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People v. Wilson

December 31, 1998


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County No. 93 CR 13498 The Honorable Marcus Salone, Judge Presiding

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Cousins

After a bench trial, the defendant, Jeffery Todd Wilson, was convicted of first degree murder, aggravated arson and arson. He was sentenced to the mandatory term of natural life in prison. The defendant appeals his convictions on the basis of evidentiary rulings that he claims deprived him of a fair trial.

The defendant claims that the trial court erred in: (1) admitting hearsay statements that did not comply with all the due process requirements set out in federal case law; (2) admitting as substantive evidence prior inconsistent statements of two witnesses in violation of section 115-10.1 of the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1963 (the Act) (725 ILCS 5/115-10.1 (West 1994); and (3) admitting hearsay statements of a non-testifying co-defendant in violation of the defendant's rights under the confrontation clause (U.S. Const. amend. VI).


This case concerns the burning of a two-story apartment building. Two men, Floyd Spencer and Lee Burnett, died in the fire. Fire investigators found evidence that was consistent with arson, but the evidence was not conclusive. The building, owned by John "Screwball" Barnes, had two apartments on each floor. It was described as a "smokehouse" because drugs were sold out of the second-floor rear apartment and the purchasers could stay and smoke their drugs. The residents of this apartment were called Claude "Blood" Benson, "J.C.," Charles "Poncho" Williams and Floyd Spencer. The first-floor rear apartment was occupied by Carol Ramsey, Reginald Jett and their daughter Tiffany. Carol Ramsey would get drugs from Screwball and give them to Poncho. Poncho sold the drugs and Blood collected the money.

At trial, Ms. Ramsey testified as follows: On August 4, 1990, at about 3 a.m., she was arguing with Blood at the apartment building. He claimed that Screwball owed the Black Souls street gang money. Blood left and Mr. Jett came home. At 4 a.m., Mr. Jett went to the window because he heard someone arguing. He said that he smelled gasoline but Ms. Ramsey did not smell anything. Then she saw a blaze of flames and heard two explosions. When she looked out of the window, she saw three people running from the building toward a car. She could not describe the men, however.

This testimony was consistent with what Ms. Ramsey had told the police in 1993, but differed from what she told the police in 1990. In 1990, she said that neither she nor Mr. Jett had heard or seen anyone outside before the fire. She said that she did not know the reason for the fire.

Mr. Jett testified that he was a member of the Gangster Disciples street gang. He said that on the night of the fire he saw a blue Chevrolet Malibu pass the house several times. He did not mention the car to the police after the fire, however. At one point late that night he heard noises outside. Then he heard Blood saying that "they" were about to burn the building. He smelled gas fumes, and when he looked out the window he saw the defendant and the blue Malibu again. He saw flames, heard two explosions and ran out the back door.

Claude "Blood" Benson testified that he was a member of the Black Souls in 1990. On August 3, 1990, Blood spoke with the defendant in back of the building. The defendant told him to tell Screwball that the smokehouse would be closed down or burned down. At 4 a.m. the next day he saw the defendant and Mr. Page, the co-defendant, through the smokehouse window. The defendant told him to get out, "it's got to go up." He saw the defendant dash some liquid on the stairway, which Mr. Page set alight. Blood then told everyone to leave. He saw flames and heard two explosions. He learned the next day that Floyd Spencer and Lee Burnett had died in the fire. He did not go to the police, however.

Charles "Poncho" Williams was in the apartment at the time the fire started. He testified that he saw Mr. Page and the defendant empty some liquid from canisters and then saw the defendant set it alight. He testified that he remained calm and helped to evacuate the building. On cross-examination, however, he admitted telling the police that he thought there might be gunfire, so he threw a woman out of the second-story window to see if they would shoot her before escaping himself.

State's witnesses Mary Ward and Kendall Brent were living together in 1990. Ms. Ward was talking to detectives in 1993 about the (unrelated) murder of her cousin when they brought up the fire. In this conversation with the officers and a subsequent statement taken by an assistant State's Attorney (ASA) Ms. Ward said that she was at the corner of Francisco and Adams at the time of the fire with Mr. Brent and Mr. Page, the co-defendant. The defendant, who she says had rank in the Black Souls, and his brother pulled up in a station wagon. Mr. Brent and Mr. Page went up to the car. Mr. Page got in and then the car drove off. Mr. Brent came back to her and said "they got to be crazy, I ain't blowing up anybody." Mr. Brent told her that the defendant had asked Mr. Page and him to help blow up the building because he had told the people running the smokehouse to stop selling drugs and they refused. Ten minutes later she heard an explosion, ran to the corner and saw the building on fire. The station wagon came back. The defendant got into his truck and drove away. Mr. Page told her and Mr. Brent that he had pulled a cork out of two bombs, thrown them into the front window of the building and then ran before it blew up.

Ms. Ward also testified before a grand jury and gave a similar account of events. In her grand jury testimony, she stated that, after the defendant and Mr. Page pulled up, Mr. Page told Mr. Brent that "[y]ou didn't think I was going to do it, did you[?] It was the easiest $200 I ever made." He also called Mr. Brent a coward because he did not assist in the arson.

At trial however, Ms. Ward denied knowing anything about the incident except that there was a smokehouse run by Screwball in the neighborhood. Rather, she testified that she was at home that night waiting for Mr. Brent to return.

The State impeached Ms. Ward with her prior inconsistent statements, which were admitted as substantive evidence. She said that she had not read the statement given to the ASA. The contents were read to her in court and she denied that they were true. The defense made repeated hearsay objections.

On cross-examination, Ms. Ward testified that the police told her that they really wanted the defendant off the streets and that he was responsible for her cousin's death. She said that they fed her the information they wanted. She also claims that she was under the influence of heroin when giving the statement. When she found out that the defendant had nothing to do with her cousin's death, she did not want to help anymore. She said that her grand jury testimony, which also was read in court, was false as well.

The ASA who had taken Ms. Ward's statement testified that she had gone over the statement line by line with Ms. Ward and given her a chance to make corrections, which Ms. Ward initialed. The statement was signed by the ASA, the detective and Ms. Ward.

After the police had taken Ms. Ward's statement, they located Kendall Brent, who agreed to go to the police station with them. An ASA took a statement from him. The statement related that he and Ms. Ward were on the steps of the Calhoun school about 3:30 a.m. on August 4, 1990. The defendant drove up in his Toyota 4-Runner. There was another person in the vehicle, but Mr. Brent did not know this person's name. Mr. Brent and Mr. Page both belonged to the Gangster Disciples and he knew that the defendant held rank in the Black Souls.

The defendant told them that he intended to burn Screwball out because he refused to pay a portion of the drug proceeds. Mr. Page offered to act as a lookout and got into the vehicle. Mr. Brent walked back to Ms. Ward and told her that they were crazy. About 20 minutes later, they saw fire trucks going down the street. The defendant drove up and Mr. Page got out of the vehicle. He told them that he had gotten $1,000 for helping. An ASA claimed that she and an investigator met with Mr. Brent in 1995 and he told her that the contents of the statement were accurate.

At trial Mr. Brent denied saying that any of this happened. He did not remember meeting with an ASA and telling her that the handwritten statement was accurate. The ASA in question testified that she had had that conversation. Mr. Brent was impeached with prior inconsistent statements. The defense objected to this as hearsay.

On the basis of the testimony related above, as well as other evidence, the trial court found the defendant guilty. The defendant made a motion for a new trial, which the court denied. The defendant now appeals to this court, claiming that improper admission of hearsay testimony deprived him of a ...

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