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People v. Pelt

October 17, 2003


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Fitzgerald


Docket No. 92966-Agenda 2-January 2003.

Following a jury trial in the circuit court of Will County, defendant, Rayshun Pelt, Sr., was found guilty of aggravated battery of a child, his infant son, Rayshun Pelt, Jr., and first degree felony murder predicated on aggravated battery of a child. Defendant was found not guilty of first degree knowing murder and involuntary manslaughter. After merging defendant's conviction for aggravated battery of a child with his felony-murder conviction, the court sentenced defendant to 46 years' imprisonment. A divided appellate court reversed defendant's convictions. For the reasons discussed below, we reverse in part, affirm in part, and remand this cause for further proceedings.


On February 13, 1997, at approximately 4:30 p.m., police officer Donald Draksler responded to a radio announcement concerning an infant who was not breathing at a residence in the Village of Bolingbrook. Once inside the residence, Draksler went to an upstairs bedroom and observed defendant sitting on the edge of a bed, holding his 95-day-old son, Rayshun Pelt, Jr., in his lap. Defendant was rocking the infant back and forth and saying, "Wake up, baby, wake up." Draksler noticed that the infant had a yellowish cast and was not moving or breathing. He also could not detect a pulse. Draksler began cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the infant, and the infant regurgitated what appeared to be formula. He flipped the infant over and noticed stiffening in the back and the legs, clenching of the fists, and that the infant's temperature was below normal. In the ambulance, he noticed a bruise on the right side of the head and a purplish discoloration along the rib cage. A paramedic in the ambulance concluded that the infant was deceased. This paramedic and another police officer also noted a bruise on the infant's cheek. The infant was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

A forensic pathologist, Dr. Shaku Teas, conducted an autopsy of the infant on February 14, 1997. She observed that the infant had external injuries on his face and head, including a "large boggy area" on the back of the head, bruising on the left temple, two bruises "right behind the eye and in the temple area," two bruises on the left cheek, a large bruise on the right cheek, as well as a scrape mark on the lower lip. In addition, she noted fractures to the infant's skull sustained at the time of death. The autopsy further revealed healing fractures on the ribs, and "obvious hemorrhage underneath the scalp." The rib injuries were anywhere from 10 days to one month old. Dr. Teas stated that these injuries would make the infant "crabby and crying, but doesn't have to necessarily warrant a visit to the physician or emergency room." She also noted wrist and ankle fractures that likely occurred days before the death of the infant. In Dr. Teas' opinion, the cause of death of the infant was "cerebral injuries due to multiple blunt force trauma." She classified all of the injuries as "non-accidental."

Detective Raymond Browne interviewed the defendant on Friday, February 14, 1997. Defendant initially stated that he was unaware of any problems with the infant the previous day until Kimberly Papa, the infant's mother, came home from work and later went in the bedroom to check on the infant. Defendant heard Papa yelling his name, and she told him that the baby was not breathing. Defendant's story evolved, however, as Detective Browne confronted him with the existence of injuries to the infant which were not consistent with his story. Defendant eventually stated that the baby had not stopped crying since it arrived home from the hospital in February. Defendant made a written statement in which he stated, "I was holding him and he wouldn't stop crying. I got upset and tried to throw him onto his bed, but I missed and he hit the dresser." In a tape recorded statement, defendant said that the infant "kept on crying," and that he tried to throw the infant on the bed, but "I guess I threw him too far, cause [sic] he hit the dresser." Defendant picked him up, put him on his stomach, placed a blanket on him, and left the room. Defendant reiterated the veracity of an earlier statement that when he came back, he hurt his leg and grabbed it, causing him to fall on the infant. He denied that the infant hit a knob on the dresser.

Kimberly Papa, the infant's mother, stated that she could have caused the injuries to the infant's ankle, wrist, and rib in incidents occurring "weeks" before the death, including one incident where she tried to force a sleeper on the baby.

Defendant was indicted on three counts of first degree murder and one count of aggravated battery of a child. Prior to trial, the State nol-prossed count I, that defendant committed murder with the intent to do great bodily harm. 720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(1) (West 1996). The jury found defendant not guilty of first degree murder based upon the charge that he, without lawful justification, caused the death of his son, knowing that his acts created a strong probability of death or great bodily harm (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(2) (West 1996)). The jury also found defendant not guilty of involuntary manslaughter (720 ILCS 5/9-3(a) (West 1996)). The jury found defendant guilty of aggravated battery of a child, in that defendant knowingly caused great bodily harm to his son, a child under the age of 13 years (720 ILCS 5/12-4.3 (West 1996)) and first degree felony murder, in that defendant caused the death of his son while committing the forcible felony of aggravated battery of a child (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(3) (West 1996)). At sentencing, the trial court merged the aggravated battery of a child conviction with the first degree felony murder conviction. The trial judge sentenced him to 46 years in prison.

On appeal, the appellate court held that the finding of not guilty for knowing murder was legally inconsistent with the finding that defendant was guilty of aggravated battery of a child. No. 3-00-0255 (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). The appellate court reversed defendant's conviction for aggravated battery of a child pursuant to People v. Klingenberg, 172 Ill. 2d 270 (1996). The court further held that "[w]ithout a valid conviction on the aggravated battery charge, the conviction for felony-murder which that crime supports must also be reversed." The appellate court alternatively held that even if there was no inconsistency, our decision in People v. Morgan, 197 Ill. 2d 404 (2001), required that aggravated battery could not be a predicate offense for felony murder.

In a special concurrence and dissent, Justice Homer agreed with the appellate court majority that, in light of Morgan, defendant's conviction for felony murder could not stand. Justice Homer, however, did not find the acquittal for knowing murder to be inconsistent with the finding of guilt of aggravated battery. We granted the State's petition for leave to appeal. 177 Ill. 2d R. 315. Because the appellate court judgment presents only issues of law, our review is de novo. People v. Johnson, 206 Ill. 2d 348, 359 (2002).


The State initially argues that we should reverse the appellate court because the jury's finding of guilt on aggravated battery of a child was not inconsistent with a finding of not guilty of knowing murder. If the findings are inconsistent, the State asserts, this court should decline to follow our decisions in People v. Frias, 99 Ill. 2d 193 (1983), and People v. Klingenberg, 172 Ill. 2d 270 (1996), or that the court should find any error to be harmless. Defendant responds that the verdicts are legally inconsistent, and the court should continue to follow Klingenberg.

Subsequent to briefing and argument in this matter, we reconsidered and overruled Klingenberg. People v. Jones, No. 93511 (May 22, 2003). In overruling Klingenberg, we held that criminal "defendants in Illinois can no longer challenge convictions on the sole basis that they are legally inconsistent with acquittals on other charges." Jones, slip op. at 8. For this reason, we need not examine whether the jury's findings were inconsistent ...

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