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People v. Woods

March 19, 2003


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County No. 99 CR 26552 Honorable Francis X. Golniewicz Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Hall


Defendant, Vernon Woods, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the death of seven-month-old Tiywon J. Austin, who died as a result of "shaken baby syndrome" injuries. Prior to trial, a two-day hearing was held on defendant's motion to suppress statements. At the hearings, defendant argued that his constitutional rights were violated when police officers prevented him from seeing a note that an attorney left for him at the police station where he was being held in custody. The motion was denied. On August 15, 2001, following a jury trial, defendant was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. On September 26, 2001, defendant was sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment. Defendant's motion to reconsider sentence was denied and this appeal followed.

On appeal, defendant contends that: (1) the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress statements; (2) the State's rebuttal closing arguments deprived him of a fair trial; and (3) his rights to due process and trial by jury under Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 147 L. Ed. 2d 435, 120 S. Ct. 2348 (2000), were violated when the trial court enhanced the Class 3 felony of involuntary manslaughter to a Class 2 felony, based on a judicial finding that the victim was a family member. For the reasons that follow, we reverse and remand.


Tiywon J. Austin was born on February 9, 1999. Approximately four weeks later, on March 18, 1999, he was severely injured and on September 2, 1999, he died from complications arising from his injuries. Niki Garrett is Tiywon's mother and his father is defendant. Garrett and defendant had terminated their relationship when she became pregnant with Tiywon. Nonetheless, once Tiywon was born, Garrett and defendant had an arrangement whereby defendant would care for Tiywon on the weekends.

The following facts presented at the suppression hearing and trial are relevant to our determination as to whether defendant's statements were voluntary. *fn1 On Friday, November 5, 1999, at approximately 1 p.m., Agents Rovirdes Delaney and Zeniah Ward-Hudson *fn2 brought defendant to the Broadview police station for questioning regarding the circumstances surrounding Tiywon's death. At about 2:49 p.m., defendant was read his Miranda rights, he signed a waiver form and agreed to give a written statement. Delaney handed defendant a pen and pad and asked defendant to make a written statement, in his own words, regarding the events surrounding Tiywon being injured on March 18, 1999.

In his statement, defendant claimed that during the morning on the date of the incident, Tiywon kept crying. Defendant stated that his girlfriend, Alicia May, asked him if Tiywon had a bowel movement. He answered no. May gave Tiywon an enema, which caused him to have a bowel movement. Tiywon went to sleep and May left for work. An hour later, Tiywon was crying again. Defendant wrote that he tried to put Tiywon back to sleep by patting him on the back, by walking him and talking to him. It did not work. Defendant wrote that he then gave Tiywon another enema. Tiywon kept crying. Defendant laid Tiywon down, still crying and hollering, while he finished cleaning the kitchen. Defendant wrote that he went to pick Tiywon up and Tiywon hollered one loud scream and passed out. Defendant and his aunt's boyfriend, Tommy Nutall, called an ambulance and Tiywon was taken to the hospital.

Delaney testified that after he received defendant's written statement, he and Ward-Hudson reviewed the statement with defendant. Delaney told defendant that his statement did not account for the injuries Tiywon sustained. Defendant denied shaking, dropping, or hitting Tiywon. At 6:45 p.m., defendant requested to speak with Delaney. According to Delaney, during this interview, defendant changed his story and stated that he had laid Tiywon down on the living room couch when he went to clean the kitchen and that Tiywon probably hit his head on the coffee table when he fell off the couch.

Delaney terminated the interview and called the assistant state's attorney (ASA). The ASA arrived at the station the next day, early Saturday morning, November 6, 1999, at approximately 2 a.m. Delaney testified that he was not present for defendant's interview with the ASA and Ward-Hudson, because defendant had specifically asked to speak to Ward-Hudson. After the interview, the ASA refused to approve charges. Defendant was interviewed again and the ASA was contacted a second time. Delaney testified that the State's Attorney's office still refused to approve charges.

Delaney testified that at 3:52 a.m., defendant again requested to speak to him. Defendant wanted to add to his earlier statement and wanted to speak to his girlfriend, Alicia May. According to Delaney, defendant stated that he was in the kitchen preparing a baby bottle while holding Tiywon, when Tiywon slipped from his hand and hit the kitchen table, chair and floor. Defendant stated that he called Tiywon's name and shook him because Tiywon looked like he was knocked out after he hit the floor. Delaney testified that when the ASA arrived to take defendant's statement, defendant stated that he wanted to speak with Alicia May, not the ASA. The ASA responded that he was there to take a statement and to call him when defendant was ready to give a statement. The interview was then terminated.

Attorney John F. Nocita testified that on November 5, 1999, he was contacted by defendant's girlfriend, Alicia May. Nocita testified that May wanted him to represent defendant, who was then being held in custody at the Broadview police station. On Saturday afternoon, November 6, 1999, at about 2 p.m., Nocita went to the Broadview police station to speak to defendant.

When Nocita asked the desk officer on duty if he could speak to defendant, the desk officer left her desk to confer with another officer. The desk officer returned and informed Nocita that defendant's case was a State Police case and since the state investigators were not at the station, he could not see defendant. The desk officer told Nocita that the state investigators would return to the station later that night.

Nocita then asked the desk officer for a piece of paper. Nocita testified that he wrote a full-length-of-paper note to defendant telling defendant that he was a lawyer and advising defendant not to talk to anyone without an attorney being present. Nocita testified that the desk officer agreed to give the note to defendant and agreed to give a copy of the note along with his business card to the state investigators.

Nocita estimated that he stayed at the Broadview police station for about 50 minutes. He testified that when he left the police station, he did not return and he was never contacted by defendant or the State Police that weekend. Nocita ...

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