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The People of the State v. Victor Russell

March 14, 2011

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE
PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
VICTOR RUSSELL,
DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Circuit Court OF ILLINOIS, of the 10th Judicial Circuit, Peoria County, Illinois, Honorable Stuart P. Borden, Judge, Presiding. No. 06--CF--1579

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wright

JUSTICE WRIGHT delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

Justice O'Brien concurred in the judgment and opinion, and joins Justice Holdridge in the special concur.

Justice Holdridge specially concurred, with opinion.

OPINION

On December 19, 2006, the State charged defendant Victor Russell by indictment with four alternate counts of first degree murder (720 ILCS 5/ 9-1(a)(2) (West 2004)) alleging defendant, without legal justification, knowingly did acts that caused the death of Carla Spires. A jury found defendant guilty of first degree murder. On January 11, 2008, the court sentenced defendant to 50 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) after denying defendant's motion for new trial. Defendant filed a timely notice of appeal.

On appeal, defendant argues that the State did not prove that he committed the murder beyond a reasonable doubt. Additionally, defendant contends that the trial court committed reversible error when it failed to individually question the jurors regarding the principals required by Supreme Court Rule 431(b). Ill. S. Ct. R. 431 (eff. May 1, 2007).

We affirmed the decision of the trial court on November 18, 2009. Defendant appealed to our supreme court which, in light of the postopinion case of People v. Thompson, 238 Ill. 2d 598 (2010), ordered this court to vacate its earlier judgment and reconsider its decision to determine if a different result is now warranted. In light of Thompson, we affirm the trial court's decision. Thompson, 238 Ill. 2d 598.

We affirm.

FACTS

On December 8, 2006, the State filed an information, followed by a subsequent indictment on December 19, 2006, charging defendant Victor Russell with four alternate counts of first degree murder. Count I alleged defendant, without lawful justification and with intent to kill Carla Spires, knowingly cut Carla Spires on the neck with a sharp object thereby causing the death of Carla Spires pursuant to section 9-1(a)(1) of the Criminal Code of 1961 (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(1) (West 2004)). Count II alleged defendant, without lawful justification and with the intent to do great bodily harm to Carla Spires, cut Carla Spires on the neck with a sharp object thereby causing the death of Carla Spires pursuant to section 9-1(a)(1) of the Criminal Code of 1961 (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(1) (West 2004)). Count III alleged defendant, without lawful justification, knowingly cut Carla Spires on the neck with a sharp object knowing said act created a strong probability of death to Carla Spires thereby causing the death of Carla Spires pursuant to section 9-1(a)(2) of the Criminal Code of 1961 (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(2) (West 2004)). Count IV alleged defendant, without lawful justification, knowingly cut Carla Spires on the neck with a sharp object knowing said act would create a strong probability of great bodily harm to Carla Spires thereby causing the death of Carla Spires pursuant to section 9-1(a)(2) of the Criminal Code of 1961 (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(2) (West 2004)). Defendant demanded a trial by jury, which began on October 22, 2007.

Only those portions of voir dire relevant to the issues at bar are included in this statement of facts. The court's introductory statement to the entire potential jury panel included:

"The defendant is to be presumed innocent of the charge in the indictment, and this presumption remains throughout the trial with the defendant until you've been satisfied by the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the defendant, and the burden of proving the guilt of the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt is on the State. The law does not require the defendant to prove his innocence. The defendant is not required to present any evidence or testify. If he chooses not to testify in this case, it cannot be held against him."

The judge also informed the jurors that he would give written instructions to them at the close of the case. The judge stated that it would be their "absolute duty to accept the law as defined in these instructions and to follow the court's instructions of law."

During the individual questioning of the jurors, the court asked each potential juror, in part, the following questions with minor variations from juror to juror: whether the juror had any bias against a person simply because he has been charged; whether the juror would follow the court's instructions regarding the law; whether the juror would decide the case without sympathy and prejudice; whether the juror would be able to give both the State and the defendant a fair trial; and whether the juror would wait until the end of the entire case before forming a final opinion about the verdict. During questioning of the various potential jurors, the court also randomly asked additional questions.

When questioning the first impaneled juror, after the court asked the question about waiting until the end of the entire case before forming a final opinion, the court also explained:

"The reason I ask that is you will find out the State has a burden of proof. They always have the burden of proof. They will put on evidence. The defendant may put on evidence. If the defendant does put on evidence, there could be rebuttal evidence. It could go back and forth a little bit. What I'm asking you to do is to withhold any opinion about the verdict until the case is completely over and you are back deliberating with your fellow jurors, and you indicated you would do that?"

The court expounded on some similar issues while questioning other potential jurors.

During voir dire, the prosecutor asked some, but not all, of the potential jurors whether they would be able to sign a guilty verdict if they found the State had proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt and, likewise, whether they would be able to sign a not guilty verdict if they found the State had not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Defendant's attorney did not ask any questions of the jurors relevant to Supreme Court Rule 431(b).

After opening statements, the State called Samuel Stevens as its first witness. He testified that he was an emergency medical technician on December 5, 2006, and responded to a call at 1321 Martin Luther King Drive in Peoria, Illinois. He stated, when he arrived at the scene and walked around the front of a car, he located a female, later identified as Carla Spires (Spires), located between the "stairs coming down" and the car. Upon further observation, he stated he observed several deep lacerations to her neck, her body was cold, and he determined that she was dead.

Kelly Williams, Spires' niece, stated Spires dated defendant "off and on approximately two to three years." Williams testified that she called defendant's cell phone at approximately 7:22 p.m. on December 5, 2006, and spoke to defendant and then spoke to Spires. On that evening, she said Spires' 12-year-old daughter, Rosaliyn Artis-Spires (Rosaliyn), was helping her move. At approximately 10 p.m. on that evening, Williams drove Rosaliyn back to Spires' residence and, when Rosaliyn got to the steps of the residence, she ran back to Williams' car screaming that something was wrong with her mom. When Williams got out of her car, she saw Spires and called 911.

The next witness, 15-year-old Secura Rutherford (Secura), testified that on December 5, 2006, she lived across the street from Spires' house. She stated, between 7 and 8 p.m. on that date, she heard screaming and looked out her window and saw a black man and a Caucasian lady on the stairs across the street. She said the man wore a "tannish" coat, a "skullcap," and dark jeans. She said she recognized the man and the woman because they lived across the street and she saw them come and go. She said she had seen both of them outside shoveling at their residence the day before the incident, and she recognized them as the same male and female.

Secura said the man and woman were "kind of wrestling" and he was pulling her downstairs with his back to her window. She testified he "kind of lost [his] grip and he fell down the stairs, got back up and pulled her down." She said when the man pulled the woman down, they were on the other side of the car for a while, but she could not see them because the car blocked her vision. At that point, she said she closed her window. After about 10 or 15 minutes, she testified, she looked outside again. Then, she saw the man walk toward the car, pick something up, walk away from the car, and then, in an underhand motion, throw what "looked like it was a knife or something" near the woods by the garbage cans. She testified that the man then walked up the street to where she could no longer see him, toward "Western" (Avenue). She said she did not see the woman again after the man pulled her down and out of her view by the side of the car.

Secura said she went to the police station on that evening around 1 a.m. and looked at a photo lineup. She testified that she was unable to identify anyone in that photo lineup. When shown the lineup photographs in court, Secura said she now saw defendant's photo in the lineup. Secura stated that she usually sees defendant in a skullcap or an "afro" and the photo lineup showed defendant wearing braids. Secura also testified that she gave a videotaped statement to the police at that time. Secura said the next day she again went to the police station and looked at an "in-person" lineup and she identified defendant as the man struggling with the Caucasian woman the previous night. She testified that she had no doubt in her mind that the man in the in-person lineup was the same man she saw pull the woman down the stairs on December 5, 2006. She testified that she could see the two people clearly on December 5 because Spires had a light shining outside. She clarified that defendant was wearing the same jacket and hat on December 5 that he wore the previous day when he shoveled snow. Secura then identified defendant, in court, as the man she saw struggling with the female on the night of December 5.

The next witness, Becky Rutherford (Becky), testified that on December 5, 2006, she and her daughter, Secura, had been living with her mother at 1322 Martin Luther King Drive for a couple of weeks. On December 5, 2006, Becky noticed a black man walk past her window around 7 or 8 p.m. while she was watching television. She said he was 5 feet 5 inches or 5 feet 6 inches tall, stocky, and wearing a brown jacket, a dark skullcap, and jeans. She observed him walk by heading "toward Western" (Avenue) patting the pockets of his pants. She then observed him turn around and walk back "toward MacArthur" (Highway) which was toward Spires' house. Becky stated the man walked out of her view from the window, he then reentered her view and was again heading toward Western Avenue, where he walked down a side street several blocks away and out of her view. The witness testified that she had previously seen this man a couple of days earlier shoveling snow with a Caucasian female at the house across the street from her residence. She said she had a conversation with him on that date and recognized him.

Later that evening, Becky said, she and her daughter went to the police station to give a statement. She said the police separated her from her daughter and took a videotaped statement from her that evening. The police also showed her a photo lineup and she could not identify anyone in the photographs. She said she and Secura returned to the police station the next day to look at an "in-person" lineup. During the in-person lineup, Becky said, she identified defendant as the man who walked past her window the previous evening. While testifying, Becky stated that she had only seen defendant three times prior to that evening and, each time, he always had the skullcap on his head. She said she did not recognize him in the photo lineup because his hair was different. Becky identified defendant, while in the courtroom, as the same person she observed walking past her window on December 5, 2006. Becky stated that she did not see defendant's van on December 5, 2006.

Police officer Kenneth Snow testified that he was the crime scene technician assigned to the Spires case. He stated that he was called to the Spires' residence on December 14, 2006, where he recovered a folding box cutter approximately 20 feet into the wooded area behind the house and about 180 feet west of the staircase leading from the house to the garage. He said the box cutter had a folding blade and some visible hairs and blood on it.

Detective Shannon Walden testified she conducted the in-person lineup at the police station on December 6, 2006, regarding the Spires murder investigation. During this lineup, Walden said, she took Becky, individually, into the viewing room, and Becky identified defendant out of the lineup. Next, she took Secura ...


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