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People v. Zapata

March 31, 2004

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
YOHN ZAPATA, A/K/A YOHN ZAPADA, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 01 CR 16022(02). Honorable Colleen McSweeney-Moore, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Campbell

Following a bench trial in the circuit court of Cook County, the trial court found defendant Yohn Zapata guilty of the first degree murder of Omar Brown and sentenced him to 50 years in prison. Defendant now appeals his conviction and sentence. Co-defendant Alex Negron was tried simultaneously before a jury and is not a party to this appeal.*fn1

The record on appeal discloses the following facts. On the evening of June 17, 2001, Omar Brown drove his cousin, Conan Little, and his friend, Raphael Vega, to a Father's Day barbeque in Cicero. Brown and Vega left the barbeque at approximately 11:15 p.m. to return to Brown's home at 2924 W. Shakespeare; Little, his father, and his father's friend followed in a separate car. Brown stopped his car in an unlit alley next to his apartment building. Brown, who intended to spend the night at Vega's home, went inside with Little to get clothes, while Little's father and Vega remained by Brown's car. When Brown and Little returned, Brown got into the driver's seat of his car, while Little and Vega got into the rear of the car.

Brown began to pull forward to allow Little's father to get into the front passenger seat, when Brown exchanged words with defendant, who was walking through the alley. Little and Vega testified that a man they knew by the name "Coli" began banging on the hood of Brown's car. Little and Vega later identified defendant as "Coli" in a lineup. Vega also identified him from photographs. Little identified defendant as "Coli" in court, but Vega could not. Defendant testified that he banged on the hood of Brown's car after hearing Little say "fuck you" to him and Brown tried to strike him with the car.

Defendant testified that when he banged on the hood of Brown's car, a van had entered the alley and stopped behind Brown's car. Defendant testified that "Danny and Alex were in the van." Defendant testified that he said, "[N]ow there's [four] of you and I got two friends here, too."

Little and Vega testified that defendant punched out the driver's side window of Brown's car. Defendant testified that Brown tried to open his car door so as to strike defendant, and that the window broke as defendant and Brown struggled against each other for control of the door. Defendant testified that Brown grabbed his hands and caused the car door to cut defendant on the face and hands. Defendant testified that he broke free of Brown's grasp, whereupon Brown got out of his car and began fighting with defendant. According to defendant, Brown, who was bigger than defendant, grabbed defendant by the neck so hard he could barely breathe. Defendant testified that Vega started hitting him, but defendant was separated from Brown when Vega pushed defendant to the ground. Little testified that he was pulled from the car and saw defendant hit Brown.

Little testified that he was beaten by five or six people, one of whom had him in a headlock against the car. Vega testified that he saw Little being beaten.

According to Vega, "Danny" tried to pull Vega out of the car, but he grabbed and pushed Danny instead. Vega testified that he got out of the car and pushed defendant off of Brown. Defendant fell to the ground.

Defendant testified that Danny came up to him to help him up from the ground. Defendant testified that he saw Brown coming at him, was scared, took a gun from Danny's hand and fired two shots at Brown. Defendant testified that he intended to scare Brown, not kill him. Defendant testified that he did not know whether he had hit Brown. Defendant stated that he handed the gun back to Danny and ran to a friend's house.

Vega testified that after defendant fell, defendant stood, pulled a gun from his pants and shot twice in the direction of Brown's face. Little testified that he saw defendant shoot Brown twice in the stomach and in the armpit area. Little and Vega testified that Vega attempted to help Brown into the apartment building, but Brown had to sit and fell backward. Little and Vega testified that they saw defendant hand the gun to co-defendant Alex Negron, a/k/a "Heavy," who then shot Brown two or three more times.

Little testified that everyone began running. Vega testified that Negron chased him up the stairs of the building. Vega admitted that he originally told the police that defendant had shot Brown on the ground and chased Vega into the building. Vega stated that he did not know their names at the time of the shooting and was not given an opportunity to correct his statement to the police. The parties stipulated that an assistant State's Attorney would testify that Vega signed a statement that defendant chased him into the building and fired at him approximately three times.

Dr. Adrienne Segovia, a deputy medical examiner with the Cook County medical examiner's office, testified that Brown died of multiple gunshot wounds, including a shot to the back of the head, another to the head, one to the chest and one to the left side of his back. Dr. Segovia testified that, in a multiple-gunshot-wound case, the Cook County medical examiner's office does not separate the shots to determine which was fatal, but assigns the wounds equal weight. Dr. Segovia testified that three bullets recovered from Brown's body were photographed and turned over to the Chicago police department.

Chicago police Detective Tracy Fanning testified that, shortly after midnight on June 18, 2001, she was assigned to investigate the shooting. Detectives Derrick Johnson and Arthur Young were also present at the crime scene. Detective Fanning testified that after conducting witness interviews and receiving a photograph of defendant brought to the scene by other police officers, she began searching for defendant.

Detective Fanning testified that she first went to an address on California Street, then to a two-flat on the 2900 block of 21st Street. After receiving information, Detective Fanning went up to the second floor, where she saw defendant through an open door. Detective Fanning identified defendant in court.

Detective Young testified that co-defendant was found at the Stars Motel at 6100 North Lincoln between 4 and 5 a.m. on June 18, 2001. The police recovered a gun and five shell casings from the motel room. The parties stipulated that forensic scientist John Flanskamp would testify that the bullets recovered from the post-mortem examination of Brown and the shell casings recovered at the Stars Motel were all fired from the gun recovered at the Stars Motel. Defendant testified to his account of the shooting. Defendant testified that he had refused to answer the police questioning. Defendant denied telling Detective Fanning that, on the night in question, he had gone with his girlfriend and their daughter to Hollywood Beach to celebrate their daughter's birthday, returning to the girlfriend's home at 2648 West 21st Street at 11 p.m., where they remained for the rest of the night. Defendant testified that he did go to the beach with them and left at approximately 11 p.m., but his girlfriend left him a few blocks from his house when she stopped to get gasoline at Fullerton and California.

In rebuttal, Detective Fanning testified that defendant had told the police that he had spent the night at his girlfriend's home on 21st Street. Detective Fanning testified that she then went to 21st Street to speak with defendant's girlfriend, who was ultimately brought to the police station to continue the investigation. Detective Fanning acknowledged that the arrest report in this case stated that defendant refused statements, oral and written. Detective Fanning testified that the note in the arrest report meant that defendant refused to make a statement to a State's Attorney.

Following closing argument, the trial court found defendant guilty of the first degree murder. The trial court later denied defendant's posttrial motion. The trial court sentenced defendant to 50 years in prison, 20 of which were imposed under a statute adding that term where the person personally discharged a firearm. Defendant now appeals.

I.

Defendant initially contends that the State failed to disprove beyond a reasonable doubt his claim of self-defense. Self-defense is an affirmative defense and, once raised, the State has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant did not act in self-defense. People v. Jeffries, 164 Ill. 2d 104, 127, 646 N.E.2d 587, 597 (1995). The elements of self-defense are that: (1) unlawful force was threatened against a person; (2) the person threatened was not the aggressor; (3) the danger of harm was imminent; and (4) the use of force was necessary. People v. Dillard, 319 Ill. App. 3d 102, 106, 745 N.E.2d 185, 188 (2001). The standard of review is whether, taking all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, any rational trier of fact could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant was not acting in self-defense. Dillard, 319 Ill. App. 3d at 106-07, 745 N.E.2d at 189. However, defendant's attack focuses on the trial court's determination of the credibility of the witnesses. Defendant notes that the trial court found that defendant was not a credible witness. In a bench trial, it is the province of the trial court to determine the credibility and weight of the testimony, to resolve the inconsistencies and conflicts therein and to render its decision accordingly. People v. Berland, 74 Ill. 2d 286, 305-06, 385 N.E.2d 649, 658 (1978). Defendant nevertheless contends that the trial court's determination of credibility was based on unreasonable inferences from the record, ignoring evidence that corroborated his testimony.

Defendant specifically takes issue with the trial court's inference that he must have made a statement to Detective Fanning, contending that there were "other, equally plausible explanations" as to how Detective Fanning could have learned whether defendant spent the day with his girlfriend. However, where more than one equally plausible interpretation can be made from the facts, the credibility determination of the trial court will be sustained. People v. Chapman, 22 Ill. 2d 521, 525, 177 N.E.2d 143, 145 (1961); Mache v. Mache, 218 Ill. App. 3d 1069, 1075, 578 N.E.2d 1253, 1257 (1991). This court will not overturn the trier of fact on questions involving the weight or credibility of testimony unless the evidence is "so palpably contrary to the verdict or so unreasonable, improbable or unsatisfactory as to create a reasonable doubt of [the defendant's] guilt." People v. Abdullah, 220 Ill. App. 3d 687, 693, 581 N.E.2d 67, 72 (1991). In this case, Detective Fanning first went to an address on California Street, then to a two-flat on the 2900 block of 21st Street, where she found defendant. Detective Fanning testified that she returned to the girlfriend's home after speaking to defendant. The logical inference to be drawn is that Detective Fanning was seeking evidence she did not obtain earlier at either address, in response to the police questioning of defendant. Defendant claims that Detective Fanning might have gotten information from co-defendant or others, but this claim is speculation without testimonial support in the record. Moreover, the transcript shows that this issue was not the only one the trial court considered in assessing the credibility of the witnesses.

Defendant notes that the arrest report stated that defendant refused to give a statement, but Detective Fanning testified that this meant that defendant refused to make a statement to a State's Attorney. Defendant attack's Vega's credibility based on his prior signed statement that had the roles of the co-defendant and defendant reversed, but Vega testified that he did ...


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