Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Third Division
Defendant’s conviction for the murder of a factory worker in the factory parking lot was reversed and the cause was remanded for a new trial on the ground that the trial court improperly admitted evidence concerning an earlier incident in which three of defendant’s codefendants beat a man in the same parking lot, since the State only asserted that defendant was near the factory at the time of the earlier incident, there was no evidence that he was involved in the earlier beating, and the evidence could have persuaded the jury that defendant was a bad person and should be punished.
Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, No. 08-CR-03180; the Hon. James B. Linn, Judge, presiding.
Michael J. Pelletier and Emily S. Wood, both of State Appellate Defender's Office, of Chicago, for appellant.
Anita M. Alvarez, State's Attorney, of Chicago (Alan J. Spellberg and Peter Fischer, Assistant State's Attorneys, of counsel), for the People.
Panel JUSTICE HYMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Sterba and Pierce concurred in the judgment and opinion.
¶ 1 A jury convicted the defendant, Carlos Lopez, of murder after finding that he and several codefendants beat to death a factory employee in the parking lot where the victim worked. The trial court sentenced Lopez to 22 years in prison. Lopez contends several errors at trial are grounds for reversing his conviction, including the admission of evidence about an attack on a man by some of Lopez's codefendants in the same parking lot about three weeks earlier. For the following reasons, we reverse Lopez's conviction and remand for a new trial.
¶ 2 I. BACKGROUND
¶ 3 In the early hours of December 24, 2007, Francisco Reyes was beaten and killed by a group of men in the parking lot of a tortilla factory in Chicago. Carlos Lopez and five other men, Daniel Roman, Martin Roman, Ismael Morales, Omar Morales, and Adolfo Zuniga, who lived in the neighborhood, were later arrested and charged with three counts of murder and one count of robbery. The State later dropped the robbery charge against Lopez. Before trial, defense counsel filed a motion in limine, to exclude evidence regarding an incident on December 4, 2007, when three of Lopez's codefendants beat a man in the factory parking lot and smashed car windows. The defense also sought to exclude evidence of Lopez's gang membership. The trial court denied both requests, finding the evidence more probative than prejudicial.
¶ 4 Lopez, who was 15 years old at the time of his arrest, was tried separately from his codefendants. The State's evidence at trial consisted primarily of the testimony of two eyewitnesses, Sylvia Ortiz and Fernando Garcia, who saw the murder occur. Ortiz and Garcia lived with their son in the second floor of an apartment building across the street from the tortilla factory. They said they watched the crime from separate windows of their apartment, which faced the parking lot.
¶ 5 Under the State's theory of the case, events leading up to the murder began in the early morning hours of December 4, 2007. Sylvia Ortiz testified that after arriving home from work around 1 a.m., she heard a banging noise outside. She looked out her window and saw three men hitting the factory door with baseball bats. Ortiz recognized all three men, Daniel Roman, Martin Roman, and Ismael Morales, because she frequently observed them hanging around the neighborhood. When no one opened the factory door, she saw the men break car windows in the parking lot. Ortiz called the police, who arrived about 15 minutes later.
¶ 6 One of the factory employees, Pedro Martinez, testified he arrived at work on the evening of December 3 and saw a group of young men, including Lopez, hanging out on the corner near the factory. Later that evening, a man whom Martinez had not seen before, came to the factory to sell a car jack. The man said a friend was waiting outside. A few minutes later, the friend came into the factory. He had been beaten up and his face was bleeding. Loud banging on the factory door could be heard, and the two men stayed in the factory until the banging stopped. Martinez went outside and saw that his car windows were broken and another car was damaged. Martinez saw the same crowd of five or six young men, including Lopez, standing on the corner. He testified that he frequently saw these men near the factory when he arrived at and left work.
¶ 7 About three weeks later, on December 24, Ortiz and Garcia were home around midnight when they heard a voice outside. They both recognized the person speaking as Daniel Roman, who was talking on a cell phone. Ortiz said that Daniel told the person on the phone to come over and made a waving motion with his hand. Garcia heard Daniel say "come help me, I need to fuck him up, come help me, from the factory, let's fuck him up." Soon after, Lopez, Ismael Morales, Omar Morales, and Martin Roman arrived. After the men gathered, Garcia heard someone say "Let's get him; let's fuck him up." The group walked to the factory parking lot where Francisco Reyes was driving a forklift. Juan Ramirez, one of Reyes' coworkers, testified that a supervisor had sent Reyes out to the parking lot shortly before the murder to unload a shipment of corn. The group grabbed Reyes off the seat of the forklift, forced him to the ground, and began hitting and kicking him. At some point, Adolfo Zuniga arrived in a car and joined the others in beating Reyes. As Reyes lay on the ground, one of the men removed Reyes' wallet from his pocket. Then one of the perpetrators went across the street and picked up a ...