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People v. Stolberg

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Second District

September 23, 2014

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
RONALD STOLBERG, Defendant-Appellant

Page 928

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County. No. 11-CF-1849. Honorable Mark L. Levitt, Judge, Presiding.

SYLLABUS

The appellate court affirmed defendant's conviction for involuntary manslaughter and sentence to eight years' imprisonment for the death of his wife, who had suffered a mental breakdown and still had mental-health issues, in an incident during which he laid on top of her in order to restrain her from " poking" him while he was trying to sleep, notwithstanding his contention, inter alia, that he was prejudiced when his wife's body was cremated shortly after her death and he had made a discovery request for exculpatory evidence, since the evidence was sufficient to establish defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and there was no showing that the victim's body was material exculpatory evidence or that bad faith was involved in cremating the body.

William K. Hedrick, of Wilmette, and Kevin M. Rosner, of Northbrook, for appellant.

Michael G. Nerheim, State's Attorney, of Waukegan (Lawrence M. Bauer and Mary Beth Burns, both of State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor's Office, of counsel), for the People.

JUSTICE HUTCHINSON delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Burke and Justice Birkett concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

Page 929

HUTCHINSON, JUSTICE.

[¶1] In 2013, a jury convicted defendant, Ronald Stolberg, of one count of involuntary manslaughter of a family or household member pursuant to section 9-3(f) of the Criminal Code of 2012 (the Criminal Code) (720 ILCS 5/9-3(f) (West 2012)). The conviction stemmed from an incident where the victim, who had a history of mental-health issues, " poked" defendant while he was sleeping, and defendant lay on top of the victim and restrained her wrists. Following

Page 930

his conviction, the trial court sentenced defendant to a term of eight years' imprisonment.

[¶2] Defendant now appeals, contending that (1) the State failed to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; (2) he suffered substantial prejudice when the victim's body was cremated after he had made a discovery request for all potentially exculpatory evidence; (3) the trial court erred in not suppressing statements that defendant made after he invoked his right to counsel; and (4) his sentence was excessive and otherwise improper. We affirm.

[¶3] I. BACKGROUND

[¶4] The record reflects that defendant and the victim were married in 2007 in Las Vegas and resided in Vernon Hills. Defendant worked as a repair technician for a company in Buffalo Grove. The victim worked for an advertising agency in Chicago before having a mental breakdown. She ultimately stopped working. Before their marriage, the victim began taking psychotropic medications, and she stopped taking the medications in 2008. On May 6, 2011, while at her sister's house, the victim talked about how " drug dealers are going to come and rob us," among other things, and began slapping herself. The next morning, the victim went to see her therapist. The victim was admitted to Alexian Brothers and was hospitalized for one night. After being discharged, the victim stayed with defendant's mother for approximately 12 days before returning home. In early June 2011, a neighbor observed the victim standing under a tree for approximately five to seven hours on a " [v]ery, very warm and humid" day.

[¶5] On June 7, 2011, defendant was asleep in the master bedroom while the victim slept on the couch in the living room. The victim entered the master bedroom and " poked" defendant, which awakened him. The " poking" occurred at least four separate times, with defendant having to walk the victim out of the room on a few instances. Defendant would hold the victim's wrist to calm her down. The last time that the victim " poked" defendant, he held her by her wrists and walked her back to the living room. Defendant brought the victim to the floor and lay on top of her while she was lying facedown. Defendant remained on top of the victim until she stopped struggling. The victim was still breathing. Defendant returned to the master bedroom and went to sleep.

[¶6] The next morning, defendant left for work at approximately 7 a.m. As he left, he noticed that the victim was still lying down. Defendant nudged the victim to see if she would wake up, and when she did not, defendant left for work because he thought that she was pretending to be asleep. While at work that day, defendant told a coworker that " [the victim] was dead." When the coworker asked why defendant said that, he responded, " [s]he kept waking me up." According to the coworker, he did not take defendant's comment literally. Defendant attempted to call the victim while he was at work, but her phone was turned off. When defendant returned home, he found the victim lying in the same spot and in the same position. When he rolled her over, he discovered that she was blue and he called 911.

[¶7] Once law enforcement officers arrived, defendant related his version of events, including that the victim suffered from mental-health issues and was not eating or sleeping. Defendant's mother arrived on the scene and told defendant " [c]ongratulations, ***. You did the right thing." Defendant responded to his mother's comment by noting that he called " the doctor," " the police," and " the hospital." Defendant voluntarily removed his

Page 931

shirt and there was no indication of bruising on his chest, back, or arms. Law enforcement officers transported defendant to the Vernon Hills police department.

[¶8] Thereafter, the police decided to transfer defendant to the Mundelein police department. At the station, the police placed him in an interrogation room and advised him of his Miranda rights. Defendant said that he " want[ed] a lawyer." Defendant continued to converse with the police " for a while." The police planned to transfer defendant back to the Vernon Hills police department. While in the police vehicle, defendant asked why no one was talking to him and a police officer noted that defendant had said that he wanted an attorney. Defendant said that, if he could talk to his mother, he would then talk to the police. The police drove defendant back to the Mundelein police department.

[¶9] At the Mundelein police station, police officers once again placed defendant in an interrogation room while other officers went to get his mother. An officer again advised defendant of his Miranda rights. Defendant gave his permission for an officer to remain in the room until his mother arrived. The officer asked defendant whet he would like to talk about and defendant responded, " [the victim] was sick." Defendant described the victim's mental-health issues. In describing the previous night, defendant told the officer that he lay on top of the victim for several minutes and that he had his hands around her wrists. When asked about the victim's breathing, defendant responded that it " was slower" and that she " slowly gave up." The interview lasted approximately 3 1/2 hours.

[¶10] On June 9, 2011, the State charged defendant with first-degree murder. On June 10, 2011, defendant appeared and filed a motion for discovery, including for the production of " [a]ny evidence which tends to negate [defendant's] guilt." Following an autopsy, the victim's body was released for cremation on June 14, 2011, and cremated later that day. The coroner released the body after speaking with a law enforcement officer, who verified to the coroner that there was no need to hold the body any longer. The coroner did not reach out to defendant or any other family member before releasing the body for cremation.

[¶11] On September 30, 2011, defendant filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, arguing that substantial prejudice resulted from the State releasing the victim's body without giving notice. Following a hearing, the trial court denied the motion. The trial court concluded that failing to preserve evidence in a criminal matter does not constitute a denial of due process unless the defendant can establish bad faith. The trial court opined that defendant would have other ways of preparing a defense, including reviewing the autopsy report, cross-examining the medical examiner, and testing samples taken during the autopsy. The trial court concluded that the State allowing the victim's body to be cremated did not constitute bad faith.

[¶12] At trial, Dr. Manny Montez, a forensic pathologist, testified. Montez testified that he was not board certified in forensic pathology. Montez described injuries on the victim's body, including discolorations of the skin in the chest area and near both hips that were contusions caused by force. Further, evidence of bleeding and fat liquification were consistent with the victim having been ground into a hard surface while she was alive. Montez testified that the victim's tailbone had a discoloration that was consistent with " some type of force" being applied to the skin's surface. Montez testified that the victim's injuries could have been

Page 932

caused by someone having his knee or the small of his palm on the victim's back while pressing down. Montez opined that the victim died of traumatic asphyxia during physical restraint.

[¶13] Dr. Skahu Teas, a board-certified physician in anatomic and clinical pathology, testified on defendant's behalf. Teas opined that Montez did not explain how he arrived at his conclusion that the victim died of asphyxia during restraint, and she could not find any objective evidence to support that conclusion. Teas further noted that Montez did not perform any histology, which involves examining tissue from the vital organs. However, she later testified that she had examined certain tissue slides prepared from the autopsy. Teas explained that organ tissue may look normal grossly but that viewing the tissue under a microscope could reveal subtle changes that indicate a physiological death rather than an anatomical death. Teas testified that the victim died of natural causes, most likely a cardiac arrhythmia due to a hypertrophic heart and myocardial ischemia. Teas testified that, based on her examination of the victim's medical records, the victim had a heart murmur and a history of scarlet fever, which could cause " ...


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