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06/19/89 the People of the State of v. Alton Coleman

June 19, 1989

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, APPELLEE

v.

ALTON COLEMAN, APPELLANT



SUPREME COURT OF ILLINOIS

544 N.E.2d 330, 129 Ill. 2d 321, 135 Ill. Dec. 834 1989.IL.920

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County, the Hon. Fred A. Geiger, Judge, presiding.

APPELLATE Judges:

CHIEF JUSTICE MORAN delivered the opinion of the court.

DECISION OF THE COURT DELIVERED BY THE HONORABLE JUDGE MORAN

The defendant, Alton Coleman, was charged by indictment in the circuit court of Lake County for the murder (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, pars. 9-1(a)(2), (a)(3)) and aggravated kidnapping (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, par. 10-2(a)(3)) of Vernita Wheat. A jury found the defendant guilty of each charge. The State requested a hearing to consider whether the death penalty should be imposed. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, par. 9-1(d).) The same jury found the defendant eligible for the death penalty and found there were no mitigating factors sufficient to preclude a sentence of death. The circuit court sentenced the defendant to death and to a 15-year term of imprisonment on the aggravated kidnapping conviction. The death sentence was stayed (107 Ill. 2d R. 609(a)) pending direct appeal to this court (Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, § 4(b); 107 Ill. 2d R. 603).

The issues presented for review are: (1) whether the defendant made a knowing and intelligent waiver of counsel at the guilt and sentencing phases of his trial; (2) whether the circuit court erred in denying the defendant's motion to suppress; (3) whether the jury improperly relied on section 9 -- 1(b)(7) to establish the defendant's eligibility for the death sentence; (4) whether the defendant was denied a fair sentencing hearing because the prosecutor characterized him as an "animal" during closing arguments; and (5) whether the defendant was denied a fair sentencing hearing because the jury was not instructed on the alternative mandatory sentence of natural life imprisonment. The defendant also challenges the constitutionality of the Illinois death penalty statute.

The following evidence was adduced at the guilt phase of the defendant's trial. The partially decomposed body of nine-year-old Vernita Wheat was discovered in an abandoned building in Waukegan, Illinois, on June 19, 1984. Her chest, neck and hands were bound with cable wire. Dr. Larry Blum, assigned to the case, determined that the cause of death was ligature strangulation. Dr. Blum opined that the death occurred approximately three weeks prior to the discovery of the body. Dr. Bernard Greenberg, a forensic entomologist, studied the development of the fly larvae found on the victim's body and opined that the body was deposited in the building on either May 29 or May 30.

Juanita Wheat, the victim's mother, testified that at the time of the offense she resided in Kenosha, Wisconsin, with her daughter, Vernita, and her seven-year-old son, Brandon. At the end of April or beginning of May of 1984, the defendant introduced himself to Juanita as Robert Knight, showed her an identification card bearing that name, and told her he lived two blocks away. The defendant actually lived in Waukegan. That evening the defendant ate dinner with Juanita at her apartment and played with her children. Several days later the defendant returned to Juanita's apartment, spent time with Juanita and her children, and met Juanita's cousin, Willie Mae Peebles. On May 29, 1984, the defendant returned to Juanita's apartment building and without invitation entered the apartment of Juanita's neighbor, Ellen Reeves, whom Juanita was visiting. Juanita introduced the defendant to Reeves. With Juanita's permission, the defendant then took the children to a carnival, and returned them to Juanita's apartment by 10:15 p.m. Juanita then allowed Vernita to accompany the defendant to his apartment "to pick up a stereo system." When the defendant had not returned Vernita by 10:45 p.m., Juanita and Reeves began searching for her. Approximately one hour later Juanita telephoned the police.

On the following day, Juanita and Reeves identified the defendant's photograph at the police station. Juanita, Reeves and Peebles identified the defendant in court.

Ernesto Zertuche, a patron of an establishment in Kenosha called the "400 Club," testified that a black man and a black girl entered the establishment at approximately 11:35 p.m. on May 29, 1984, and the man immediately used the telephone. A few minutes later a cab arrived to pick up the man and girl. Zertuche identified a photograph of Vernita Wheat as the girl he had seen at the 400 Club.

David McIntosh, another patron, corroborated the testimony of Zertuche. McIntosh identified the defendant and identified a photograph of Vernita Wheat as the man and girl he had seen at the 400 Club.

Keith Hach, a cab driver, testified that his cab was dispatched to the 400 Club at 11:35 p.m. on May 29, 1984. Once he arrived, a black man and black girl entered his cab. The man directed Hach to drive them to Zion, Illinois, "to pick up a stereo system." When they arrived at the designated house, the man tapped Hach on the shoulder and told him to drive them to Waukegan. Hach drove the man and girl to "Slater's Barbecue" in Waukegan.

James Adams, an employee at the Diamond Scrap Yard located next to Slater's Barbecue, testified that he was working during the early morning hours of May 30, 1984. At approximately 1:30 a.m., he saw a black man and a black girl walking "in the middle of the street as if they had came out of Slater's."

On behalf of the defense, Anna Ross testified that she saw the defendant and Vernita Wheat walking past her house during the afternoon of May 30, 1984. Ross waved to Vernita and Vernita waved back.

Patricia Parks, a friend of the defendant, testified that the defendant came to her residence during the morning of May 31, 1984, and asked her to leave town with him. She declined.

Joseph Thompson, another friend of the defendant, testified that he drove the defendant to a "record shop" in Chicago at approximately noon on May 31, 1984, so that the defendant could obtain false identification cards. Afterwards, Thompson drove the defendant to a train station in Evanston, Illinois.

Terri Coleman, the defendant's sister, testified that the defendant visited with her briefly at her house in Waukegan at approximately 7 p.m. on May 31, 1984. She informed the defendant that the police had asked her about a "girl in Kenosha."

Officer Michael Bettasso testified that he was dispatched to Terri Coleman's house at 7 p.m. on May 31, 1984. He stated that the police had information that a cab had taken the defendant to that location. When Officer Bettasso arrived, he saw a black man, whom he identified as the defendant, leaving the house. The defendant saw Officer Bettasso, turned and fled. Officer Bettasso pursued the defendant, but was unable to apprehend him.

On June 19, 1984, Andrew Greenwood and Murry Smith discovered Vernita Wheat's body in the bathroom of an abandoned building in Waukegan. The abandoned building was located two blocks from Slater's Barbecue. Greenwood telephoned the police. After an investigation of the premises, two fingerprints were discovered on the door of the bathroom: the first was unidentified and the second was identified as the defendant's.

The defendant was arrested in Evanston, Illinois, at approximately 10:40 a.m. on July 20, 1984. That afternoon the defendant told the police that he knew Juanita Wheat, but denied that he knew or killed Vernita Wheat.

A jury found the defendant guilty of the murder and aggravated kidnapping of Vernita Wheat. Following the conviction, the State requested a hearing to determine whether the death penalty should be imposed. After the first phase of the sentencing hearing, the jury found that the defendant was at least 18 years of age at the time of the offense (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, par. 9-1(b)), and that there were two statutory aggravating factors in existence rendering the defendant eligible for the death penalty: (1) the defendant had previously been convicted of intentional murder in Indiana and Ohio, and the laws of those States were substantially similar to the laws of the State of Illinois (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, par. 9-1(b)(3)); and (2) the victim was under 12 years of age and the death resulted from exceptionally brutal or heinous behavior indicative of wanton cruelty (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, par. 9-1(b)(7)). The jury rejected the State's argument that the defendant was eligible for the death penalty under section 9-1(b)(6) (the murdered individual was killed in the course of a felony by the defendant) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, par. 9-1(b)(6)).

At the second phase of the sentencing hearing, the State presented the following evidence in aggravation. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of Tamika Turks of Indiana and Tonnie Storey and Marlene Walters of Ohio.

The body of seven-year-old Tamika Turks was discovered in a wooded area of Gary, Indiana, on June 18, 1984. The cause of her death was ligature strangulation. At the defendant's trial for that offense, Annie Hillard, Tamika's nine-year-old companion, testified that the defendant and a woman named Debra Brown abducted the two girls and took them to a wooded area, where Annie witnessed the defendant beat and strangle Tamika. Annie was then forced to have oral sex with the defendant and Brown, and the defendant raped her. The defendant and Brown then strangled Annie with a belt. She lost consciousness and was left for dead. Soon thereafter, Annie's mother discovered Annie lying in the wooded area and took her to a hospital. Annie's ripped vaginal area required surgery.

The partially decomposed body of 15-year-old Tonnie Storey was discovered in an abandoned building in Evanston, Ohio, on July 21, 1984. The cause of her death was strangulation. At the defendant's trial for that offense, Tonnie's parents testified that they last saw Tonnie on July 11, 1984. Yvette Lewis, Tonnie's classmate, testified that she saw Tonnie walking with the defendant and Brown at approximately 6 p.m. on July 11, 1984. A fingerprint identified as Brown's was discovered on Tonnie's Michael Jackson button, which was found 10 feet from her body. A shoeprint matching the defendant's was also discovered near Tonnie's body.

The body of Marlene Walters was discovered in her house in Norwood, Ohio, on July 13, 1984. At the defendant's trial for that offense, Harry Walters, Marlene's husband, testified that the defendant and Brown attacked him in their house at approximately 10:30 a.m. on July 13, 1984. Harry lost consciousness and remained comatose until September 1984. Marlene's body was discovered that evening. Her death was caused by blows to the head resulting in skull fractures and brain injuries. The defendant's fingerprints were found both inside and outside the house.

The State presented additional evidence in aggravation. First, the State presented evidence detailing the defendant's involvement in four other murders: Donna Williams of Gary, Indiana, whose body was discovered in Detroit, Michigan, on July 11, 1984; Virginia Temple and her nine-year-old daughter, Rachelle, whose bodies were discovered in their house in Toledo, Ohio, on July 7, 1984; and Eugene Scott, whose body was discovered in a ditch near Indianapolis, Indiana, on July 19, 1984. Second, the State presented evidence showing the defendant's involvement in several other offenses, including attempted murder, sexual assault, robbery, and kidnapping. Finally, the State revealed that at the time the defendant murdered Vernita Wheat, he was on bond for another charge in Illinois.

The defendant then presented the following evidence in mitigation. Reverend Lloyd R. Davis, pastor of the Christian Fellowship Church in Waukegan, testified that he had known the defendant since August 4, 1986, and it was his belief that the defendant desired to make peace with God and to be spiritually saved.

After considering all of the evidence in aggravation and mitigation, the jury found that there were no mitigating factors sufficient to preclude a sentence of death.

The defendant first asserts that he did not make a knowing and intelligent waiver of counsel at the guilt and sentencing phases of his trial. The defendant was represented by two public defenders: Mike Melius and Joan Pantsios. Six days before his trial, the defendant filed a motion to proceed pro se. The circuit court admonished the defendant of his right to counsel and, as an indigent, his right to court-appointed counsel. The circuit court further admonished the defendant of the nature of the charges against him, and informed him that the maximum sentence prescribed by law was the death penalty and the minimum sentence prescribed by law was a 20-year term of imprisonment. We note that the trial Judge incorrectly admonished the defendant of the minimum sentence. Under Illinois law, a defendant who has previously been convicted of murder is subject to a minimum sentence of natural life imprisonment. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, par. 1005-8-1(a)(1)(c).) As the defendant had previously been convicted of murder in Indiana and Ohio, the minimum sentence he was eligible to receive was natural life imprisonment.

After admonishing the defendant, the circuit court granted his motion to proceed pro se and directed Melius and Pantsios to serve as advisors. After the guilt phase of his trial, the defendant requested that counsel be reappointed to represent him at his sentencing hearing. The circuit court reappointed Melius and Pantsios. After the first phase of his sentencing hearing, the defendant again filed a motion to proceed pro se. The circuit court admonished the defendant exactly as it did during the guilt phase of his trial, granted the defendant's motion to proceed pro se and directed Melius and Pantsios to serve as advisors.

The defendant contends that he did not make a knowing and intelligent waiver of counsel because the circuit court did not properly admonish him of the minimum sentence in accordance with Rule 401(a) (107 ...


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