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The People of the State of Illinois v. Christopher John Smith

December 28, 2010

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, ,
PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
CHRISTOPHER JOHN SMITH, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 14th Judicial Circuit Rock Island County, Illinois. Honorable F. Michael Meersman, Judge, Presiding

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

PRESIDING JUSTICE HOLDRIDGE delivered the opinion of the court:

The defendant was charged with aggravated criminal sexual abuse of his granddaughter. In this interlocutory appeal, the State contends that the trial court erred by refusing to admit certain evidence of the defendant's alleged sexual abuse of other female relatives to show his propensity to commit the charged offense. We affirm.

FACTS

Thedefendant was charged by information with aggravated sexual abuse of his eight-year-old granddaughter, A.P. The information alleges that defendant knowingly fondled A.P.'s vagina in June 2005.

The State notified the defendant of its intent to present evidence of prior sexual misconduct pursuant to section 115-7.3 of the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1963 (the Code) (725 ILCS 5/115-7.3 (West 2008)). Specifically, the State sought to present the testimony of: (i) two of the defendant's sisters who claimed that the defendant sexually assaulted them in the 1960s; (ii) three of the defendant's daughters who claimed that he fondled them and digitally penetrated them in the 1970s and 1980s when they were preteens and teenagers; and (iii) another granddaughter (E.M.) who alleged that defendant rubbed her in her vaginal area outside of her clothing approximately five years before the charged offense, when she was approximately six years old. The State listed each of these individuals as potential witnesses and produced written statements from each during pretrial discovery.

The defendant moved the trial court to bar all of this evidence. He challenged admission on the grounds that the alleged prior sexual offenses had not been reported to the authorities prior to the instant charge and the State did not identify the specific purpose for which the evidence would be offered. The defendant also argued that the alleged prior offenses did not satisfy the requirements of section 115-7.3 for admission because they were irrelevant and because any conceivable probative value of the alleged offenses was substantially outweighed by the unfair prejudice that their admission would cause the defendant. Specifically, he maintained that the alleged prior offenses were too remote in time and factually dissimilar from the charged offense to qualify for admission under section 115-7.3. He also claimed that the evidence would unfairly prejudice him given its sheer volume and the lack of specificity regarding when the offenses allegedly occurred.

In response, the State argued that the alleged prior sexual offenses were sufficiently similar and close in time to be admissible under section 115-7.3. The State also reminded the trial court that section 115-7.3 creates an exception to the common law rule that evidence of prior misconduct is inadmissible to prove the defendant's propensity to commit the charged offense.

The trial court conducted two hearings on defendant's motions to bar this evidence. Before reaching a decision, the trial court reviewed the documents submitted by the State, which included police reports and transcripts of interviews of A.P and other alleged victims. The court also viewed videotaped interviews of A.P and E.M that were conducted by investigators at the Child Advocacy Clinic.

After considering this evidence, the trial court issued a written order granting the defendant's motion in part and denying it in part. The court weighed the probative value of the proposed other-crimes evidence against its potential to cause undue prejudice to the defendant, as required by section 115-7.3. In conducting this analysis, the court explicitly considered the factors outlined in the statute, including the proximity in time and the factual similarity between the alleged prior offenses and the charged offense.

Applying those factors, the court barred the State from introducing evidence of the defendant's alleged sexual abuse of his sisters and daughters. The court reasoned that defendant's alleged abuse of his sisters-which purportedly occurred in the 1960s and 1970s and involved forced sexual intercourse-was "too remote in time" and too "factually dissimilar" to the charged conduct to be admissible under the statute. The court also concluded that the allegations of sexual abuse made by the defendant's daughters were factually dissimilar from the charged offense in that they involved claims of digital penetration and/or rubbing of the vaginal area under the clothing, whereas the charged offense involved rubbing of the vaginal area outside of the victim's clothing. The court expressed concern that, if such evidence were admitted, it could lead a jury to convict the defendant based upon these alleged prior bad acts rather than the charged offense. The court also noted that, if all of the alleged victims were allowed to testify, the "cumulative probative value" of the evidence might convince a jury to convict the defendant "because he is a bad person" and "deny him a fair opportunity to defend himself against the charged offense."

However, the trial court allowed the State to present evidence of defendant's alleged sexual abuse of his other granddaughter, E.M. The court found that E.M.'s allegations were "strikingly similar" to A.P's claims in this case with regard to the ages of the two victims, their relation to the defendant, and the nature of the alleged abuse. Thus, applying the same statutory factors discussed above, the court concluded that "the probative value of [E.M's] testimony outweighs its prejudicial effect," and that E.M.'s testimony "is allowed under 725 ILCS 5/115-7.3." The court also noted that, because both E.M. and A.P alleged that the defendant touched their vaginal areas outside of their clothing, E.M.'s testimony could be used to show the defendant's "intent, motive, or absence of mistake."

The State filed a certificate of substantial impairment appealing the trial ...


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