs. Michelle remained under the bed about five minutes longer, during which time the house was silent. She then ventured upstairs.

Michelle observed the bodies of Davis, Leaks and Singleton on the kitchen floor, the bodies of the two women huddled close together under the kitchen table. As she headed for the front door, Michelle passed through the dining room. Michelle testified that the freezer bag of white powder and the money she had seen earlier on the dining room table were no longer there. She found Bowen's body in the living room near the front door to the house.

On cross-examination, defense counsel established that Michelle had spoken with the defendant only three or four times before, each time at a party. The defense also brought out that Michelle had not told the police that she was a witness to the murders and armed robbery when first interviewed over one month after they occurred. Michelle explained that she did not tell police that she was at the Davis house during the murders and armed robbery because she was frightened of the defendant and Gary Jones. She further explained that she had gone away for over a month following the murders. When she returned and was interviewed by police, she did not know that the two men were in jail.

Anthony and Greg Phillips, brothers, testified that the defendant and Gary Jones stopped by their house on June 12, 1985, sometime between 9:30 and 11 p.m. Both testified that the defendant pulled out from under his shirt a plastic freezer bag full of white powder and said, "Jackpot." Greg Phillips also testified that the defendant said that he and Jones "had a shoot-out" at Davis' home. Greg stated that he was working on his van early in the morning on June 15, 1985, when the defendant came by and told him that he would pay him $100 to get rid of something. When Greg agreed, the defendant handed him a plastic bread sack that contained something heavy and hard. Greg buried the sack and its contents in front of a dog house in his backyard. The defendant later, and in the presence of his cousin Mack Alexander, asked Greg if he had disposed of the sack. Greg said that he had and the defendant then paid him $100, as agreed.

Greg Phillips also testified on direct examination that an unlawful restraint charge was currently pending against him. He testified that the State's Attorney had agreed to dismiss the charge and grant him immunity from prosecution for anything he might testify to so long as his testimony was truthful and consistent with the statement he gave police on June 21, 1985. On cross-examination, Greg conceded that he did not mention the defendant's statement that the defendant and Jones had come from a shoot-out at the Davis home in an August 1985 interview with an investigator from the public defender's office. The defense elicited, erroneously, and without reference to the transcript of the grand jury proceedings, a concession from Greg that he also had failed to mention the defendant's incriminating statement when he testified before the grand jury. The record of Greg's testimony before the grand jury clearly shows that Greg did in fact testify that the defendant had stated that he had come from "a shoot-out" at Davis' home.

The State did not use Greg's recorded grand jury testimony for rehabilitation, apparently unaware that the defense, presumably through inadvertence, had misstated Greg's grand jury testimony. Instead, on redirect examination and over objection, the State was allowed to rehabilitate Greg with a statement he made to the police on June 21, 1985, in which he recounted how the defendant confessed to having come from a "shoot-out" at the Davis home.

Vanzella Freeman testified that the defendant came to her home on June 13, 1985, shortly after midnight. The defendant, who from time to time lived with Vanzella's granddaughter, Jacqueline Johnson, asked Vanzella to come to the door. When she refused and told him to leave, the defendant entered the house and went upstairs. The defendant was upstairs for about a minute and a half, and he then left the house. After the defendant had gone, Vanzella asked her grandson Keith to see if the defendant had left anything behind. On a bed in her granddaughter Evette's room were two bundles of money bound with rubber bands; on the floor was a plastic bag containing a light-colored substance.

Not knowing what was in the bag, Vanzella took both the money and the bag to a neighbor's house. After she spoke with the neighbor, Vanzella placed the money and the bag containing the substance together in a larger plastic bag. Her first impulse was to throw the plastic bag in a nearby garbage dumpster, but she changed her mind and headed instead toward the defendant's house, a few blocks away. On the way, she ran into the defendant, who was walking down the same street, but in the opposite direction. Upon handing the bag to the defendant, the defendant stated, "It's mine."

Janet Walker and her sister Ramona Walker testified that the defendant and Mack Alexander came to Janet's home around 8 p.m. on June 15, 1985. The defendant had some cocaine, which he poured onto a plate and divided into lines. All four snorted the cocaine. The defendant told them that because they were all family (distant cousins), he was going to tell them something they were not to repeat. The defendant then told how he and Gary Jones went to Davis' home on June 12. He said that when Bowen opened the door, he pulled out his pistol and shot Bowen. He told them how one of the women in the kitchen had pleaded with him, "Pud, don't kill me." The defendant stated that he shot her because she called out his name.

Ramona did not recall if the defendant said whether he, Jones or both had shot the other women or Lonnie Davis. She recalled that the defendant said something about Jones being in the basement and stated that she had to leave the room several times, once because she had to vomit. Janet testified that the defendant said that he shot both the other women and Davis. The leg of one of the victims was shaking and so the defendant shot each victim in the head to make sure they were dead. Jones and the defendant then took the money and cocaine in two briefcases. They later split the money, each taking $5,000. The defendant stated that they had planned the robbery and explained that when that kind of money and drugs are involved, "you don't leave anyone alive." Pointing his hand at each of their heads, as though he were holding a gun, the defendant stated: "I shot them like this." He stated further that he had paid someone $50 apiece to get rid of the guns used to kill the victims.

Mack Alexander testified that he saw Gary Jones approximately two weeks before the murders. Jones, according to Alexander, was carrying a .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun that belonged to the defendant. Alexander testified that on June 14, 1985, the defendant took him to Janet Walker's home. Because neither had a key, they had to gain entry to the home by climbing through a window. Once inside, the defendant went to a closet in the front room and retrieved a grocery bag. In the bag was cocaine and money. The defendant said that he and Jones had each gotten $5,000 from "the stickup" at Davis' home. Alexander testified that he also was at Janet Walker's house the following day, June 15, when the defendant detailed to Janet, Ramona, and him how the four victims were murdered at the Davis house. The defendant explained that he killed all of the victims because he did not want to leave any witnesses.

On June 16, the defendant and Alexander made a trip to Decatur, Illinois. On the way there, the defendant said that he hoped the Phillips brothers had disposed of the guns used in the murders. He said that if they had not, it would be their problem because neither his nor Jones' fingerprints would be on the guns. The defendant also told Alexander that after the murders he used a police scanner radio to overhear any police reports regarding the slayings. When his and Jones' names were mentioned, the defendant took the money and cocaine and brought it to Vanzella Freeman's house. He said that he had left the money and cocaine there, but that Vanzella ran and gave it back to him.

When the defendant and Alexander returned to Springfield later in the day, they stopped by Greg Phillips' house. Alexander testified that the defendant asked Greg whether he had taken care of the guns. Greg said that he had and the defendant then paid him $100.

Dr. Grant Johnson, a forensic pathologist, testified that he made a preliminary examination of the victims at the crime scene and later performed the autopsies. He testified that Bernard Bowen had been shot once in the head and in the upper arm, and twice in the chest and in the right forearm. There were both entrance and exit wounds to the victim's head, and Dr. Johnson stated that one of the wounds to the victim's right forearm was probably created by the bullet which exited the victim's head and ricocheted off the floorboard of the house, splintering it. The recovered bullet, which Dr. Johnson believed was responsible for the head and forearm wounds, was compatible with a .45-caliber bullet, whereas the other bullets recovered from Bowen's body were of a smaller caliber. The primary cause of Bowen's death was an internal hemorrhage in the chest cavity resulting from one of the shots in his chest, which pierced the heart, and the other, which perforated the aorta.

Dr. Johnson testified that Lonnie Davis had been shot once in the head and in the left arm, and twice in the back. He stated that Annette Singleton had been shot once in the head, back, abdomen, and thigh. Janetta Leaks had been shot once in the head and in the back. The cause of death of Davis, Singleton, and Leaks was the same: destruction of brain tissue resulting from the gunshot to the head. Dr. Johnson testified that Davis may have been shot with two different caliber guns, as had Bowen.

Detective Thomas Todd of the Springfield police department testified that he found spent bullets and spent .357-caliber and .45-caliber casings at the crime scene, which he forwarded to the crime lab for processing. Detective Todd testified that on June 13, 1985, he and another police officer found nine spent .357-caliber casings in a garbage dumpster directly across the street from 312 North 11th Street, the current residence of Jacqueline Johnson and also, apparently, the defendant. The police obtained a warrant to search the residence. A search of it revealed a magazine for a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol, a box of .357-magnum ammunition and two spent bullets. Detective Todd, having compared the defendant's fingerprint card with the latent prints on the box of ...

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