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The People of the State of Illinois v. Dontrell Sanders

February 14, 2012

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS,
PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
DONTRELL SANDERS,
DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County 09 CR 12552-02 Honorable James B. Linn, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Connors

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

Presiding Justice Quinn and Justice Cunningham concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

¶ 1 Following a bench trial, the trial court found defendant Dontrell Sanders guilty of aggravated battery with a firearm, aggravated discharge of a firearm, and aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. On appeal, defendant contends that (1) he was not proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt due to alleged infirmities in the eyewitness testimony, (2) he is entitled to a new trial because gang evidence and hearsay were improperly admitted, and (3) the automatic transfer provision of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (705 ILCS 405/5-130 (West 2010)) is unconstitutional. We affirm.

¶ 2 I. BACKGROUND

¶ 3 Late at night in May 2009, Reginald Lewis and Denzell Gresham were looking for a parking space for the van that they were driving. While making a U-turn, however, they suddenly found themselves blocked in by another vehicle. According to both of the victims, a person got out of the back driver's-side door, ran toward their vehicle, and began firing a handgun at them. The victims ducked down in order to shield themselves from the gunfire, but Lewis was struck in the back by one round, which grazed his lung and broke two of his ribs. Gresham was uninjured in the attack. The shooter retreated and the other vehicle sped off, while Lewis and Gresham made their way to the hospital. Lewis collapsed in the entryway of the hospital, but he was successfully treated and later made a full recovery. These facts were undisputed, and the trial focused on the identity of the shooter and the driver of the other vehicle. We will recount additional testimony as necessary in our analysis.

¶ 4 II. ANALYSIS

¶ 5 A. Sufficiency of the Evidence

¶ 6 Defendant's first argument on appeal is that the State failed to present sufficient evidence to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt because the case against him relied solely on Lewis' and Gresham's eyewitness testimony, which defendant argues was so inconsistent and impeached that it was completely unreliable.

¶ 7 At trial, both victims identified defendant as the shooter and his codefendant, Johnmel Phillips, as the driver of the other vehicle. The defense's strategy was to focus on inconsistencies in Gresham's trial testimony and a two-week gap between the shooting and the victims' identification of the two defendants as the shooter and driver in photo arrays and lineups.

¶ 8 The record demonstrates that Gresham's testimony regarding the identification of the defendants was at best inconsistent. Regarding the night of the shooting, on direct examination Gresham testified that although the shooter was 12 to 15 feet away and the area was lit by streetlamps, he was unable to see the shooter's face. On cross-examination, Gresham contended that he was unable to see the driver's face but that he had seen the shooter's face. Gresham denied that he had testified on direct that he was unable to see the shooter's face, but the record reveals that he did, in fact, say this. Gresham's testimony became even more unclear on redirect when, in response to the State's questions, Gresham stated that he had seen defendant step out of the vehicle and open fire. The record demonstrates that Gresham was confused by the parties' questions and was unclear about exactly what they were getting at, so it is impossible to tell from the record whether the inconsistencies in his testimony were caused by poorly framed questions from the attorneys, which was the State's view, or Gresham's inability to keep his story straight, as the defense later argued.

¶ 9 Gresham further testified that while he was at the hospital he was interviewed by an officer about the shooting. Gresham also testified inconsistently about this conversation, stating variously that the officer did not ask him for a description of his assailants and then that the officer had asked for a description. Either way, the defense later called the officer, who testified that Gresham did not identify or give a description of his assailants while he was at the hospital that night. Things became even more muddled when Gresham testified that he did not recall ever being shown a photo array. The defense, however, later offered testimony that about two weeks after the attack detectives presented Gresham with a photo array but he was unable to identify anyone in the array as his assailant. Yet two days after the photo array, Gresham picked both defendant and his codefendant out of a physical lineup as the shooter and driver, respectively. When Gresham later identified the men in court as his attackers, he conceded that prior to the night of the shooting he had never seen them before.

¶ 10 In comparison to Gresham's performance on the stand, Lewis' testimony was a model of clarity. On the night of the shooting, Lewis was the driver of the vehicle that he and Gresham were traveling in. When the other vehicle blocked them in, Lewis testified that at first he was unable to see the faces of the driver and the shooter because of the glare on the windshield from the streetlamps. When the other vehicle backed up slightly, however, Lewis was able to see that the driver was a man that Lewis knew as "Jamal," whom he later identified as codefendant Johnmel Phillips. Lewis testified that he had grown up in the same neighborhood as Phillips, though they were not close. Lewis stated that as he attempted to move his vehicle away from the other vehicle, Gresham alerted him that a door in the other vehicle had opened. When Lewis looked over at the vehicle, he saw a man running toward him with a gun in his hand. As the man passed under the light of the streetlamps, his face was illuminated and Lewis recognized the man as defendant, whom he had also grown up with and knew as "Tank." Lewis testified that defendant had worked for Lewis' father for several years.

¶ 11 Lewis recalled that he was later interviewed at the hospital by an officer and that he told the officer that Tank and Jamal were the assailants. Lewis acknowledged that although he was heavily medicated at the time, he was able to speak with the officer for 10 or 15 minutes. When the defense later called the officer, the officer stated that he did not recall Lewis giving him either names or descriptions for the attackers. The officer did state, however, that Lewis had told him where the assailants usually hung out. About two weeks later, detectives also presented Lewis with a photo array, but unlike Gresham he was able to identify defendant as the shooter and Phillips as the driver at that time. At the lineups two days later, Lewis again picked out defendant and Phillips as his assailants.

¶ 12 Defendant maintains that the inconsistencies in Gresham's and Lewis' testimony render it unreliable and therefore insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was the shooter. When a defendant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence, "our function is not to retry the defendant. [Citation.] Rather, we must determine whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. [Citations.] This means that we must allow all reasonable inferences from the record in favor of the prosecution. [Citation.] As a reviewing court, [w]e will not reverse a conviction unless the evidence is so improbable, unsatisfactory, or inconclusive that it creates a reasonable doubt of defendant's guilt. [Citation.]" (Internal quotation marks omitted.) People v. Beauchamp, 241 Ill. 2d 1, 8 (2011).

¶ 13 Retrying the case is essentially what defendant is asking us to do here. Defendant does not argue that the State failed to offer any proof regarding some element of the offenses for which he was on trial, but instead urges us to reweigh the evidence against him. In fact, the majority of defendant's argument centers on an analysis of the weight that should be given to the eyewitness testimony of Lewis and Gresham under the factors for judging whether eyewitness testimony is credible. See People v. Slim, 127 Ill. 2d 302, 307-08 (1989) (listing five factors). However, "[a] single witness' identification of the accused is sufficient to sustain a conviction if the witness viewed the accused under circumstances permitting a positive identification." Id. Even if we give defendant the benefit of the doubt and disregard Gresham's testimony, which was admittedly inconsistent and unclear, that would still leave Lewis' testimony as evidence against him. Not only did Lewis testify that he was able to view defendant at close range and under relatively good light, but he also testified that he recognized defendant as someone whom he knew.

¶ 14 Defendant makes much of purported inconsistencies in Lewis' testimony. In particular, pointing to the testimony of the officer from the hospital, defendant argues that Lewis did not identify defendant as the shooter or give defendant's description to the officer on the night of the shooting. Defendant argues that the fact that defendant was not positively identified until the photo arrays and lineups two weeks later renders Lewis' testimony unreliable. This is not, however, a fair reading of the trial testimony. Although the record does disclose the officer's recollection of the conversation, it also makes clear that Lewis emphatically testified that he identified his attackers as "Tank" and "Jamal" when he spoke to the officer on the night of the shooting. It is notable that the officer testified that Lewis told him where his assailants could be found. Had Lewis in fact told the officer that he did not know who attacked him, which is the thrust of defendant's argument, then he would logically not be able to tell the officer where they habitually hung out. Although the officer testified that he did not recall Lewis providing names or descriptions, he specifically testified that Lewis told him where to find his assailants. The necessary logical inference from this is that Lewis must have told the officer something about the identity of his attackers, even if the officer did not recall at trial the specifics of what Lewis told him.

¶ 15 Even so, for purposes of our review it is not dispositive if Lewis' or Gresham's testimony was impeached or inconsistent because it "is for the trier of fact to resolve conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence." In re Jonathon C.B., 2011 IL 107750, ¶ 59. Although the trier of fact's findings are "neither conclusive nor binding" on review, "[t]he trier of fact is best equipped to judge the credibility of witnesses, and due consideration must be given to the fact that it was the trial court that saw and heard the witnesses." Id. Both Lewis and Gresham testified that defendant was the person who shot at them, and their testimony, if believed by the trial court, is sufficient to establish defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It was the job of the trial court in the first instance to determine whether or not Gresham and Lewis were credible. The trial court accepted their testimony about the shooting and their explanations for the inconsistencies. We cannot say that Gresham's and Lewis' testimony was so wholly incredible or so thoroughly impeached that it is incapable of being used as evidence against defendant. But cf., e.g., People v. Rivera, 2011 IL App (2d) 091060 (reversing on sufficiency-of-the-evidence grounds where the only evidence linking the defendant to the crime was incredible jailhouse informants, inconclusive DNA evidence, and purported statements of defendant that were prepared by police officers).

¶ 16 B. Hearsay and Gang Evidence

¶ 17 Defendant next argues that the trial court erroneously admitted gang evidence and hearsay that allowed the State to bolster the testimony of Lewis and Gresham. One of the most unusual features of this case is that the crime appears at first glance to be completely random. Given that the evidence against defendant depended on a pair of eyewitness identifications that were made under admittedly stressful circumstances, the State devoted a significant portion of its case-in-chief to explaining the motive behind the crime. It is this evidence that defendant takes issue with.

¶ 18 About a year before the attack, Lewis was involved in car accident that left someone dead. Because a criminal case was pending against Lewis for the accident at the time of trial in this case, the trial court and the parties were intentionally vague about the specifics of that case when they questioned Lewis about it. The State's theory was that the May 2009 shooting was retaliation against Lewis for his involvement in the 2008 car accident. To prove this theory, the State needed to demonstrate that defendant knew the car-accident victim. While Lewis was discussing his long-standing familiarity with defendant and his codefendant during the State's direct examination, the following exchange ensued:

"[The State]: And did you know whether or not Mr. Phillips [i.e., the codefendant] knew the individual who died as a result of the car accident you had been involved in in June of 2008?

[Lewis]: Yes.

Q. What was their ...


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