Rehearing denied July 19, 2013
Defendant’s conviction and sentence for the first-degree murder of his wife were upheld over his contentions that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of his prior acts of domestic violence and that the 50- year sentence was excessive, since the evidence of defendant’s prior acts was properly admitted to show defendant’s intent, motive, and lack of mistake, and the sentence was not an abuse of discretion, especially in view of the evidence that defendant’s violent conduct continued, despite the opportunities he was given to change.
Appeal from the Circuit Court of Boone County, No. 08-CF-121; the Hon. Fernando L. Engelsma, Judge, presiding.
Counsel on Appeal
Thomas A. Lilien and R. Christopher White, both of State Appellate Defender's Office, of Elgin, for appellant.
Michelle J. Courier, State's Attorney, of Belvidere (Lawrence M. Bauer and Marshall M. Stevens, both of State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor's Office, of counsel), for the People.
Panel JUSTICE BIRKETT, Justices Jorgensen and Hudson concurred in the judgment and opinion.
¶ 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.
¶ 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, ...