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People v. York

April 06, 2000


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Stephenson County. No. 96--CF--448

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Galasso

Honorable Charles R. Hartman, Judge, Presiding.

A jury found defendant, Eddie L. York, guilty of aggravated criminal sexual assault (720 ILCS 5/12--14(a)(2) (West 1996)), and the trial court sentenced him to 16 years' imprisonment. Defendant appeals, arguing that (1) the State failed to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and (2) defense counsel rendered ineffective assistance at trial when she failed to introduce exculpatory DNA evidence. Because counsel failed to introduce the evidence, we reverse defendant's conviction and remand the cause for a new trial.

At trial, Karen Johnson-Stewart, the victim's mother, testified that on December 13, 1996, the victim visited a friend's house. When the victim returned home, she immediately went to her bedroom. The next day, an ambulance transported the victim to the hospital because she was complaining of abdominal pain. The victim underwent surgery and was hospitalized for four to seven days. Colleen Cruse, a registered nurse who treated the victim, testified that she prepared a "sexual assault kit" after the victim revealed that she had been assaulted.

The victim testified that at 4:30 p.m. on December 13, 1996, she left her home to visit a friend. As the victim walked toward her friend's home, defendant drove by with two other men. Someone in the car offered the victim a ride. The victim knew defendant because he was a family friend, but she did not know the men riding with defendant. The victim later learned that defendant was traveling with Thomas Best and Brandon Gaston, the co-defendants.

The group drove to see the victim's friend and the victim's cousin, but neither was home. The group eventually went to Best's home, where they listened to music in a bedroom. A man in a wheelchair was also in the room. The victim testified that defendant, Best, and Gaston waited for the man to leave, and then "they shut the door, turned off the lights and locked the door." Best removed the victim's pants and underwear. Best, Gaston, and defendant took turns engaging in sexual intercourse with the victim. Two men restrained the victim while the third assaulted her. The victim did not want to have sex with any of them, and she told each to stop. She recalled that defendant was on top of her for a shorter time than the others. The men promised the victim that they would buy her a pair of shoes if she did not tell anyone about the incident. When the victim returned home, she did not report the incident because she was scared. The victim eventually underwent surgery at the hospital because she "had got something torn up inside" her. The victim later identified her attackers in a photographic lineup.

The victim denied that anyone in the bedroom was smoking cannabis or drinking alcohol. She acknowledged that a girl was in a bedroom across the hall during the attack. Although she thought the girl might help her, the victim did not call out or scream.

Defendant testified that he knew the victim before the attack and that he was with Gaston and Best on December 13, 1996. The three saw the victim walking and either Gaston or Best offered her a ride. The victim accepted and the group eventually arrived at the house where defendant, Best, and Gaston were residing. Defendant left to visit his girlfriend and returned to find the group in an upstairs bedroom. After everyone smoked cannabis, defendant helped the man in the wheelchair get into his car. When defendant returned, he saw the victim lying on her back on the bed and it appeared that her clothing had been "fumbled with." She did not appear to be upset.

Defendant left to answer the front door to complete a drug transaction. When he returned to the bedroom, defendant saw Best and Gaston assaulting the victim. He asked them "what the hell" they were doing. Defendant stated that he would have intervened if the victim had requested assistance. He asked Best and Gaston to leave and told them, "you all going to catch some cases." Defendant went downstairs and played a video game. Gaston, Best, and the victim walked downstairs approximately 10 to 20 minutes later. Defendant denied committing the acts that the victim described.

Defense counsel then attempted to introduce the results of DNA testing by asking defendant whether he received a report of the results while he was awaiting trial. The trial court sustained the prosecutor's objection that defendant's testimony was inadmissible hearsay. The record reveals that DNA samples were recovered from the victim at the time she was hospitalized. Testing revealed that Best and Gaston deposited semen on the victim and that defendant did not. Although the jury learned that defendant submitted to DNA testing, defense counsel failed to introduce the test results.

During closing argument, the prosecutor stated, "[i]t would have been nice to have DNA evidence if we would have had some semen present or something like that, but gee." Defense counsel did not argue that the State failed to introduce forensic evidence linking defendant to the crime. A jury found defendant guilty, and the trial court sentenced him to 16 years' imprisonment.

On appeal, the State abandons the accountability theory that it introduced at trial. The State does not assert that the jury found that defendant aided and abetted Gaston and Best. Instead, the State merely asserts that the evidence was sufficient to prove that defendant actually assaulted the victim.

Defendant argues that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to introduce the exculpatory DNA test results. The State responds that counsel was effective because DNA evidence is not required to convict a defendant of aggravated criminal sexual assault and that the jury heard sufficient evidence to find defendant guilty. We conclude that defense counsel's unprofessional conduct deprived defendant of a fair trial. See People v. Popoca, 245 Ill. App. 3d 948, 955 (1993).

Under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 80 L. Ed. 2d 674, 104 S. Ct. 2052 (1984), defense counsel is ineffective only if (1) counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and the shortcomings of counsel were so severe as to deprive defendant of a fair trial, and (2) there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceedings would have been different. People v. Albanese, 104 Ill. 2d 504, 525 (1984). Decisions about which witnesses to call and which evidence to present ultimately rest with defense counsel. People v. West, 187 Ill. 2d 418, 432 (1999). Courts have long viewed these decisions as matters of trial strategy that are generally immune from ineffective assistance claims. However, a ...

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