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September 22, 1994


Harrison, Miller, Bilandic, Heiple

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Harrison

JUSTICE HARRISON delivered the opinion of the court:

Following a jury trial in the circuit court of Will County, Tyrone Brandon was convicted of first degreemurder (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 38, par. 9-1) and aggravated criminal sexual assault (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 38, par. 12-14). Brandon elected to have the trial court determine his sentence, and the court found that he was eligible to be sentenced to death because the murdered individual was killed in the course of another felony. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 38, par. 9-1(b)(6).) The court further determined that there were no mitigating factors sufficient to preclude imposition of a sentence of death. (See Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 38, par. 9-1(h).) Accordingly, it sentenced Brandon to death. The death sentence has been stayed (134 Ill. 2d R. 609(a)), and the case is now before us on direct appeal (Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, § 4(b); Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 38, par. 9-1(i); 134 Ill. 2d R. 603). For the reasons which follow, we reverse and remand.

On April 24, 1990, Estervina Van Duyne was sexually assaulted, then brutally murdered in her home. Brandon was interrogated about the crime at police headquarters several days later, but denied any involvement. A subsequent search of his car and the house where he was staying revealed nothing. Following the search, Brandon went to the police station, where he again denied any involvement. The police then took his fingerprints and released him.

A print from one of Brandon's fingers and his palm print matched latent prints on a bloody mop handle found next to Van Duyne's body. Police subsequently arrested Brandon for murder. He was taken to the police station, where he confessed to the killing. According to the chief of police, Brandon claimed that he had wanted to rob Van Duyne of $500. When she resisted, he struck her several times and choked her. He then sexually assaulted her and stabbed her.

Following Brandon's indictment for this crime, the court appointed an expert to conduct a psychologicaland neuro-psychological evaluation of him. The court found that the expert's report did not raise a bona fide doubt as to Brandon's fitness to stand trial. Thereafter, Brandon's attorneys filed a motion arguing that he was not fit to stand trial because a learning disability prevented him from understanding what occurred in court.

In support of their motion, Brandon's attorneys submitted an affidavit stating that their client could not understand the Discussions they had with him about the facts and legal issues in the case. The court then conducted a hearing to determine whether a bona fide doubt existed as to Brandon's fitness to stand trial. At that hearing, two witnesses were presented.

The first witness was Vivien Liese, who evaluates individuals to determine whether they have learning disabilities. Based on a six- or seven-hour evaluation of Brandon, Liese concluded that he had serious vocabulary handicaps, a substantial deficiency in his ability to discriminate sounds, and deficits in interpreting ambiguous words and understanding speech. Liese characterized Brandon as suffering from a receptive language dysfunction.

According to Liese, Brandon would have great difficulty in understanding speech if there was background noise, such as air conditioning, the rustling of clothes or paper, or the sound of a stenographer's machine. He cannot comprehend complex sentences that contain many phrases, and can only understand slow, clear speech. He functions at the third percentile for people his age in terms of words he can process and understand, and he scored in the fifth percentile in memory tests.

Liese was concerned that Brandon "would not really be able to understand the proceedings in order to be able to share [information with counsel]." Liese statedthat because Brandon has difficulty comprehending others, the information he provides might not be accurate. She also testified that he usually behaves as though he understands what others are saying to him, even when he does not.

The second witness was Pamela Mowers, a school psychologist who had evaluated Brandon for special education purposes while he was in high school. Mowers agreed that Brandon's short-term memory was poor and that he had difficulty in understanding language. She further testified that there was a consistently large gap between Brandon's verbal IQ and his performance IQ, demonstrating a language dysfunction.

Based on this evidence, the circuit court agreed that Brandon suffered from a language dysfunction and an impaired ability to understand. The court nevertheless refused to grant a fitness hearing. It did so on the grounds that none of Brandon's evidence showed that he was unable to understand the nature of the proceedings or that he was unable to assist in his defense.

After the fitness hearing was denied and Brandon failed in his efforts to suppress his confession, the case proceeded to trial on the merits. At trial, Brandon did not deny that he had beaten, raped and killed Van Duyne. Rather, he asserted an insanity defense. The defense proved unsuccessful, and, as noted at the outset of this opinion, the jury returned a verdict of guilty.

Before sentencing, Brandon's attorney's made a second request for a fitness hearing. That request was also denied, and the circuit court sentenced Brandon to death. On this appeal, Brandon first argues that he is entitled to a new trial ...

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