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People v. Wheeler

October 06, 1998


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Green


Appeal from Circuit Court of McLean County No. 96CF610

Honorable Ronald C. Dozier, Judge Presiding.

After a trial by jury in the circuit court of McLean County, defendant Chad E. Wheeler was convicted in November 1996 of one count of first degree murder (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a) (West Supp. 1995)) and two counts of aggravated battery to a child (720 ILCS 5/12-4.3(a) (West 1996)). The victim of these offenses was defendant's impaired three-month-old son, Levi Michael Wheeler. The court vacated the aggravated battery conviction and sentenced defendant to natural life in prison for the murder pursuant to section 5-8-1(a)(1)(c)(ii) of the Unified Code of Corrections (Code) (730 ILCS 5/5-8-1(a)(1)(c)(ii) (West 1996).

Defendant has appealed, contending (1) the proof did not support the verdict; (2) resentencing is required because the statute under which the sentence was imposed was invalid; (3) the court erred in refusing the jury's request for a transcript of defendant's testimony; (4) the prosecution's opening statement and closing argument were improper; (5) the court abused its discretion in allowing, over defense objection, a police detective who was a witness to remain at the counsel table; and (6) the court denied defendant his right to due process when it refused to explain to the jury the meaning of the term "reasonable doubt." We affirm.

The evidence indicated (1) Levi was born to defendant and Shannon R. Gibson in October 1995; (2) Levi weighed only 1 pound 15 ounces at birth; (3) when Levi left the hospital in January 1996, he weighed approximately five pounds and suffered from sleep apnea, which could cause the baby to stop breathing while asleep; (4) as a result of the apnea, the baby's parents were instructed to and did attach an apnea monitor to the child's body when they went to sleep; and (5) the monitor sounded an alarm whenever the heartbeat or breathing reached the levels of danger.

The evidence also indicated the following: (1) shortly after Levi went home, Levi's parents returned him to the hospital when the apnea's monitor alarm went off; (2) hospital testing indicated Levi was developing normally so he was sent home; (3) at 2 a.m. on February 2, 1996, Jeffrey Emmert, an emergency medical technician of the Bloomington fire department, was sent to Levi's house because Levi had reportedly stopped breathing; (4) when Emmert arrived at defendant's house, defendant was in the living room holding Levi, whereupon Emmert checked the child's pulse and breathing and found neither to be functioning; and (5) Emmert then applied cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to the child and got the child breathing and his pulse returned.

Paramedics Lorinda Ausili and Walter Rudy apparently arrived on the scene as the child's pulse and breathing returned. Ausili testified she noticed an old scar on Levi's abdomen and bruises on his face. Rudy also testified to seeing those bruises. Rudy testified defendant then stated "we're not child abuser's [sic]" and that his (defendant's) pit bull dog had caused the injuries. Apparently the paramedics inserted a breathing tube into Levi's trachea and attached a heart monitor, and Levi was transported to BroMenn hospital locally and then taken by helicopter to St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria. Levi remained at St. Francis in a chronic vegetative state for three months. On May 3, 1996, he was transferred to a facility in Sycamore and died there on May 26, 1996.

Dr. Jacqueline Nehama admitted Levi into St. Francis Medical Center. Dr. Nehama testified that she noted a bruise above Levi's right eye, an older bruise under his left eye, and bruises around his temple and behind his ear. Levi also had bruises on his chest and a large scar on his abdomen. Based on Levi's condition, Dr. Nehama formed two possible diagnoses: non-accidental trauma or a serious infection. Tests did not locate an infection; rather, they revealed that Levi was bleeding in his brain. Dr. Nehama concluded that Levi's injuries resulted from being severely shaken.

Dr. Nehama consulted with defendant and Gibson to develop a medical history. Defendant and Gibson told Dr. Nehama that Levi was bruised by the family pit bull a few days earlier when the dog ran over Levi and jumped on him. Also, Levi had surgery for a bowel problem, which left a large scar on his abdomen. Levi had been running a low-grade fever for a few days prior to being admitted to St. Francis Hospital, but appeared to be improving.

Dr. Terry Furguile, the director of the pediatric intensive care unit at St. Francis Medical Center, also treated Levi. Dr. Furguile noted the bruises on Levi's body and found a soft spot on top of Levi's head that was full and dense, a condition that is never normal. Testing and X rays revealed blood in Levi's brain, fractured ribs, and fractures in his legs and arm. One of the fractures in his leg was a spiral fracture associated with forceful twisting. Also, an ophthalmologist found bleeding behind Levi's right eye. Based on this evidence, Dr. Furguile concluded that Levi had suffered multiple traumatic injuries most likely caused by violent shaking.

Dr. Furguile stated that Levi's broken ribs were not consistent with an improper attempt to perform CPR; rather, they were more consistent with abuse. He acknowledged that Levi's bruises could have been caused by thrombocytopenia, a blood condition that makes infants susceptible to bruising. Levi was born with this condition, but no longer suffered from this disorder. Dr. Furguile also acknowledged that Levi's broken bones could have been caused by osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disease that makes bones brittle.

Dr. Furguile stated that fractures in a three-month-old infant are extremely rare and require great force to inflict. Thus, he concluded that Levi's injuries were not inflicted by the family dog; rather, he was a battered child. Dr. Furguile testified that battered child syndrome was a more severe form of shaken baby syndrome that results in internal bleeding due to violent shaking in conjunction with fractures and external bruising.

Dr. Paul Cruse, a neurologist at St. Francis Medical Center, testified he spoke with defendant concerning Levi's injuries and defendant told him his pit bull dog jumped on Levi a few days before Levi was admitted to the hospital and this caused Levi's injuries. Cruse reviewed the medical evidence and diagnosed Levi with brain injuries consistent with shaken baby syndrome. Based on Levi's other injuries, Dr. ...

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