The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Slater
IN THE APPELLATE COURT OF ILLINOIS THIRD DISTRICT A.D., 1998
Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 12th Judicial Circuit, Will County, Illinois
Honorable Vincent Cerri, Judge, Presiding.
The respondent, Heriberto L., Jr., was found to be an unfit parent by reason of depravity. 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(i) (West 1996). His parental rights to his children, 10-year-old A.L. and 8-year-old R.L., were later terminated. On appeal, the respondent argues that the trial court's decision to find him unfit was against the manifest weight of the evidence because: (1) his conviction for first degree murder of the minors' mother, standing alone, was not sufficient evidence of depravity; and (2) aside from his conviction for murder, there was a lack of evidence showing his inability or unwillingness to conform to acceptable moral standards. We affirm.
On November 19, 1993, the State filed a petition to terminate the respondent's parental rights on the ground that he was depraved. 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(i) (West 1996). The basis for the petition stemmed from the respondent's conviction for first degree murder of the minors' mother and the respondent's wife, Nancy L. The murder occurred on October 8, 1990, after the respondent repeatedly collided his vehicle into the vehicle that Nancy was driving. The respondent was also convicted of two counts of aggravated battery for the injuries he inflicted upon Nancy's two surviving passengers.
The transcript of the respondent's murder trial was admitted into evidence at the fitness hearing. In those transcripts, Rodney Ellis testified that on October 8, 1990, he was in the front passenger seat of a vehicle driven by Nancy L. Andre Cory was in the back seat. As Nancy drove eastbound on Route 30, Ellis heard a car horn and saw the respondent driving a vehicle next to them on the passenger side. When Nancy saw the respondent, she screamed, "He's going to kill me. He's going to kill me." The respondent then sideswiped Nancy's car twice on the passenger side, causing Nancy's engine to stall. The respondent then passed them, stopped his vehicle, ran over to Nancy's vehicle, and began to kick the front passenger window. Nancy then restarted her vehicle. The respondent got back in his vehicle, backed up, and struck Nancy's vehicle a third time. Nancy continued to drive eastbound on Route 30 when the respondent rammed her from behind. She then turned north on Ellis Street, and the respondent struck the vehicle a fifth time. The impact from the fifth collision caused Nancy's vehicle to leave the road and strike a tree.
Ellis said that after the vehicle struck the tree, the respondent drove his vehicle into the driver's side of Nancy's vehicle. Ellis was pinned to the back seat when he saw the respondent reach into the vehicle and pull Nancy out through the driver's side window. Nancy was screaming at the time. Ellis was later cut out of the vehicle and taken to a hospital. He remained there until February 1991 for treatment of numerous serious injuries.
Andre Cory's testimony essentially corroborated Ellis's testimony up until the respondent struck Nancy's vehicle while on Ellis Street. At that point, Cory became unconscious. He regained consciousness in the hospital where he remained for two weeks.
Several other eyewitnesses testified that after the respondent pulled Nancy out of the car he threw her over his shoulder and carried her behind a nearby house. When he reached the house, the respondent threw Nancy down on a concrete slab. He then picked her up, carried her to the front of the house, and dropped her again. One of the eyewitnesses, Charles Knox, Jr., testified that he asked the respondent what had happened after he saw the respondent drop Nancy on the concrete in the back of the house. According to Knox, the respondent said, "those damn niggers." The respondent then grabbed Nancy by the hair and said, "look, those damn niggers," and dropped her head.
The respondent also testified at his murder trial. According to him, on October 8, 1990, he and Nancy had discussed reconciling after being separated for two weeks. Around 10 p.m., Nancy telephoned him from a gas station and said she was stranded. The respondent was later driving westbound on Route 30 when he saw his wife driving eastbound with two passengers in her car. He made a U-turn, yelled at her to stop, and then bumped her vehicle twice with his vehicle to make her pull over. When Nancy's vehicle stalled, he pulled in front of it to block it and then hit it in the front end. After he pounded on the window of her vehicle, Nancy started to get out of the vehicle but the man in the passenger seat pulled her back. The respondent said when Nancy restarted the vehicle it rolled backward and collided with his vehicle (which, he said, was then located behind her vehicle).
The respondent then followed the victims. He said the road was wet and slippery and Nancy was driving too fast. When she turned north on Ellis Street, the vehicle went off the road and hit a tree. He did not hit the vehicle from behind on Ellis Street and did not hit it after it struck the tree. He also claimed he pulled Nancy from the vehicle and gently placed her on the ground.
At his sentencing hearing, the respondent made no statement of remorse.
At the fitness hearing, Joyce Horton, a friend of Nancy's, testified that a month before Nancy was murdered, she was speaking with Nancy on the telephone and overheard the respondent say to Nancy, "I don't see why you want to hang around those niggers anyway." He called Joyce "Buckwheat" and referred to Nancy's friends as "niggers."
Horton further testified that in September 1990 she and Nancy went to Nancy's home after shopping and found that the respondent had put garbage bags of Nancy's clothes on the porch. According to Horton, the respondent threw Nancy out of the house ...