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People v. Sparks

June 15, 2000


Appeal from Circuit Court of Macon County No. 98CF513 Honorable James A. Hendrian, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Cook

A jury acquitted defendant John Sparks of home invasion and found him guilty of unlawful restraint (720 ILCS 5/10-3(a) (West 1998)). In September 1998, the trial court sentenced him to three years in prison. Sparks appeals, contending that the trial court erred in its handling of (1) his impeachment with prior convictions and (2) a jury question. We affirm.

On April 6, 1998, Raphaela Brown was watching television in the living room of her single-level residential home in Decatur, Illinois. Brown's steel front door was open, but her screen door was closed. Sparks appeared at Brown's door and began demanding money because he felt that Brown had cheated him on a drug deal. Brown testified that Sparks opened her door and entered her home, grabbing her and dragging her outside. Both Sparks and Tina Vording (his girlfriend, who claimed to have been watching from across the street) maintain that Sparks did not enter but merely yelled through the screen door and that Brown came out of the house of her own accord.

In any event, a struggle between Sparks and Brown occurred outside. Brown then ran to a neighbor's house and began to bang on his door and yell for help. Her neighbor, John Robinson, testified that Sparks continued to grab and pull at Brown while she was on his porch, preventing her from entering. Robinson eventually let Brown into his house and called police. Sparks left the scene.

A responding police officer noted that Brown had three bleeding cuts on her inner elbow, a cut on her hand, and redness about her neck. Brown says that she injured her hand when grabbing her screen door as Sparks pulled her from her home. Sparks claims that Brown injured herself on the sidewalk pavement while they struggled.


Sparks argues both that the jury was improperly informed of one of his prior criminal convictions and that the manner in which such information was presented was improper. We address both contentions in turn.

After Sparks testified, the following discussions were held outside the presence of the jury:

"MR. CURRENT [(State's Attorney)]: Your Honor, we would offer People's [e]xhibit[] [Nos.] 1 through 3 into evidence as rebuttal. People's exhibit [No.] 1, being an authen- ticated copy of conviction indicating the [d]efendant was convicted of a felony in the [c]circuit [c]court of Macon County on January 13th of 1992 in case [No.] 91-CF-645. People's [e]xhibit[] [Nos.] 2 and 3, being authenticated copies of conviction indicating that in each cause [d]efendant was convicted of a felony offense on March 16th of 1989. We believe that all three of these convictions fit with- in the parameters of [People v. Montgomery, 47 Ill. 2d 510, 268 N.E.2d 695 (1971)]. We are specifically asking the [c]court to address the third prong of [Montgomery] and find that the probative value is not substantially out- weighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.


MR. RAU [(Defense counsel)]: Your Honor, I would object to the admissions to [sic] People's [e]xhibit[] [Nos.] 1, 2, and 3. I would suggest the probative value is out- weighed--or the prejudicial value is outweighed by the probative value [sic] in this cause. I would further suggest that if the [c]court does allow some of the exhibits to be published, that the court limit the publication of one of the three, and further, just say that he has a prior felony conviction.

THE COURT: The [c]court is going to admit People's [exhibit No.] 1, and I am going to deny [Nos.] 2 and 3. I don't think we need more than one conviction for the--to show the prior conviction with regard to credibility.

And I will allow People's [exhibit No.] 1 ***." Sparks first contends that the trial court did not properly determine that his prior convictions were allowable to impeach his credibility. The Supreme Court of Illinois adopted (then-proposed) Federal Rule of Evidence 609 (see 28 U.S.C. app. Fed. R. Evid. 609 (1994)) in Montgomery. For the purpose of attacking a witness' credibility, evidence of a prior conviction is admissible only if (1) the crime was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year or (2) the crime involved dishonesty or false statement regardless of the punishment. Montgomery, 47 Ill. 2d at 516, 519, 268 N.E.2d at 698, 700. In either case, however, the evidence is inadmissible if the judge determines that the probative value of the evidence of the crime is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. Montgomery, 47 Ill. 2d at 516, 519, 268 N.E.2d at 698, 700.

Two decades after handing down the Montgomery decision, the supreme court expressed dissatisfaction with its implementation by the lower courts. In People v. Williams, 161 Ill. 2d 1, 38-39, 641 N.E.2d 296, 311-12 (1994) (Williams I), the court found after review of the case law "a regression toward allowing the State to introduce evidence of virtually all types of felony convictions for the purported reason of impeaching a testifying defendant." But while the court "[could not] countenance *** further erosion" of the rule, it nonetheless found that the trial court's erroneous admission of such evidence in that case had not resulted in prejudice great enough to warrant reversal. Williams I, 161 Ill. 2d at 41, 641 N.E.2d at 313.

Just two years later, ensuing confusion among the lower courts prompted the supreme court to address the issue yet again in People v. Williams, 173 Ill. 2d 48, 670 N.E.2d 638 (1996) (Williams II). The Williams II court emphasized the importance of conducting the balancing test of probative value versus unfair prejudice before admitting prior convictions for impeachment purposes and reiterated its commitment to the overall Montgomery framework, as established. Williams II, 173 Ill. 2d at 81-83, 670 N.E.2d at 654-55.

In evaluating the trial court's methods in the instant case, we are guided by the rationale of Williams II. There, the court found no reason to suppose that the trial court had failed to conduct the proper balancing test. The court noted the trial court's awareness of the issue stemming from the fact that the parties had referred to the balancing test in their arguments. The court therefore declined to find error, although the trial court had not expressly articulated its employment of the test. Williams II, 173 Ill. 2d at 83, 670 N.E.2d at 655.

We reach the same conclusion here. The record indicates that the trial court was abundantly aware of the need to perform the Montgomery balancing; both sides had articulated same. Indeed, the trial court expressly refused to admit two of Sparks' three prior convictions, citing the desirability of admitting only one with ...

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