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People v. McDonald

May 01, 2002


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. Honorable Stanley J. Sacks, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wolfson

Released for publication.

Between December 1993 and May 1995, defendant Harry McDonald lived in a second floor apartment at 5941 West North Avenue in Chicago. He lived alone, in apartment #204. He was in his forties and had long suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

On May 6, 1995, the defendant set fire to a third floor apartment, #303, in his building. Eric West, Hardell Preston, and their three young children, Erica, Eric Jr., and Edonya, lived in that third floor apartment. Vera Holmes lived in another apartment on the third floor.

The defendant was charged with four counts of first degree murder for the deaths of Vera Holmes, Erica West, Edonya West, and Eric West, Jr., and one count of aggravated arson. A jury later found the defendant guilty but mentally ill of the four counts of first degree murder and of the one count of aggravated arson.

Following the jury trial, the trial judge sentenced the defendant to life in prison without the possibility of parole for each of the four first degree murder convictions and to a consecutive term of thirty years in prison for the aggravated arson conviction.

On appeal, the defendant contends (1) the jury's determination he was sane was against the manifest weight of the evidence. He also contends the trial court abused its discretion when it (2) denied his request to give his diaries to the jury during its deliberation; (3) limited his cross-examination of the State's expert, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Albert Stipes; (4) denied his request for second degree murder instructions; (5) denied his request for a non-IPI instruction recognizing the consequence of a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity; and (6) refused to allow him to argue last -- in a rebuttal closing argument -- the issue of his sanity.

We affirm.


The State's evidence at trial showed the defendant set fire to Eric West's apartment on May 6, 1995, because of a growing animosity between him and Eric, and because he suffered from a delusion that demons disguised as people, including Eric and his family, were stalking him, breaking into his apartment, and trying to kill him.

Specifically, nine months earlier, on August 17, 1994, the defendant got into a fight with Eric near the entrance to their apartment building. After that fight, the defendant intended to use a shotgun to kill Eric.

The defendant failed to buy a shotgun, however. His application for a firearm owner's identification card was denied. So the defendant decided to use fire to kill Eric.

On February 15, 1995, the defendant and Eric got into another fight. During that fight, the defendant repeatedly stabbed Eric with a homemade knife -- a broomstick handle with a nail driven into it. He stabbed Eric in his back and head.

Hardell Preston saw the defendant attack Eric and tried to pull Eric away from the defendant. After some time, Eric was able to break away from the defendant and escape through the front door of the building.

Later that night, the police arrested the defendant for attacking Eric. The defendant was charged with battery and the case against him was set for trial. Eric and Hardell were scheduled to testify.

While in custody, the defendant tried to file a complaint against Eric. According to the defendant, the police refused to accept his complaint. As a result, the defendant decided to burn his whole apartment building. This way, he could kill Eric and everyone else in the building. He later decided, however, not to burn down the entire building. He did not think he could acquire enough gasoline to burn it all.

During the days between February 15, 1995, and April 4, 1995, the defendant went to the Chicago Public Library and researched how to use and control gasoline. He wanted to learn how to burn the building. Apparently, he did. After midnight on April 4, 1995, the defendant bought over two gallons of gasoline.

The defendant put the gasoline in a plastic container and took it home. When he returned to his apartment with the gasoline, he kept his window open and a fan running to clear the gasoline fumes. He was afraid the gasoline would catch fire before he had a chance to use it.

Eventually, the defendant had to transfer the gasoline to a larger 2.5-gallon plastic bottle -- the plastic container and the lid on the container softened. He then placed the plastic bottle into a 5-gallon plastic "Open Pit" barbeque sauce bucket. He got the bucket from the garbage of Joe's Barbecue -- a local restaurant located next to his building.

In the days before setting apartment #303 on fire, the defendant made some preparations. Specifically, he withdrew money from his bank account, over $8,000, he packed a bag with some of his personal items, and he grabbed some matches.

At 4:00 a.m., on May 6, 1995, the defendant carried his money, bags, matches, and the bucket of gasoline up the stairs to apartment #303 -- Eric's apartment. The defendant chose that time because he thought that at four in the morning Eric would be asleep in his apartment.

Eric was not in the apartment. Eric had just left. He went to Joe's Barbecue to help clean up and make a little money. Joe's Barbecue closed at 4:00 a.m.

Hardell and her three children were in the apartment, however. Hardell was lying on the couch watching television. Her three children were sleeping. Apartment #303 was a studio, so Hardell and her children were in the same room: Erica, age four, was sleeping on the couch and was closest to the front door of the apartment; Edonya, age three, was sleeping on another couch next to Hardell; and Eric Jr., age two, was sleeping next to his mother, that is, with Hardell.

Just minutes after Eric left for Joe's Barbecue, the defendant banged on the front door to apartment #303. Hardell yelled out, but there was no response. She then went into the bathroom and partially closed the bathroom door.

The defendant broke the apartment door open. He emptied the gasoline from the 2.5-gallon plastic bottle, which he had in the "Open Pit" bucket, into the apartment. He poured the gasoline in such a way that the gasoline spread all over the floor of the apartment.

The defendant then lit one match. The gasoline did not catch fire. He lit a second match. The gasoline still did not catch fire. Finally, he lit a third match, and the gasoline ignited.

When the gasoline ignited, fire swept across the floor of the apartment and leapt to the ceiling. The fire engulfed the whole room. "It was like the sun in the apartment," said Hardell.

As the flames spread through the apartment, the children woke up and started to scream. Erica tried to run out the front door, but the defendant pushed her back into the apartment and closed the front door. Hardell fully opened the bathroom door to see if she could reach her children.

Erica saw her mother and tried to run to her. Because of the intense heat of the fire -- between 1,800 and 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit -- Erica was unable to reach her mother. And Hardell was unable to rescue her. Hardell was unable to rescue any of her children.

Feeling helpless, Hardell jumped out of the bathroom window to the rooftop of a one-story building next to the apartment building. When she landed on the rooftop, she broke her wrist and elbow. From the rooftop, Hardell yelled for someone to help her children. She could hear them screaming from within the apartment.

The children were not saved from the fire. They died in the apartment and were burned beyond recognition.

As the fire spread throughout the building, other residents of the building jumped out of their windows or were rescued by firefighters. Vera Holmes was one of those residents. She also lived on the third floor of the apartment building.

To avoid the fire and smoke that engulfed her apartment, Vera climbed out of her window and straddled the window ledge. Firefighter Darien Thomas and several other firefighters from the Chicago fire department tried to rescue Vera. However, she fell from the ledge and landed on firefighter Thomas. Because of the combination of her fall and carbon monoxide intoxication (she inhaled too much smoke and soot from the fire), Vera died from her injuries.

After setting fire to Eric's apartment, the defendant fled. He gathered his suitcase and the "Open Pit" bucket -- he left the 2.5-gallon plastic bottle in Eric's apartment -- and left ...

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