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People v. Williams

May 25, 2000


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Freeman

Following a trial in the circuit court of Cook County, a jury convicted defendant Michael Williams of first degree murder, aggravated kidnaping, and armed robbery (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a), 10-2(a)(3), 18-2 (West 1992)). At a separate sentencing hearing, the same jury found defendant eligible for the death penalty and found that there were no mitigating factors sufficient to preclude imposition of that sentence. The trial judge accordingly sentenced defendant to death on the murder conviction and consecutive 30-year prison terms on the aggravated kidnaping and armed robbery convictions. Defendant's death sentence has been stayed pending direct review by this court. Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, §4(b); 134 Ill. 2d Rs. 603, 609(a). For the reasons which follow, we affirm defendant's conviction and death sentence.


On January 12, 1994, Estelle Jones attended a party at the home of Anthony "Bruce" Smith in Gary, Indiana, with her cousins Angela King and Karolyn Summers. In the early morning hours of January 13, Jones drove King and Summers home, then left to return to Smith's party. Jones' relatives reported her missing when she failed to return, and the police found her body later that day, in a deserted lot in Riverdale, Illinois. Medical testimony revealed that her death was the result of a gunshot wound to the head, which had been inflicted by a shotgun fired at close range. The car she had been driving was found approximately a month later, in a wooded area in east Gary. It had been burned, and the remains of a gasoline can were found inside it.

Smith testified as follows. Among the other people at his party were his half brother, Curtis "Junior" Hosea; his uncle, James "Puko" Thompson; and his friends David Carroll and Chelsea Golden. The victim and her friends arrived around 11:30 p.m. They left after a few hours, but the victim returned to the house approximately one hour later, after having dropped her friends off at home. Smith and the victim went to Smith's bedroom and became sexually involved. While in the bedroom, Smith heard the doorbell ring and heard the voices of defendant and Dennis Moreland.

Smith had a "business relationship" with defendant and Moreland in which Smith was paid $150 per week to sell cocaine for the two men. Accordingly, when Smith heard their voices, he left the bedroom and let the men into the house. Smith, defendant and Moreland returned to the bedroom. There, in the presence of the victim, defendant and Moreland inventoried Smith's supply of cocaine. After determining that everything was in order, they replaced the cocaine and money in a small bag which was left in the bedroom. Defendant and Moreland then joined the party. Shortly thereafter Smith left the bedroom, to use the bathroom. The victim, whom Smith had left alone in the bedroom with the bag containing the drugs, "jumped" when he returned. When he asked her what was wrong, she simply stated that Smith had startled her.

A few minutes later, Smith heard the doorbell ring again. Defendant knocked at the bedroom door and said a customer had arrived. Smith gave defendant the bag containing the drugs and closed the bedroom door. Less than a minute later, Smith heard defendant shout "Hell, no," and Smith exited the bedroom to see what was the matter. Defendant told Smith several rocks of cocaine and some powder cocaine were missing from the bag. After Smith denied taking the drugs, defendant, Smith and Moreland returned to the bedroom, searched the victim, and discovered that she had hidden approximately $50 worth of drugs in her sock.

Moreland pulled a 9-millimeter handgun out of his waistband and pointed it at the victim, but Smith convinced him not to shoot her. However, when Smith went to the kitchen to talk with defendant and Moreland, defendant told Chelsea Golden to "beat" the victim. Golden grabbed a wine cooler bottle and attacked the victim with it. As the two were wrestling, defendant stepped in and began punching the victim in the face. Moreland continued the beating after defendant stopped. Hosea, Carroll and Thompson also hit her once or twice. During the beating, Golden took off the victim's shoes. As defendant and Moreland were hitting the victim, they said that she had "violated" and had to be punished. Defendant suggested that the victim should perform oral sex on everyone present. Moreland and defendant then separately went into the bedroom with the victim. While defendant was in the bedroom with her, Smith heard scuffling and heard the victim screaming no and saying "stop."

After defendant exited the bedroom, he and Moreland went to the kitchen to talk, and Smith followed. He heard Moreland tell defendant to "do something about this here" because the victim could "jeopardize our spot" if she went to the police and reported that she had been assaulted at the house. Defendant agreed, and moved the victim's car to the rear of the house. When he re-entered the house, Moreland told him not to worry about anyone "snitching," because if anyone did, everyone in the house would be in trouble. Moreland flashed a "pitchfork," which Smith testified was a gang sign for the Disciples street gang, and used the term "folks," which Smith testified was another name for the Disciples. Defendant went into the bedroom and carried the victim out over his shoulder, with a pillowcase over her head. He brought her outside and put her in the trunk of her car. Moreland got a shotgun Smith kept in his house and gave it to defendant, telling him not to worry because Moreland would kill anyone who said anything. Defendant took the shotgun, got into the victim's car, and drove off. Moreland made a call on a cellular phone and, a short while later, a white car pulled up to the house. Moreland said "those are my folks," made the pitchfork symbol, and got into the car with the men and drove away. Several hours later, defendant returned to the house to retrieve the victim's shoes and jacket. When Smith asked him what he had done with the victim, defendant replied that he had "smoked" her. Smith also overheard a later conversation between Moreland and defendant in which defendant told Moreland that he had taken the victim's car to the east side of Gary and burned it and that he had buried the shotgun.

Defense counsel cross-examined Smith extensively regarding statements he made to the police shortly after the murder. When Smith first talked to the police he said that the victim had not come back to the house after leaving with her cousins. Smith subsequently admitted that the victim had returned, but stated that defendant had committed all of the physical violence. On redirect examination Smith testified that he had initially lied to the police because of defendant and Moreland's threat to kill anyone who said anything about what had happened.

Hosea, Golden, and Carroll's testimony corroborated Smith's version of events, but these witnesses added that Hosea had used the victim's car to get cigarettes and drive Thompson home while defendant and Moreland were in the bedroom with the victim. They also stated that they heard the victim pleading for help as defendant carried her from the bedroom to the trunk of her car. The witnesses recalled seeing the 9- millimeter handgun in Moreland's possession, although Carroll testified that defendant was handling the gun when the men first entered the house. None of these witnesses recalled having seen a shotgun at the house during the party.

Riverdale Police Officer Michael Horn participated in a search of Smith's house after the murder. Horn testified that he recovered three guns during the search, one of which was a 9-millimeter handgun. Horn testified that after the police impounded the weapons, defendant told Horn that the 9-millimeter handgun was his and asked Horn how to retrieve it.

Deputy Commander Edward Davies of the Lake County, Indiana, sheriff's department testified that he spoke with defendant on two occasions. First, on March 8, 1994, defendant voluntarily spoke with Davies about the crime for approximately one hour. He was not arrested, and he left the police station after the interview. Later on March 23, defendant was arrested for the crime, and he spoke with Davies again. Davies transcribed a statement defendant made concerning the crime.

In his statement, which was introduced into evidence, defendant recounted the following version of events. He had gone to Smith's house around 2 or 3 a.m.; he did not mention Moreland being with him. A customer had come to the door and defendant got the drugs to make the sale from Smith, who was in the bedroom with a woman. Defendant noticed that the "count" was not right, and told Smith so. Smith then talked to Thompson and searched him in the bathroom, after which Smith said that "that bitch must got [sic] it." Smith then searched the girl he had been with in his bedroom and found the drugs in her possession. Smith and Thompson began to slap her, Golden hit her with a bottle, and then everyone started hitting her. Defendant admitted that he, too, hit the victim, but stated that he only did so because he believed that she had hit him while she was being beaten by the others.

Smith suggested that the victim perform oral or sexual intercourse with the men. Defendant admitted that the victim performed an act of oral intercourse on him after she had done so to Thompson. The other men then resumed beating the victim, while defendant went outside to her car to verify her claim that Smith had previously given her drugs, some of which were in the car. When defendant returned, a person, "James or Mike," knocked the victim unconscious with a skillet. Defendant did not know James/Michael's actual name, but stated that he was "some kin to" Smith. Once the victim was unconscious, everyone began to talk about what had occurred and the trouble that it could cause. Someone pointed out that the victim "just can't leave." Eventually it was agreed that she should be taken to Chicago and killed there. James/Michael gave defendant a shotgun after the group arrived at this decision, then told defendant to put the victim in the trunk of her car and to meet him at "Archibee's." Defendant picked James/Michael up at Archibee's, and they drove the victim's car to Riverdale, where James/Michael decided to commit the murder. Defendant held the shotgun while James/Michael got the victim out of the car. After he gave the gun back to James/Michael, defendant asked him if they were doing the right thing, to which James/Michael replied that they would "talk about that later." Defendant reentered the car, and heard a gunshot as he turned the key in the ignition. The men drove the victim's car back to Gary and defendant left the car with James/Michael, who said he would take care of it and the gun.

The defense called Karolyn Summers, who testified that she was at the party at Smith's house on the evening of January 12. While there she had seen a shotgun near the table where people were playing cards. She testified that other people had seen the shotgun as well-in fact, they were playing with it. The defense also introduced a stipulation that, in prior testimony, Golden had stated that Smith had told her he had thrown the victim's shoes away because the police were investigating his house.

Following closing arguments, the jury returned general verdicts finding defendant guilty of first degree murder, aggravated kidnaping, and armed robbery. At the eligibility phase of sentencing, the jury found defendant eligible for the death penalty on the basis of two statutory aggravating factors: first, that defendant committed the murder with the intent to prevent the victim from giving "material assistance" to law enforcement authorities in an investigation or prosecution; and second, that the murder was committed "in a cold, calculated and premeditated manner pursuant to a preconceived plan, scheme or design to take a human life by unlawful means" and defendant's conduct "created a reasonable expectation" that the victim's death would result. See 720 ILCS 5/9-1(b)(8), (b)(11) (West 1994). The case proceeded to the aggravation-mitigation phase.

The State presented testimony in aggravation concerning defendant's behavior in Cook County jail while awaiting trial. In September 1995, all of the inmates on defendant's cell tier, including defendant, jammed their cell doors open, an incident for which those inmates were disciplined. The State also established that defendant had been disciplined for a physical altercation with another prisoner on November 3, 1994.

Other evidence in aggravation included testimony by the victim's mother, Birdia King, who read a prepared victim impact statement regarding the emotional impact the victim's death had on her and her family. The State also demonstrated that it was at least a 30-minute trip from Smith's house in Gary to the location where the victim was found, evidence intended to show that defendant had more than sufficient time to change his mind.

The State also offered in aggravation the testimony of Leon Anderson, an inmate at the Illinois Department of Corrections. He stated that he had shared a cell with defendant at Cook County jail while he was awaiting trial and had regular contact with him for a total of 10 to 12 months. Defendant told Anderson that he was a "regent," or chief of security, for the Gangster Disciples before being incarcerated and he continued in this role in jail. Defendant controlled the weapons and drugs that ran through Division One-the maximum security division of the jail-and had the power to order "violations," or beatings, for infractions of gang rules. On at least nine separate occasions while they were cellmates, Anderson had personally seen defendant beat other inmates, the earliest such incident being in December 1994.

Defendant told Anderson that he had "shot a girl in the face" and that he was concerned about his co-defendant informing on him. Defendant said he would have his co-defendant killed if he did so. Defendant also told Anderson that he was trying to get money together to have the other witnesses in the case killed.

Anderson admitted that he was a member of a gang which was a rival of defendant's gang. He further admitted that because one of the offenses for which he was currently incarcerated was predatory aggravated criminal sexual assault of a child, the State's Attorney had the power to institute proceedings within one year of his release date to have him held indefinitely as a predatory offender. However, Anderson testified that he had been promised nothing in exchange for his testimony. He stated that he was testifying because "[t]hat could have been my sister."

The State also called Sergeant Bennett of the Cook County department of corrections. Bennett, who worked in Division One of the Cook County jail, knew defendant when defendant was in the jail and was aware that defendant was one of the leaders in his gang. Bennett did not know defendant's exact rank, but stated that defendant did have the power to call violations. However, on cross-examination, Sergeant Bennett testified that defendant had not been "hanging with the gangs" for approximately the last 18 months. Defendant had adjusted to incarceration and was "institutionalized," i.e., was an "ideal inmate, knows the rules and regulations and abides by the rules, no problems."

In mitigation, defendant first called Dr. Douge Barthelemy, his pediatrician. Dr. Barthelemy testified that defendant was born with a rare incurable neurological/dermatological condition known as Sturge- Weber disease. The main effect of this disease was a port-wine-colored stain on the face, one side of the upper chest, the neck, pharynx, mouth, brain and brain covering, or meninges. The disease was progressive, and caused a gradual asphyxiation of that portion of the brain which it covered, leading to the death of that part of the brain. The affected area of the brain controlled several functions, including discrimination and judgment. Defendant also had a condition called Blount disease, which caused severe bowing of his legs.

Pastor Thomas Nelson testified that he had known defendant since he was four years old, and that defendant had always been an active participant in church and church activities. Defendant was very cordial and polite, would do whatever was asked of him, and did not misbehave. Pastor Nelson counseled defendant when defendant was teased about his facial deformity and his limp. He stated that things were difficult for defendant because he was in the "shadow" of his very successful older brother, S.T.

Pastor James Wetzstein testified that he had known defendant since December 1993, when Pastor Nelson's church closed and defendant's family transferred to his congregation. He often visited defendant in prison after his arrest and testified that defendant was "filled with remorse" for what had happened to the victim. Defendant was also very upset about what his family was going through. Pastor Wetzstein admitted on cross- examination that defendant never admitted having killed the victim; he merely expressed remorse for the part he had played and for what had happened to the victim and her family.

Another mitigation witness, Johnny Robinson, knew defendant from working with him at Bethlehem Steel. He stated that defendant was a good worker who would do whatever was asked of him. Robinson also associated with defendant outside of work, enjoying such activities as fishing and movie-going. He felt defendant was a good person, who was also very polite. He admitted on cross-examination that defendant never talked about his gang involvement with him.

Defendant's mother testified as follows. Defendant was always helpful around the house and worked with her at several of her jobs, cleaning and/or cooking. Defendant was a "follower," in that he would "give in" to his family or friends if they asked him to do something. Defendant never had trouble making friends, because he was very generous with them and would "share whatever he had." Defendant's four-year-old son enjoyed talking to defendant and always asked about him, even though defendant was already in jail when his son was born. The witness did not believe that defendant was a gang member or that he ever had been one.

Defendant's older brother, Pastor S.T. Williams, testified that defendant had problems in school from an early age. He was a slow learner and often missed school because of his medical conditions. Defendant often expressed frustration about his medical conditions to his brother when they were growing up. Pastor Williams testified that both he and defendant were very involved in church activities during their youth. Although defendant did not finish high school, he obtained certifications in both building maintenance and carpentry through Job Corps. After obtaining his certifications, he was steadily employed until the events of this case.

Defendant also introduced evidence that the only disciplinary reports he had received while incarcerated in Cook County jail were those previously described, one for fighting and one for jamming his cell door.

The jury found that there were no mitigating factors sufficient to preclude the imposition of the death penalty. Accordingly, the trial court sentenced defendant to death on the murder charge. This appeal followed.

Additional relevant facts will be discussed in the context of the issues raised on appeal.


Defendant raises several issues on appeal. They may be separated into arguments pertaining to the guilt phase of trial and arguments relating to the propriety of his death sentence.

Guilt Phase of Trial

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Defendant first argues that he received ineffective assistance of counsel during the guilt phase of his trial. His argument is based on counsel's contentions in opening and closing argument that the statement defendant gave to police was truthful and accurate. Defendant argues that this concession was tantamount to a complete abandonment of a defense, because if the statement were true, the jury would have had no choice but to convict defendant of kidnaping, armed robbery and murder.

In making this argument defendant contends that the appropriate standard for assessing counsel's conduct is provided by United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 80 L. Ed. 2d 657, 104 S. Ct. 2039 (1984), and People v. Hattery, 109 Ill. 2d 449 (1985). Unlike the familiar two-part test from Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 80 L. Ed. 2d 674, 104 S. Ct. 2052 (1984), which requires a defendant to establish both a deficiency in counsel's performance and prejudice resulting therefrom, Cronic requires a court to presume that counsel's error, if established, was prejudicial. The presumption is properly invoked when, for example, "counsel entirely fails to subject the prosecution's case to meaningful adversarial testing, [which constitutes] a denial of Sixth Amendment rights that makes the adversary process itself presumptively unreliable." Cronic, 466 U.S. at 659, 80 L. Ed. 2d at 668, 104 S. Ct. at 2047. ...

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