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People v. Caldwell

March 27, 1998


Appeal from Circuit Court of Champaign County No. 95CF411 Honorable Harold L. Jensen, judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Green


On March 31, 1995, defendant, Nathaniel Caldwell, Jr., was charged with the first degree murder (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(2) (West 1994)) of his 97-year-old great-aunt, Neppie Donaldson, aggravated battery (720 ILCS 5/12-4(b)(6) (West 1994)) of Brian Gallagher (a Champaign police officer), and resisting or obstructing a peace officer (720 ILCS 5/31-1(a) (West 1994)). Following a jury trial on September 18, 1996, defendant was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to an extended term of 10 years' imprisonment. Defendant appeals his conviction, contending the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that (1) he performed some criminal act to cause injury to Donaldson and (2) a supervening event unconnected to him was not the cause of Donaldson's death.

On appeal, defendant maintains (1) there was no direct evidence that he broke Donaldson's neck and severed her spinal cord by striking her head with a cast-iron skillet; (2) there was no blood or hair found on the skillet, and the blood found in the kitchen and on defendant's shoes and clothing was not consistent with staining that is associated with violent blows to a person; (3) Donaldson's medical history showed she was prone to falling and the findings of the treating physician and forensic pathologist permitted an inference that Donaldson's fractured neck was caused by her falling onto an object; and (4) when she was near death, Donaldson indicated her injuries were accidentally caused. Defendant also maintains that Donaldson's conscious decision to be disconnected from her ventilator was an intervening act that relieved him of responsibility for her death.

The State's case consisted of the following evidence: (1) defendant's hostility toward Donaldson prior to her injury and his throwing of a cast-iron skillet; (2) his consciousness of guilt as shown by his attempt to clean Donaldson's blood from the kitchen and his resistance and aggression toward the paramedics, firefighters, and police, who were providing aid to Donaldson; (3) forensic blood evidence consistent with the theory that defendant struck Donaldson's head with a cast-iron skillet; (4) Donaldson's spontaneous statement to the paramedics that she had been hit; and (5) expert medical opinions that Donaldson's injuries were caused by rapid, blunt force trauma to her head and neck consistent with being struck by an object and inconsistent with the theory that she fell from a standing position or against a flat surface.

Wallace Pearson, Donaldson's second cousin who visited her about three times a week, testified at trial that on the morning of March 31, 1995, he noticed the porch light on at Donaldson's home and, thinking this was unusual, stopped by to talk to her. Pearson stated Donaldson was usually very happy, but when she answered the door, she seemed upset and her spirits were "very low." Pearson testified that the defendant (Donaldson's nephew) was in the kitchen cooking, turned the burner on the stove up too high and, when Donaldson told him to turn it down, defendant told Donaldson he was tired of her telling him to do certain things in the kitchen and he was going to do what he wanted. Pearson stated he told defendant not to treat Donaldson so disrespectfully, and defendant, swearing, told Pearson he hated him and then told Donaldson to shut her mouth and not to come into the kitchen. Pearson stated defendant then threw a cast-iron skillet through the doorway of the kitchen where Donaldson was standing, and it went over Donaldson's head and hit Pearson on the leg as he was seated in a chair in the living room. Pearson admitted he did not know whether defendant was throwing the skillet at him or at Donaldson, but he said Donaldson was much closer to defendant than he was. Pearson stated defendant then picked up a medium-sized, black frying pan and held it down at his side in his right hand while his left hand was on another blackened pan that was sitting on the stove. Pearson indicated he told Donaldson to sit and leave defendant alone so defendant would "not do anything to her." Pearson stated defendant ordered him to leave the house, which he did so that defendant would calm down. Pearson stated that when he left Donaldson was not injured. Pearson testified he then drove to his home three blocks away and immediately telephoned defendant's aunt, Neppie Caldwell, in Loda. He told her to come to town because he was afraid defendant was going to hurt Donaldson. While he was on the telephone, Pearson stated he heard sirens and saw a fire truck pull up to Donaldson's home.

Paramedic Lawrence Sapp testified that when he arrived, defendant merely pointed to the living room and said, "he's in there." Sapp stated (1) Donaldson was slumped in a chair in the living room; (2) there was dried blood on the left side of her forehead; and (3) Donaldson was conscious, but she could not move her arms or legs. Sapp stated initially Donaldson was able to speak in a soft, quiet voice, but she did not respond when he first asked her what happened. When Sapp then asked defendant what happened, defendant was angry and agitated, and stated, "hat do you think happened?" Sapp stated that when he asked defendant if Donaldson had fallen, defendant indicated she had fallen in the kitchen. He stated, however, that defendant offered no further explanation regarding Donaldson's injuries, never offered to help, and never asked about her condition. Sapp indicated that during his second conversation with Donaldson, when he asked her if she had fallen, she did not respond; however, when he asked if she had been hit, she nodded her head slightly in the affirmative. Sapp stated at this point Donaldson was no longer able to speak and could only give nonverbal responses.

Terry Swift and Donald Rhodes, both members of the City of Champaign fire and rescue squad, testified that when they arrived at the house, defendant was standing in the doorway of the porch and shouted, "et the *** out of here and go back to the fire department. You're not needed here." The firemen indicated defendant allowed them into the house only when Sapp told him he needed their assistance to put Donaldson into the ambulance. Swift and Rhodes both said that when another police officer asked how Donaldson fell, defendant responded to the effect of, "I'll show you how *** she fell," or "ow *** do you think she fell[?]" Defendant then struck the officer.

Brian Gallagher, a Champaign police officer, testified he arrived at the scene at approximately 10:45 a.m., and defendant was standing in the doorway between the front porch and the living room. He said he initially asked defendant how he was and defendant responded he was doing fine. When Gallagher asked what happened, defendant's attitude changed and he stated it was none of the officer's business. He said defendant was stressed, anxious, and used profanity. When Gallagher asked how Donaldson fell, defendant said words to the effect of "ow *** do you fall" and struck Gallagher's face with his fists. Gallagher said he was forced to use pepper spray to restrain defendant, and defendant then went outside and tried to walk away. Gallagher stopped him and, with the help of the firemen, placed him under arrest.

Joe Siefferman, a crime scene technician with the Illinois State Police, testified that when he arrived at the scene, he found a bloodstained sweater draped over a chair in the living room, a bloodstained rug, and various areas of blood in the kitchen but none elsewhere in the house. He described several cast-iron pans he found in the kitchen, one of which had blood on the handle. He stated he saw blood "spatters" on a pencil, on the face of overhead and base cabinet doors in the kitchen, and on paper towels in a waste can near the kitchen sink. He said he also found a bucket near the kitchen sink with a bloodstained rag mop. Siefferman stated blood was smeared on a rubber floor mat that appeared to have been wiped with a cloth and there was a light wiping of blood on the floor of the kitchen.

Kristen Boster, a forensic scientist with the Illinois State Police, testified she examined bloodstains from the rag mop head and the bottom cuff of the jeans defendant was wearing at the time he was arrested, and those stains matched Donaldson's deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) profile and were dissimilar to defendant's profile. She stated Donaldson's DNA profile would occur in approximately 1 in 300 million African-Americans and 1 in 700 million caucasians. Donaldson was African-American.

Dr. James Scott Gregory testified he was an emergency room physician and trauma surgeon at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana and he treated Donaldson when she arrived at the hospital on March 31, 1995. He said he was called to the trauma room by physicians who were in the process of resuscitating Donaldson following her cardiopulmonary arrest. He said he observed a laceration over her left forehead and eyebrow involving a cut and crushing of the skin and she had a fracture of the cervical spine just below the base of her skull. Gregory stated the fracture severed the spinal cord and she had no ability to breathe on her own or maintain her blood pressure. He indicated her prognosis included ventilator dependence and complete paralysis of her arms and legs. He discussed the ramifications of her physical condition with her. He said Donaldson could nod her head a bit to answer "yes" questions and flex her head and mouth to answer "no" questions. He said she understood what paralysis was and "emphatically" indicated she did not want to live with complete paralysis. He also asked questions regarding her birthday and Thanksgiving, which her family stated she answered appropriately, indicating her level of consciousness was normal.

Gregory further testified that he asked Donaldson if she had fallen and she "shook her head yes." When he asked her if she had been hit, she indicated "no." He stated that she paused before answering both questions, although she had answered previous questions very quickly. When he asked her if she wanted to remain on the ventilator, she indicated "no." He said the ventilator was then removed and she died within minutes.

Gregory stated that based upon his examination of Donaldson, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, her injuries were consistent with being struck in the head with a heavy object such as a pan. He said the laceration and cut injury to the scalp area, as well as the injuries to the spinal cord and neck, were consistent with and ...

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