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People v. McLaurin

September 24, 1998

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, APPELLEE, V.CHARLES MCLAURIN, APPELLANT.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Harrison

Agenda 1-March 1998.

In the circuit court of Cook County, a jury found the defendant, Charles McLaurin, guilty of first degree murder (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1989, ch. 38, par. 9-1(a)(1)), first degree murder based on the felony-murder doctrine (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1989, ch. 38, par. 9-1(a)(3)), home invasion (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1989, ch. 38, par. 12-11(a)(2)), aggravated arson (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1989, ch. 38, par. 20-1.1)), residential burglary (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1989, ch. 38, par. 19-3(a)), and possession of a stolen motor vehicle (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1989, ch. 95½, par. 4-103(a)(1)). At the phase of the trial in which his guilt was determined, defendant represented himself, and the trial court appointed the public defender as standby counsel. However, at the sentencing hearing the public defender represented him. Defendant waived his right to a jury for sentencing.

The trial court found him eligible for a death sentence and thereafter, upon consideration of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, determined that there were no mitigating circumstances sufficient to preclude the imposition of a death sentence. The trial court sentenced him to death for the offense of first degree murder; to a term of 60 years for the offense of home invasion; to a term of 30 years for the offense of aggravated arson; to a term of 15 years for the offense of residential burglary; and to a term of 7 years for the offense of possession of a stolen motor vehicle, all to be served concurrently. The trial court denied defendant's motion for a new trial as well as his post-sentencing motion. Defendant's execution has been stayed pending direct review of the cause by this court. Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, §4(b); 134 Ill. 2d R. 603. He presents 15 issues for our review.

Initially, defendant contends that the State failed to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Janie Edwards, the mother of the 17-year-old victim, Jarrell Edwards, testified for the State that on the weekend of August 15, 1992, she was away on a trip, having left Jarrell and his father at home. She called and spoke with Jarrell at about 11 p.m. on Saturday, August 15. She indicated that his bedroom was located in a front corner of the house, which was nearly destroyed by fire during her absence. Among the items missing from her home upon her return were two VCR's, two 13-inch television sets, some jewelry, a 12-gauge shotgun, Jarrell's clothing, including his gym shoes, and a blue 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity automobile. She testified that she always keeps her grandmother's Bible open on the dashboard of her car and that the weather stripping at the driver's window of the Chevrolet had fallen down. The license plate number of the Chevrolet was 32715, handicapped. Although she had left the keys to that automobile at home, she never recovered them.

Rodchester Rogers testified that he and Janie Edwards had two children, including the victim, and that on the evening of August 15, 1992, the witness had gone out with friends and had not returned until about 5 a.m. on Sunday, August 16, 1992. He stated further that in August of 1992 he kept two gasoline cans in the garage for the lawn mower. Although one can had a hole in it and was empty, the other had gas in it. A set of keys to the house and the car were kept in the family room.

Keith Damm, a firefighter for the Sauk Village fire department at the time, testified that, following a dispatch to a fire call at about 3 a.m. on August 16, 1992, and a search of the house, his partner informed him that he had found a body. The body of the victim was found lying face down about three or four feet inside the door of the room farthest down the hall on the right, where the heat of the fire was the most intense. Damm found debris around the body and furniture lying over its legs. He and his partner carried the body from the room, finding when they attempted to lift it that it was stuck to the floor because "[e]ither the carpeting on the floor had burned to him or he had burned to the carpeting." The victim was wearing no clothing. A piece of cloth was wrapped around the victim's head, covering his nose.

Ed Myers, the captain of engineering and "cause and origin investigator" of the Sauk Village fire department, testified that he arrived at the scene of the fire at about 3:16 a.m. on August 16, 1992. When the unclad victim was removed from the house, he noticed "some type of bandanna [sic] headdress around his face" in the area of the nose and mouth. At the top of the stairs he observed a rubber-like glove, like a surgical glove; the fire department did not use these kinds of gloves. In the hallway was a distinct pattern of flammable liquid having been spread on the floor; the burn pattern came out of the bedroom and led down the hallway. In the room where the victim was found, which was "totally destroyed," he said, they picked up a pile of clothes and smelled gasoline. About a foot inside the doorway of that room there was heavy charring and burning down to the floor and even to the subflooring in the area "where the liquid *** seeped through the hardwood floor into the sub-flooring." About three feet into the room where the victim was found was a large area of blood-soaked carpeting. On the floor of the bedroom as one entered was a gasoline can that had been there during the fire, as evidenced by the damage to the can. Because the can had vented itself, some liquid had been left inside it. The burn patterns and the charring indicated to the witness that a flammable liquid had been used in the area; the fire was, he said, "very fast," indicative of a gasoline pour. In his opinion persons unknown had entered the dwelling, poured a flammable liquid on the victim and the bedroom flooring, spread it down the hallway, and ignited it.

Delshea Ingram, 26 years old at the time of trial in November of 1995, testified that she had met the defendant in June of 1992 and had married him on July 16, 1992. We note that although prior to trial defendant had asserted the protection of the marital privilege with respect to certain statements he had made to Ingram and had claimed that the marital privilege had been deliberately violated in the return of the grand jury indictment, during trial he denied ever having been married to Ingram; in his brief to this court he describes Ingram as "either Mr. McLaurin's wife or girlfriend" and argues that her testimony that they were married on July 16, 1992, when defendant "paid someone outside of the building [City Hall] to marry [them]" and her testimony that defendant used the name "James Antonio Thorpe" when they were married "shows that she was lying or deluded." At trial Ingram gave the following account of events that occurred on August 15 and 16, 1992, and during the weeks and months thereafter.

While Ingram was at the park during the day on August 15, 1992, the victim, whom she had never met before, flirted with her and talked to her for 15 or 20 minutes, telling her about and inviting her to a party he was planning to have while his parents were out of town. At about 9 p.m. that same day the witness told Carolyn McLaurin, defendant's sister, that she was leaving to go to the store to buy cigarettes but went, instead, to Jarrell Edwards' house about a block and a half away. When she arrived at his house, he was not there but drove up shortly thereafter in a two-door blue Oldsmobile or Chevrolet. After remaining on the porch with him for about 15 or 20 minutes, she asked him for a glass of water with which to take her medication for asthma. After about 10 more minutes, she asked if she could use his bathroom, whereupon he took her upstairs and showed her where it was. They talked a little while longer on the porch before she returned home.

Later a young man whom Ingram did not know and whose identity she never learned came to see defendant at the house of Carolyn McLaurin, with whom defendant and Ingram as well a number of other persons were living. Ingram, defendant, and the young man were in the kitchen, where they talked about robbing Jarrell Edwards' house because his parents were out of town. The three of them wanted to rob the Edwards' house, she said, in order to obtain money to enable her and defendant to move from Carolyn McLaurin's. The three planned that she would go into the Edwards' house and leave the door unlocked. Defendant and the young man left about 15 minutes before she walked to the victim's house. Although defendant and the young man drove to the Edwards' house, she walked, as she explained, "because *** they said that Jarrell would think something was up, if he seen me with the both of them."

When she rang the Edwards' doorbell "[s]ome time after midnight," the victim let her in. No one else was there. She and the victim went to his bedroom and sat on his bed talking for about 15 or 20 minutes. Then she asked to use the bathroom because she was "stalling" for time and stayed in the bathroom about 5 or 10 minutes. When she emerged from the bathroom, which was upstairs, she saw the light go out in the victim's bedroom and in the basement, and defendant told her to get out of the house. Defendant's voice came from the victim's bedroom. Defendant's friend "grabbed" her, led her to the victim's bedroom, and put the light on, at which time she saw the victim "sitting on a wooden chair with his hands tied behind his back with no clothes on with a scarf-tied around his mouth." Defendant was in the room and walked in front of the victim, asking him whether he would go to the police if defendant let him go. Ingram testified, "I don't think Jarrell understood what he said because he said yes," whereupon defendant reached into his pocket and pulled out a straight razor, swung it, and struck the victim on the chest several times. The victim was "squirming," and Ingram saw blood coming from his chest. Then defendant "took whatever it was tied" around the victim's mouth and asked if he had any last words. According to the witness, "Jarrell said whatever you want, I'll give you; don't kill me, please just don't kill me." Defendant put the scarf around the victim's mouth again and doused him with gasoline, which he got "[f]rom the corner." She described a gasoline can as being located between the door and a desk and said that she had not seen the gasoline can in the bedroom when she had been there earlier. The gasoline splashed on the upper part of the victim's body. Then defendant took a match from his pocket and set the victim on fire. Ingram noticed that while this was occurring, defendant wore surgical gloves, which he had not had on at Carolyn McLaurin's house. Ingram then ran down the hallway and out the front door, returning to Carolyn McLaurin's house without calling the police, an ambulance, or anyone.

Ingram saw defendant the next morning between 10 and 11 a.m. sleeping on the couch in the front room. When he awakened, she told him that his hair was singed. Defendant told her that if anyone ever found out what happened to the victim, he would kill her, her three children, and her mother. He then went into the bathroom and cut his hair.

Two days later defendant's mother called a "family meeting" at Carla McLaurin's house in Chicago Heights, as a result of which Ingram and defendant moved to his grandmother's house by Altgeld Gardens in Chicago. Ingram said she and defendant moved there "because [they] were running" and remained there for two weeks. Then defendant's mother provided him with a single bus ticket to Minneapolis. However, defendant refused to leave without Ingram because he had "let too many skeletons out [sic] the closet." After defendant's mother purchased another bus ticket so that Ingram could accompany him, in mid-September Ingram and defendant moved to Minneapolis. The entire time they were there defendant used the name of James Antonio Thorp, which also appears in the record spelled as "Thorpe." For the sake of consistency we use the spelling "Thorpe." The witness used the name of Delshea Ingram Thorpe. While they were in Minneapolis, they applied for and received public aid. On January 12, 1993, she and defendant argued, defendant threatened her, and she went to the police in Minneapolis, telling them about a murder that had occurred in Sauk Village. She testified that at that time she did not tell the police the whole truth about what had happened "[b]ecause I was scared and I didn't want to let them know that I was involved." Nor, she testified, did she tell the entire truth to the grand jury in Cook County; she was, she said, still protecting herself and concealing what she had done. About a year after having been moved to El Paso, Texas, by the State's Attorney's office, Ingram was charged with first degree murder in the death of Jarrell Edwards. Her agreement with the State's Attorney's office, she stated, was for her truthful testimony concerning what happened on the night of Jarrell Edwards' murder in exchange for a prison term of 20 years following her plea of guilty to that offense.

On cross-examination she admitted that she had not told the grand jury that she had been in "the house" the night of Edwards' murder and stated that she had told the grand jury "part of the truth." She stated that she had been to the home of Carla McLaurin with defendant one time. Dr. Edmond Donoghue, a physician and forensic pathologist, who is the chief medical examiner for Cook County, testified concerning the report of post-mortem examination prepared in the case of Jarrell Edwards by Dr. Konacki, a forensic pathologist in that office who had since retired and was living in Thailand and Turkey. The witness stated that the body was unclothed, except for a black scarf that was wrapped around the face and over the nose and secured in the back by a knot. On the body were five incised, or slash, wounds, that is, wounds made with a sharp-edged instrument: a superficial incised wound about 10 inches long on the right upper chest and the upper abdomen; another such wound about four to five inches long on the front of the neck and the right upper chest; an incised wound about three inches long on the right side of the neck; a slanting incised wound about two inches long on the left cheek; and a very deep incision about two and a half inches long on the chin, extending from the right to the left side. The large amount of soot present in each of the incised wounds indicated that the wounds existed before the fire started.

Dr. Donoghue testified further that the most important internal evidence of injury occurred when Dr. Konacki examined the larynx and trachea of the body. When Dr. Konacki made an incision on the back surface of the larynx and the trachea and opened it up, he had the photographer take a picture, which shows large black strands of carbon particles, or soot. The large black strands indicate that the victim was alive at the time the fire started and that he had actually inhaled smoke into his larynx and trachea and into his lungs. Moreover, chemical tests for the presence of carbon monoxide and cyanide performed upon the victim's blood support the Conclusion that the victim was alive when the fire started. The carbon monoxide level of the victim's blood was 23%, so that nearly one-fourth of the body's hemoglobin was bound to the carbon monoxide and, therefore, unavailable for use in transporting oxygen. Also present in the victim's blood was a low level of cyanide, generated as a by-product when plastics burn, as during a house fire when there is plastic in the house.

Dr. Donoghue testified further that the victim's body was burned severely essentially over about 100% of its surface. The burns were third-degree with charring and splitting of the skin. The burns that the witness viewed in the photographs of the victim and reviewed in the report were consistent with a person's having had gasoline on his or her body and then having been set afire. Dr. Donoghue said that persons who are set on fire usually die of carbon monoxide and that, even though this victim sustained burns and was alive at the time the fire started, a likely cause of death here is carbon monoxide intoxication as a result of the inhalation of smoke. In the opinion of Dr. Donoghue, the manner of death of the victim was homicide, an opinion formed, he said, "because of the *** multiple incised wounds that were on the body, the scarf that was wrapped around the face and the fact that the police reports indicated that there was a can of gasoline in the room where he was found." On cross-examination Dr. Donoghue testified that a liquid accelerant is a very likely cause of third-degree burns because a very hot flame is applied to the surface of the body. He indicated that in the case of a body burned over 100% of its surfaces, it would be unlikely that one would be able to determine whether the victim had been bound at the wrists or ankles, for example; if the bindings have been burned off, there might be no way to tell that the victim had been bound. He said that a razor can make only one type of wound: an incised wound.

George Dabdoub, a specialist in trace chemistry analysis at the Illinois State Police crime laboratory, testified that he has a specialty in arson analysis involving the recovery of accelerant materials or hydrocarbons from debris samples. In the opinion of the witness all of the four samples he tested, including burnt cloth and burnt carpeting, contained the accelerant gasoline.

Debra Brunsberg of Minneapolis, Minnesota, a principal financial worker for Hennepin County Economic Assistance, that is, the public aid or welfare department, identified a number of exhibits, including a copy of the combined application completed by Delshea Thorpe dated September 20, 1992, and by James Thorpe, dated September 21, 1992, as well as a copy of a receipt of an application for a Minnesota identification card completed by Delshea Ingram and a copy of a receipt of an application requesting a Minnesota identification card signed by James Antonio Thorpe, dated September 28, 1992. Notes on the combined application completed by Delshea Thorpe indicate, among other things, that "this person has been in Minnesota for one day." Brunsberg described the signature on the combined application completed by James Thorpe by saying, "It appears that the person originally wrote Charles M., crossed it out, and wrote James Thorpe." She testified that notes from the intake worker on the same form indicate that "this person is not on our county system, *** this is a married couple, and they have been in Minnesota one day from Chicago." Brunsberg also identified a certification letter from the State of Minnesota Department of Public Safety, attached to which is a copy of the application requesting a Minnesota identification card completed by James Antonio Thorpe, referred to above, as well as a certification letter from the State of Minnesota Department of Public Safety, attached to which is a copy of the actual Minnesota identification card that was issued to James Antonio Thorpe, bearing a photograph.

Hayden Baldwin, a crime scene supervisor for the Illinois State Police, testified that on August 17, 1992, he was called to process a vehicle at the Sauk Village public works garage, namely, a blue 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity bearing the license plate numbered 32715 and carrying a handicapped designation. He noted the fact that the ignition system had not been bypassed or broken, so that a key was necessary to start the vehicle. The ignition column was not damaged in any way, and there was no sign whatever of forced entry into the vehicle. The witness found no latent fingerprints suitable for collection on the interior of the vehicle.

Carla McLaurin, defendant's sister, testified for the State that in August of 1992 she lived in Chicago Heights and that prior to August 16, 1992, defendant had been to her home there "[m]aybe once or twice" and Delshea Ingram had been there "about once." In the morning on "August 16, or August 17, 1992," she said, her children found a television on her enclosed back porch. When she looked on her back porch, she found two 13-inch televisions and two VCR's. The witness then asked a girlfriend if she would like to purchase a television. Later in the day Carla McLaurin left her apartment, but when she returned that night the two televisions and the two VCR's were no longer on the porch, and she never saw them again.

Venita Hollins, a friend of Carla McLaurin, testified that in the morning on August 16, 1992, a Sunday, Carla McLaurin called her and told her there were two televisions and two VCR's on her back porch and asked Hollins whether she wanted to buy a television or a VCR. Hollins said that she agreed to buy a television and a VCR from Carla McLaurin but never did so.

Donna Bankston testified that while on routine patrol for the Ford Heights police department between 8:30 and 9 a.m. on August 16, 1992, she stopped for a red light at an intersection and observed a blue, two-door Chevrolet Celebrity also stopped at the red light. Her attention was drawn to this vehicle, which was facing hers, because of its obstructed windshield and weather stripping hanging on the outside of the vehicle on the driver's side. The windshield was obstructed by a "book opened up sitting in the front on the dashboard." She noticed that the driver of the car "appeared to be nervous": "He had his hands on the steering wheel. He stared at me. I looked at him. He grabbed the steering wheel and moved his hands back and forth along the steering wheel." She estimated that she and the defendant stared at one another for "[a]pproximately a minute." After she had driven about half a block further, she heard a radio dispatch from the Sauk Village police department stating that "they were looking for a blue two-door Chevy Celebrity with a male black driving the vehicle." About 30 minutes later she found the vehicle parked in the parking lot at the rear of an apartment complex. No one was in or near the car. She recognized the car by the obstructed windshield and the weather stripping hanging on the outside. She determined that the engine of the car was still warm and notified the Sauk Village police department over the radio that she had recovered the vehicle they were seeking. Advised that a tow truck would be sent for the vehicle, she waited until 1 p.m. when it arrived. Later that day she viewed a photo lineup at the Sauk Village police department and identified defendant as the person who had been driving the car. Ford Heights is located next to Chicago Heights. On cross-examination she denied ever having given a different account of these events. With the testimony of this witness the State completed its case in chief. Defendant called 18 witnesses in addition to himself, among them William Crafton, who at the time of trial was chief of the Sauk Village police department. He testified that at about 1 p.m. on that date he received information regarding the automobile in question and secured it. Officer Bankston was one of the officers present when he arrived at the scene where the vehicle was parked. He stated that Officer Bankston had told him that she had seen the vehicle between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. on that date with a male black driver whom she could identify. He testified further that Officer Bankston said she had noticed the vehicle because it was traveling at a high rate of speed. She also noticed the vehicle, he said, because of "the book on the dashboard and the hanging weather stripping on the driver's side door." He did not recall that she had told him that at a stop light she had stopped near the driver of the vehicle. He testified that Officer Bankston had told him that she had not stopped the vehicle or pursued it because it was "speeding away" and she was unable to "catch up." He testified further that Officer Bankston had said that she had activated her lights and had attempted to stop the car. When he had instructed the dispatcher to enter information concerning the stolen automobile into the computer system LEADS at about 7 a.m. on August 16, 1992, he said, he had provided no information concerning the driver of the automobile. He said that he next saw Officer Bankston on August 19, 1992, on which date he showed her five photographs of black male subjects he had selected. Ford Heights is located next to Sauk Village. On cross-examination by the State the witness testified that he had not been writing down what Officer Bankston told him and that she had come up to him and was giving him information while he was looking into the vehicle as he secured it. James Wallace, an inmate at the Cook County jail, testified that while he had been riding to court on a bus with Delshea Ingram, she had indicated to him that she was going to court because she had killed a man who had fondled her child.

Brian Lesniak, employed by the Sauk Village police department, testified on direct examination that while patrolling on August 16, 1992, he smelled smoke and saw it coming from the house in question. He told his dispatcher to notify the fire department and attempted without success to get the attention of anyone who might be in the house. On cross-examination the witness testified that he found a surgical glove on the stairs going up to the kitchen of the house.

Carolyn McLaurin, defendant's sister, testified that on August 16, 1992, she was at home with several other people, including defendant and his girlfriend, drinking and watching movies rented by defendant. She said that she was up "[f]rom that morning until, oh, maybe about 4:00 or 5:00 o'clock that next morning" and that defendant's girlfriend was sick that day. On August 16, 1992, "the same night," she said, no one left the house other than to rent movies, except Ingram, who went to get cigarettes. She testified that a "little fellow came by," whose name the witness could not remember, and was talking with Ingram. On cross-examination she testified that defendant and Ingram had stopped living with her at the end of August or the beginning of September. In response to the State's initial questions upon cross-examination, Carolyn McLaurin testified that she had taken no medication, used no drugs, and consumed no alcohol that day and was not under the influence of any medication, drugs, or alcohol. After she had concluded her testimony and outside the presence of the jury, the trial court made the following statement:

"I want the record to reflect that the and that [sic] is putting on the record sua sponte, my obvservation [sic] of Carolyn McLaurin. The initial questions on cross-examination by the State's Attorney were with respect to had she been drinking. Had she used drugs. Was she on medication. My observations of this witness were that she appeared to me, to be slurring her words and nodding her head and her eyes were droopy. I don't know. I have never seen this woman before.

I think there was just reason and good cause for the State's Attorney to make those inquiries so that the jury could either learn that she had had some medication or had possibly used some well medication or drugs, whatever they were prescription or otherwise or had be [sic] drinking. The witness laid that to rest. And said that she had not. And I think that the questions were proper in that vein to put to rest any questions that the jurors may have. I am sure they made the same observations that I did.

The jurors may have had those inquiries I believe were proper under the circumstances."

Defendant called as a witness Officer Bankston, who testified that she had viewed the photo array on August 19, 1992, and that she had not told William Crafton that her attention was drawn to the ...


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