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The People of the State of Illinois v. Joe Mendez

March 11, 2013

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS,
PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
JOE MENDEZ,
DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from Circuit Court of McLean County No. 07CF416 Honorable Robert L. Freitag, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Harris

Carla Bender 4th District Appellate Court, IL

JUSTICE HARRIS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Steigmann and Justice Pope concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

¶ 1 A jury found defendant, Joe Mendez, guilty of first degree murder (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(1) (West 2006)) and the trial court sentenced him to 55 years in prison. Defendant appeals, arguing (1) the evidence was sufficient to prove him guilty of involuntary manslaughter rather than first degree murder, (2) the court erred in admitting other-crimes evidence and instructing the jury regarding how to consider such evidence, and (3) the court abused its discretion in sentencing him by failing to give adequate weight to mitigating factors. We affirm.

¶ 2 I. BACKGROUND

¶ 3 On May 2, 2007, the grand jury indicted defendant on three counts of first degree murder (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(1), (a)(2) (West 2006)) and one count of aggravated battery to a child (720 ILCS 5/12-4.3(a) (West 2006)) in connection with the death of three-year-old Logan Bratton. At trial, the State presented the testimony of several individuals, including firefighters and emergency medical personnel, police officers, Logan's medical providers, and family members. Defendant testified on his own behalf and also presented the testimony of his younger brother and the mother of his biological children. Additionally, both parties presented testimony of medical experts in the area of forensic pathology.

¶ 4 Evidence showed defendant resided in an apartment with his girlfriend, Donetta Ernst, and Logan, Donetta's son. Defendant had four biological children who, at times, would also stay in the home. On April 4, 2007, defendant was at home with Logan, three of his own children, and his teenaged brother while Donetta was at work. On that date, firefighters and emergency medical personnel were dispatched to the home in response to a report that a child had fallen. Upon their arrival, they found defendant holding Logan. Logan was unresponsive with inadequate breathing. He was taken to the emergency room at BroMenn Hospital in Normal, Illinois, and then airlifted to St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Illinois, where, ultimately, he was pronounced dead.

¶ 5 The State's evidence showed defendant initially reported Logan was injured after falling from a bunk bed in the home. However, almost two weeks after the incident on April 16, 2007, he admitted he hit Logan one time. Defendant testified, on the day of the incident, his daughter Alicia and Logan were fighting over a toy. Defendant intervened and spanked Alicia. Logan tried to run, but defendant reached out and hit Logan in the head with the back of his hand. Defendant testified Logan "just fell on the floor." He stated Logan struggled like he was trying to get up but could not stand on his own. Defendant called 9-1-1. He acknowledged he initially lied to police and Donetta about how Logan was injured but stated he was scared and did not know what to say.

¶ 6 As stated, both parties presented the testimony of medical experts who reviewed Logan's medical records, the autopsy report, and autopsy photographs. Each gave contradictory opinions regarding the extent and cause of Logan's injuries and his cause of death. Dr. John Denton testified for the State. He identified multiple external and internal injuries to Logan's body, many of which he found to have been recently sustained. Dr. Denton opined Logan's cause of death was "brain injuries due to blunt head trauma." He also would have diagnosed child abuse due to a "repetitive process going on." He testified Logan had severe brain bleeding and swelling and found those injuries were inconsistent with being backhanded one time or with a single blow to the head. Dr. Denton described Logan's injuries "as inflicted and non-accidental" and believed Logan sustained "multiple blunt impacts to the head."

¶ 7 Dr. Shaku Teas testified on defendant's behalf. Regarding cause of death, Dr. Teas found "Logan had a multitude of things going on." She determined he had an older abdominal injury which may not have been fatal by itself. Dr. Teas stated Logan had developed pneumonia and had a "bilateral adrenal gland hemorrhage" which indicated "he had septicemia." Thereafter, Logan had massive brain swelling with a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Dr. Teas felt his death "was a combination of everything that was going on" and agreed that "trauma may have played a role in the head injury that may have occurred on the day [Logan] was taken to the hospital." She testified that "if Logan developed a septicemia and infection, any kind of minor trauma may have triggered massive edema of the brain." Dr. Teas defined edema as swelling and also found evidence that he may have had an infection. Dr. Teas testified she did not "find any significant blunt force trauma to [Logan's] head externally anywhere."

¶ 8 Additionally, over defendant's objection, the State presented testimony from family members concerning defendant's past conduct toward Logan. Donetta testified she was in a relationship with defendant for approximately one year. During that time frame, she had the opportunity to observe defendant's interactions with his own children and his interactions with Logan. She stated there were some days she "felt that Logan was kind of pushed aside." Donetta described a trip she took in December 2006, with defendant, Logan, and two of defendant's children. The family went to visit Donetta's aunt, Cindy Rister, at her home in Arkansas. Both Donetta and Rister described an occasion when defendant became upset or angry after Rister bought Logan a new outfit but nothing for defendant's own two children.

¶ 9 Donetta and Rister also testified regarding an incident at a McDonald's restaurant immediately before Donetta, defendant, and the children were to return to Illinois. On that occasion, each recalled defendant suggesting that Donetta leave Logan in Arkansas with Rister. On cross-examination, Donetta acknowledged that, on two occasions after Logan's death, police questioned her about defendant's statements during the Arkansas trip and she denied hearing defendant say he wanted to leave Logan in Arkansas.

ΒΆ 10 Rister provided testimony regarding two additional incidents. First, she described an incident when defendant made Logan remain at the dinner table to finish his food but allowed his own two children to leave the table. Second, she observed defendant discipline Logan in response to statements ...


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