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People v. Smith

February 19, 1999


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Heiple

Agenda 4-May 1998.

In 1986, following a jury trial in the circuit court of Cook County, defendant, Steven Smith, was convicted of the murder of Virdeen Willis, Jr., and was thereafter sentenced to death. On direct appeal to this court, we reversed defendant's conviction based upon certain evidentiary errors, and remanded to the circuit court for a new trial. People v. Smith, 141 Ill. 2d 40 (1990). On remand in 1996, defendant was again convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He now appeals that conviction and sentence.

Defendant raises 19 separate issues concerning both the trial and sentencing proceedings below, including his argument that the State failed to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Because we agree that the evidence adduced at trial was insufficient to sustain the jury's verdict, we now reverse. Accordingly, we do not reach the remaining issues.


On the evening of June 30, 1985, the victim, Virdeen Willis, Jr., his friend Robin Howland, and his cousin Maggie Burnett drove to the Shamrock Lounge, a bar owned by Burnett. Willis parked his car in a vacant lot next to the lounge, and the three went inside.

Hasan Ali was tending bar at the Shamrock Lounge that evening. Burnett introduced Ali to Willis and Howland, who took seats at the end of the bar. Ali noticed three African American men enter the lounge and sit at a table behind Willis and Howland. He later identified the men as defendant, Herbert Stevens, and Robert Spade. Ali explained at trial that he got a very good look at the three men because when he saw them, he was concerned that they were going to rob the bar. According to Ali, defendant, Stevens, and Spade were all wearing dark clothing. Defendant was wearing a black leather jacket and a black leather cap. Herbert Stevens, like defendant, was also dressed all in black, while Robert Spade was wearing army fatigues.

At some point in the evening, Ronda Caraway entered the Shamrock Lounge and walked up to the table at which defendant, Stevens, and Spade were seated. (At trial, Ronda stated that Stevens was her boyfriend.) Like Ali, Ronda testified that defendant and Stevens were dressed all in black, while Spade was wearing army fatigues. She also testified, like Ali, that defendant wore a black leather cap.

Ronda spoke to one of the men, who then got up and left the lounge with her. (The testimony is unclear whether the man who left with Ronda was defendant or one of the other two men.) The man then returned to the lounge and rejoined his companions. Thereafter, Ronda went to the home of a friend who lived in an upstairs apartment located across the vacant lot from the lounge. Ali testified that after the man who left with Ronda returned, defendant, Stevens, and Spade sat in the lounge for a while, and then got up and exited together.

Approximately four or five minutes later, Willis got up and left the bar with Howland and Burnett. Howland testified that while exiting the lounge, she was in front, followed by Willis and then Burnett. Once outside, Howland "hung back" a step in order to allow Willis and Burnett to continue their conversation as the three walked towards Willis' car. Howland did not notice anyone else on the street when she, Willis, and Burnett left the bar.

As they reached the car, Willis was standing immediately next to Burnett, and Howland was standing three or four feet behind them. As Howland turned her head back towards the bar, she saw a shadowy figure with a gun in his hand walk past her at a distance of two to three feet. Next, she heard a pop and saw a puff of smoke. Looking back towards the gunman, Howland saw that he was standing between two and four feet away from Willis and Burnett.

Howland then saw the gunman crouch down over Willis, who was lying on the ground. At this point, the gunman was facing Willis and Burnett, with his back to Howland and to the street. Howland ran back to the bar to get help. When she returned to Willis, he was lying on the ground and was unresponsive. Howland noticed that Willis was bleeding and appeared to have been shot in the neck.

Howland described the gunman as wearing black clothing and a black hat. Howland could not say, however, whether the gunman was wearing a sports coat, a sweatshirt, or a leather jacket, nor could she state whether his hat was a cap or some other style. Howland testified that it was too dark to make out further details, and that she never saw the gunman's face.

Paramedics from the Chicago fire department arrived at the scene of the shooting shortly before 10 p.m. A paramedic testified that when he arrived on the scene, Willis was lying motionless in the vacant lot with an apparent gunshot wound to the neck. He had no pulse and was not breathing. The paramedics took Willis to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy revealed that Willis died of a gunshot wound that entered the upper left area of his neck and lodged in his spine. Ronda Caraway testified that at the time of the shooting she had fallen asleep at her girlfriend's apartment overlooking the vacant lot. After she was awakened by her girlfriend, Ronda went out on the fire escape and saw an ambulance and some people gathered in the lot next to the Shamrock. A few hours later, police came to the apartment where Ronda was staying. After speaking with Ronda, the police brought her to the police station during the early morning hours of July 1. Ronda remained at the police station all that day, and over the next night. Sometime on July 2, the police showed Ronda several pictures, including those of defendant; Robert Spade; and her boyfriend, Herbert Stevens. Ronda identified photos of the three men.

In the days immediately after the shooting, Debrah Caraway, Ronda's sister, heard that Ronda was being questioned by police, and Debrah went to various police stations to look for her. On July 2, Debrah finally found her sister at the 51st Street police station. While at the station, Debrah told police that she had witnessed the shooting and that defendant was the man who shot Willis. The police then showed her a photo line-up, and Debrah identified defendant as the gunman. Also on July 2, Robin Howland was shown a group of photographs, including one of defendant, by Chicago police detectives. At that time, Howland stated that she did not recognize any of the men in the photographs. At no time did Howland identify defendant as the gunman. Willis' cousin Burnett, who was standing next to Willis when he was shot, was also shown a group of ...

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