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People v. Feldmann

June 26, 2000

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS,
PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
V.
JODI FELDMANN,
DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Montgomery County. No. 97-CF-11 Honorable Michael P. Kiley, Judge, presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kuehn

There is an old adage that cautions restraint in what we seek. Its message draws upon the irony that can sometimes mock a successful pursuit. This is a case in point. The defendant asked the trial judge to allow for jury deliberation on the question of guilt for the offense of involuntary manslaughter. The trial judge honored that request. The jury deliberated and resolved the question against the defendant. It found her guilty.

The defendant now challenges a guilty verdict of her own making. She asks us to undo the verdict because it makes no sense. With a rather remarkable turn in position, the defendant argues that justice would have been better served had the jury attributed guilt for the offense of first-degree murder. The facts of this case could at least support such a verdict. They do not support attribution of guilt for involuntary manslaughter.

Thus, the defendant maintains that she has been held to account for involuntary manslaughter-a crime that she could not possibly have committed. We are asked to correct this iniquity by reversing her conviction.

On July 30, 1996, the defendant gave birth to a daughter, posthumously named Judy Feldmann Frerichs. Judy's stay on this earth was short-lived. Her life's journey consisted of a few breaths of fresh air followed by a headlong plunge into the uninviting waters of a toilet bowl. The varied pleasures that life had in store for Judy were forever lost when a mother's hand flushed them away. Judy's lungs filled with toilet water and she drowned. A first-degree-murder prosecution ensued. There was no dispute over the fact that Judy was born alive and well. The only uncertainty was whether Judy's lungs drew air for several minutes or only a matter of seconds before toilet water invaded them. The answer to life's duration depended upon where Judy's delivery occurred. The State and the defense presented two divergent views on where her birth took place.

The prosecution's theory commended a finding of first-degree murder. According to the State, Judy was born in the bedroom of the defendant's apartment. After Judy's birth, the defendant carried Judy into the bathroom and deliberately deposited her into the toilet bowl. The defense theory called for acquittal. According to the defense, the defendant was as innocent as the daughter she never knew. Unaware of her pregnant condition, the defendant went to the bathroom in order to answer what she thought was a normal urge for its use. The defendant delivered Judy into the toilet bowl without knowing it. Judy's presence went undiscovered. Mother and child alike were victims of a tragic accident.

After a two-week trial, a Montgomery County jury deliberated to a verdict. It returned a verdict of guilt, but not for the offense of murder. The jury found the defendant guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The trial judge imposed a four-year prison sentence upon that finding of guilt.

This appeal seeks an outright reversal of the conviction, based upon the total absence of evidence from which to conclude that the defendant performed any act with a reckless state of mind. Under the State's theory of the case, the jury should have concluded that the defendant deliberately placed her newborn baby into the toilet bowl, an act that could not be done without knowledge of impending death or great bodily harm. Under the defense theory of the case, the jury should have concluded that the defendant was oblivious to the situation and, hence, lacked a state of mind necessary to offend the law. Instead, the jury concluded that the defendant's criminal recklessness caused Judy's death.

The defendant allows for one other possibility. The jury may have found it hard to believe that she could deliver a full-term baby without knowing it. The jury may have concluded that she was indeed ignorant of her pregnant condition, commenced an unwitting delivery while on the toilet, but became aware of her circumstance during the delivery process. If so, the jury would have had to conclude that the defendant took no action on Judy's behalf and allowed her to fend for herself in the toilet bowl. The defendant argues that this alternative to the contrasting theories offered at trial warranted a finding of murder, rather than involuntary manslaughter. If the jury believed that the defendant became aware of Judy's existence and, thereafter, delivered her into the toilet bowl and left her there, it had to conclude that knowledge of impending death or great bodily harm accompanied the defendant's omission.

In essence, the defendant's position is this. Although the State's evidence harbored the potential for a first-degree-murder conviction on either of two bases, the jury did not find the defendant guilty of murder. The jury rejected the State's theory of death's circumstance. The only other theory presented was one of innocence. To the extent that this theory could have been rejected as well and the jury could have believed that the defendant discovered Judy during the delivery process, the jury could not conclude that the defendant acted recklessly. If the defendant was aware of Judy's impending arrival, she had to be aware of the inevitable outcome that a failure to act would produce. Hence, the jury verdict bears no connection to the evidence presented at trial. The jury engaged in a pure compromise in order to reach its verdict.

Based upon the total absence of an evidentiary foundation to support the guilty verdict, the defendant concludes that her conviction must be reversed. She maintains that the State cannot punish her for a crime not committed, a crime that the State did not, and cannot, prove.

We are not asked to address what we believe to be the controlling issue in this case. The State did not seek deliberation on the crime of involuntary manslaughter. The trial judge did not allow for it by the exercise of his independent authority to instruct on a lesser-included offense. See People v. Garcia, 188 Ill. 2d 265, 276-77, 721 N.E.2d 574, 583 (1999). There is only one reason that the jury pronounced guilt for involuntary manslaughter, only one reason that the defendant stands convicted of that offense. The defendant pursued, and successfully secured, a ruling that empowered the jury to find that the defendant committed involuntary manslaughter.

The State joins the question raised and invites us to examine the evidence presented in order to determine whether a rational jury could conclude that the defendant committed the crime of involuntary manslaughter. Although the outcome of this case does not depend upon whether the evidence adduced at trial was legally sufficient to support an involuntary manslaughter conviction, the arguments presented are instructive. We think it worthwhile to examine them.

The State's theory of the defendant's guilt is chilling. It speaks of a patient plan executed by a powerfully motivated killer. It speaks of a cold-blooded murder. At trial, the State tried its best to convey that message. It pursued the following theory about what happened. This is the State's view of how Judy died and what motivated her unnatural death.

The defendant disdained motherhood. She was single, was 19 years old, and had no room in her life for a child. This was her second pregnancy at a young age. She deliberately terminated her first pregnancy after 7½ months of gestation. Shortly after an abortion freed her from motherhood, she discovered that she was pregnant again. This time an abortion would not do. This time the defendant decided to employ another device to avoid motherhood.

The defendant devised a plan for Judy's death. No one would ever know that she was pregnant or that she gave birth. She would conceal the pregnancy. To this end, she purchased girdles and other restrictive undergarments. They maintained her shape and prevented a pregnant look. In the event that anyone might detect uncommon weight gain, she deflected suspicion by pretending to be on her period and asking friends, on more than one occasion, to borrow tampons. She scrupulously avoided physicians and engaged in no prenatal care. As Judy slowly grew to a full-term baby, the defendant kept Judy's presence a complete secret. She concealed the pregnancy for its entire term. All the while, she anxiously awaited the day when Judy would arrive.

On July 30, 1996, the defendant went into labor. The plan prohibited medical help. As the time between labor contractions shortened, the defendant retired to her bedroom where the final stage of her murder plot was to play out. There she labored to rid her body of Judy. It was not easy. Judy's passage tore open the flesh surrounding defendant's vagina, opening a three-inch gash on the right side and a two-inch gash on the left.

Judy made her place of birth known. She marked it with blood and meconium, a sterile, tarry substance routinely extruded from a newborn's intestines immediately after birth.

After the defendant delivered Judy, she rose from her bed, gathered up Judy and the placenta, and wrapped them into a pillowcase. The defendant carried Judy and her earlier lifeline into the bathroom and deposited them into the toilet bowl for disposal. When she flushed the bowl, she accomplished her long-awaited goal. She escaped motherhood again. This time, the method that she employed constituted murder.

The defendant made two miscalculations that prevented the murder from going undetected. When the placenta and Judy slid out of the pillowcase and into the toilet bowl, the defendant realized that Judy was not going to accommodate her plan for the disposal of the body. Judy was much larger than the defendant had anticipated. This was not a baby terminated after 7½ months of gestation. This baby had grown to full term. Judy was not going to disappear into the sewer system. The defendant also underestimated the physical toll that an unassisted full-term delivery would take on her body. The delivery process involved exertion and physical damage that far exceeded what the defendant experienced during her abortion. The defendant quickly, and correctly, sensed an urgent need for medical attention. She had lost vast amounts of blood. She had to seek medical help before she could properly attend to the remnants ...


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