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People v. Ceja

April 17, 2003


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Freeman


Docket No. 89553-Agenda 6-September 2002.

Following a jury trial in the circuit court of Du Page County, defendant, Raul Ceja, was convicted of the first degree murder of Alfredo Garcia and Richard Sanchez (see 720 ILCS 5/9-1(a) (West 1998)) and of the unlawful possession of a stolen or converted motor vehicle (see 625 ILCS 5/4-103(a)(1) (West 1998)). At a separate sentencing hearing, the court, sitting without a jury, found defendant eligible for the death penalty and further determined that there were no mitigating circumstances sufficient to preclude imposition of that sentence.

Accordingly, the court sentenced defendant to death on the murder convictions and to a seven-year prison term on the stolen-vehicle conviction. The 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).

Defendant raises issues pertaining both to the guilt phase of the trial and to the aggravation and mitigation phase of the death sentencing hearing. Subsequent to the filing of defendant's appeal, former Governor George Ryan commuted defendant's death sentence to natural life imprisonment without possibility of parole or mandatory supervised release.

An appellate issue is moot when it is abstract or presents no controversy. People v. Blaylock, 202 Ill. 2d 319, 325 (2002). An issue can become moot if circumstances change during the pendency of an appeal that prevent the reviewing court from being able to render effectual relief. People v. Jackson, 199 Ill. 2d 286, 294 (2002). Commutation removes a judicially imposed sentence and replaces it with a lesser, executively imposed sentence. People ex rel. Johnson v. Murphy, 257 Ill. 564, 566 (1913); see Black's Law Dictionary 274 (7th ed. 1999).

Therefore, the commutation rendered defendant's sentencing issues moot. See, e.g., Lewis v. Commonwealth, 218 Va. 31, 38, 235 S.E.2d 320, 325 (1977); State v. Mitchell, 239 Or. 87, 88, 396 P.2d 572, 573 (1964). *fn1 We exercise our discretion to retain jurisdiction of the nonsentencing issues in this case. See, e.g., McGill v. Illinois Power Co., 18 Ill. 2d 242, 244 (1959). Addressing only the viable, nonsentencing issues, we now affirm defendant's convictions.


Defendant and Rene Soto were separately charged with possession of a stolen motor vehicle and first degree murder. The charges arose, respectively, from the July 24, 1998, theft of a Chevrolet Tahoe, a sports utility vehicle, from an automobile dealership, and the July 26, 1998, fatal shooting of Garcia and Sanchez by the occupants of that stolen vehicle. Soto was tried separately.

The State's theory of the case, as explained in its opening statement, was that defendant, Soto, and a third unknown individual were members of the Maywood Latin Kings street gang. They killed the victims, who were suspected members of the rival Franklin Park Imperial Gangsters street gang, in an act of gang retaliation. Although the evidence did not establish which particular shooter killed which particular victim, defendant was criminally accountable for the murders.

The State's case was essentially as follows. On Friday, July 24, 1998, Elizabeth Camacho was a salesperson at Team Chevrolet at 720 Kingery Highway in Westmont. The dealership building had glass walls. From inside the dealership one could see the inventory parked outside.

As Camacho drove into the dealership's parking lot at approximately 9:30 a.m., she saw two Hispanic males looking at a new, dark-red Chevrolet Tahoe. Camacho believed that the two men were either porters, i.e., dealership employees, or a porter with a customer who was waiting for a salesperson. Camacho entered the building. Camacho then saw other porters outside the building. She walked outside and asked them who the two men were. They responded that the two men did not work at the dealership.

Camacho reentered the dealership building and stepped onto a high podium located in the middle of the sales floor. The podium afforded a general view of the inventory parked outside and, specifically, an unobstructed view of the Chevrolet Tahoe parked in front of the dealership. The podium was approximately 30 to 60 feet away from the Tahoe.

On the podium, Camacho saw the two men enter the Tahoe and drive it away at high speed. The men did not have permission to take the Tahoe from the dealership. Camacho subsequently identified defendant as the man who drove the Tahoe from the dealership.

Melrose Park police officer Patrick Scavone testified that he responded to a report of gunshots at defendant's home on July 24, 1998, at 11:05 p.m. Scavone spoke with defendant's mother, who was upset. Scavone saw a bullet hole in the front of the house. The bullet had pierced the wall and had lodged in a chair. He did not attempt to recover the bullet because he did not want to destroy the chair. There were several persons in the house at the time of the shooting, including a small child, but defendant was not present.

Another State's witness, Refugio Reyna, was a member of defendant's gang. Reyna recounted that in the early morning of July 25, Soto approached him and asked for a Smith & Wesson. After they spoke, Soto walked toward where the guns were kept.

On Sunday, July 26, 1998, at approximately 9:30 p.m., Kevin Oldaker, Stephanie Alfano, and their eight-month-old son were driving in the west-bound lanes on Grand Avenue in Elmhurst. They halted at a red traffic light at the intersection of Grand and Oak Lawn Avenues.

A red Lincoln with two men inside pulled up to the intersection on Oldaker's left side. When the traffic light turned green, a Chevrolet Tahoe sped up in the left-turn lane, to the left of the Lincoln. The maroon Tahoe had three occupants: the driver, a front seat passenger and a back seat passenger. The passengers began shooting at the occupants of the Lincoln. Approximately nine shots were fired.

To avoid crossfire, Oldaker drove about 20 feet forward into the intersection and stopped. The Tahoe made a fast U-turn into the east-bound side of Grand Avenue and stopped alongside the Lincoln. The driver of the Tahoe shot at the Lincoln approximately five times, and then sped east on Grand Avenue. The Lincoln made a U-turn and tried to follow the Tahoe. However, a short distance from the intersection, the Lincoln veered off the street and crashed into a sign.

Oldaker also made a U-turn and followed the Tahoe and the Lincoln. He intended to chase the Tahoe, but stopped to aid the occupants of the crashed Lincoln.

Both Oldaker and Alfano described the driver of the Tahoe and the Tahoe's front passenger as being two Hispanic males wearing hooded sweatshirts, with the driver being heavy-set. Oldaker and Alfano did not see the face of the back seat passenger. Neither Oldaker nor Alfano identified defendant as being in the Tahoe.

That evening, Elmhurst police officer Kenneth Lafin was in his patrol car when he heard a radio dispatch regarding the shooting. The dispatch described a dark-red, Suburban-type vehicle traveling east on Grand Avenue. Lafin proceeded to Interstate 290. As Lafin entered the highway, he observed, several car lengths ahead, a dark-colored Chevrolet Tahoe also entering the highway. Lafin followed the Tahoe. At one point Lafin maneuvered to the right side of the Tahoe. He observed that the Tahoe's right-rear passenger window was either rolled down or broken out. He saw two persons sitting in front and one person sitting in the rear. The only face Lafin observed was that of the driver, whom Lafin described as a heavy-set Hispanic male.

Lafin followed the Tahoe as it exited the highway and proceeded north on Mannheim Road. The Tahoe accelerated. After the Tahoe sped through a restaurant parking lot, Lafin activated his emergency siren and lights. A high-speed chase ensued on narrow residential streets, with Lafin in pursuit one or two car lengths behind the Tahoe.

The Tahoe turned into an alley and stopped. Lafin saw two persons exit the vehicle; one from the driver's side, who ran east, and one from the passenger side, who ran west. Lafin continued driving in an unsuccessful attempt to intercept the person who ran east. Lafin was eventually directed to return to the abandoned Tahoe and secure it for evidence. Its engine was still running and glass was in the rear seat of the vehicle. He remained there until other police officers arrived to process the vehicle.

That evening, Michael Heiberger was hosting a party at his home at 614 Marshall Avenue in Bellwood. Heiberger was sitting with visitors in his backyard, facing the alley. His backyard had a view of his carport and of the alley. Among those with Heiberger was Richard Deveris and his family.

At approximately 9:35 p.m., Heiberger heard an emergency siren and squealing tires. A Chevrolet Tahoe sped down the alley and came to an abrupt halt at his property. Three individuals fled the Tahoe and ran in different directions. The driver, a heavy-set man, ran through the carport and towards the gate of Heiberger's backyard fence. Heiberger, joined by his guests, approached the gate and shouted at the driver, "Don't even think about it." The driver then turned and ran down the alley. Heiberger could not identify defendant as one of the persons who fled from the vehicle.

Police from several nearby communities established a perimeter around the area. At approximately 9:45 p.m., a police dog barked at a large bush near a house at 620 Frederick Street in Bellwood, two blocks from where the Tahoe had been abandoned. Police officers shone their flashlights into the bush and saw defendant crouched therein. With defendant inside the bush was Rene Soto, whom officers described as a heavy-set Hispanic male. Both defendant and Soto were sweating and breathing heavily.

Franklin Park police officer Michael Jones was one of the law enforcement officials at the scene of defendant's arrest. Jones knew that a shooting had occurred. He patted defendant for weapons following his arrest, but found none. Jones took defendant aside, away from Soto, and asked him a series of questions. Jones asked defendant how many guns were involved in the shooting, and defendant responded "one." Jones asked defendant where the gun was; defendant replied that he did not know. Jones asked defendant who had the gun; defendant responded that he did not know. Jones asked defendant to describe the gun; defendant repeated that he did not know. Jones then exhorted defendant to reveal the location of the gun, because a child might find it and get hurt. Defendant responded that the gun was in a backyard.

Defendant was placed in the squad car of Elmhurst police officer James Pokyfke, who immediately read defendant his Miranda warnings. Pokyfke drove defendant to the police station. En route, defendant initiated a conversation with Pokyfke. Defendant stated, "Well, I guess it's going to be a long couple of years." Defendant then asked Pokyfke "if the people were all right." Pokyfke responded that he did not know and that he was there only to transport defendant to the police station. Defendant then asked Pokyfke if he was a traffic officer and Pokyfke answered that he was. Defendant replied, "Well, maybe you will be a detective by the time I get out."

The vehicle identification number of the abandoned Chevrolet Tahoe matched that of the vehicle stolen from the automobile dealership. Police recovered several items from the Tahoe. A plastic surgical glove was found in the glove compartment. An empty box of Speer nine-millimeter bullets and a pair of black gloves were found under the driver's seat. A spent cartridge was found on the rear floor and another in the rear cargo area. The right-rear passenger window was broken; shards of glass were inside and outside the vehicle.

In a yard near the abandoned Tahoe, police found a navy-blue hooded sweatshirt. Police found nearby a Smith & Wesson 9-millimeter handgun wedged in the branches of a bush. The gun had one live round in the chamber and four remaining in the magazine. Next door to the house where defendant and Soto were arrested, police found a grey hooded sweatshirt. Police subsequently recovered a Ruger 9-millimeter handgun from under a bush at a nearby house.

The victims suffered fatal gunshot wounds to the back. According to the testimony of the medical examiner, their wounds were consistent with their leaning forward and twisting to the right, exposing their backs.

Ballistics analysis revealed the following. One of the spent cartridges found inside the Tahoe had been fired from the Ruger and the other spent cartridge found in the Tahoe had been fired from the Smith & Wesson. Also, testing established that the two handguns fired the bullets that were recovered from the Lincoln. The Smith & Wesson fired the single bullet recovered from the body of Garcia and also fired the single bullet recovered from the body of Sanchez.

Fingerprint evidence revealed the following. Soto's left thumbprint was found on the empty box of bullets. Also, Soto's handprints were found at various locations on the exterior of the Tahoe. Defendant's handprints were not found on the exterior or interior of the Tahoe, or on any object inside the vehicle. However, a partial palm print found on the magazine inside the Ruger handgun matched defendant's left palm.

Alfred Luckas, was a forensic scientist employed by the Du Page County sheriff's crime laboratory. He received a sample of tempered glass fragments from the broken window of the stolen Tahoe and a sample of tempered glass fragments recovered from the intersection of Grand and Oak Lawn Avenues. His analysis could not distinguish between the two samples. He determined that there was an "association" between the samples, meaning that they could have originated from the same source. Further, after referring to an Illinois State Police Crime Laboratory database of glass samples, Luckas opined that there was a "good probability of common origin" between the glass from the Tahoe window and the glass found at the intersection of Grand and Oak Lawn Avenues.

Luckas also removed glass fragments from the shoes of defendant and Soto. Based on his analysis, Luckas concluded that the glass taken from those shoes and the glass from the Tahoe window "could have originated from the same source." Referring again to the Illinois State Police Crime Laboratory database, Luckas opined that there was a "good probability of common ...

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