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People v. Rodriguez

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, First Division

May 8, 2017

SEBASTIAN RODRIGUEZ, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, No. 08 CR 21347 Honorable Michael J. Howlett, Jr. and Neera L. Walsh, Judges Presiding.

          JUSTICE MIKVA delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justice Harris and Justice Simon concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶ 1 Fifteen-year-old Sebastian Rodriguez was charged with first degree murder in connection with the shooting of thirteen-year-old Sameere Conn on October 1, 2008. At the time of the offense, 15-year-olds charged with first degree murder were automatically excluded from juvenile court jurisdiction. Sebastian was accordingly tried, convicted, and sentenced as an adult. Following his jury trial, the circuit court sentenced Sebastian to 50 years in prison: 25 years for the murder and 25 additional years pursuant to a mandatory firearm enhancement. In this direct appeal, Sebastian argues that (1) the circuit court erroneously denied his motion to suppress evidence found during a search of his home, (2) expert testimony identifying a revolver found in his home as the murder weapon was improperly admitted without a hearing to determine if it was based on generally accepted scientific methodologies, and (3) the imposition of a 50-year sentence on an offender who was 15 years old at the time of his offense is unconstitutional.

         ¶ 2 Shortly after Sebastian filed his notice of appeal, the Illinois legislature raised the age of automatic transfer from juvenile court to criminal court for an individual charged with first degree murder from 15 to 16 years of age and adopted additional sentencing guidelines for defendants who were under the age of 18 at the time of their offenses, including making firearm enhancements discretionary, rather than mandatory, for such individuals. In supplemental briefing, Sebastian argues that these amendments should apply to his case.

         ¶ 3 For the reasons that follow, we affirm Sebastian's conviction for first degree murder, vacate his sentence, and remand this matter to the juvenile court.

         ¶ 4 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 5 A. Pretrial Proceedings

         ¶ 6 Nine days after Sameere Conn's death, Chicago police obtained a warrant to search Sebastian Rodriguez's home for evidence related to the shooting. In the complaint for the search warrant, Detective Ricky Bean identified two eyewitnesses who testified before a grand jury that they knew Sebastian and saw him, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, fire shots into the convenience store where Sameere was killed, as well as a third eyewitness who identified Sebastian as the individual he saw looking through the glass window of the store's door just before shots were fired through that window. According to the complaint, officers also learned from two other witnesses that Sebastian was known to possess a "kill list" of potential victims that included Sameere. Finally, the complaint alleged that, in connection with prior arrests, Sebastian had given the address 10744 South Hoxie Avenue in Chicago as his home address.

         ¶ 7 Finding this sufficient to establish probable cause, the circuit court issued a warrant to search Sebastian's home for "[o]ne dark colored or grey hooded sweat shirt, [o]ne document containing a list of individual names, [a]nd one handgun." Officers executed the warrant on October 11, 2008, retrieving a revolver from under a floorboard in the bathroom and a number of hooded sweatshirts from elsewhere in the home.

         ¶ 8 Sebastian was charged by grand jury indictment with first degree murder.

         ¶ 9 In his motion to suppress filed on April 26, 2010, Sebastian argued that evidence recovered during the October 11, 2008, search should be excluded because, even if officers had probable cause to arrest him, they had no reason to believe that specific evidence would be found in his home 10 days after the shooting.

         ¶ 10 Although an evidentiary hearing was held on Sebastian's motion to suppress, the testimony offered related only to the scope of the search and the manner in which it was conducted, issues that are not raised in this appeal. The circuit court denied Sebastian's motion, explaining that, in its view, when officers have "a strong identification of a suspected shooter and that person's home, " then "it is not beyond logic, nor *** beyond the law, to have probable cause to see if in that person's place of residence, the place they call home, the place in which they keep their items, that there might be evidence of the crime there."

         ¶ 11 On May 9, 2013, Sebastian moved for an evidentiary hearing, pursuant to Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923), on the admissibility of expert testimony he expected the State to introduce linking the gun found in his home to a bullet recovered from the scene of the crime. Although he acknowledged that such testimony had historically been admitted by courts, he insisted a Frye hearing was needed because the reliability of the methodologies employed by ballistics experts had recently been questioned in the scientific community.

         ¶ 12 The circuit court disagreed and denied Sebastian's motion. Noting that it was aware of no published opinion of any court concluding that firearm identification evidence was not generally accepted in the scientific community, the court concluded that Sebastian's concerns went to the weight and not to the admissibility of the evidence.

         ¶ 13 B. Trial

         ¶ 14 A four-day trial in this case began on February 4, 2014. Because Sebastian does not contest the sufficiency of the evidence to support his conviction, we include only a brief summary of the trial testimony, with a fuller recitation of the firearms identification testimony, to provide context for the evidentiary issues raised on appeal.

         ¶ 15 At approximately 8 p.m. on October 1, 2008, Sameere walked home from nearby Trumball Park after a football game with a group of his friends from school. Sameere and two other boys stopped to purchase snacks at Hook's Finer Foods, a convenience store located at 106th Street and Bensley Avenue in Chicago, while two other friends waited outside. A handful of people were in the store at the time: the cashier, the owner of the building, and a few customers, including an individual known as "Tone" or "Tony, " who was known to frequent the store. Sameere was near the front of the store waiting to make his purchase when, according to witnesses, he was shot multiple times through a window in the front door of the store.

         ¶ 16 Joseph Neal and John Rodgers testified that, on the evening of October 1, 2008, they were waiting across the street from Hook's Finer Foods for Sameere and the others when they saw Sebastian, who they knew and regularly saw around the neighborhood, approach the store. According to Joseph and John, Sebastian looked at them, put the hood of his sweatshirt up, and start firing a gun into the store. At trial, both boys insisted that Sebastian's sweatshirt was red- Joseph said "[i]t was red, same red as he always had"-and denied previously telling officers and a grand jury that it was blue and gray. Joseph also denied telling the grand jury that he and John were standing farther away from the store, near some offices. However, Joseph acknowledged that he initially told officers and a television reporter that he was inside the store and saw Sebastian tap on the glass before shooting. When asked why he lied, Joseph explained that he thought the better vantage point would make him more believable: "I knew who I seen and I really wanted [Sebastian] to get got for what he did, that's why I said all of that."

         ¶ 17 Anthony Ray (also known as "Tone" or "Tony"), who was in custody for failing to appear as a witness in this case, acknowledged his previous convictions for stealing a car and for selling drugs and that he was a diagnosed schizophrenic who took medication for that condition. Anthony testified that he was at Hook's Finer Foods just before 8 p.m. on the evening of October 1, 2008, and saw a light-skinned person wearing "a black hoody" standing outside just before shots were fired through the front door of the store. Although Anthony at first told officers that he did not see the shooter, he identified a photo of Sebastian for police officers several days later, writing on the photo, "I saw him shoot through the window. Positive." However, at trial Anthony indicated that his identification was influenced by "two young kids" who were also in the store at the time of the shooting and were taken to the police station with him for questioning. Anthony explained: "I didn't personally, personally, like myself, describe that-the person that did the shooting ***. It's kind of like, kind of like I put two and two together. I seen a face and a hoody and everybody else saying they knew his name and they knew everything that happened."

         ¶ 18 The State called two friends of Sameere's, Kiante Lilly and Mario Martinez, to describe Sebastian's statements and conduct prior to the shooting. Kiante testified that, at Sameere's request, he set up a three-way telephone call in late September to try to resolve "a dispute" between Sameere and Sebastian. Although Kiante told the grand jury that, during that conversation, Sebastain said he had a "death list" and told Sameere "[y]ou on there, too, boy, " at trial Kiante denied such a list was ever discussed, characterizing the call as nothing more than "a friendly conversation." Mario testified that Sebastian got out of a green truck and approached Mario on the evening of October 1, 2008, asked Mario if he wanted "to go take a ride, " and showed him a gun-a revolver, "I don't really know, like a .38"-that Sebastian had wrapped in a sweater. Mario declined and went inside. Although Mario heard shots soon after, he did not learn that Sameere had been killed until the next morning and did not tell officers about his encounter with Sebastian until they sought him out for an interview 10 days later.

         ¶ 19 The physical evidence in this case consisted of (1) a medium caliber lead bullet fragment recovered from Sameere's body; (2) a fired bullet recovered from a shelf inside Hook's Finer Foods on October 1, 2008; (3) a gunshot residue collection kit consisting of swabs of each of Sebastian's hands plus a control swab, which was administered by police officers shortly after midnight on October 2, 2008; (4) a blue steel .357 Dan Wesson revolver containing six .357 magnum caliber unfired cartridge cases, retrieved from under the floorboards of the bathroom during the October 11, 2008, search of the home at 10744 South Hoxie Avenue in Chicago; and (5) two gray and five black "hoody jackets" also recovered during that search.

         ¶ 20 Brian Mayland, a pattern evidence program manager for the Illinois State Police forensic sciences command, testified as an expert in the field of toolmark and firearm identification. Mr. Mayland previously worked for 17 years as a forensic scientist in firearms and toolmark identification and, for just over one year, as a laboratory director. Although his undergraduate degree was in business, Mr. Mayland testified that he had completed specialized training in the field of firearms identification, including ...

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