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People v. Munoz

May 03, 2004


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 97 CR 26083. Honorable Marcus Salone, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Gordon


Following a jury trial, defendant Cesar Munoz was convicted of first-degree murder of his common law wife and sentenced to 45 years in prison. On appeal, defendant contends that: (1) the trial court's in limine ruling barring evidence of the wife's suicidal ideation violated his constitutional rights and, because that error was not harmless, his conviction must be reversed; (2) the trial court committed reversible error by allowing the State's pathologist to invade the province of the jury by stating her opinion beyond a reasonable doubt; (3) the trial court committed a prejudicial constitutional error when it prohibited cross-examination of the State's expert witness on matters that directly affected the reliability of that witness's expert opinion; and (4) his sentence is excessive. For the reasons stated below, we reverse the judgment of the trial court.


On September 8, 1997, defendant's common law wife, Magdaliz Rosario (Magdaliz), was found dead in their apartment of a gunshot wound to the head. Defendant was charged with her murder. This case was tried twice. It first proceeded to trial on May 3, 2000, with the State maintaining that the manner of Magdaliz's death was a homicide, while defendant maintained that it was a suicide. The first jury to hear the case was unable to reach a verdict, so a mistrial was declared on May 7, 2000. A second trial commenced on November 2, 2000, and defendant was again tried by a jury. This time, the jury returned a verdict finding defendant guilty of first-degree murder. The trial judge sentenced defendant to 45 years in prison.

The following facts were adduced at the second trial. Defendant's friend, John Flores,*fn1 testified that he was living with defendant and Magdaliz in their apartment in Chicago. Flores and Magdaliz were having an affair which they hid from defendant. On September 8, 1997, Flores took Magdaliz to a job interview at Luna Security, where he was employed. While Flores was waiting for Magdaliz outside the Luna Security office, defendant pulled up in a car and asked where Magdaliz was. Flores told defendant that Magdaliz was inside filling out an employment application. Defendant waited for Magdaliz, and approximately 20 to 25 minutes later, she left her interview and drove back to the apartment with defendant. According to Flores, Magdaliz was happy that she got a job at Luna Security.

Flores drove back alone in his car and arrived at their apartment building before defendant and Magdaliz. Flores briefly spoke to a friend he saw outside the apartment building and then he and his friend left to purchase cigarettes. Before he left, Flores saw defendant and Magdaliz enter the apartment building, apparently on their way to their second-floor apartment. Defendant did not appear to be angry when Flores saw him enter the apartment building with Magdaliz.

Chicago police officer Norbert Rivera testified that he responded to a call of a shooting, arrived at the apartment building in question and proceeded to the second-floor apartment. Officer Rivera made his way to the top of the stairs and saw a number of people in the hallway. Magdaliz was lying on the floor with a large amount of blood around her. Officer Rivera then asked where her husband was, and defendant's cousin, John Barrios, took Officer Rivera across the street to Barrios' apartment. There, Officer Rivera saw defendant, whom Barrios identified as Magdaliz's boyfriend or husband.

Officer Rivera asked defendant what had happened. Defendant told him that he got into a fight with his wife and she ran into their bedroom, closed the door, and then he heard a shot. Defendant further told Officer Rivera that he forced the door open, entered the bedroom, and attempted to take Magdaliz out of the apartment to get her medical assistance. Defendant then called 911. Officer Rivera next asked defendant where the gun was. He repeated that question several times before defendant responded. Defendant stated that he threw the gun into a garbage can. Officer Rivera and defendant left Barrios' apartment and went to the alley behind defendant's apartment building where the garbage cans were located. Defendant pointed out the garbage can containing the gun and moved the top bag of garbage out of the way so that Officer Rivera could see the gun, which was underneath the top bag of garbage and approximately a foot or a foot and a half down in the can. Officer Rivera left the gun there and told other officers at the scene to wait for evidence technicians. Defendant was arrested and transported to Area 5 police headquarters.

Chicago police department evidence technician (ET) Robert Davie testified that he arrived at the apartment building in question and was directed to the garbage cans located in the alley next to the building. ET Davie photographed the gun and took it out of the garbage can. He then went to defendant's apartment to photograph the crime scene. Upon arriving at the apartment, ET Davie saw Magdaliz lying face down in the exterior hallway. In the living room, there was a trail of blood on the floor and what looked like drag marks leading from the bedroom through the living room into the hallway. ET Davie also observed a large amount of blood on the mattress in the bedroom.

Chicago police department detective (Det.) Edwin Dickinson testified that he interrogated defendant at Area 5 police headquarters. According to Det. Dickinson, defendant admitted that he was jealous of Flores and, in his anger, made a mess of the apartment before leaving for Luna Security. Defendant also admitted to picking up Magdaliz from Luna Security. On the way home, defendant gave Magdaliz a driving lesson and allowed her to drive. Defendant stated that once at home, they put two of their three children to bed for a nap and defendant started to prepare a bath for their other child. It was then that Magdaliz ran into their bedroom and locked the door behind herself. Defendant told Det. Dickinson that he went to the door and tried to open it using a nail. At that point, defendant heard a gunshot and he broke the door down. He saw Magdaliz on the bed, propped up against the wall, bleeding from her face, holding a gun in her hand. Defendant got on the bed, took the gun away from Magdaliz and began to drag her toward the stairs. Defendant told Det. Dickinson that he tossed the gun out of the window. When defendant got to the top of the stairs, he screamed for help. Defendant's family lived next door, and his father and brother came to the apartment. Defendant then sent his brother to call the police, as there was no phone in the apartment.

Det. Robert Rutherford testified that he interrogated defendant after Det. Dickinson completed his interrogation. Defendant recounted a similar version of events to Det. Rutherford. Det. Rutherford, who had been to the crime scene prior to interviewing defendant, told defendant that he did not believe him and confronted defendant with the fact that neither the door nor the doorframe of the bedroom was damaged, and the gun was lying in the garbage can. Det. Rutherford then left the interview room. He later returned and spoke with defendant again. This time, defendant told Det. Rutherford that he had used a nail to unlock the door and that he did not toss the gun out of the window-rather, he walked over to the window, looked out and dropped the gun into the garbage can.

Later, defendant was interrogated again. According to Det. Rutherford, at defendant's request, a Spanish-speaking detective, Det. Renaldo Guevara, joined Det. Rutherford.*fn2 This time, defendant told the detectives that, as he was putting one of their children to bed, he could see Magdaliz in their bedroom holding a gun up in the air. Defendant kept this gun in the dresser drawer. Defendant stated that he asked Magdaliz what she was doing, and she replied, "You don't have to worry about it." Defendant stated that he then went into the bedroom and began to wrestle with Magdaliz over the gun. The gun was cocked. As they were struggling over the gun, defendant twisted Magdaliz's arm, and the gun ended up pointing at her face when it went off.

At trial, the parties stipulated that both the gun recovered by ET Davie and one bullet, recovered from Magdaliz's head by medical examiner Dr. Nancy Jones, were sent to the Illinois State Police Forensic Crime Lab. The trial court then found Joseph Thibault, who works for the Illinois State Police Forensic Crime Lab, to be an expert in the field of firearms examination. Thibault testified that after comparing and testing the two items, he concluded that the gun recovered from the garbage can outside the apartment building fired the bullet recovered from Magdaliz's head. A fingerprint expert, Cynthia Engelking-Prus, testified that there were no prints on the gun that were suitable for comparison. A forensic scientist, Robert Berk, testified that Magdaliz's left hand tested positive for gunshot residue. He also testified that the gunshot residue tests performed on defendant were inconclusive.

Dr. Nancy Jones of the Cook County medical examiner's office (Medical Examiner's Office) was accepted by the trial court as an expert witness in the field of forensic pathology. Dr. Jones testified that she performed an autopsy on Magdaliz on September 9, 1997. During the autopsy, Dr. Jones observed that Magdaliz's wound showed evidence of a near contact range fire-there was a charred or burned abrasion around the wound caused by hot gasses that came out of the barrel of the gun at the same time the bullet did, burning the skin, and there was gunpowder present around the wound. Dr. Jones stated that the bullet entered through the lip, and followed an upwards, slightly left to right trajectory. Dr. Jones stated her opinion that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the face.

Regarding the manner of death, Dr. Jones stated that it is determined on the basis of the circumstances surrounding the death, as well as the autopsy findings. Dr. Jones testified that in making her determination as to the manner of Magdaliz's death, she considered the information she received in a written report from an investigator from the Medical Examiner's Office, photographs of the scene, the location and the appearance of the gunshot wound of entry, information that she was given by the Chicago police department concerning the circumstances of death, as well as her experience and expertise in dealing with cases of that sort. Dr. Jones stated several times her opinion that, to a reasonable degree of forensic, medical and scientific certainty, the manner of death was homicide. Dr. Jones stated that, although the wound was close contact range, the location and appearance of the wound were not indicative of suicide. Dr. Jones also found it significant that the gun was moved, and there was evidence that Magdaliz was dragged face downward, with a large portion of her body dragging along the floor. On redirect examination of Dr. Jones, the following colloquy took place:

"[QUESTION:] If you have any reasonable doubt as to whether a case is a homicide or a suicide-if you have any reasonable doubt as to if a case is a homicide, do you rule it a homicide?

[DEFENSE:] Objection.

THE COURT: You can answer.

[DR. JONES:] No, I do not."

The defense subsequently moved for a mistrial. That motion was denied. The State rested after Dr. Jones testified.

Defendant's brother, Nicky Munoz (Nicky), testified that he and defendant's parents lived in a house next to the building where defendant and Magdaliz lived. On the day Magdaliz died, Nicky loaned defendant his car. Nicky was at home when Magdaliz knocked on his door and returned his car keys. According to Nicky, she did not appear upset. At the same time, Nicky briefly observed defendant stand in front of his apartment building. Defendant did not seem upset or angry. Approximately 20 minutes later, Nicky heard defendant scream, "Help me. Help me. Maggie shot herself. She shot herself. Help me." Nicky immediately ran to defendant's apartment. When he arrived, he saw Magdaliz lying on the floor at the top of the stairs and defendant standing nearby "like frozen." Nicky ran back to his home and called 911.

Defendant's father, Cesar Munoz, Sr. (Cesar), testified that he also heard defendant screaming for help, and he too ran to the apartment. Cesar saw Magdaliz lying on the floor at the top of the stairs, and he then ran back to his home to call 911. Nicky was already on the phone with the 911 operator. Cesar took the phone from Nicky and told the operator to send an ambulance.

Defendant's cousin, John Barrios, testified that he lived across the street from defendant and Magdaliz. Barrios heard loud screaming coming from defendant's apartment and ran up the stairs to see what was wrong. He saw Magdaliz lying on the floor at the top of the stairs and defendant standing near her saying that she shot herself. Barrios told defendant to come with him to his apartment, but defendant, at first, did not want to leave. Eventually, defendant agreed to leave with Barrios. Barrios saw the police arrive and led one of the officers to defendant. Another neighbor, Ricardo Torres, ...

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