Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

People v. Trent

February 25, 2000


Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 10th Judicial Circuit, Peoria County, Illinois No. 96--CF--615

Honorable John Gorman Judge Presiding

JUSTICE KOEHLER delivered the opinion of the court:

The defendant-appellant, James Trent, appeals his conviction in the Peoria County circuit court of first degree murder and aggravated battery of a child and the imposition of a sentence of natural life imprisonment without parole. This court must answer the following questions: (1) Did the defense counsel employ a strategy that constituted no defense and concede Trent's guilt in closing argument, thereby denying Trent his right to effective assistance of counsel? (2) Did the circuit court abuse its discretion when it allowed (i) the State to display photographs of the victim during its opening statement; (ii) the State to display selected slides of the victim during expert testimony; (iii) the State to display a life-size photograph of the victim during trial; (iv) experts to testify regarding the severity of the victim's beating; (v) the State to explain in opening argument that it believed the co-defendant was less culpable than the defendant; and (vi) a police officer to testify to the co-defendant's out-of-court statement to him that she feared the defendant? (3) Does Public Act 89-203 eff. July 21, 1995, under which the defendant was sentenced, violate the Illinois Constitution's single subject rule? and (4) Does the mandatory life sentence provision violate the Illinois Constitution's requirement that, when sentencing, the court must consider the defendant's potential for restoration to useful citizenship? We conclude that (1) the defendant was not denied effective assistance of counsel when the defense counsel employed the strategy available under the circumstances; and (2) the circuit court either did not abuse its discretion in its evidentiary rulings or such abuse did not substantially prejudice the defendant and, therefore, does not require reversal. Accordingly, we affirm the defendant's conviction, but we remand this cause to the circuit court for resentencing because our supreme court has recently concluded that Public Act 89-203 violates the single subject rule.


James Trent was indicted for first degree murder and aggravated battery of a child in the death of four-year-old Christian Nickels on July 20, 1996. A jury convicted Trent of causing Christian's death by repeatedly striking her about her body with a belt, metal pole and metal spatula, without legal justification and knowing such act created a strong probability of great bodily harm or death. See 720 ILCS 5/12--4.3 (a) (West 1996). They also convicted him of being more than 18 years of age and of knowingly and without legal justification causing great bodily harm to a child under 13 years of age, by repeatedly striking Christian with a belt, a metal pole and a metal spatula. See 720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(2) (West 1996). The circuit court sentenced Trent to life in prison. The crime occurred in Peoria; however, the defense successfully moved for a change of venue and the trial took place in Du Page County.

On July 20, 1996, the Peoria fire department responded to a 911 call of a child not breathing. When the firemen arrived, they found Trent on the telephone and standing over Christian, who was not breathing. St. Francis Hospital's Dr. Robert Tillotson could not revive Christian, and he pronounced her dead at approximately 3:50 p.m. in the emergency room. Dr. Tillotson testified that he had never seen a child so badly beaten.

Peoria police officer Pat Rabe testified that Trent told him that he arrived home at approximately 1 p.m. on July 20. Trent stated that Katrina Hardin, Christian's mother, told him that Christian had been misbehaving and he and Hardin spanked Christian. Rabe testified that Trent asked him about Christian's condition and if he believed in corporal punishment. Trent told Rabe he had been raised to believe that children should be punished when they misbehave.

Peoria police officer Willie King testified that Trent told him that evening that Hardin told him that Christian had been misbehaving and he spanked her with his belt. Trent told King that he instructed Christian to lie on the bed for five "licks," but she moved after four and he continued to spank her for 10 minutes. Trent then removed his two-year-old daughter, of whom he had custody, from the room and continued spanking Christian until he "gave up." Hardin then began beating Christian with a metal spatula and asked Trent to hold Christian's legs while she beat her. He did so. After Hardin stopped, Trent hit Christian with the spatula 10 or 12 times and then struck her more than once with a metal pole. Christian jumped off the bed and, according to Trent, Hardin grabbed the pole from him and struck Christian with it. She punched Christian, knocking out her teeth, and then struck her again with the pole. Trent said that he tried to stop Hardin, but she struck him with the pole, causing a three-inch scrape on his right bicep. Thereafter, Hardin gave Christian a bath and Trent stated he saw Hardin hold Christian's head under the water. Trent told King that he then sat Christian on his lap and explained that they had spanked because she would not "lay still and take her punishment." Hardin later put Christian in bed and, after Trent noticed Christian did not seem to be breathing, Hardin gave her another bath. Trent also told King that he did not know how many times he struck Christian. In response to the prosecutor's questioning, King testified that the police allowed Hardin and Trent to speak in private at the station, but he monitored them because Hardin had "expressed concerns for her safety."

At trial, Trent testified that he arrived home on July 20 and Hardin told him that Christian had been misbehaving. Trent spanked her with his belt on her buttocks. When she would not stop jumping around and do as she was told, Hardin hit her with the spatula. Trent took the spatula from Hardin and also struck Christian with it. He stated that he grabbed the metal pole to use as a "fear factor" because it had previously caused her to behave. He stated that he hit her with it twice but did not hit her with great force. When he stopped, Hardin again began hitting Christian with the pole. Trent said Hardin went wild and he saw her hit Christian on her arm with the pole. He also saw Hardin punch Christian with her fists, and he saw Christian hand Hardin her tooth. He tried to make Hardin stop, but she was swinging so wildly she hit him with the pole. Trent finally took the pole from Hardin, and she stopped punching Christian. After the beating stopped, Hardin bathed Christian. Trent stated he heard Hardin say "stop faking." He saw Hardin "slam" Christian down in the tub, and he told Hardin to stop. Trent then sat her on his lap to tell her why he spanked her, and he gave her a popsicle. Later, he noticed Christian was not moving. He administered CPR and then called 911. He testified that he thought she had drowned from the bath and he did not think the beating caused Christian's condition. He testified that he had been physically disciplined as a child and had been taught that corporal punishment was the correct way to discipline children. Trent testified that he is 6 feet 7inches tall and weighed 250 pounds at the time of the beating. At the time of the trial, he weighed approximately 320 pounds.

Hardin was convicted of murder for Christian's death and agreed to testify against Trent in exchange for the State's agreement not to seek the death penalty against her. As Hardin testified, the trial court allowed the display of a 46-inch life-size photograph of a smiling Christian. Hardin testified that she was at home with Christian and Trent's two-year-old daughter and she spanked Christian and put her in a corner for using profanity. Trent arrived home at approximately 1 p.m., and she told him what Christian had done. Trent told Christian to "presume [sic] the position." He ordered Christian to undress and spanked her with his belt. Harden also hit Christian with the belt and then they both hit her with a metal pole, and Trent hit her with a spatula. Christian escaped from Trent more than once, at one point hiding behind a chair, but she returned to him when he so ordered. Christian was crying and saying, "Daddy, I'm going to do what you tell me to do." During the beating, Christian came into the kitchen and handed Hardin her tooth. Hardin later gave Christian's tooth to the police. Hardin testified that, during the beating, Trent told Hardin to play the Tony Braxton compact disc, "You Making Me High." She testified that she never saw Trent hit Christian in the head. She stated that, while she gave Christian a bath, Trent cleaned up the main room where most of the beating occurred. Hardin said that after Christian lost consciousness, she called 911.

Peoria police detective Lisa Snow testified that Hardin told her that Christian had slipped on the bathtub and bumped her head. She also told her that Christian bumped her head while jumping on the bed. Later, at the police station, Hardin gave Snow one of Christian's teeth.

Dr. Violette Hnilica, a board-certified forensic pathologist, performed the autopsy on Christian. Identifying Christian's injuries in emergency room and autopsy slides during trial, Hnilica testified that, in her opinion, Christian died from possible blunt force injuries to her trunk, upper arms and thighs. According to Dr. Hnilica, Christian suffered deep bruising to the bone which crushed her tissues, releasing "intracellular components," including acid and potassium into her bloodstream. These eventually reached her heart and brain and caused them to shut down. According to Dr. Hnilica, there was no bleeding in Christian's eyes to indicate blunt force to the head, and she would have died even if she had not been struck in the head.

Dr. Robert Kirschner, also a board-certified pathologist, testified as a State witness. Based on his review of the photographs and autopsy report, he opined that Christian died of shock due to multiple blunt trauma. Dr. Kirschner testified that, although Christian had been hit in the head, those blows did not cause her death. He further testified that Christian's injuries were in the top 10% of the most severe injuries he had ever seen.

Dr. Travis Hindman, a forensic pathologist, testified for the defense. He also reviewed the photographs and autopsy report and testified that, in his opinion, Christian died of brain trauma due to a broad surface blunt impact to the head. He further testified that Christian had a 50% chance of surviving the other injuries.

The circuit court denied the defendant's motion for a directed verdict and his post-sentencing motion for dismissal notwithstanding the verdict or for a new trial. The circuit court also denied the amended motion for a new sentence, in which the defendant asserted that the statute under which he was sentenced was unconstitutional. The defendant now appeals.


A. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Did the defense counsel's strategy together with his remarks in closing argument deprive Trent of his defense and of the effective assistance of counsel? The defendant, Trent, argues that his defense counsel (1) failed to understand the law of accountability; (2) conceded Trent's guilt of aggravated battery of a child during closing argument; and (3) conceded that Trent had the required mental state for murder; therefore, his counsel's performance deprived him of effective assistance of counsel. According to Trent, his strategy was based in part on his personal history of how his parents disciplined him as a child and his belief that he was correctly disciplining Christian. However, during closing argument, the defense counsel told the jury that the defendant's state of mind was not an excuse for aggravated battery of a child. Although knowledge is the requisite mental state for murder, the defense counsel incorrectly told the jury that the requisite mental state for murder is intent. Trent maintains his counsel conceded Trent's guilt in closing argument when he told the jury to "find him guilty of aggravated battery of a child." He maintains that by telling the jury this, he essentially instructed it to find Trent guilty of knowingly and without legal justification causing great bodily harm to Christian. He, therefore, conceded the requisite mental state for murder and all of the elements of murder except causation. Further, his defense counsel instructed the jury that "you can't find someone guilty of murder regardless of what theory you use if they weren't involved in those actions." Trent argues that his defense counsel's strategy was wrong, however, because the circuit court instructed the jury on the theory of accountability and, therefore, even if Trent had not inflicted the fatal blow, he could still be found guilty of murder. The defendant argues that instead of conceding defendant's guilt of aggravated battery, counsel should have argued that, based on Trent's upbringing and his beliefs regarding child discipline, Trent did not knowingly cause great bodily harm to Christian. Further, with respect to the murder charge, counsel should have argued that Trent did not know his acts created a strong probability of death or great bodily harm.

The State responds that the defense counsel employed the only strategy available, attempting to shift responsibility for Christian's death to Hardin. Moreover, the State maintains that a review of the entire closing argument does not indicate that Trent's counsel misunderstood the law of accountability or conceded Trent's guilt of first degree murder. Counsel argued that Trent attempted to stop Hardin from beating Christian about the head and attempted to minimize Trent's involvement in the murder. He argued that the medical testimony did not establish that Christian died of multiple blunt trauma and presented evidence that she died of head injuries inflicted by Hardin. Further, the State maintains that Trent's counsel argued that the jurors should consider Trent's state of mind based on his experiences. The State contends that, even if the defense counsel was ineffective, Trent was not prejudiced by any of his errors. The evidence introduced at trial overwhelmingly established that Christian died from multiple blows to her body and Trent inflicted most of those blows. The State maintains that, even if Trent's counsel's trial performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, the result of the trial would not have been different.

In order to show ineffective assistance of counsel, the defendant must show that "counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the 'counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment. Second, the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense." Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 80 L.Ed. 2d 674, 693, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 2064 (1984). The defendant must show that "counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687, 80 L.Ed. 2d at 693, 104 S.Ct. at 2064. However, the evaluation of the defense ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.