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November 22, 1995


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Williamson County, the Hon. Snyder Howell, Judge, presiding.

Chief Justice Bilandic delivered the opinion of the court: Justice Harrison took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bilandic

CHIEF JUSTICE BILANDIC delivered the opinion of the court:

Following a jury trial in the circuit court of Williamson County, the jury returned verdicts finding thedefendant, David Porter, guilty but mentally ill of two counts of second degree murder and guilty but mentally ill of two counts of first degree murder (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 38, pars. 9-1, 9-2). All four of the murder counts arose from the same act, namely the murder of the defendant's mother. The trial court entered judgment only on one count of guilty but mentally ill of first degree murder. The defendant waived a jury for sentencing. The trial court found the defendant eligible for the death penalty based on the statutory aggravating factor of murder in the course of a felony (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 38, par. 9-1(b)(6)), and further found that there were no mitigating factors sufficient to preclude the imposition of the death penalty. The defendant's sentence has been stayed pending his direct appeal to this court. (Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, ยง 4(b); 134 Ill. 2d Rules 603, 609(a).) For the reasons expressed in this opinion, we reverse the defendant's conviction, vacate the imposed sentence and remand for a new trial.


On May 31, 1991, the body of 65-year-old Verna Mae Porter was found on the bathroom floor of her home in Pittsburg, Illinois, by her sons James and Steven Porter. Verna shared this home with her other son, David Porter, the defendant. The defendant resided in the enclosed front porch, but he had access to the remainder of the house, including the residence's only bathroom where Verna's body was found. Prior to discovering Verna's body, James Porter was contacted by Marlene Rickey, a real estate agent, who had been trying to sell Verna's house for about six months. Marlene testified that she had been unsuccessful in contacting Verna on either May 30 or May 31, 1991. Marlene stated that she became concerned because she knew that Verna suffered from a heart condition. As a result, Marlene asked James to check on his mother.

After receiving Marlene's telephone call on May 31, 1991, James contacted his brother Steven and they went to Verna's house. Upon arriving at the house, they saw that there were no signs of forced entry, no broken windows, and that the house was locked. They used their keys to gain entrance into the house and eventually discovered their mother, Verna, lying facedown on the bathroom floor. When efforts to revive her failed, they summoned an ambulance and the county sheriff. While they were waiting for the ambulance and the sheriff to arrive, the defendant came walking toward the house.

Dane Johns, a deputy sheriff for the Williamson County sheriff's department, arrived at the scene at approximately 3 p.m. on May 31, 1991. He testified that the defendant arrived about 15 to 20 minutes later. Deputy Johns took a written statement from the defendant, wherein the defendant admitted that he had engaged in a verbal confrontation with his mother between 12 and 12:30 am. on May 30, 1991. After the confrontation, the defendant went for a walk. The defendant stated that he did not use the bathroom in the house on May 30, 1991, because, while out walking, he used the restroom facility at a local church.

Aside from Deputy Johns, three detectives from the Williamson County sheriff's department arrived at the scene at approximately 3:26 p.m. These detectives performed a thorough search of the victim's residence. Each testified that there were no signs of forced entry to the exterior of the residence, and that there were no signs of an interior struggle.

In addition to searching the residence, Detective William Marks also spoke with the defendant that day. In their conversation, the defendant described his whereabouts over the past two days. The defendant stated that at 12:30 a.m. on May 30, 1991, he was unable to sleep because his mother's television was too loud. Heasked her to turn it down and she became cantankerous. After listening to her for 20 to 30 minutes, he returned to his room and put on earphones and went to sleep. That same day he got up early, went for a walk and returned home around 10 a.m. He then left again and walked around most of the day. On May 31, 1991, he also left the residence early, walked around and returned home at about 10 a.m. On both days, he had waited for his mother to knock on his door at 10 a.m. because it was routine for him to take her to the nursing home to visit his father each morning. She did not knock on his door on either morning so he went for walks on both days. According to Detective Marks, the defendant showed a lack of remorse over his mother's death.

Monte Blue, the Williamson County coroner, was also present at the scene. He observed the victim lying on the bathroom floor. She was wearing a sweatshirt, pants and underwear. Blue testified that he examined her body to determine its position at the time of death. The position of the victim's body appeared to indicate that she died on her face and stomach. However, her body's lividity, which is the staining of the body after death, showed otherwise. When a person dies, the blood settles to the lowest point in the body. If an individual were to die on her face, the blood should settle to her face and stomach. Despite the fact that Verna was found lying on her face and stomach, there was lividity on her heel and calf. In his opinion, there could not be lividity on her heel and calf if she had died facedown on the bathroom floor. He also noticed that her wrists were bruised. The unusual presence of lividity and bruising made him suspicious that the cause of death was something other than a heart attack. Therefore, Blue ordered an autopsy.

Dr. John Heidingsfelder, a forensic pathologist, performed the autopsy on June 1, 1991. During an external examination of Verna's body, he found multiple areas of reddish discoloration of the skin, particularly on the forearms, the wrists, and on the back side of the hands. These areas, he testified, represented recent bruising of the skin. In his internal examination, Dr. Heidingsfelder observed bruising within the tissues of the head and on both sides of the chest. He also found that Verna had 18 rib fractures. Finally, Dr. Heidingsfelder conducted a sexual assault examination. He took swab samples from the vaginal and rectal areas, which were sent to the lab for tests. He also performed an external examination of the victim's genital organs. Although Dr. Heidingsfelder did not find evidence of tears in the external genitalia, he stated that there can be a sexual assault without such tears.

Based upon his examination, Dr. Heidingsfelder made the following conclusions regarding Verna's death. Dr. Heidingsfelder estimated Verna's death occurred between 6 a.m. and 2 or 3 p.m. on May 30, 1991. He testified that the bruises on the forearms were consistent with forceful squeezing of the forearms, the wrists and the hands in connection with restraining or manipulating Verna's physical position. The rib fractures suggested that her arms were held upwards, or that she was perhaps held by one or both arms while receiving a blunt trauma to both sides of the rib cage, possibly in the form of kicks. He noted that the fractures appeared to have caused a tearing of the inner lining of the chest, but only a small amount of blood was present, indicatingthat the rib fractures occurred minutes prior to death. In his opinion, the injuries sustained were caused by another individual since they were not the type of injuries that could be sustained in a single or even multiple simple falls. Dr. Heidingsfelder concluded that Verna was the victim of a physical assault. He opined that the rib fractures and blunt force injuries that Verna received to the chest caused her to have heart failure and die.

After receiving the results of the autopsy, the defendant was interviewed by detectives at the Williamson County sheriff's department. Detective Shaunn Curry explained to the defendant that the autopsy had revealed some unusual injuries on his mother's body. After the defendant waived his Miranda rights, Detective Curry questioned the defendant about his whereabouts on May 30 and May 31, 1991. The defendant stated that at 12:30 a.m. on May 30, 1991, he heard the television playing so he asked his mother to turn it down. The defendant claimed that he and his mother did not get into an argument or fight. Instead, he returned to his room, put on headphones and went to sleep. At 7 a.m. he left the house and walked around until 10 a.m. when he returned home in order to take his mother to visit his father at the nursing home. His mother did not come out of the house so he walked around and used a restroom at a church. He returned home again at 6:30 p.m. He watched television until 10:30 p.m. and went to sleep. According to the defendant, he stayed in his room the ...

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