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The People of the State of Illinois v. Jason Lara

October 18, 2012

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS,
APPELLANT,
v.
JASON LARA,
APPELLEE.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Justice Kilbride

CHIEF JUSTICE KILBRIDE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

Justices Freeman, Garman, Karmeier, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

Justice Thomas specially concurred, with opinion.

OPINION

¶ 1 Defendant Jason Lara was tried on two counts of predatory criminal sexual assault of a child (720 ILCS 5/12-14.1(a)(1) (West 2004)). At trial, the circuit court of Cook County admitted defendant's confession, including his statement that penetration, an element of the offenses, occurred. Defendant was convicted of both counts and sentenced to consecutive prison terms of 10 years and 8 years.

¶ 2 On appeal, defendant argued, inter alia, that his confession should not have been presented to the jury because it was not sufficiently corroborated by independent evidence, as required by the corpus delicti rule. The appellate court held that the rule required the State to produce independent evidence of the element of penetration and that insufficient independent evidence was presented to support convictions for predatory criminal sexual assault. Accordingly, the appellate court reversed defendant's convictions, reducing them to the lesser-included offense of aggravated criminal sexual abuse and remanding the cause for resentencing. 408 Ill. App. 3d 732. One justice specially concurred, disagreeing with the majority's interpretation of the corpus delicti rule but agreeing that the independent evidence was insufficient to establish the element of penetration required to convict defendant of predatory criminal sexual assault. 408 Ill. App. 3d at 743 (Murphy, J., specially concurring).

¶ 3 The State appealed from the appellate court's judgment. We now reverse that judgment and remand the cause to the appellate court to address two issues it did not previously consider.

¶ 4 I. BACKGROUND

¶ 5 Defendant Jason Lara was tried before a jury on two counts of predatory criminal sexual assault of an eight-year-old girl, J.O. (720 ILCS 5/12-14.1(a)(1) (West 2004)). In a written statement made shortly after the assaults, defendant, then 19, confessed to putting one hand in J.O.'s pants and touching her vagina on two separate occasions in January 2005. The incidents occurred while his mother was baby-sitting J.O. and her sister overnight at his mother's apartment. Before trial, defendant, who took medication for attention deficit disorder and epilepsy, filed a motion to suppress his statements "due to the physical, physiological, mental, emotional and/or psychological state, and as a consequence of his severe epilepsy exacerbated by stress." Defense counsel argued that defendant suffered a seizure while in custody, making him "unable to appreciate and understand the full meaning of his Miranda rights and any statement *** was not made voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently." After a hearing, the trial court denied defendant's suppression motion. Defendant did not appeal from that order.

¶ 6 At trial, defendant's confession was read into the record.

According to his confession, defendant inserted his finger into J.O.'s vagina either "as far as his fingernail" or "as far as his fingernail up to his cuticle." In his trial testimony, however, defendant denied ever touching J.O. inappropriately and putting his hand in her pants. He testified that he lacked a clear memory about the specific circumstances surrounding his confession and that he had experienced trouble concentrating at that time. Defendant believed he had suffered an epileptic seizure while in custody, resulting in his confused state at the time of his confession. The jury heard extensive conflicting medical testimony addressing this contention as well.

¶ 7 In addition to defendant's confession, the State introduced J.O.'s out-of-court interview statements. Eight-year-old J.O. was given a "Victim Sensitive Interview" by a specially trained interviewer shortly after the two incidents were reported to the police. Detective Linda Paraday testified that she had taken notes of the interview from behind a two-way mirror. According to her notes, J.O. gave details of when and where the two incidents occurred that were consistent with those in defendant's confession. Specifically, J.O. stated that defendant was her babysitter's son. J.O. indicated that both times she and her younger sister were sleeping on the floor beside defendant's bed in the babysitter's living room, as they usually did when they stayed overnight while their mother worked.

¶ 8 Describing the first incident, J.O. explained that she was asleep when she was awakened by defendant's hand on her "private part," with her pants and underwear pulled down to her knees. When asked about where she was touched, she responded it was on the front part, "the part you use to go pee." According to the detective, J.O. stated that defendant's "hand was on her private part."

¶ 9 Describing the second incident, J.O. said that she had been to the bathroom and returned to the floor beside defendant's bed to go back to sleep when defendant again touched her. As related by Detective Paraday, J.O. stated that defendant "put his hand under her panties on her vagina." Asked by the interviewer to show where defendant touched her each time, J.O. put her hand on her vaginal area. Although initially unable to recall whether the interviewer had asked J.O. if defendant had touched the inside or outside of her private part, Detective Paraday refreshed her memory from her notes and testified that J.O. felt defendant touch her on the outside.

¶ 10 J.O. also personally testified at defendant's trial. At the time of the trial, J.O. was 12 years old. She testified that she was eight years old when defendant touched her inappropriately. Consistent with her interview statements, J.O. described two incidents that occurred when she slept overnight at defendant's apartment. During both instances, J.O. was asleep or starting to sleep when she felt defendant put his hand inside her underwear and touch her "private." The details she gave of the two incidents were consistent with both her prior statements and defendant's confession. At trial, however, J.O. was not asked whether she was touched outside or inside. Ultimately, the jury convicted defendant of both counts of predatory criminal sexual assault (PCSA), and the trial court sentenced him to consecutive prison terms of 10 years and 8 years.

¶ 11 On appeal, the appellate court reversed defendant's convictions.

Writing for the majority, Justice Neville held that the corpus delicti of PCSA was not established because the State failed to present evidence corroborating the portion of defendant's confession establishing sexual penetration. 408 Ill. App. 3d at 741. See 720 ILCS 5/12-14.1(a)(1), 12-12(f) (West 2004). Without corroboration of the only element distinguishing PCSA from aggravated criminal sexual abuse (ACSA) (720 ILCS 5/12-16(c)(1) (West 2004)), the majority did not believe defendant's PCSA convictions could be upheld. 408 Ill. App. 3d at 741. The court, however, found sufficient corroboration of defendant's statement that he touched J.O.'s vagina to support convictions for two acts of the lesser-included offense of ACSA. Accordingly, the appellate court reduced defendant's two PCSA convictions to ACSA and remanded the cause for resentencing. 408 Ill. App. 3d at 742-43. Given its resolution of the corpus delicti issue, the court did not consider whether the denial of defendant's trial request for a lesser-included offense instruction on ACSA was error and, if not, whether defendant's combined 18-year sentence for his two PCSA convictions was excessive. 408 Ill. App. 3d at 743.

¶ 12 In a special concurrence, Justice Murphy disagreed with the majority's analysis of the corpus delicti rule, stating it improperly required corroboration of each element of the offense. 408 Ill. App. 3d at 745 (Murphy, J., specially concurring). He "fear[ed] that requiring evidence of every element may essentially flip the corroboration rule on its head ***. Essentially, this would make the confession corroboration for the victim's testimony, thereby requiring the State to prove the crime twice over ***." 408 Ill. App. 3d at 746 (Murphy, J., specially concurring). Justice Murphy specially concurred in the judgment, however, because he believed J.O.'s statement that defendant had touched her on the "outside" contradicted defendant's statement that penetration had occurred. 408 Ill. App. 3d at 744 (Murphy, J., specially concurring). This court allowed the State's petition for leave to appeal. Ill. S. Ct. R. 315 (eff. Feb. 26, 2010).

¶ 13 II. ANALYSIS

¶ 14 A. The Corpus Delicti Rule

¶ 15 On appeal, the State argues that the appellate court improperly expanded the corpus delicti rule to require independent evidence corroborating every element of the specified offense before a defendant's statement could be used to prove the corpus delicti of the offense. The State asserts that this conclusion conflicts with well-established law.

¶ 16 Defendant disagrees with the State's claim that the appellate court required each element of every offense to be corroborated by independent evidence. He asserts that the element of penetration must be corroborated here because it is the only factor distinguishing PCSA from ACSA. Citing People v. Sargent, 239 Ill. 2d 166 (2010), and People v. Dalton, 91 Ill. 2d 22 (1982), defendant argues that his PCSA convictions must be reduced to ACSA because no corroborating evidence supports "the single element, sexual penetration, that distinguishes ACSA from PCSA." 408 Ill. App. 3d at 741. Because this issue presents a question of law, we review it de novo. People v. Gutierrez, 2012 IL 111590, ¶ 16.

¶ 17 The corpus delicti of an offense is simply the commission of a crime. Along with the identity of the person who committed the offense, it is one of two propositions the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt to obtain a valid conviction. In general, the corpus delicti cannot be proven by a defendant's admission, confession, or out-of-court statement alone. When a defendant's confession is part of the corpus delicti proof, the State must also provide independent corroborating evidence. Sargent, 239 Ill. 2d at 183.

¶ 18 To avoid running afoul of the corpus delicti rule, the independent evidence need only tend to show the commission of a crime. It need not be so strong that it alone proves the commission of the charged offense beyond a reasonable doubt. If the corroborating evidence is sufficient, it may be considered, together with the defendant's confession, to determine if the State has sufficiently established the corpus delicti to support a conviction. Sargent, 239 Ill. 2d at 183; People v. Willingham, 89 Ill. 2d 352, 358-59 (1982).

¶ 19 The corpus delicti rule arose from courts' historical mistrust of out-of-court confessions. That mistrust is generally attributed to: (1) some individuals' tendency to confess, for various psychological reasons, to offenses that they did not commit or that did not occur, and (2) the unreliability of coerced confessions. Sargent, 239 Ill. 2d at 183.

¶ 20 This court has analyzed the corpus delicti rule in a number of decisions. We turn first to this court's decision in Sargent. Citing Sargent, the appellate majority held that the State failed to establish the corpus delicti of PCSA because the independent evidence offered no corroboration of the element of penetration defendant admitted in his written statement. 408 Ill. App. 3d at 740-41. Defendant correctly notes that the element of penetration is the only factor distinguishing PCSA from ACSA. 720 ILCS 5/12-14.1(a)(1) (West 2004) (listing the elements of PCSA); 720 ILCS 5/12-16(c)(1) (West 2004) (listing the elements of ACSA).

¶ 21 In Sargent, this court stated that corroborating evidence "must relate to the specific events on which the prosecution is predicated." Sargent, 239 Ill. 2d at 185. Accordingly, defendant contends, the element of penetration must be corroborated here because it is part of the "specific events" underlying the two PCSA counts charged by the State.

¶ 22 In Sargent, the defendant was convicted of four counts of PCSA, one involving his stepson, J.W., and three involving J.W.'s younger brother, M.G., in addition to two counts of ACSA involving M.G. The relevant issue in Sargent was the sufficiency of the evidence supporting certain charges that involved M.G. Sargent, 239 Ill. 2d at 184. After closely evaluating the grammatical forms used in the Department of Children and Family Services investigator's trial testimony and M.G.'s pretrial videotaped statements, we reversed two of the defendant's three PCSA convictions involving M.G. because the only corroboration offered was the boy's statement acknowledging only one incident. Sargent, 239 Ill. 2d at 187.

¶ 23 In addition, the Sargent court reversed the defendant's convictions for two counts of ACSA based on allegations of fondling because "[a]side from defendant's confession, *** there was no evidence of any kind to corroborate" them. Sargent, 239 Ill. 2d at 184. Although the State had argued that independent evidence of the defendant's digital penetration of M.G. also provided "sufficient corroboration" of the fondling charge, the court explained that "these were separate acts which gave rise to separate charges. Our precedent demonstrates that under the corroboration rule, the independent corroborating evidence must relate to the specific events on which the prosecution is predicated." Sargent, 239 Ill. 2d at 184, 185. Thus, when a confession involves more than one offense, "the corroboration rule requires that there be independent evidence tending to show that defendant committed each of the offenses for which he was convicted." Sargent, 239 Ill. 2d at 185 (citing People v. Bounds, 171 Ill. 2d 1, 42-46 (1995)). Defendant primarily relies on this portion of Sargent.

¶ 24 While Sargent provides considerable insight into the corpus delicti rule, it does not fully resolve the specific issue before this court. The court's statement that corroboration must "relate to the specific events on which the prosecution is predicated" was addressed not to just any two separate criminal charges but particularly to criminal charges alleging distinctly different types of acts. The court did not countenance the use of evidence establishing the defendant's digital penetration of M.G. to prove the fondling allegation as well precisely because the latter constituted an entirely different type of assault affecting a different part of the victim's body. Sargent, 239 Ill. 2d at 185 (requiring separate corroboration where the two criminal counts alleged contact with different parts of the victim's body) (citing People Richmond, 341 Ill. App. 3d 39, 46 (2003)).

¶ 25 Here, unlike in Sargent, exactly the same type and point of contact was alleged in both PCSA counts filed against defendant. The two counts alleged that defendant "intentionally or knowingly *** inserted his finger into [J.O.'s] vagina." Two counts were charged instead of one because the assaults occurred on two different days. In applying the corroboration rule to separate counts alleging vastly different types of contact, the courts in Sargent and Richmond did not speak to the same type of circumstances at issue here.

ΒΆ 26 Notably, however, Sargent recognized that in some instances one type of criminal activity could be "so closely related" to another type that "corroboration of one may suffice to corroborate the other." Sargent, 239 Ill. 2d at 185. Thus, Sargent suggests that the same corroborating evidence may suffice to support a defendant's confession to multiple offenses when the offenses possess some distinctive elements. Due to the fact-intensive nature of the inquiry, however, the question of whether certain independent evidence is sufficient to establish specific charged offenses must be decided on a case-by-case basis. Our acknowledgment in Sargent that not all elements of each offense must be expressly corroborated in all criminal cases seriously undermines ...


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