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People v. Kirchner

December 01, 2000


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice McMORROW

Agenda 3-May 2000.

During the early morning hours of August 8, 1997, Charles Brewer, his wife, Doris Jean Brewer, and their daughter Bonnie Brewer were fatally stabbed at their home in rural Douglas County. A jury found defendant, William Bradley Kirchner, guilty of the first degree murders of the three Brewers. The same jury determined that defendant was eligible for the death penalty. After hearing evidence in aggravation and mitigation, the jury found that there were no mitigating factors sufficient to preclude the imposition of the death penalty. The circuit court of Macon County sentenced defendant to death. 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 that follow, we affirm defendant's convictions and sentence.


In August 1997, Charles and Doris Jean Brewer lived in a house outside the small towns of Garrett and Atwood, approximately 28 miles east of Decatur. On August 8, 1997, a postal worker found Charles Brewer's body outside of the Brewers' house.

When the police responded to the postal worker's 911 call, they observed a trail of blood leading from the front yard of the house, across the driveway, and around the side of the house, where Charles Brewer lay. Mr. Brewer had a fatal stab wound to the front of his neck. Police also found a cigarette butt with defendant's DNA on it in the front yard.

There were no signs of forced entry to the Brewer house. Inside the front door, in the living room of the house, was Mrs. Brewer's body. Mrs. Brewer had 16 stab wounds to her face, head, and neck. Under one of these wounds, her skull had been fractured. Like her husband, Mrs. Brewer was in her sixties and had mobility problems.

Bonnie Brewer's body was found in the bathroom of the Brewers' house. Bonnie, who was in her late thirties, had been staying with her parents while recuperating from jaw surgery. She had been stabbed or cut 20 times and had wounds to her face, neck, head, legs, arms, and hands. The tip of a knife was found embedded in her skull. There were black scuff marks on the floor of the bathroom.

Mr. Brewer's wallet was found in the bathroom, and Mrs. Brewer's and Bonnie's purses were in the kitchen. Mr. Brewer had cashed a check for $100 on August 7, but there was no money in the wallet, purses, or anywhere else in the house. Also missing from the house was a beige table top telephone the Brewers kept in the living room. Police learned that three calls had been made from the Brewer house shortly after 3 a.m. on August 8.

There were only a few fingerprints on surfaces in the Brewer house. The State's fingerprint expert testified that none of these fingerprints matched fingerprint samples from the three Brewers, defendant, or his friends Dyno Warner, Randy Merriman, and Chris Brown.

Several witnesses testified that, at the time of the Brewer murders, defendant was looking for money to pay a drug dealer to whom defendant owed money. Defendant had purchased crack cocaine three times from this dealer in Decatur on August 7, 1997. The first two times, defendant paid for the drugs. The third time, however, defendant bought about three grams of crack cocaine and did not pay the dealer. Around 10 p.m., the drug dealer followed defendant and his friend Randy Merriman to a house in Atwood, where defendant had indicated that he could obtain the money he owed. Defendant was driving his girlfriend Vicki Cox's blue 1990 Oldsmobile. The dealer waited outside the house with Merriman for some time, but did not see defendant exit the house and eventually returned to Decatur. Before the dealer left, he told Merriman to tell defendant to "have [his] money or [he would] kick his tail."

Defendant left the house in Atwood without being seen by the drug dealer or Merriman and drove with Jeff Peeler and Chris Brown to their friend Dyno Warner's house in Garrett. Warner testified that they all smoked crack cocaine at his house and that defendant used a knife Warner owned to cut the cocaine. Warner further testified that defendant said he owed some money to someone waiting in Atwood and asked Warner if he knew of anyone who would buy some drugs. Warner replied that he knew a girl who might want to buy drugs. Warner testified that defendant paced back and forth, mentioned his need for money several times, and said he would do whatever was necessary to get money. Warner further testified that defendant asked him if he had any handguns "for money," but Warner refused to give him a handgun.

According to Warner's testimony, defendant then left his house with Peeler and Brown. Defendant returned to Warner's house with Merriman around midnight. Defendant again "said that he needed money and he would do anything it took to get it," and asked Warner if he knew anyone who would buy drugs. Warner said that he knew someone who might be interested in buying drugs. Defendant, Warner, and Merriman drove to the gas station where this person worked, but they did not obtain any money from her.

Warner stated that, after they returned to his house, defendant paced for a while and then exited the house, saying he would be back. Warner and Merriman watched television. Twenty minutes after defendant left, Warner noticed that his knife, the one defendant had used to cut cocaine, was missing from the place where Warner had hidden it under a pillow on the living room couch. Warner hid the knife from defendant after he observed defendant put the knife in his pants.

Warner further testified that, after an hour, defendant returned to Warner's house and asked Warner to go to the back door. Warner estimated that defendant returned at about 1:30 a.m. or 2 a.m., but he was not sure of the time. Outside, the lighting was poor, but Warner saw spots on defendant's shirt. Defendant asked Warner for a garden hose and towel and used water from the hose to rinse his head and face. He vomited, swore, and yelled, "What have I done." Defendant was frantic and asked Warner for a pair of shorts. Warner gave defendant a pair of his shorts and asked defendant if he wanted any shoes, but defendant declined the offer. Defendant removed the blue jeans, T-shirt, and black boots he was wearing and threw them into a fire that was burning in a pit in Warner's backyard. Before burning his jeans, defendant transferred a roll of money from the jeans to the shorts.

Warner then asked defendant for his knife, and defendant gave it to him. According to Warner, there were maroon spots on the sheath, there was blood all over the knife, and there was a white hair on the knife. In addition, the tip was missing from the knife. The tip was not missing when defendant had used the knife to cut cocaine on August 7. Defendant told Warner that he had stabbed a dog. After defendant changed clothes, he and Merriman drove to Decatur.

Warner admitted that, during the evening of August 8, he threw the knife into the Kaskaskia River because he knew it had been used in a crime and did not want "anything to come back" to him. Warner stated at trial that he had been charged with obstruction of justice but that he had been given no promises with respect to this charge in exchange for his testimony.

Merriman's description of defendant's activities was consistent with Warner's. Merriman testified that defendant left Warner's at about 3 a.m. on August 8. After about an hour, Merriman heard a car, and Warner went outside. Twenty to 30 minutes later, Merriman followed Warner outside. He saw Cox's car parked in front of Warner's house. In the back of the house, defendant was rinsing his head with a garden hose. Defendant told Merriman to stay by the car because he had been sick. Later, Merriman saw defendant and Warner talking next to a fire in the backyard. Defendant was wearing shorts and a T-shirt instead of the jeans, T-shirt, and work boots he had worn before leaving Warner's house.

Merriman further testified that, after defendant changed his clothes, he and defendant drove to Decatur in Cox's car. Merriman fell asleep in the car but awakened to see defendant throwing a beige table top telephone into Lake Decatur. When Merriman and defendant arrived in Decatur, defendant bought alcohol and cocaine, which he and defendant smoked.

Merriman also described events that occurred near the time of defendant's arrest on August 15. Merriman testified that on August 14, he and defendant learned that Warner had been arrested. According to Merriman, defendant stated that he would have to "do" Warner because defendant did not know if Warner would "talk." Merriman admitted that he did not tell police of defendant's statement that he would have to "do" Warner until the week before trial.

William Hayes testified that, around 6 a.m. on August 8, he saw defendant and Merriman at a friend's house in Decatur. Defendant asked Hayes where to buy some crack cocaine, and Hayes observed defendant buy drugs and alcohol. Defendant smoked crack cocaine at Hayes' apartment and stole Hayes' sandals.

Cox testified that she lived with defendant in August 1997. During the evening of August 7, defendant took her car. According to Cox, defendant did not return home the night of August 7 or the next morning. Merriman returned her car at about 7 a.m. in the morning of August 8, but Cox did not see defendant until the afternoon of August 8. Defendant told her that he had stayed at the house of some friends. When Cox saw defendant on August 7, defendant was wearing steel-toed black boots and jeans. On August 8, he was wearing a pair of denim shorts and sandals.

Cox testified that, on August 14, defendant gave her a notebook containing the following note:

"Vicki, baby, listen. You know I love you with all my heart. Some shit has happened concerning what I told you about. If a cop comes past, we have been fighting, and I left for a few days. I will have someone call tomorrow and tell you where to come. Take Saturday off work. We are camping. This will all be over in a few days. Please do as the letter says, okay, baby? I'll explain. Don't tell lawyer dick nothing. Bring the dog. Bring clothes, coats, my [C]at boots, and all the money. Bring hamburger and pork and beans. I love you. Brad. Bring this notepad with this letter."

Cox gave the notebook to police, who found defendant's prints on it.

Jeff Peeler testified that he smoked crack cocaine with defendant at Warner's house on August 7. According to Peeler, when Warner said that he knew someone who might be interested in buying drugs, defendant said, "Well if she don't want to buy none, we'll just rob her and kill her." Peeler also testified that, on August 9, defendant asked Peeler for money because, he said, he owed money for drugs. Defendant also asked Peeler if he had any knives for defendant to "go rob somebody." Peeler said that he had no knives.

With respect to the circumstances of defendant's arrest, Peeler testified that, during the evening of August 14, he and his wife drove defendant and Merriman from Atwood to Decatur to buy drugs. At defendant's request, defendant and Merriman rode in the trunk of the Peelers' car until they had traveled outside of Atwood. On their return from Decatur, the Peelers stopped outside of Atwood to comply with defendant's request that defendant and Merriman re-enter the trunk for the trip through Atwood.

The next morning, defendant and Merriman accompanied the Peelers and their children to Tuscola. The Peelers notified police that defendant was in their car, and police stopped the car. Defendant was hiding in the back seat of the car with a knife, but police arrested defendant apparently without incident.

Police interviewed defendant after his arrest. In a tape-recorded statement, defendant admitted that he had been in Atwood between 4:30 and 8 p.m. on August 7 but denied that he was in Garrett on August 7 or 8. Defendant stated that he had put Cox's daughter to bed around 8:30 or 9 p.m. on August 7 and that he had spent the entire night with Cox.

On August 14, 1997, Warner showed police where he had dropped his knife into the Kaskaskia River. Police recovered the knife a few feet from this location on August 15. According to the State's experts at trial, the metal fragment embedded in Bonnie Brewer's skull matched the knife from the river, and there was human blood on the knife. In addition, the physician who performed the autopsies of the Brewers testified that all of their wounds could have been made with this knife.

On August 20, 1997, Merriman showed police where defendant had thrown the telephone into Lake Decatur. Police recovered the telephone near that location the next day. One of the Brewers' daughters testified that this telephone looked like the one her parents kept in their living room.

Police searched the house defendant shared with Cox. In the basement was the pair of Warner's shorts that defendant had borrowed, as well as the sandals he had stolen from Hayes. When police searched Warner's house, they found a garden hose and a fire pit in the backyard. In the remains of the fire pit, there was a towel and two steel toe pieces. The State presented evidence that the size of the steel toe pieces was consistent with defendant's shoe size. In addition, defendant's supervisor at the Macon County Landfill, where defendant worked from December 1996 to May 1997, testified that defendant wore black "engineer" boots with a black sole.

Police also searched Warner's car and Cox's car. They found no evidence in Warner's car. In Cox's car, however, they found spots of blood on the dashboard. DNA analysis revealed that some of the blood on the dashboard belonged to defendant. Other blood on the dashboard was a mixture that included Bonnie Brewer's blood. In addition, in the glove compartment, there was the front page of the Decatur Herald and Review from August 9, 1997. The front page contained a story about the Brewer murders, and a star was written under the headline. Defendant's fingerprint was found on this newspaper.

The defense presented only two witnesses at trial. A police officer testified that Warner had said that he, not defendant, had thrown the clothes into the fire pit. A forensic scientist from an Illinois State Police laboratory testified that, among the hairs found on Bonnie Brewer's shirt, there was one hair that did not match the hair samples from defendant, Warner, Bonnie Brewer, Charles Brewer, or Doris Jean Brewer. Also, among the hairs found on the towel from the fire pit, there was one hair that did not match the hair samples from defendant, Warner, Bonnie Brewer, Charles Brewer, or Doris Jean Brewer. The forensic scientist testified that he was not given a hair sample from Merriman.

Following the presentation of this evidence, the jury found defendant guilty of the first degree murders of Charles Brewer, Doris Jean Brewer, and Bonnie Brewer. After a hearing, the same jury found defendant eligible for the death penalty under sections 9-1(b)(3), (b)(6), and (b)(11) of the Criminal Code of 1961 (720 ILCS 5/9-1(b)(3), (b)(6), (b)(11) (West 1996)).

At the aggravation-mitigation stage of sentencing, the State presented victim impact statements from the Brewers' relatives and certified copies of defendant's previous convictions. In 1989, he was convicted of the unlawful use of weapons. In 1992, he was convicted of disorderly conduct, burglary, intimidation, and battery. In 1993, he was convicted of residential burglary and theft.

A deputy sheriff testified that defendant's disorderly conduct convictions stemmed from bomb threats he had made to a local elementary school and a local high school. Defendant's burglary convictions resulted from his burglary of the same local high school and a service station. The deputy sheriff further testified that defendant was convicted of intimidation and battery based on his former girlfriend's complaint that he had beaten her, held her against her will, and said that if she pressed charges against him, he would not kill her but would hit her and watch her bleed.

According to the deputy sheriff, defendant's residential burglary and theft convictions were based on his entry into the Lust family residence, which was in Piatt County eight miles from the Brewer house. Like the Brewer house, it was outside of town and surrounded by farm fields. In addition, a cigarette butt was found outside the house, there were no signs of forced entry, and no fingerprints were found inside the house. When police interviewed defendant in the course of investigating this crime, defendant admitted that he had parked his car in the driveway of the house, his co-defendant knocked on the front door, and, when there was no answer, defendant entered through an unlocked door. Defendant explained that no fingerprints were found in the Lust residence because he and his co-defendant had worn gloves. Defendant took money and three handguns from the residence. His co-defendant kept one of the guns, and defendant said that he threw two of the guns into the Kaskaskia River. Police recovered no guns from the river but, in 1996, one of the guns defendant said he had thrown in the Kaskaskia River was recovered by police in Chicago.

The State also presented evidence concerning defendant's behavior in jail while awaiting trial in this case. According to this evidence, in February 1998, defendant threatened to "blacken" the eyes of a jail inspector.

In mitigation, one of defendant's cousins testified that defendant was small and shy in school, and other children would tease him. He was tested for a learning disability. He was involved in BMX bicycle racing, had played Little League baseball until he was knocked unconscious by a baseball, and had played football in high school. The death of defendant's infant brother when defendant was eight or nine years old was very hard on defendant. Defendant was very close to his cousin's 12-year-old daughter and supported his cousin during her divorce. He was very artistic and drew pictures for the children of friends and relatives. In addition, defendant had a Christian background and changed his nickname from Patches to Pages after "receiv[ing] God." Another of defendant's cousins also testified that her daughter was close to defendant and that defendant had learning difficulties. A relative of Vicki Cox testified that defendant was good with Cox's daughter and that the child called defendant "Dad."

One of defendant's high school teachers testified that defendant was below-average academically, but he had made a unique cake decorated like a Jeep in the home economics class she taught. Defendant's probation officer testified that he had had no problems with defendant, and defendant had successfully completed probation for his unlawful use of weapons conviction. The probation officer also testified that defendant's father and grandfather were members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and defendant had helped with fundraisers for this organization. Defendant's supervisor at the Macon County Landfill testified that defendant was a good worker, whom the supervisor recommended be hired full-time. Defendant did not return to work, however, after May 1997. His girlfriend said that defendant had hurt his hand, and the supervisor had heard that defendant had been in a knife fight.

In addition, several individuals who had contact with defendant in prison during the early nineties testified on his behalf. A correctional officer testified that he supervised defendant on a work crew. According to this officer, defendant was a good worker, related well to the other inmates and did not cause problems. The officer had given defendant a good recommendation so that defendant could transfer to a different Illinois Department of Corrections facility. A counselor testified that defendant performed charity work while in prison in conjunction with a veterans group. The counselor described him as "one of the very easy people to deal with," who related well to the other inmates.

Other individuals testified concerning defendant's behavior in prison while awaiting trial for the Brewer murders. The pastor of a church defendant had attended with his parents testified that he visited defendant in prison six times after 1997, and defendant was receptive to his visits. According to this pastor, defendant continued to be distraught over the death of his little brother. A prison chaplain testified that defendant participated in Bible study through correspondence. Correctional officers testified that they had no problems with defendant and that defendant had given other inmates soap, shampoo, and cigarettes.

Dr. Jonathan Hess, a neuropsychologist, testified that defendant had suffered one or more traumatic brain injuries. Dr. Hess' evaluation of defendant indicated that defendant had damage to the frontal lobes of his brain and that this damage was more to the left than the right side of the brain For example, defendant had a very modest verbal IQ, was poor in solving sequential thinking problems, and had attention and retention problems. According to Dr. Hess, the damage to defendant's brain could have been caused by being hit in the head with a ball, by falling off of a bike, or by playing football.

Dr. Hess explained that among the effects of defendant's brain damage were an inability to control anger, irritability, a volatile disposition, a quick temper, a susceptibility to rage upon provocation, a failure to estimate the consequences of actions, and impulsivity. Dr. Hess further testified that these problems could be treated with medication.

After hearing this evidence, the jury found no mitigating factors sufficient to preclude the imposition of the death penalty. The circuit court sentenced defendant to death.


I. Voir Dire

A. Juror Rentfro

Defendant first argues that resentencing is required because the circuit court erred in excluding prospective juror James Rentfro for cause. During voir dire, Rentfro responded to the circuit court's questions as follows:

"THE COURT: Do you have any religious or moral beliefs that would prevent you from serving in this type of criminal case?

JUROR RENTFRO: I don't believe in the death penalty, let's put it that way.

THE COURT: In other words, are you basically saying under no circumstances could you impose the death penalty?


THE COURT: Then I will excuse you for cause. You may step down."

Subsequently, defense counsel requested a side bar, after which defense counsel was permitted to question the prospective juror. The following colloquy occurred:

"[Defense counsel]: Mr. Rentfro, I am just going to ask you some questions in regard to the last answer you gave.


[Defense counsel]: Do you understand that we are a society of laws?


[Defense counsel]: And do you also understand the duty of citizens to follow the law even if they don't agree with it?


[Defense counsel]: If you are selected as a juror in this case, Mr. Rentfro, the Judge will instruct you and your fellow jurors as to the law in this case and that you must set aside your personal opinions and follow the law. You would be able to listen to the Judge and follow the law as he told you that the law applies to the case?

[State]: I object to leading.

THE COURT: Sustained as to the form of the question.

[Defense counsel]: Would you be able to follow the law as the Judge instructs you and your fellow jurors?


[Defense counsel]: So then, in spite of your personal feelings regarding the death penalty, would you be able to fill your duty as a citizen to fairly, without prejudice, weigh the evidence in this case and follow the law in the trial, and if there is a sentencing, in the sentencing also?

JUROR RENTFRO: Yes. To follow the ...

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