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People v. House

October 17, 2007


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 01 CR 27693 Honorable Colleen McSweeney-Moore, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Theis

Following a jury trial, defendant, James House, was convicted of first degree murder (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(1) (West 2000)) and sentenced to 75 years' imprisonment. On appeal, defendant contends that: (1) the trial court abused its discretion when it disqualified defendant's privately retained counsel, Mike Fulton, because a potential conflict presented by the fact that he had also represented both of the State's eyewitnesses was insufficient to overcome the presumption in favor of allowing defendant to be represented by the counsel of his choice; and (2) the trial court abused its discretion in preventing defense counsel from introducing a prior consistent statement by eyewitness Cornelius Aaron to rebut an allegation of recent fabrication. For the following reasons, we affirm.

The following facts and procedural history are relevant to the issues raised in this appeal. Defendant was charged with multiple counts of first degree murder in connection with the shooting death of Isaiah Ewing on June 19, 2001.

Shortly after he was charged, defendant retained attorney Mike Fulton to represent him. At a November 2002 status conference, Fulton admitted that he had also been retained to represent Leander Coleman, one of the State's two eyewitnesses, in another unrelated criminal matter. The court admonished defendant of this fact and asked Fulton whether his representation of Coleman presented a conflict of interest. Fulton indicated that at that point in time, Coleman was denying that he ever made a statement to police implicating defendant. The court asked Fulton how he could fairly represent defendant when he was representing a witness against him in another matter. Fulton responded that he had only filed his initial appearance in Coleman's case and that he would withdraw from representation of Coleman.

At another status conference in March 2003, Fulton indicated that he had learned, but did not explain how, that defendant and Aaron suffered from a certain mental deficiency. Fulton indicated that he would be requesting psychological evaluations of both defendant and Aaron. That evaluation indicated that defendant suffered from a mental deficiency which impaired his ability to resist coercion, intimidation, or trickery. The State responded that what Fulton had said gave the impression that, at some point, Fulton had also represented Cornelius Aaron, the State's other eyewitness, who was also defendant's brother. Fulton admitted that he had represented Aaron previously in an unrelated armed robbery case, for which Aaron had been charged during the pendency of the murder case against defendant. Aaron was found not guilty of that offense after a bench trial. At the next status conference, Fulton added that he had also represented Aaron in yet another unrelated case, which involved a gun possession charge. However, Fulton made clear that he was no longer representing Aaron. Nevertheless, the court instructed the State to file any motions regarding a "per se conflict of interest" prior to the next court date.

On that date, the State expressed its belief that Coleman and Aaron were going to "flip," or change their testimony to not implicate defendant. The State also indicated that defendant was going to sign a written waiver of the conflict of interest affecting Fulton. The court then admonished defendant regarding the conflict on the record, explaining, inter alia, that because Fulton represented Aaron, Fulton was loyal to Aaron and not to defendant. The court also explained to defendant that Fulton believed that defendant and Aaron suffered from a mental deficiency and that Fulton would be obtaining confidential psychiatric records regarding defendant and Aaron. Nevertheless, defendant agreed to waive Fulton's conflict on the record.

After hearing argument on whether a defendant could waive such a conflict, the court again admonished defendant about the nature of the conflict. This time, defendant indicated that he would like more time to talk with Fulton and think the matter over.

At the next status conference on April 14, 2003, the court ruled that defendant could not waive Fulton's conflict. The court observed that in certain circumstances, a conflict will override a defendant's right to be represented by the counsel of his choice. The court characterized the conflict presented in this case as "astronomical" because Fulton had represented both of the State's key witnesses in other matters. The court also recognized that defendant suffered from a type of mental disability. Accordingly, the court disqualified Fulton and appointed an assistant public defender to represent defendant.

The court subsequently conducted a jury trial of defendant. In its opening statement, the State indicated that Aaron had given a statement to police implicating defendant in the murder of the victim and had testified consistently with his statement before the grand jury. The State further indicated that Aaron would be "brought before you to testify in this case, whether he likes it or not against his brother," but the State would "not even begin to predict what Cornelius Aaron might say face to face with his brother," or what kind of "headstands or back flips" he would make to protect his brother.

The following evidence was then presented. Eric Solomon, the victim's brother, testified that around 10 a.m. on June 19, 2001, he was walking with the victim in the alley behind Kolin Street near Cermak Road in Chicago. The victim subsequently got into a car with two men, whom Solomon identified as defendant and Aaron. Solomon gave the victim $20 with which to buy marijuana, and defendant, Aaron, and the victim drove away.

Sometime later, Chicago police were notified that a man had been shot on the ninth floor of 2240 South State Street, which is a building located in the Harold Ickes public housing complex. Cook County Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Aldo Fusaro, who conducted an autopsy of the victim, determined that he had been killed by two close-range gunshot wounds to the head. Detective David Gehrke subsequently spoke with Solomon, who indicated that defendant and Aaron were the last people with whom he saw the victim. However, police were unable to locate defendant or Aaron for several months.

Chicago police arrested Aaron on October 31, 2001, on an outstanding arrest warrant for his failure to appear in court for an aggravated unlawful use of a weapon charge. Following Aaron's arrest, Detective Gehrke spoke with Aaron at the police station. Aaron eventually told Detective Gehrke that he, defendant, Leander Coleman, and the victim went to the Ickes housing complex to purchase marijuana. Then, they went to the ninth floor of one of the buildings to smoke it, and defendant shot the victim.

Assistant State's Attorney Brian Hofeld testified that he also spoke to Aaron and reduced his statement to writing. Therein, Aaron stated that sometime in June 2001, he and defendant were standing outside of their home at 2320 South Kolin with their mother, sister, younger brother, niece, and grandmother when the victim approached them. The victim told them that he had a gun at his grandfather's house that he had stolen from a man known as "Pipe." Defendant and Aaron went with the victim to get the gun, then brought it back to their house. The gun was a "big 22-caliber rifle that could shoot [two] hundred times." Defendant and Aaron agreed to keep the gun at their house for the victim for a few days.

On June 19, 2001, the victim returned to claim the gun. The victim stated that Pipe and several other men "jumped on him" and beat him because they had learned that he ...

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