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People v. Null

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Second District

June 20, 2013

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
AARON W. NULL, Defendant-Appellant.

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Boone County. No. 08-CF-121 Honorable Fernando L. Engelsma, Judge, Presiding.

JUSTICE BIRKETT delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Jorgensen and Hudson concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

BIRKETT, JUSTICE

¶ 1 Defendant, Aaron W. Null, was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(2) (West 2002)) for the November 2002 killing of his wife Brynn Null. The trial court sentenced defendant to 50 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections. Defendant timely appealed, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting evidence of prior acts of domestic violence and in sentencing defendant to 50 years' imprisonment. For the following reasons we reject both arguments and affirm defendant's conviction and sentence.

¶ 2 I. BACKGROUND

¶ 3 Defendant was charged by indictment on March 28, 2008, with the offense of first-degree murder (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(2) (West 2002)). In the indictment the State alleged that on or about November 17, 2002, defendant "struck Brynn Null in and about the body with an object, knowing such act created a strong probability of great bodily harm to Brynn Null, thereby causing the death of Brynn Null, in violation of 720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(2) (West 2002)." Brynn Null's body has never been found.

¶ 4 Prior to trial defendant filed several motions. The trial court denied defendant's motion to suppress his 2002 statements to the police and his motion to quash a search warrant. It also granted in part and denied in part defendant's motion in limine to exclude evidence of prior "domestic discord." The State argued that it was offering the other-crimes evidence to give the fact-finder an opportunity to understand "their relationship and the hostilities between the two of them." During the hearing, the State proceeded by way of proffer, submitting to the trial court 10 exhibits that included police reports, petitions for orders of protection, and Brynn's petition for dissolution of marriage, which had been dismissed before Brynn's disappearance. The trial court barred testimony of police officers regarding Brynn's statements to them concerning her allegations of abuse, finding that the statements were testimonial and therefore not admissible under Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004). However, the trial court allowed into evidence the officers' testimony concerning their observations of Brynn's injuries and photographs of same. The court next considered Brynn's written statements in two petitions for orders of protection. In a September 5, 2001, petition, Brynn alleged that defendant choked her. She alleged that "[t]his is the second time he's done this. He gets mad at me and breaks things around the house." She alleged that she made a police report but that the police were not able to arrest defendant at his home. In a January 4, 2002, petition, Brynn alleged that on January 2, 2002, she and defendant got into an argument after she picked him up from work. She alleged that:

"We get home and he started hitting me. Then he kept me locked in the house all night. The next day he threatened me with a baseball bat, told me he had to put me in my place, told me I deserved it, and told me he could make me disappear. Then when he left, I called the police and made out a report and they arrested him." The trial court ruled that these statements were not admissible, because they were prepared in anticipation of court proceedings and were therefore testimonial.[1]

¶ 5 The trial court also excluded as testimonial Brynn's statements in her petition for dissolution of marriage. The trial court excluded defendant's conviction of domestic battery involving another victim. At the time of Brynn's disappearance defendant was on probation resulting from his June 19, 2002, plea of guilty to two domestic batteries he committed against Brynn. The trial court excluded evidence of the convictions. The trial court also barred the testimony of John Havens, a friend of Brynn's to whom she had confided that defendant beat her and kept her tied up for three days. Havens said that the last time he saw Brynn she had two black eyes and she told him that if she ever went missing it meant that defendant killed her.

¶ 6 The trial court allowed live testimony of observations of prior domestic violence and spousal abuse, as well as statements made to nonpolice witnesses that fit within a hearsay exception. The court ruled that this evidence was relevant and probative to show defendant's "intent, motive, and lack of mistake." This evidence came from nine different witnesses who testified that they saw acts of domestic violence, observed injuries on Brynn, or provided shelter for Brynn when she fled from defendant. The more substantial evidence consisted of testimony of police officers, crime scene investigators, background witnesses, and forensic scientists, specifically, blood spatter and DNA experts.

¶ 7 During the State's opening statement it made no mention of prior acts of domestic violence. The State focused on the blood evidence as well as defendant's failure to participate in efforts to find his missing wife. Defense counsel referred to the relationship between defendant and Brynn as "rocky" and "anything but smooth" and acknowledged that there were "physical as well as verbal" arguments.

¶ 8 Edward Lamb testified that he owned the home in Capron, Illinois, where defendant and Brynn were living at the time of Brynn's disappearance. Defendant rented a room in Lamb's house and moved in early in 2002, about six months before Brynn moved in. Everyone had access to the common areas of the house but bedrooms were private. Lamb testified that he gave defendant a California king-sized bed. The mattress had no stains or tears on it when Lamb gave it to defendant.

¶ 9 Lamb testified that he last saw Brynn the night of November 16, 2002, when he left her and defendant alone in the house, except for Lamb's two dogs. Lamb spent the night with an acquaintance, who verified Lamb's alibi. When Lamb returned the next day Brynn was gone. Defendant told Lamb that Brynn left, leaving behind her keys and ring on the kitchen table.

¶ 10 Lamb testified that defendant appeared agitated. He asked defendant if he had called anyone and defendant said no. Lamb told defendant that Brynn would come back like she had in the past, and defendant responded that "she had done left him for good this time." Both Brynn's Jeep and defendant's Audi were still parked at the residence. Lamb testified that in the past Brynn would leave for a day or two and then return.

¶ 11 A few days after Brynn's disappearance Lamb offered to wash defendant's bedsheets while he was doing his laundry but defendant said no. Lamb testified that on December 20, 2002, detectives showed him a bloodstain on the mattress he had given to defendant. Lamb later asked defendant about the stain and defendant said he did not know anything about it. He told Lamb that if there was a stain on it then Brynn must have flipped the mattress over. Lamb told the police that on December 23, 2002, he noticed that a blue tarp and a sheet were missing from his residence. In February 2003 defendant told Lamb that Brynn had an accident in the bed, referring to her menstrual period. Eventually, defendant moved out after getting into an argument with Lamb. Defendant left Brynn's belongings behind. He told Lamb that he did not care what he did with "the bitch's stuff."

¶ 12 Brynn's mother, Linda Olson, testified that Brynn was born on April 26, 1977. Brynn met defendant in January 2000 and married him on November 3, 2000. At the time of her disappearance Brynn lived with defendant in Capron, Illinois, and worked with Olson at U.S.A. Marketing in Loves Park, Illinois. Olson saw Brynn for the last time on November 16, 2002, a Saturday on which Brynn worked a half day. When Brynn did not show up for work on November 18 and 19, Olson thought that Brynn was probably resting from work that had been done on her teeth. On November 21, Olson called defendant and asked him where Brynn was. Defendant told Olson that he thought that Brynn had gone to stay with her. Olson then reported her daughter missing to the Winnebago County sheriff's office and then the Boone County sheriff's office. Olson testified that prior to November 16, 2002, she had hidden Brynn from defendant once, in late November 2001. Olson described the efforts to find Brynn, which included printed posters for distribution. When Olson went to defendant's home he allowed her into the kitchen area only and he declined to take any of the posters. Defendant also refused to let Olson take any of Brynn's belongings. Brynn was never seen or heard from again. She never collected her last paycheck. Defendant never volunteered to help find Brynn. On cross-examination Olson testified that Brynn's drug of choice was crack cocaine, which Olson and Brynn shared.

¶ 13 Arnold Mariani, a Boone County sheriff's deputy, testified that on November 20, 2002, he went to defendant's home in Capron on a missing person's report. Defendant met with him in the kitchen area of the home. Defendant said that when he woke up Sunday morning his wife was missing. Defendant told the deputy that Brynn's keys and her wedding ring were on the kitchen table and would have her fingerprints on them. He also said that Brynn's car was still there. Defendant said that Brynn had a crack problem. He said that in the past "she has been at her family's house and they have hidden her." Defendant said that in the past he had been arrested for domestic battery. Mariani testified that he accepted defendant's story and did not file a missing person's report. The next day Mariani spoke to Olson and after that he did file a missing person's report. He also entered Brynn's name and identifiers into a national computer database.

¶ 14 Daniel Smith testified that he lived in Rockford on Darwood Street, in the same apartment complex where Brynn and defendant lived previously. On September 4, 2001, shortly before noon, Smith heard someone yelling for help outside his apartment. When he opened the door Brynn ran inside. She was scared, nervous, and dressed only in a T-shirt. Brynn told Smith that her husband was going to kill her. When Smith began to close the door, defendant put his hand between the door and the wall. Smith held the door to prevent defendant from getting inside the apartment. Defendant removed his hand from the door and returned to his own apartment. Smith and Brynn waited until they saw defendant leave his apartment before Smith would let Brynn call the police, who then came to Smith's apartment to interview him and Brynn. The next day, defendant came to Smith's apartment and apologized.

¶ 15 Ronald Cole, a retired Rockford police officer, testified that on September 4, 2001, at about 12:30 p.m., he went to Smith's apartment to take a domestic battery complaint from Brynn. Cole was not permitted to repeat Brynn's statements but he was allowed to describe Brynn's appearance. He said that Brynn was upset, crying, and frightened. He told Brynn that if redness or swelling developed she should come to the police department to be photographed. Cole made arrangements for Brynn to stay with a friend as a temporary safe house.

ΒΆ 16 Rockford police officer Lieutenant Mark Welsh testified that he photographed Brynn on September 5, 2001. The photographs were admitted into evidence, depicting injuries on the backs of both shoulders, which consisted of slight bruising and some lacerations. Welsh testified ...


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