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The People of the State of Illinois v. Dante Brown

April 16, 2012


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 03 CR 27803 Honorable James B. Linn, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Rochford

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

Presiding Justice Hoffman and Justice Karnezis concurred in the judgment and opinion.


¶ 1 Following a jury trial, defendant, Dante Brown, was convicted on an accountability theory of two counts of first degree murder and was sentenced to a statutorily mandated sentence of natural life in prison without the possibility of parole. On appeal, defendant asserts that: (1) in light of the evidence of his cognitive disabilities, the trial court improperly denied defendant's motion to suppress a videotaped statement he provided to police on the grounds that he did not intelligently and knowingly waive his constitutional rights pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966); and (2) those same cognitive disabilities, and his relative youth, rendered defendant's mandatory natural life sentence unconstitutionally disproportionate. For the following reasons, we affirm.


¶ 3 Defendant and his codefendant, Dwight Allen, were charged by indictment with the October 6, 2003, murders of Charles Edwards III (G-Red or Red) and Charles Edwards IV (Little Rock)*fn1 , as well as multiple counts of home invasion, armed robbery, residential burglary, and aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. The record reflects that defendant and Mr. Allen were charged with murder on the basis of their accountability for the actions of defendant's cousin, Corey Singleton, who actually committed the murders. Mr. Allen pleaded guilty to a single count of murder in exchange for a sentence of 30 years' imprisonment and his promise to testify against Mr. Singleton should he ever be charged. While defendant's brief indicates that he rejected a similar plea, there is no evidence of this in the record. In any case, the charges against defendant proceeded to a jury trial in June of 2008.

¶ 4 Prior to trial, defendant was referred to the circuit court's forensic clinical services for a evaluation as to his fitness to stand trial. It appears that this referral may have been made in response to a letter defendant's mother wrote to the trial court referencing defendant's low intelligence quotient (IQ) scores and history of special education. In March of 2007, a licensed clinical psychologist examined defendant and subsequently informed the trial court that defendant was fit to stand trial.

¶ 5 Defendant also filed a pretrial motion to suppress a videotaped statement he gave on November 15, 2003, when he was 19 years old. The record reveals that on the day before this statement was given, defendant was in police custody and being investigated for an unrelated offense along with Mr. Singleton. At that time, and after he had previously been informed of his Miranda rights, defendant asked Officer (now Detective) Carolyn Keating if he could tell her something. Defendant then told Officer Keating that Mr. Singleton had killed G-Red and Little Rock. Defendant explained that he knew this "because [he] was there." Officer Keating, who was not then aware of the two murders, contacted the detectives working on the homicide investigation.

¶ 6 Defendant was thereafter interviewed by those detectives, as well as by Assistant State's Attorney (ASA) Andreana Turano. Before each interview, defendant was again informed of his Miranda rights and agreed to waive those rights. He then went on to describe his involvement in the murders. Finally, defendant agreed to memorialize his statement on videotape, and that videotaped statement was introduced as evidence at the hearing on the motion to suppress.

¶ 7 That video begins with defendant acknowledging that he had previously provided his Miranda rights and agreed to speak with the police. Defendant is then again informed of his Miranda rights. Defendant thereafter indicated that he both understood and waived those rights, and he orally agreed to have his statement videotaped; defendant also acknowledged that he had previously consented to the videotaped statement in writing. He then began answering the ASA's questions about the events of October 6, 2003.

¶ 8 Defendant stated that on that date, Mr. Singleton picked him up at his home in a blue Lumina driven by a man defendant called "Jermaine," the name by which he knew codefendant Mr. Allen.*fn2

All three were members of the Black P-Stone street gang. They drove around some time, smoking and drinking. They then drove to Mr. Singleton's home so that Mr. Singleton could retrieve a .38-caliber handgun. Defendant asked to see that gun, and upon inspection he saw that the magazine clip was loaded with 10 rounds of ammunition. Defendant then returned the gun to Mr. Singelton, and Mr. Singleton explained that they were all going to rob G-Red at his home. G-Red was the leader of the same gang, but had recently had someone try to kill Mr. Singleton.

¶ 9 Upon arriving at G-Red's home, Mr. Singleton observed through the window that G-Red appeared to be the only person at home. Before kicking the rear door in and entering, defendant saw Mr. Singleton cock the gun. Defendant was unarmed at the time. Defendant covered his face with a mask and Jermaine had covered his face with a stocking cap. Mr. Singleton had not covered his face, and when defendant was asked why not, defendant stated that Mr. Singleton intended to kill G-Red.

¶ 10 Once inside, Mr. Singleton confronted G-Red and ordered him to give up "every *** thing you got in this house or I'm gonna kill you." Defendant, Mr. Singleton, and Jermaine ransacked the house, taking drugs, clothes, and jewelry. During the course of the robbery, Mr. Singleton shot both G-Red and Little Rock--who was G-Red's 16-year-old son--multiple times, killing both.

¶ 11 Thereafter, defendant was taken back to his home. Mr. Singleton kept the items defendant had stolen, giving defendant $50 in cash because they "didn't get too much of nothing" in the robbery. Mr. Singleton also told defendant not to tell anyone what had happened.

¶ 12 After the video was introduced at the hearing on the motion to suppress, defendant presented the testimony of Dr. Nancy Cowardin, who held a doctorate in special education and psychology and was accepted as an expert in educational psychology and special education, as well as a developmental learning specialist. She testified that she was hired by the public defender to assess defendant, and she completed a number of interviews and a battery of tests with him in May of 2004.

¶ 13 Dr. Cowardin testified that the results of these interviews and tests revealed that defendant's general level of intellectual functioning was quite low. His overall IQ score was within the range of those classified as mentally retarded, he read at a first-grade level, and his math skills were at a third-grade level. He had demonstrated difficulties in receiving, processing, and expressing information. She testified that some of these deficiencies were exhibited in the videotaped statement, noting single instances where defendant had difficulty remembering Jermaine's name and the name of the car Jermaine was driving, as well as making errors in syntax.

¶ 14 With regard to the Miranda warnings that defendant was provided, Dr. Cowardin testified that they were "coded" to the level of a 12- or 13-year-old child, a level above that which defendant's test results indicated he could understand. The understanding defendant displayed in the video may have been superficial only and an example of "masking" his actual misunderstanding. She further stated that defendant did very poorly on the verbal portion of the so-called "Gisso" test, which tested his ability to understand the Miranda warnings. Defendant, however, did "very, very well" when the concepts contained in those warnings were presented pictorially, earning "a hundred out of a possible hundred points" on that portion of the test.

¶ 15 Ultimately, Dr. Cowardin expressed concerns and doubts about defendant's ability to understand the Miranda warnings that were provided to him in the videotape. However, on both direct and cross-examination, Dr. Cowardin indicated that she could not be certain that he did not understand those warnings, testifying that it was indeed possible he could have understood them.

¶ 16 At the conclusion of Dr. Cowardin's testimony, defendant indicated that he had no other evidence to introduce in support of his motion to suppress. The State then made a motion for directed finding, which the trial court granted and thus also denied defendant's motion. The trial court found that Dr. Cowardin's testimony was "more relevant to teaching the defendant rather than the particular issue at hand" and "at best you would have to characterize her contribution to this [as] *** he may have not understood. I don't know."

¶ 17 The matter proceeded to a jury trial, where defendant's videotaped statement was introduced as evidence by the State. The State also introduced other testimony and evidence regarding the police investigation, including evidence that defendant's fingerprints were found at G-Red's home and that G-Red and Little Rock died of multiple gunshot wounds. Dr. Cowardin also testified at trial, with her trial testimony similar to the testimony she provided at the suppression hearing. Defendant was ultimately found guilty, on a theory of accountability, of two counts of first degree murder.

¶ 18 Defendant's motion for a new trial was denied. The matter proceeded to a sentencing hearing, at which defendant presented a motion that--acknowledging the fact that defendant's convictions for multiple murders called for a statutorily mandated life sentence--asked the trial court to impose a reduced sentence in light of the evidence of defendant's youth and mental retardation. The trial court denied this motion. The State recounted the facts of the case and defendant's criminal history in aggravation, and defendant again stressed his youth at the time of the crime and the evidence of his mental retardation in mitigation. After expressing frustration with the lack of discretion provided by the sentencing statute, the trial court sentenced defendant to a term of natural life without the possibility of parole. Defendant's motion to reconsider this sentence was denied, and he thereafter timely appealed.


¶ 20 On appeal, defendant challenges both the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress and his mandatory sentence of natural life in prison.

¶ 21 A. Motion to Suppress

¶ 22 We first address defendant's contention that the trial court improperly denied his motion to suppress the videotaped statement on the grounds that his Miranda rights were not intelligently and knowingly waived.

¶ 23 1. Legal Framework and Standard of Review

¶ 24 Both the fifth amendment to the United States Constitution (U.S. Const., amend. V) and article I, section 10, of the Illinois Constitution (Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, §10) provide that no person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself. The United States Supreme Court has "extended the fifth amendment privilege against self-incrimination to custodial interrogation and required that a defendant be warned that he or she has the right to remain silent, he or she has the right to an attorney, and that any statement given may be used against him or her in a court of law." People v. Dennis, 373 Ill. App. 3d 30, 42 (2007) (citing Miranda, 384 U.S. at 475-77). As such, "before a defendant's confession can be admitted a trial, the State must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that defendant validly waived [his or] her privilege against self-incrimination and [his or] her right to counsel." People v. Daniels, 391 Ill. App. 3d 750, 780 (2009). " 'Once the State has established its prima facie case, the burden shifts to defendant to show that his [Miranda] waiver was not knowing, intelligent or voluntary.' " People v. Johnson, 385 Ill. App. 3d 585, 591 (2008) (quoting People v. Reid, 136 Ill. 2d 27, 51 (1990)).

¶ 25 A valid waiver of Miranda rights occurs where: (1) the decision to relinquish those rights was voluntary in the sense that it was not the product of intimidation, coercion, or deception; and (2) it was made with a full awareness of the nature of the rights being abandoned and the consequences of the decision to abandon them. People v. Crotty, 394 Ill. App. 3d 651, 662 (2009). The validity of a Miranda waiver is a question of fact, which must be determined in light of the totality of the circumstances. Id. "The crucial test to be used in determining whether an accused knowingly and intelligently waived [his or] her rights is whether the words in the context used, considering the age, background and intelligence of the individual being interrogated, impart a clear, understandable warning of all of [his or] her rights." Daniels, 391 Ill. App. 3d at 781.

¶ 26 Finally, "[i]n reviewing a trial court's decision as to whether defendant's confession was voluntary, we apply a bifurcated standard of review. Although we review de novo the ultimate question of whether the confession was voluntary, because the subissue of whether a Miranda waiver was knowing and intelligent is factual, we review it under a manifest weight of the evidence standard." Id. at 780 (citing In re G.O., 191 Ill. 2d 37, 50 (2000)). "A finding is against the manifest weight of the evidence only if the opposite conclusion is clearly evident or if the finding is unreasonable, arbitrary, or not based on the evidence presented." People v. Deleon, 227 Ill. 2d 322, 332 (2008). Furthermore, under this standard we are to give deference to the trial court as the finder of fact, and we will not substitute our judgment for that of the trial court regarding the credibility of witnesses, the weight to be given to the evidence, or the inferences to be drawn therefrom. Id.

¶ 27 2. Burden Shifting

ΒΆ 28 Defendant initially contends that the trial court improperly shifted the burden of proof on this issue when, in denying his motion to suppress, the court stated that "it's the defense's ...

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