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People v. Hart

January 21, 2004

[5] THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
ERIC L. HART, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



[6] Appeal from Circuit Court of Macon County No. 01CF714 Honorable Theodore E. Paine, Judge Presiding.

[7] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Cook

[8]  Defendant, Eric L. Hart, was charged with armed robbery (720 ILCS 5/18-2(a) (West 2000)) and aggravated fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer (625 ILCS 5/11-204.1 (West 2000)). In January 2002, a jury found defendant guilty on both counts, and in May 2002, the trial court sentenced defendant to concurrent terms of 20 and 3 years' imprisonment, with credit for 369 days' time served. Defendant appeals, arguing he was denied a fair trial when the prosecutor elicited testimony that he attempted to plea bargain and commented on that attempt in closing argument. We reverse and remand.

[9]  I. BACKGROUND

[10]   On May 20, 2001, a Clark Oil gas station in Decatur was robbed by a man wearing pantyhose on his head and carrying a .22-caliber pistol. A worker at the gas station described the robber as a black male, mid to late twenties, about 5 feet 11 inches to 6 feet tall, 160 to 180 pounds, wearing either a black or blue "Starter" shirt with white or gold lettering across it, and blue jeans. Shortly thereafter, a police officer passed a vehicle containing a person matching the robber's description. The officer pursued the vehicle at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. After the vehicle lost control and left the road, the suspect fled on foot. The suspect was apprehended and identified as defendant.

[11]   Michael Beck, former detective with the Decatur police department, testified at trial that he interviewed defendant. Beck first told defendant that he did not have to speak with him. Defendant spoke to Beck about a warrant on file that defendant thought had been taken care of. The following colloquy then took place:

[12]   "Q. [Assistant State's Attorney:] Okay. Uh--and after speaking with you about the warrant that he had thought was already previously taken care of, did he make any statements about the incident in which he was arrested?

[13]   A. [Beck:] Yes, I told him the reason that I was up there to interview him was in reference to the armed robbery, and at that time, I told him I knew he was involved in the armed robbery and he didn't offer any denial at that time. He did not deny being involved but asked me what I could do for him if he cooperated. I advised him at that time I couldn't make any promises to him if he cooperated; however, I would contact the State's Attorney's [o]ffice and advise them of his cooperation."

[14]   Beck testified defendant then requested to make a phone call to his mother, which he was allowed to do. Defendant said that he wanted to pray with his mother. When defendant finished praying, he told Beck that he wanted to think about whether he wanted to make a statement. That concluded the interview.

[15]   Defendant testified at trial that he was on his way to his mother's house to take care of his dogs when a police car pulled up behind him, followed him for about a block, and turned on its lights. He drove on because he did not have a driver's license, a warrant was out for his arrest, and he wanted to park at a friend's house so that his car would not be towed. The police car hit him from the back and knocked him off the road. He was scared, so he jumped out of the car and ran.

[16]   During closing argument, defense counsel noted that defendant did not make an admission to Detective Beck, that the only thing defendant said was that he wanted to pray. The prosecutor subsequently argued:

[17]   "The defendant, also, mentioned the fact that he wanted to pray [with] his mother is not an indication of guilt, but you remember what Officer Beck told you? He didn't just want to pray with his mother. He wanted to know what he would get or what kind of compensation or what kind of agreement or whatever he would get if he cooperated. And, [l]adies and [g]entlemen, only guilty men want to know what they get if they cooperate."

[18]   II. ANALYSIS

[19]   Defendant did not object to the allegedly improper testimony and argument at trial, nor did he raise these issues in a posttrial motion. Under the plain-error rule, however, a reviewing court may consider a trial error that was not properly preserved (1) when the evidence is closely balanced, or (2) where the error is so fundamental and of such magnitude that the defendant has been denied a fair trial. People v. Williams, 193 Ill. 2d ...


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