Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County. No. 96-CF-1958; 96-CF-1959 Honorable Edward C. Ferguson, Judge, presiding
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kuehn
Lenn and Glenn are twin brothers. Their car-hijacking escapades spelled double trouble for drivers in and around Alton, Illinois. They have a cousin named Heather Weeden. She provided the bait for their unwary hijacking targets. She would lure drivers with romantic promise, board their vehicles, and direct them to a designated rendevous with the brothers Reed. Drivers eager to sample the wares that Heather strutted were always gravely disappointed when the encounter they expected materialized into a look down the barrel of a pistol. In the case of a young man named Michael Ufert, the encounter proved grave indeed. His car was not the only thing that was taken from him.
Lenn, Glenn, and Heather were friends with a young man named Andre Cunningham. As youths growing up in Alton, Illinois, they participated in youth programs, performing various song-and-dance routines in competition with other youngsters. Unfortunately, as they grew into their teens, they engaged in less wholesome activities. On September 1, 1994, at the age of 17, the four teamed up, intent on hijacking a 1993 Ford Mustang driven by Michael Ufert. They took his car after they took his life.
The discovery of Ufert's body in a remote area, followed by the discovery of his wrecked car miles away, made the Reeds early suspects in the investigation. However, there was no evidence to link them to the crime. Suspicion lingered for several years due to their known penchant for vehicular hijacks. Then in 1996, an anonymous tip pointed investigators the way to Heather Weeden. Heather confessed, implicated the others, and assisted in the investigation. Self-schooled in the art of deception, she wore a wire and engaged Lenn in a 90-minute conversation designed to prompt unwitting admissions from her trusting cousin. The police videotaped the conversation, but the tape's sound proved largely inaudible. The only discernible comment of value was a declaration by Lenn: "The police don't have anything."
Heather no doubt tasted the same feeling of dashed expectations experienced by her hijack victims. The State did not treat her assistance with the kind of favor that she had anticipated. She had to be gravely disappointed when the treatment that she expected for her assistance materialized into a devout pursuit of first-degree murder and aggravated vehicular-hijacking charges. Although the record is unclear as to whether she went to trial or pled guilty, we do know that she currently serves a 40-year prison term for her role in the murder and a 30-year prison term for her participation in the hijacking.
Heather did not appear at the trial of these two defendants. She did not testify. Nor was information that she had provided earlier a part of these proceedings. However, her confession proved to be invaluable, for it provided the tool by which the prosecution procured the testimony of Andre Cunningham. His testimony was the centerpiece of the State's case. There was no version of events to present to the jury without his claim of what happened. The jury could not harbor a doubt about his veracity and still convict these two defendants.
This is what Andre told the jury about the evening of September 1, 1994.
Heather wanted money. She spotted a nice target in Michael Ufert and his red 1993 Mustang GT. She pointed him out to the Reed twins, and their standard car-hijacking game was afoot. Andre admitted that he was a willing participant in the hijacking scheme.
Andre and the Reed brothers watched from afar as Heather solicited Ufert and boarded his car. As Heather and Ufert drove off, Heather's trio of cohorts followed. Lenn and Glenn became concerned when Ufert's car did not travel a path to where Heather had steered their other victims. The planned encounter usually occurred at Rock Springs Park in Alton, but Ufert's Mustang traversed the countryside, far beyond the Alton city limits. At times, it became difficult to maintain the car in their sight.
Andre remembered that rap music accented the ride, Lenn having dialed in the "108 Magic" radio station.
The Mustang finally came to a stop on an isolated country road adjacent to a field. Lenn pulled up a short distance behind, and he, Glenn, and Andre went to claim the object of their enterprise. Ufert exited his car, mindful of his predicament. When he did, Lenn stepped up and struck him in the face with a pistol. The gun discharged. A frightened Ufert tried to escape, bolting into the darkness of the nearby field. Andre explained how he and Glenn chased after Ufert and arrested his flight. As they held Ufert captive, Lenn and Heather approached them. Ufert was on his knees as Lenn drew near, gun in hand. Ufert pleaded with Lenn to spare his life, telling him and his other captors that he had a son to raise. In the midst of Ufert's supplicant pleas, Lenn shot him in the face and passed the gun to his twin brother with instruction to shoot again. Glenn readily complied, firing a shot directly into Ufert's chest. It proved to be the fatal wound. Glenn handed the gun to Andre. Andre claimed that he resisted firing another shot. However, Lenn, who decided that they were all going to shoot Ufert to seal their complicity and to assure future loyalty to one another, told Andre that his choice was to shoot Ufert or to share in his fate. Andre fired a third bullet into Ufert's body and walked back to the car. He heard the report of another shot as he left.
Andre rode back to Alton as a back-seat passenger in Ufert's car. He was dropped off with advice from the Reed brothers. He was told that silence was the key to avoid sanction for what they had done.
The jury heard the foregoing facts from Andre Cunningham. Several facts that developed during the course of the investigation fit his description of what happened. They corroborated his presence when Michael Ufert met his death.
Authorities found Ufert's car the day after the killing, wrecked and abandoned. The radio was tuned to "Magic 108." Ufert's wife testified that he never listened to that radio station.
The circumstances under which the State procured the testimony of Andre Cunningham were a significant part of the trial. It took more than two years to break the case. Someone contacted the police and informed them that Heather Weeden had detailed knowledge about a murder. The details fit the circumstances of the Ufert homicide. Heather was confronted and confessed the details of the car-hijacking operation and the Ufert murder. The State intended to use Heather as a witness against these defendants. Apparently, she and the State could not agree on the terms under which she would provide that help. Heather must have balked at the concessions that the State was willing to make in order to have her testimony.
The State contacted an attorney who represented Andre Cunningham. At the time, Andre was incarcerated in the Madison County jail. He had already pled guilty to shooting someone in the back. He was awaiting trial on another aggravated-battery-with-a-firearm charge. The pending charge alleged that he shot someone else in the stomach. Andre had a demonstrated penchant for gunplay.
Initially, Andre resisted the State's overtures, thinking that the State could not prove his involvement in the Ufert murder. After his attorney provided him with a copy of Heather's statement, Andre decided to reconsider his position. He decided to testify against his bygone friends. It was a decision made easy by the carrot that the State dangled. It promised to forego any prosecution for murder, accept his plea to vehicular hijacking, and recommend a prison term no greater than 20 years.
The jury was thoroughly apprized of the fact that Andre's testimony was procured by way of these concessions. Thus, the jury had the benefit of weighing his testimony's worth against the terms of its purchase. The jury knew that Andre's testimony allowed him to get away with murder. However, the terms of his arrangement with the State still presented the possibility of 20 years of imprisonment. There was a strong implication, argued by the prosecutor, that even though he signed on as the State's key witness, Andre would spend the better part of the next 20 years in prison.
The actual plea bargaining and sentencing were postponed until after Andre testified against his cohorts. Andre testified on June 10, 1998. On June 17, 1998, he pled guilty to armed robbery rather than vehicular hijacking. On November 16, 1998, an order was entered sentencing him to time served on that armed robbery. The sentencing judge ordered his immediate release at that time, and the punishment for his role in Michael Ufert's death was complete.
Andre received other favorable treatment from the State. He claimed that it was unrelated to his agreed-upon testimony, an assertion that his attorney and the State seconded. However, the defense suggested that the State's sponsorship of favorable treatment on the two pending charges of aggravated battery with a firearm was an added benefit in return for testimony, ...