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People v. Little

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Third Division

September 28, 2018

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
JERMON LITTLE, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, No. 12-C6-60111; the Hon. Brian Flaherty, Judge, presiding.

          Michael J. Pelletier, Patricia Mysza, and Michael Gentithes, of State Appellate Defender's Office, of Chicago, for appellant.

          Kimberly M. Foxx, State's Attorney, of Chicago (Alan J. Spellberg, Joseph Alexander, and Elliot Englander, Assistant State's Attorneys, of counsel), for the People.

          Panel JUSTICE ELLIS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Fitzgerald Smith and Justice Howse concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          ELLIS JUSTICE.

         ¶ 1 Defendant, Jermon Little, was convicted after a bench trial of aggravated battery of a peace officer (720 ILCS 5/12-3.05(d)(4) (West 2012)) and criminal damage to government-supported property (id. § 21-1.01). On appeal, he challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain these convictions. And he contends that the trial court's premature finding of guilt, announced before counsel was permitted to argue the case, denied him his constitutional right to make a closing argument.

         ¶ 2 But this case has an uncommon (albeit not unique) twist: The trial court acknowledged its inadvertent error, reopened the case after judgment, and promised to "keep an open mind" while hearing counsel's (admittedly belated) argument. In the end, the trial court stood by its initial conclusion-that the three police officers who testified for the State were more credible than defendant and two relatives who testified on his behalf-and reaffirmed its findings of guilt.

         ¶ 3 The question thus presented is whether-and if so, under what circumstances-reopening a bench trial after a premature judgment preserves a defendant's constitutional right to make a closing argument. We hold that reopening the case preserves this right, unless the record shows that the trial judge was unable or unwilling to give defense counsel's belated argument all due consideration before finalizing its judgment(s) of guilt.

         ¶ 4 The record here reveals quite the opposite. And the trial court could reasonably find that the testifying officers were more credible than defendant and his witnesses. We therefore affirm defendant's convictions.

         ¶ 5 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 6 The charges in this case arose from a confrontation between defendant and three officers of the Burnham Police Department, on January 8, 2012, in the parking lot of a sports bar. The details of that confrontation were thoroughly disputed at trial. Chief Peter Belos and Officers Bolin and Russell testified to one version of events for the State. Defendant, his sister, and his niece testified to another.

         ¶ 7 Around 2 a.m., Chief Belos drove through the parking lot of the bar while on routine patrol. He testified that he saw defendant and a woman walking through the lot, having a "heated argument" and a "pushing and shoving match." He called for backup and parked his car. As he approached defendant and the woman on foot, he identified himself and asked what they were arguing about. Defendant separated himself from the shoving match and walked toward the front door of the bar.

         ¶ 8 Chief Belos followed defendant to the door and ordered him to remove his left hand from underneath his coat, fearing that he may have been holding a gun. Defendant refused and walked back to the center of the parking lot. Chief Belos followed him and repeated his order five or six times. Defendant refused to comply, so Chief Belos eventually grabbed his arm. Defendant broke free and ran back toward the front door of the bar.

         ¶ 9 Chief Belos followed defendant back to the door, where defendant eventually removed his hand from underneath his coat. He was holding an open beer bottle. Chief Belos asked him what the argument was about. Defendant erupted in profanity and tried to walk away again.

         ¶ 10 In the meantime, a crowd of people had gathered around. Chief Belos asked defendant to step over to his vehicle, away from the crowd, to talk about the argument. Instead, defendant hit Chief Belos in his left shoulder. At that very moment, Officers Bolin and Russell were arriving.

         ¶ 11 Officers Bolin and Russell testified that that they arrived at the same time but in separate cars. They both parked at the edge of the lot and approached, on foot, a crowd that included defendant, Chief Belos, and 8 to 12 other people surrounding them. Defendant was wrangling with Chief Belos. Officer Bolin testified that Chief Belos was holding defendant by the arm or jacket, but defendant pulled away and pushed Chief Belos. Officer Russell testified that he saw Chief Belos "fall back," but he could not be sure, from his vantage point, if Chief Belos was pushed in the arm or punched in the mouth.

         ¶ 12 As they approached, Officers Bolin and Russell identified themselves, and Chief Belos instructed them to arrest defendant. They tried, but defendant resisted. He was combative, drunk, and shouting defiant profanities at the officers. While Officers Bolin and Russell struggled with defendant, Chief Belos turned his attention to the rest of the crowd, which had grown loud and unruly, and called for additional backup.

         ¶ 13 Officer Bolin grabbed defendant's arm, but he pulled away and started to run. Officer Bolin caught up with defendant, grabbed him from behind, and tried to cuff him. By this time, they were near a storefront window in the strip mall where the bar was located. Defendant lunged backward forcefully, ramming Officer Bolin's back into the plate-glass window. The window cracked but did not fully break. Defendant then fell to the ground, face-forward, and Officer Bolin fell on top of or next to him. Officer Bolin tried again to cuff him, but defendant kept kicking, punching, and pulling away. At least one of defendant's kicks landed, striking Officer Bolin in the shin.

         ¶ 14 Officer Russell warned defendant that he would be tased if he kept resisting. Defendant continued resisting, so Officer Russell gave him a "drive stun" to the arm. (That is, he held his taser to defendant but did not put the prongs into him-a method, he testified, that delivers a lower-level jolt.) Apart from that, Officer Russell testified, he never struck defendant in any way.

         ¶ 15 Officer Bolin testified that the rest of the crowd was "beating on" him and Officer Russell the whole time, hitting them from behind while they tried to subdue defendant.

         ¶ 16 After defendant was tased, Officer Bolin handcuffed him, put him in the back of his squad car, and drove him to the station. According to Officer Bolin, defendant kicked out the rear passenger-side window of the car. Chief Belos testified that when he saw Officer Bolin's car at the station, one of the rear windows was broken and the frame around the window was bent; earlier in the evening, when he saw Officer Bolin on patrol, the window was intact.

         ¶ 17 Officer Bolin testified that he did not notice any injuries to defendant at the station.

         ¶ 18 Defendant, his niece Kandis McMiller, and his sister Tasheena Givens testified to a very different version of events.

         ¶ 19 Defendant and his family had gathered at the bar to celebrate his niece Lanique's birthday. Givens was escorted out of the bar by security guards after lighting a cigarette inside. McMiller and defendant went outside to talk to her. Defendant testified that McMiller left them at some point, but he was still talking to Givens when the police arrived. He testified that "I guess we were loud because I'm telling her to calm down."

         ¶ 20 Twenty or more other people, according to the defense witnesses, had also gathered in the parking lot by the time the police arrived. McMiller testified that the scene was peaceful and that nobody was arguing. Givens testified that there was a "confrontation" brewing in another "group of girls" in the lot, and that the "whole lot was lit up like fireworks with noise."

         ¶ 21 The defense witnesses estimated that upwards of a dozen police cars descended upon the lot. One of the officers drove past Givens and defendant, with his window rolled down, and said "come here." They walked away because they didn't think the officer was talking to them. The officer got out of his car, walked over, and said, "You heard me talking to you."

         ¶ 22 Without any warning, that officer-whom defendant identified as Officer Russell-hit defendant in the face with his baton. The defense witnesses all denied that defendant said anything to Officer Russell or made any contact with him before he hit defendant. Defendant either fell to his knees or was thrown to the ground by Officer Russell. He was bleeding heavily from his mouth.

         ¶ 23 While defendant was on the ground, Officer Russell handcuffed and tased him several times in the back. Officer Russell then pulled defendant back up and tased him again, this time in his chest, while walking him to the squad car. Whenever defendant was tased, he foamed from his mouth, and his eyes rolled back in his head.

         ¶ 24 Givens and McMiller testified that the police also tased and arrested several other family members, including Givens. According to Givens, the police "just went berserk on people."

         ¶ 25 Defendant denied that he touched or said anything to Officer Russell. He denied pushing Officer Bolin into the storefront window or breaking the window of the squad car. He testified that he never had his hand underneath his coat, and that nobody ever told him to remove his hand from his coat.

         ¶ 26 Defendant introduced into evidence four photos depicting the injuries allegedly inflicted by Officer Russell. Three of those photos, defendant's Exhibits 1 through 3 (all dated January 11, 2012, three days after the incident), depict swelling on his face and lip. Exhibit 4 (dated January 18, 2012, 10 days after the incident), he claims, depicts the area on his chest ...


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