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People v. Laugharn

July 31, 1998


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Cook delivered the opinion of the court:


Appeal from Circuit Court of Morgan County No. 95CF75

Honorable Tim P. Olson, Judge Presiding.

In April 1995, defendant Mildred Laugharn shot and killed her husband, Robert Laugharn, in their home. She was indicted by a grand jury for the offenses of first degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. 720 ILCS 5/9-1, 9-3 (West 1994). A jury trial was held in November 1996.

Mildred testified she shot her husband in self-defense. She claimed he had a drinking problem and had been drinking beer the night of the shooting. Mildred also had a couple of mixed alcohol drinks that night. They were watching television and had a dispute over the thermostat. Robert became upset when Mildred tried to turn the thermostat down. He slapped her in the face and told her to "get out." Mildred went into the kitchen. On her way to the kitchen, she saw Robert sitting in his reclining chair with a gun. She was terrified and felt there was no place she could go. She believed she could "talk Bob out of this," so she approached him and carefully tried to take his gun.

Mildred testified they struggled for the gun before she finally got hold of it. Robert was angry and got out of the chair. She thought he would take the gun and shoot her, so she fired the gun. After firing three times, she threw the gun down and walked out of the room, not knowing if Robert was injured. She came back and realized Robert was hurt. She called her neighbors, placed the gun on the coffee table, and went outside to wait for the neighbors.

Mildred's neighbors, Frank and Helen Burnett, both testified that Mildred called that night and said "she thought she'd shot Bob." They went to Mildred's house and she explained what happened. She told them essentially the same story she told at trial, except she told Helen that Robert had fired two shots at her first. The Burnetts testified Mildred's hair and clothing were not disturbed and the living room showed no signs of struggle. While on the stand, Frank was presented a photograph of the crime scene that indicated the recliner Robert was sitting in had been moved slightly. Frank did not notice the chair had been moved before.

Officer Randy Duvendack spoke with Mildred the night of the shooting. He noticed nothing unusual about her appearance. Mildred told Officer Duvendack that her husband slapped her after a fight over the thermostat. She left the room, then returned, and he had a gun and threatened to kill her. She ran toward the door and he fired two shots at her. She then charged him, knocked him over after a brief struggle, and got the gun. He walked back toward the recliner, she shot him once, and he fell into the chair.

At trial, Mildred explained that she lied at first because she panicked. She was afraid no one would believe the truth. She testified she was now telling the truth.

Several officers investigated the shooting. Robert was found sitting in the recliner with a gun wound to the abdomen. A cigarette lay at his feet and an undisturbed cigarette ash was located below Robert's hand beside the chair. Woodchips from the ceiling were found on his shoulder and the floor around him, but none were found underneath his body. A bullet hole was found in a ceiling beam above and slightly forward of where Robert was sitting, and another hole was found in a humidifier behind Robert. The bullet hole on the beam had an entry defect on the north side and an exit defect on the bottom.

A firearm examination expert testified the path of the bullet through Robert's body was consistent with him being shot from at least a few feet away while in a reclining position, although it was also consistent with a person firing a gun from an area lower than Robert's abdomen. Robert's blood-alcohol level was .247, 2½ times the legal limit for driving.

The jury found defendant guilty of first degree murder. She was sentenced to 28 years' imprisonment with 3 years' mandatory supervised release.

On appeal, defendant contends the prosecutor made improper statements during his closing argument. First, she argues he committed reversible error by trying to define reasonable doubt. The prosecutor stated:

"Now, we must prove to you the elements of this offense of first degree murder and all of these elements beyond a reasonable doubt. Now, that's not beyond all doubt or any doubt, but beyond a reasonable doubt. A doubt with some reason to it. Now, that's not some mythical, unattainable standard that can't be met. It's met in courtrooms throughout the ...

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