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People v. Lenley

December 23, 2003


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Massac County. No. 99-CF-121 Honorable Terry J. Foster, Judge, presiding.

Justices: Honorable Clyde L. Kuehn, J., Honorable Terrence J. Hopkins, J., Concurs Honorable Thomas M. Welch, J., Dissents

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kuehn


"[P]roof of other crimes, unrelated to those alleged in the charging instrument, cannot be introduced merely to show a propensity for criminal wrongdoing." People v. Hale, 326 Ill. App. 3d 455, 462, 762 N.E.2d 59, 65 (2001) (citing People v. Lindgren, 79 Ill. 2d 129, 137, 402 N.E.2d 238, 242 (1980)).

This well-settled principle, as a general rule, bans rather persuasive evidence of someone's guilt from the State's arsenal of proof. However, if a prosecutor can find some legitimate issue that presents a need to admit evidence of other criminality, the State can use it, even though a clear and unmistakable message about an accused's criminal propensities resonates from its admission. Several recognized exceptions to the rule allow other-crimes evidence to be heard.

Everyone understands the persuasive potential that proof of other criminality packs, but those charged with the task of proving people guilty beyond a reasonable doubt understand it best. Whenever evidence of other criminal conduct surrounds a particular accused, expect a universal prosecutorial response. The prosecution's modus operandi, given its intent to convict, is quite certain to be motivated by a common design to introduce other-crimes evidence under one of the exceptions to the general rule. Make no mistake about it, any prosecutor worth his salt will try very hard to persuade a judge that reason other than proof of criminal propensity exists, in order to introduce evidence of extraneous criminality. There simply is nothing better than full exposure of an accused's evil ways.

We are presented a case where the prosecution was allowed to present evidence about three burglaries other than the one for which the defendant stood trial. The trial judge's decision to permit the other-crimes evidence as proof of the defendant's intent, motive, and design, in addition to showing an absence of mistake, is challenged in this appeal.

While evidence of three other burglaries was ostensibly admitted to prove four things, the defendant's intent, motive, and design, in addition to an absence of mistake, the evidence necessarily conveyed a message that the defendant harbored a penchant for burglary and theft. Indeed, this was the message driven home by the prosecutor during his summation. No one tried to explain how proof of three other burglaries served to establish intent, motive, design, or a lack of mistake. Rather, the evidence of other criminality was linked to an argument about the kind of person with whom the Massac County jurors were dealing. Having recounted the evidence establishing four burglaries, the State's Attorney argued that the defendant was the kind of person who would come to southern Illinois to gamble and, when he wagered himself short of money, would fund his habit by roaming rural Massac County in search of unlocked barns, garages, and sheds to burglarize. The argument was a succinct picture of what the evidence adduced at the defendant's trial conveyed.

The defendant stands convicted of the November 16, 1999, burglary of a barn owned by a man named Harry Foss. The defendant also stands convicted of the theft that he committed during the course of that burglary. He currently serves a 365-day jail sentence for theft, along with a five-year prison term for burglary, the punishment imposed upon the Massac County jury verdicts.

On appeal, we are asked to overturn the convictions based upon the admission of the other-crimes evidence. The following is the defendant's argument.

The admission of evidence about three burglaries, other than the burglary at issue, resulted in verdicts predicated upon evidence of the defendant's criminal propensity for burglary and theft. There was no other reason to admit evidence about the three other burglaries. While the State convinced the trial judge that the other-crimes evidence should be admitted to show intent, motive, design, and absence of mistake, none of those questions were placed at issue by the evidence presented at the defendant's trial. There was no question about the intent with which someone entered Harry Foss's barn. There was no question about any of the earlier burglaries serving as the motive for this one. There was no claim made that the barn was entered under some mistaken belief that the defendant had authority or consent to enter. And the burglary of the barn was a separate and distinct crime. Whoever entered the barn did so without some larger criminal objective to achieve. There was no common scheme or design being fulfilled by the burglary for which the defendant stood trial.

It follows that the State was permitted to introduce evidence about three other burglaries to show the defendant's intent, motive, design, and absence of mistake when the evidence was neither pertinent to nor helpful for the resolution of any of those things. Without a legitimate purpose to admit it, the other-crimes evidence was improper. It only served to demonstrate the defendant's criminal propensity for burglary and theft. Therefore, the defendant deserves a new trial.

The State counters this argument by insisting that the evidence about the other three burglaries was properly admitted to show intent, motive, design, and absence of mistake. As a backup position, the State asks us to consider any error in the admission of the other-crimes evidence as harmless error.

The facts of the case are as follows.

Between October 26, 1999, and November 16, 1999, the rural areas surrounding Metropolis, Illinois, were struck by a rash of tool thefts from workshops housed in unlocked barns, garages, and farm sheds. Farmers living on the outskirts of Metropolis discovered numerous tools missing from their unsecured workshops during that three-week time span. Metropolis is a relatively crime-free town that lies on the northern bank of the Ohio River, at the southernmost tip of the state, a town that boasts two things that set it apart from most other southern Illinois communities. First, it is home to a gambling boat docked on the Ohio River. The casino provides a venue for those interested in games of chance. In the fall of 1999, the defendant left his Decatur, Alabama, home and drove to Metropolis in order to place some wagers.

In addition to the riverboat gambling casino, Metropolis is home to a bronze statute of the man of steel. This symbol of truth, justice, and the American way rests but a short distance from the J & D Jewelry and Loan, an establishment that the defendant visited four times between October 26, 1999, and November 16, 1999. On the first three occasions, he marketed a variety of stolen tools from the back of his pickup. Someone had pilfered the tools from a rural workshop shortly before each of the defendant's three arrivals at the pawn shop. When the defendant arrived with a pickup load full of tools for a fourth time, the proprietor of the J & D Jewelry and Loan told him about a visit from the sheriff and the victim of a burglary. The burglary victim found one of his missing tools at the pawn shop. It was one of the tools purchased from the defendant. The defendant was also told that the sheriff was aware of all the defendant's earlier transactions.

The defendant promptly left Illinois and returned to his home in Decatur, Alabama. More than two years passed before his arrest in Alabama.

At the trial, four farmers, three from Metropolis and one from close-by Vienna, Illinois, were permitted to testify that their unlocked barns or sheds had been unlawfully entered by someone who removed numerous workshop tools. In addition, the proprietor of the J & D Jewelry and Loan was permitted to testify about every transaction that took place between himself and the defendant, all of which involved the pawn shop's purchases of items removed from the four unlawfully entered workshops.

Here is a look at how the State presented its case.

The State's first witness was Jeff Jordan, a Johnson County deputy sheriff, who testified about his arrest of the defendant in Decatur, Alabama, and about a gratuitous comment made by the defendant during the trip back to Illinois. The defendant, who knew that he was returning to face burglary and theft charges, speculated out loud, "[The charges] must be about the barn that I went into."

The State then called Don Fairfield, the owner of the J & D Jewelry and Loan. Fairfield told the jury that the defendant first appeared at his pawn shop on October 26, 1999, driving a pickup truck loaded down with tools. Fairfield explained how he surveyed everything that the defendant wanted to sell and, thereafter, purchased a Campbell-Hausfield 4.5-horsepower air compressor, a Dewalt 4.5-horsepower hand grinder, and a Black & Decker Sawzall. He also purchased a number of hand tools.

Fairfield had insisted upon a seller's bill of sale, which the defendant executed in Fairfield's presence. He identified this October 26, 1999, document and testified that he had witnessed the defendant sign it. The bill of sale was introduced into evidence.

The date on which the bill of sale was executed and the recorded list of items sold coincided with the burglary of Arthur Meinders' unlocked workshop on October 26, 1999. Someone had entered Meinders' work shed located on the edge of Metropolis and removed a Campbell-Hausfield 4.5-horsepower air compressor and a ...

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