Appeal from the Circuit Court of Saline County. No. 95-CF-157
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kuehn:
Honorable Michael J. Henshaw, Judge, presiding.
A person who kills an individual without lawful justification commits murder if, in performing the acts which cause death, he either intends to kill or knows such acts create a strong probability of death. It follows that a person cannot murder someone who is already dead. But what if a person mistakenly believes that someone is dead, possesses no intent to kill because of that belief, and in an effort to conceal what he perceives to be a corpse, sinking it into a strip mine lake, he actually drowns that someone? Defendant's appeal presents the question and asks us to overturn his murder conviction based on the trial court's refusal to instruct on the mistake-of-fact defense under such a circumstance.
The case is about the untimely death of a 46-year-old woman named Judith Ann Crawford. It features a series of stories fashioned by defendant, her undisputed killer. Defendant's divergent stories ultimately suggest how and why Judith Ann died. Whether any version conveys what truly happened to her is open to question. What is not open to question is that Judith Ann's unnatural demise flowed quite naturally from defendant's conduct.
A Saline County jury found defendant guilty of first-degree murder and concealment of a homicidal death. Defendant now serves life imprisonment for murder and 10 years' imprisonment for concealment of that murder.
This case presents a singular issue drawn from the fact that a component of Judith Ann's death was drowning. It appears that Judith Ann, despite the mortal wounds she sustained as the result of a beating, held to life until defendant cast her body into the chilly depths of an abandoned strip mine pit called the Blue Hole. The Blue Hole's waters were chosen by defendant to be the final and secret resting place for Judith Ann's remains. The pathologist who performed the autopsy could not pinpoint whether Judith Ann's last breath drew air or water. We are left to wonder whether she died during the protracted beating defendant inflicted, during her lengthy entombment in the stale darkness of defendant's car trunk, or in the cold waters of the Blue Hole.
Thus, defendant asks us to overturn his murder conviction because the trial court refused to instruct the jury about defendant's mistaken belief that Judith Ann was dead when she was committed to her watery grave. Defendant lays claim to a belief that he had already killed Judith Ann when he chained her body to a concrete block and watched it disappear into the Blue Hole. He contends that the belief that he submerged a corpse constitutes a mistake of fact that negates the necessary state of mind to kill by the act of drowning.
Defendant argues that absent a mistake-of-fact instruction, there is no assurance that the jury properly decided his guilt for the crime of murder. He insists that the instruction was a necessary safeguard against a decision wrongfully based on the act of drowning. Simply put, defendant suggests that the guilty verdict for murder potentially rests on an act that he could not commit with the intent to kill because it was committed against what he believed to be a corpse. As bizarre as all this seems, defendant offers supreme court reasoning to support his argument.
In People v. Crane, 145 Ill. 2d 520, 585 N.E.2d 99 (1991), our supreme court overturned a murder conviction because the jury was not instructed on the mistake-of-fact defense. The claimed mistake of fact was the belief that the victim was already dead. Crane, 145 Ill. 2d at 526, 585 N.E.2d at 102. David Crane reported to authorities that he severely beat Robert Gahan in self-defense. Crane, 145 Ill. 2d at 524, 585 N.E.2d at 101. Under the belief that the beating was justified but deadly, Crane poured gasoline over Gahan's body and set it ablaze. Crane, 145 Ill. 2d at 524, 585 N.E.2d at 101. Crane claimed that the act was not intended to kill Gahan, because he believed that Gahan was already dead. Crane, 145 Ill. 2d at 526, 585 N.E.2d at 102.
"Since (1) defendant's whole case rested upon the concepts of self- defense and mistake of fact, and (2) there exists some evidence upon which a jury could reasonably conclude that defendant burned Gahan under the mistaken belief that he was dead, the failure to give the mistake of fact instruction to the jury cannot be considered harmless." Crane, 145 Ill. 2d at 528, 585 N.E.2d at 102.
At first blush, it appears that Crane directs a need to honor defendant's request for a mistake-of-fact instruction. However, our case is different in several significant ways. Those differences mark a limitation on the mistake-of-fact defense in homicide cases.
Crane persistently claimed that he had reacted to an unprovoked and potentially deadly assault, had severely beaten Gahan, and had panicked when he believed him to be dead. He insisted that he had only burned the body because he harbored the belief that Gahan was dead. The State charged the beating and burning as tandem death-producing acts, and the State's experts were unable to conclude whether Gahan was dead or alive when he was subjected to flame. Crane, 145 Ill. 2d at 526-27, 585 N.E.2d at 102.
Here, the State limits its charge to defendant's acts of beating the deceased. It undeniably proves that the primary cause of death was head injury, with drowning being a possible contributing factor. Massive brain hemorrhaging, a condition wrought by a pummelling rather than exposure to water, was the undisputed primary cause of death. Defendant offers nothing to suggest ...