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People v. Whitfield

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Second District

March 3, 2017

HEZEKIAH D. WHITFIELD, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County. No. 12-CF-1269 Honorable Mark L. Levitt, Judge, Presiding.

          SCHOSTOK JUSTICE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Hudson and Justice Spence concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶ 1 In this direct appeal from his conviction of first-degree murder, the defendant, Hezekiah Whitfield, raises three arguments: (1) the trial court should have suppressed his unrecorded custodial statement to police pursuant to section 103-2.1 of the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1963 (Code) (725 ILCS 5/103-2.1 (West 2010)), which renders such statements presumptively inadmissible in a murder trial; (2) the trial court erred in limiting his ability to present evidence of other crimes committed by someone else who had been convicted of the same murder (a conviction that was later overturned); and (3) the trial court should have allowed him to present evidence explaining his travel to Indonesia shortly after the police obtained a DNA sample from him. Although we agree with certain of these arguments, we affirm on the basis that the trial court's errors were harmless in light of the compelling DNA evidence against the defendant.

         ¶ 2 I. BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 On December 9, 1994, Fred Reckling was found dead in a Grand Appliance store in Waukegan. His head had been beaten in. Four small droplet-type stains were found on the carpet near the door. Pieces of the carpet containing the stains were removed and sent for testing. Reckling's car was recovered 10 days later in Chicago; there were stains on the driver's seat, the steering wheel, and the threshold between the door and the driver's seat. Later testing showed that all of the stains on the carpet pieces and the car were blood.

         ¶ 4 A little over a year later, James Edwards, who had been arrested for a series of robberies in the Waukegan area, told Waukegan police that he had murdered Reckling. He was convicted of the murder in 1996. However, in 2010, the supreme court granted Edwards's request for DNA testing of the blood evidence in the case. The DNA from the blood stains did not match either Reckling's or Edwards's DNA. Edwards was subsequently cleared of the charges relating to Reckling's death.

         ¶ 5 The DNA test ordered by the supreme court took place in May 2011. A comparison of this DNA with the CODIS DNA database indicated a probable match with the defendant. On June 24, 2011, the Waukegan police pulled over the truck that the defendant was driving. Shamiya Mathis, a woman whom the defendant had begun dating a few months earlier, was with him. The police took the defendant to a hospital and obtained a DNA sample from him. They then released him.

         ¶ 6 On April 13 of the following year, the Chicago police issued a warrant for the defendant's arrest in connection with an assault on a woman named Ebony, who appears to have been known to Mathis. Four days later, on April 17, 2012, the Chicago police department received a report of an assault involving the defendant and Mathis. Two patrol officers, Christopher Erickson and his partner, Jacquelyn Spaargaren, responded. They found the defendant outside in an alley with a wound to his head. He told them that Mathis had struck him in the head with something heavy. Both he and Mathis were transported to the police station (the defendant was taken first to a hospital for examination). The police questioned both Mathis and the defendant. The circumstances of that questioning are disputed, and we will address them in depth later in this opinion. Mathis and the defendant were then released.

         ¶ 7 On May 2, 2012, the defendant was indicted for the murder of Reckling. He was arrested on that charge on May 15, 2012. Trial was eventually set to start on April 21, 2014.

         ¶ 8 A. Motion in Limine to Bar Evidence of Defendant's Statement

         ¶ 9 In January 2014, the defendant filed a motion in limine seeking to bar the State from introducing any evidence regarding the defendant's statement while in police custody on April 17, 2012. His motion was based on section 103-2.1 of the Code (recording statute), which provided as follows:

         "When statements by accused may be used.

(a) In this Section, 'custodial interrogation' means any interrogation during which (i) a reasonable person in the subject's position would consider himself or herself to be in custody and (ii) during which a question is asked that is reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.
In this Section, 'place of detention' means a building or a police station that is a place of operation for a municipal police department or county sheriff department or other law enforcement agency, not a courthouse, that is owned or operated by a law enforcement agency at which persons are or may be held in detention in connection with criminal charges against those persons.
In this Section, 'electronic recording' includes motion picture, audiotape, or videotape, or digital recording.
(b) An oral, written, or sign language statement of an accused made as a result of a custodial interrogation at a police station or other place of detention shall be presumed to be inadmissible as evidence against the accused in any criminal [homicide] proceeding *** unless:
(1)an electronic recording is made of the custodial interrogation; and
(2)the recording is substantially accurate and not intentionally altered.
* * *
(e)Nothing in this Section precludes the admission *** (ii) of a statement made during a custodial interrogation that was not recorded as required by this Section, because electronic recording was not feasible, *** (viii) of a statement given at a time when the interrogators are unaware that a death has in fact occurred, or (ix) of any other statement that may be admissible under law. The State shall bear the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that one of the exceptions described in this subsection (e) is applicable. Nothing in this Section precludes the admission of a statement, otherwise inadmissible under this Section, that is used only for impeachment and not as substantive evidence.
(f) The presumption of inadmissibility of a statement made by a suspect at a custodial interrogation at a police station or other place of detention may be overcome by a preponderance of the evidence that the statement was voluntarily given and is reliable, based on the totality of the circumstances." Id.

         The defendant argued that, under the recording statute, his statement to police on April 17, 2012, was inadmissible in any murder trial against him because it was the result of custodial interrogation at a police station and it had not been electronically recorded. The State did not file any written response to the motion.

         ¶ 10 The hearing on the motion commenced on March 27, 2014, and stretched over portions of four days. The State presented three witnesses, all of them Chicago police officers: Erickson, Spaargaren, and Juan Cardenas. Before testifying, all of the officers had reviewed Spaargaren's written report regarding her conversation with the defendant on April 17, 2012. ¶ 11 Erickson testified that he had been patrolling with Spaargaren at about 8:15 p.m. on the evening of April 17, 2012, when they received a call regarding a domestic battery. He and Spaargaren responded to the call. Cardenas and his partner also responded, arriving a few minutes later.

         ¶ 12 Erickson found the defendant walking in an alley with a laceration on his head and blood on his shirt. The defendant said that he had been hit in the head with a blunt object, and he identified two women (Mathis and another woman) as having been involved. There was no odor of alcohol on the defendant's breath and, except for some agitation due to the assault, he was calm. Cardenas took the defendant to a hospital to have his injuries examined, per police protocol. Erickson and Spaargaren took Mathis to the police station.

         ¶ 13 Just before 9 p.m., the defendant was brought to the police station. Erickson described the defendant's manner as "normal, a little bit agitated, " because he was "in a police station with the injuries still to his head." The defendant was brought to the rear processing room, where he was chained to a bench along one wall. (Mathis was not in that room at that point.) The room was about 12 feet by 20 feet, with four desks and computers, and a holding cell that was about 8 feet by 8 feet. There was no video recording equipment in that room. Erickson believed that there was "video in the back lock up area where offenders [were] fingerprinted" but not in any of the rooms where offenders were processed.

         ¶ 14 Erickson sat at a desk and began entering an incident report regarding the assault upon the defendant by Mathis. Spaargaren began questioning the defendant. She was sitting near Erickson, "no more than five feet approximately" away from him. Erickson did not read the defendant his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), and he did not hear any other police officer do that. Spaargaren did not say anything to Erickson about the defendant being a suspect in a murder investigation.

         ¶ 15 In response to a question about when the defendant had last encountered the police, Erickson heard him say something to the effect of "I was recently stopped by Waukegan" and "something about DNA." The defendant then said, "My lawyer said don't talk about anything." Erickson did not hear the defendant say anything else. Erickson specifically denied hearing the defendant say anything about leaving for Indonesia after being DNA tested, when "they" were going to "find out that I did it, " or about being "safe because another guy [was] doing the time." Asked whether Erickson heard the entire conversation between Spaargaren and the defendant that Spaargaren described in her written report, Erickson said that he did not; he heard only the statement that he had described regarding the defendant being stopped by the Waukegan police and his lawyer telling him not to talk about it.

         ¶ 16 Cardenas testified next. He and his partner also responded to the domestic battery call on the evening of April 17, 2012, arriving after Erickson and Spaargaren. The defendant had a laceration on his forehead and one on his hand; Cardenas believed that the latter was the source of the blood on his shirt. Cardenas spoke with the defendant to see if he needed medical assistance. The defendant's responses were coherent, his demeanor was calm, and there was no indication that he was under the influence of any alcohol or controlled substance. He did not complain of being in pain. In fact, the defendant declined to go to the hospital, but Cardenas and his partner took him there anyway because police procedure required a medical evaluation or a written refusal of medical service. At the hospital, he was observed by a doctor, who signed off on the defendant's refusal of medical treatment.

         ¶ 17 Cardenas then brought the defendant to the police station's processing room. Cardenas described the room as about 15 by 20 feet, with four computers and two benches. Erickson and Spaargaren were in the room. Cardenas had not Mirandized the defendant. When he did Mirandize suspects, he used preprinted forms that were provided to the officers. The defendant was handcuffed to a bench. He remained conscious and did not complain of any pain or request water, food, or to go to the bathroom.

         ¶ 18 Cardenas and his partner remained in the processing room for the next 10 to 15 minutes, waiting to see if Erickson and Spaargaren needed them for anything else. Erickson was entering a report into the computer and Cardenas was standing behind him. Spaargaren and the defendant were seven to eight feet away, having a conversation. Cardenas saw them talking but did not hear them. Cardenas thought Spaargaren and the defendant spoke for three to five minutes.

         ¶ 19 Spaargaren testified that, when she responded to the domestic battery call on April 17, 2012, she saw Mathis and the defendant arguing in the alley behind Avenue M. She and Erickson separated them. Both Mathis and the defendant claimed to have been the victim of assault. The defendant was taken to the hospital. In the squad car, Mathis told Spaargaren that the defendant was named as the perpetrator of an assault committed four days earlier, on April 13, 2012. Spaargaren said that she would look into that when they got to the police station. Mathis also said that the defendant was wanted for a murder investigation in Waukegan. She said that someone else was serving time for the murder, but the defendant was still wanted in connection with the case.

         ¶ 20 When they got to the police station, Spaargaren looked up the defendant and found that he had indeed been named as the perpetrator of a battery to a woman named Ebony four days earlier. However, she found no record of a warrant or stop order or anything else indicating that the defendant was wanted by police in connection with a murder.

         ¶ 21 Soon afterward, the defendant came into the processing room at the police station and was handcuffed to a bench in the room. Spaargaren described the processing room as "13 by 12 or 14 by 14" with two computers in it. As she recalled, the only other officers in the room were Erickson and Cardenas. She sat across from the defendant and had a conversation with him. She estimated that she was about three feet away from him.

         ¶ 22 As she knew that he had been accused of an earlier battery, she Mirandized him. She did this "off the top of [her] head, " telling him that he had the right to remain silent, that anything he said could and would be used against him in a court of law, and that if he could not afford an attorney one would be appointed for him. (Upon being asked, Spaargaren said that she had also told him that he had the right to have an attorney present.) She then asked him if he understood, and he said yes.

         ¶ 23 According to Spaargaren's testimony, her interrogation of the defendant was as follows:

"A. [Spaargaren:] I said I had gotten some information you are wanted in a murder case in Waukegan. He said, 'What?' I said, 'Yes, you are wanted in a murder investigation in Waukegan.' He said 'I was DNA tested for that, and when they were going to find out I did it, I fled to Indonesia. They can't do anything to me anymore. Someone else is serving time for that.'
Q. [State's Attorney:] After he made that statement to you, what did you say to him?
A. I said 'Were you there at the scene? Do you know the person that is serving time? How are you involved?' He said 'I don't want to talk about this anymore.' "

         Spaargaren said that she then stopped questioning the defendant.

         ¶ 24 On cross-examination, Spaargaren testified that she had not had the defendant sign a statement of his Miranda rights; she just recited them verbally based on her 21 years of police experience. In her written report of her interrogation of the defendant, she did not mention the other questions she had asked him because she recorded only what he said, "not anything that he did not say."

         ¶ 25 The defendant was the final witness at the hearing. As to the events that occurred before the police arrived at the scene on April 17, 2012, he said that Mathis had tried to stab him and had hit him in the head with a pipe. He was taken to a hospital by one of the police officers. However, when it became clear that he would have to wait a long time to be seen, he signed a waiver of medical treatment so that he could leave. He was then taken to the police station and handcuffed to the wall near a bench. The police gave him some paper towels because the wound on his head had reopened. He sat there for about 10 minutes. Spaargaren then approached him.

         ¶ 26 Spaargaren said that she had had a conversation with Mathis, who had told Spaargaren that she was with the defendant earlier when he was stopped by the Waukegan police and was asked to give a DNA sample. Spaargaren told him that Mathis had also said that he was wanted for a murder and that, to escape being captured, he went to Indonesia. The defendant testified that he did not say anything in response to these statements.

         ¶ 27 Spaargaren then asked the defendant if he was wanted for a murder. The defendant told her that to his knowledge he was not wanted, and that if she wanted to confirm that by searching the computers, ...

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