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11/30/95 PEOPLE STATE ILLINOIS v. JAMES B. ASHFORD

November 30, 1995

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, APPELLEE,
v.
JAMES B. ASHFORD, APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Sangamon County, the Hon. Stuart Shiffman, Judge, presiding.

The Honorable Justice Nickels 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: Nickels

JUSTICE NICKELS delivered the opinion of the court:

After a bench trial in Sangamon County, defendant was convicted of four counts of murder (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 38, par. 9-1(a)(2)), four counts of felony murder (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). At sentencing, the trial judge found defendant eligible for the death penalty and sentenced defendant to death. On direct appeal, this court affirmed defendant's convictions and death sentence. ( People v. Ashford (1988), 121 Ill. 2d 55, 117 Ill. Dec. 171, 520 N.E.2d 332.) Subsequently, defendant filed a petition for post-conviction relief in Sangamon County. (See Ill. Rev. Stat. 1987, ch. 38, par. 122-1 et seq.) The circuit court dismissed the post-conviction petition without an evidentiary hearing. Defendant appeals the dismissal of the post-conviction petition (134 Ill. 2d R. 651(a)), seeking a new sentencing hearing or, in the alternative, remand for an evidentiary hearing. We affirm.

FACTS

The evidence supporting the convictions and sentence was thoroughly discussed on direct appeal ( Ashford, 121 Ill. 2d 55, 117 Ill. Dec. 171, 520 N.E.2d 332), and we will only summarize the evidence for the purpose of this post-conviction proceeding. On June 12, 1985, Ellen Michelle Lawson went to purchase some marijuana at the home of Lonnie Davis in Springfield. She was invited inside. At that time, four individuals were present in the home: Lonnie Davis, Bernard Bowen, Annette Singleton, and Janetta Leaks. At trial, Lawson testified that she saw a substantial amount of white powder (which she thought was cocaine) and cash in Davis' home.

After Lawson arrived, the doorbell rang and Bernard Bowen answered the door. Bowen briefly conversed with another individual, and Lawson recognized the individual's voice as that of accomplice Gary Jones. Lawson heard gunshots and ran into the basement to hide. Lawson also heard Annette Singleton plead with someone not to kill her and then heard more gunshots. Whilehiding in the basement, Lawson heard someone come down the stairs leading to the basement. Lawson then heard two individuals, one in the basement and one upstairs, call out to each other. She recognized these two voices as those of defendant and Gary Jones. After defendant and Jones left, Lawson emerged from her hiding place, saw the bodies of the four victims, and noticed that the cocaine and cash were missing. A forensic pathologist later testified that each victim had been shot four times, except Janetta Leaks, who had been shot twice. Each victim had been shot once in the head.

Anthony and Gregory Phillips also testified. They stated that, on the evening of the murders, defendant and Jones came to their home with a bag containing white powder. Defendant told Gregory Phillips that defendant and Jones had been involved in a "shoot-out" at Davis' home. On June 14, defendant asked Gregory Phillips to dispose of a sack for him, and Phillips buried the sack in his backyard. The police later recovered the sack and found two handguns inside that had been purchased by defendant. The police conducted ballistics tests and were able to link the two handguns to the bullets that caused the deaths of the victims. Defendant's fingerprint was found on the handgun that had been used to inflict most of the fatal wounds.

Several days after the shootings, defendant visited some friends: Janet Walker, Ramona Walker, and Mack Alexander. Essentially, the testimony of these three individuals was the same with respect to this visit. They stated that they had shared cocaine with defendant on June 15, 1985. At that time, defendant told them that defendant and Jones had gone to Davis' home on June 12 and killed the four victims. Defendant also told them that one of the victims had begged defendant not to shoot her. Defendant shot her because she called out his name. According to Janet Walker, defendant stated thathe shot one of the victims again after noticing that the victim's leg had moved. According to Mack Alexander, defendant stated that he shot each victim in the head because he did not want to leave any witnesses. Alexander also testified that defendant had shown him a bag containing a substantial amount of cocaine and money on a separate occasion.

After hearing all the evidence, the circuit court found defendant guilty on all counts. The court then determined that defendant was eligible for the death penalty. The court found that defendant had inflicted fatal wounds in the four killings and was eligible under the multiple-murder (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 38, par. 9-1(b)(3)) and murder-in-the-course-of-a-felony (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 38, par. 9-1(b)(6)) eligibility factors.

Next, the court considered the factors in aggravation and in mitigation to determine if the death penalty should be imposed. In aggravation, the State relied primarily on the evidence presented during the guilt phase. The State argued that the premeditated and heinous nature of the four murders constituted aggravating evidence. The State also noted that defendant had four previous misdemeanor convictions: reckless conduct, battery, unlawful use of a weapon, and criminal trespass to land.

Defense trial counsel presented no mitigating evidence. Trial counsel argued that the alternative to the death sentence was a sentence of natural life imprisonment. Under this alternative, defendant would have no chance of parole and would be no threat to society. Counsel also argued that defendant's four misdemeanor convictions could not be considered a significant criminal history because the convictions were not felony convictions.

After hearing the aggravating and mitigating evidence, the circuit court sentenced defendant to death. Itnoted that the State had presented persuasive evidence showing that defendant planned to commit armed robbery. The court further noted the premeditated and merciless nature of the murders:

"It seems to me that this is a crime that is unprecedented in the mind of the Court, at least, in this area with regard to its magnitude, number of people killed, the manner in which they were killed, the heartless shooting of two young women, one nineteen and the other twenty-three. It may be summarized as a mass killing of such a magnitude as I say the Court doesn't recall anything like it in this county. It is ruthless, the pettiness of killing of two young women, and two men in their mid-twenties; ruthless termination of all persons present or at least ...


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