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People v. Tatum

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Third Division

August 7, 2019

SYLVESTER TATUM, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County No. 13 CR 3551 Honorable Thomas V. Gainer Jr., Judge Presiding.

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


          ELLIS, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 Defendant Sylvester Tatum was jumped and beaten on a street corner. By all accounts, he was furious that his best friend, Levi Stubblefield, stood by during the beating and let him fend for himself. Moments later, the two friends went inside defendant's apartment building, where several gunshots were soon fired. Stubblefield's body was found in a vacant apartment on the first floor where defendant, Stubblefield, and others from the neighborhood often hung out. The State's theory at trial was that defendant, feeling abandoned and betrayed, killed Stubblefield in a fit of rage. The jury agreed and found defendant guilty of first-degree murder.

         ¶ 2 On appeal, defendant argues that the evidence was insufficient to sustain his conviction; that his right to a speedy trial was violated; that the State impermissibly bolstered the credibility of two key witnesses with their prior consistent statements; and that the trial court abused its discretion when it allowed the jury to view graphic autopsy photos that had little or no probative value. We affirm.

         ¶ 3 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 4 I

         ¶ 5 By November 4, 2011, Stubblefield's mother, Arbrett, and his sister, Latoya, had grown concerned. They had neither seen nor heard from Stubblefield for at least a couple of days, which was unusual. Latoya spoke to the police, who told her to find the last person to be seen with her brother. Latoya went to see defendant, a close friend of the family since childhood. Defendant told Latoya that he had not seen Stubblefield. He also said that he was beaten up two days earlier, on November 2, and that Stubblefield did not come to his aid during the fight. Defendant and Latoya filed a missing persons report together.

         ¶ 6 The next day, Arbrett, Latoya, and Latoya's husband, Lamont, went to defendant's home, a first-floor apartment at 320 North Pine Street in Chicago. Latoya asked defendant to help them look for Stubblefield in the building. Defendant directed them to an apartment on the second floor, but Latoya wanted to check the vacant apartment on the first floor, which she knew to be a hangout spot that her brother frequented. (To be precise, the building is 320-322 North Pine Street; it has two front entrances, one corresponding to each address. The vacant apartment is on the 320 side; defendant's apartment is on the 322 side. But other than Detective Mike Mancuso, the witnesses referred to the building as 320 North Pine, without any further distinction.)

         ¶ 7 Stubblefield's family and defendant went to the vacant apartment. The door was locked, and defendant did not let them in. Through the front window, Arbrett and Latoya saw shell casings on the floor. Arbrett then saw the lower half of her son's body. The family called the police, and after a forced entry, Stubblefield's dead body was found just inside the front door. He had numerous gunshot wounds.

         ¶ 8 Late in 2012, about a year after Stubblefield's murder, the police issued an investigative alert for defendant. He was arrested in January 2013 and soon indicted for this offense.

         ¶ 9 The evidence implicating defendant came from three principal occurrence witnesses- Christopher Randolph, Tyisha Hillard, and Al Thompson-who testified for the State. These witnesses all knew defendant and Stubblefield, and considered them friends. And they all had prior convictions. (Mostly, but not exclusively, drug cases.) At the time of trial, Randolph was on parole from his most recent conviction; Thompson had a pending UUWF charge; and Hillard was on probation for escape on an underlying drug case. Hillard also had a pending case for contempt, having failed to obey a witness subpoena issued by the trial court in this case. She frankly acknowledged that she did not want to testify. Thompson was equally clear that he only begrudgingly talked to the police.

         ¶ 10 II

         ¶ 11 Randolph testified that on November 2, 2011, he was hanging out in front of a small retail strip near the intersection of Central Avenue and Lake Street. Defendant and Stubblefield were both there. Four or five guys from the neighborhood, all in their teens or twenties, arrived. They were all relatives-a son and some nephews-of one "Robert K." Randolph and the other witnesses all agreed that it was "fair to describe" Robert K. as a "dangerous man" "off the west side," who was "involved in not so legal activities," and who was no friend to either defendant or Stubblefield. But the witnesses were reluctant to say more than that. Randolph, in particular, denied knowing whether that retail strip was Robert K.'s drug turf.

         ¶ 12 Robert K.'s relatives unleashed a "straight whooping" on defendant. They fought with him and "jumped up and down on" him for several minutes, while defendant struggled in vain to defend himself. They did not attack Stubblefield, who "was sitting off to the side" and did not try to help defendant during the beating.

         ¶ 13 After the beating, defendant, Stubblefield, and Randolph all left the retail strip. Robert K.'s relatives stayed there. Defendant walked back to his apartment building on Pine Street, a block east of Central Avenue. Stubblefield followed, walking right behind him. Randolph, who lived across the street from defendant, headed back the same way. But he kept his distance, on the opposite side of the street, because he wasn't sure if the fighting would continue-and because "there is known to be shooting around there," particularly in the aftermath of a fight.

         ¶ 14 On the walk back, defendant was visibly mad at Stubblefield, and the two got into a "heated argument." On direct examination, Randolph testified that he couldn't hear what they were arguing about. On cross-examination, Randolph acknowledged that he had told the grand jury otherwise: Defendant and Stubblefield met up or "reconvene[d]" after the beating and had a "heated argument or verbal confrontation *** concerning why [Stubblefield] didn't help [defendant]." (After tiptoeing into some further areas of Randolph's grand-jury testimony, including the apparent motive for the beating, defense counsel withdrew those questions, and the trial court instructed the jury to disregard them. But as we read the record, the question about the argument between Stubblefield and defendant stood.)

         ¶ 15 Defendant and Stubblefield went inside defendant's apartment building, through one of the front entrances on Pine Street. (Randolph did not say which one.) Randolph saw them from the gangway of his building, directly across the street, where he was smoking a cigarette. Other people were out and about, "like a woman walking her dog," but there was "no group of people" or "nothing like that" on the block, and nobody else in the immediate vicinity of defendant's apartment building.

         ¶ 16 Before Randolph finished his cigarette, he heard gunshots-seven or eight, he estimated. He did not know exactly where they came from, but it was somewhere "in close proximity," and it sounded like they came "from over there in the direction of the 320 building." Randolph did not see defendant or Stubblefield leave the building, either before or after the gunshots. And he never saw Stubblefield alive again.

         ¶ 17 Randolph testified that he was familiar with the vacant apartment. He described it as "a little hangout joint." Defendant, who had access to the vacant apartment, would typically let Randolph in.

         ¶ 18 III

         ¶ 19 Like Randolph, Hillard lived on the same block as defendant. And she frequently hung out with defendant and Stubblefield in the vacant apartment.

         ¶ 20 Hillard testified that on the day of the murder, she was on the corner of Pine and Lake Streets. She saw defendant come around the corner, onto Pine Street, with someone she knew as "JR." Defendant's clothes were ripped. He told Hillard that some people "just jumped on him," and that "[h]e was going to kill [Stubblefield] and the people around the corner because they didn't help him fight."

         ¶ 21 JR got into his car and drove away. Defendant went inside the vacant apartment. Hillard saw Stubblefield walking by and tried to buy some cannabis from him. She also told him that he should not go into the vacant apartment because defendant was there and wanted to kill him. But defendant went in, anyway. As Hillard walked across the street, she heard five or six gunshots coming from the first floor of that building, and took off running.

         ¶ 22 Hillard spoke to Detective Mancuso the day after Stubblefield's body was found. On cross-examination, defense counsel confronted her with her statements from that interview. Initially, she acknowledged that she did not mention defendant. Rather, she told Mancuso that she saw Stubblefield walk into the building on Pine Street, that she heard gunshots a few minutes later, and that she was not sure if anyone went into that building before him.

         ¶ 23 Hillard then testified, however, that she told Mancuso that she saw defendant walking back to Pine Street shortly before the shooting, that he looked beaten up and angry, and that he said he wanted to kill Stubblefield. The parties stipulated that Mancuso's police report, in which he documented their conversation, did not include any such statements by Hillard.

         ¶ 24 Hillard testified that she was a heavy cannabis user around the time of Stubblefield's murder. She estimated that she smoked an ounce of cannabis daily, or at any rate, "[e]nough to not remember nothing." She also drank a pint or so of tequila at least a couple times per week.

         ¶ 25 But Hillard had stopped smoking cannabis by the time she spoke to Mancuso again, over three months later, in March 2012. And having had time to "think about" what happened, she had more information. In particular, defendant told her that he wanted to kill Stubblefield. The parties stipulated that Mancuso's police report does not include any such statement by Hillard.

         ¶ 26 IV

         ¶ 27 Thompson was a longtime friend of both defendant and Stubblefield. He would typically speak to defendant on the phone daily. The day after Stubblefield was shot, defendant called Thompson on his cell phone about 10 times. Defendant said it was important, that they needed to talk. Thompson drove to defendant's apartment and picked him up.

         ¶ 28 Defendant looked like he had been in a fight; his face was swollen and scratched, and one of his eyes was half shut. Defendant said that Robert K.'s son and nephews attacked him-and possibly attacked Stubblefield, too, although Thompson's testimony was not always clear on this point. (For instance: "[Defendant] didn't per se say that [Stubblefield] didn't get jumped or he didn't say that he did neither.") In any event, defendant said that he thought Stubblefield "had something to do with it," because, whether he was attacked or not, "he ran off and left."

         ¶ 29 That didn't sound right to Thompson, who knew that defendant and Stubblefield were close friends. Thompson asked defendant where Stubblefield was. Defendant said he didn't know, but he had been trying to reach Stubblefield on the phone since the night before.

         ¶ 30 With defendant in the car, Thompson drove to the dry cleaners to pick up his clothes and then dropped them off at home. He was inside for a minute or two. As he walked back to his car, which was double-parked in the alley, he saw defendant walk over to a garbage can, "[b]y the pole of the alley," and throw away a pair of black jeans and a white shirt. Thompson didn't see defendant with those clothes, or with a bag, when he first picked defendant up. But he didn't make anything of defendant's behavior at the time.

         ¶ 31 Two days later, Thompson learned that Stubblefield's body was found in the vacant apartment. He drove over and met up with Arbrett, Latoya, and Lamont. While talking to them, Thompson got a call from defendant, who said to him, "I am telling the police I was with you." Thompson said, "Nope," and hung up on defendant. Thompson did not tell the officers at the scene what defendant said on the phone, or that defendant had thrown away some clothes in the garbage behind his house.

         ¶ 32 Thompson eventually spoke to the police, after they went to his house "like 30 times." On November 18, 2011, Detective Gilger searched the alley and garbage cans but did not find the clothes that defendant allegedly discarded there 15 days earlier.

         ¶ 33 V

         ¶ 34 The six fired bullets recovered from the vacant apartment and Stubblefi eld's body were all fired from the same gun. So were the eight cartridge casings recovered from the apartment. The blood swab taken from the floor of the vacant apartment matched Stubblefi eld. The medical examiner, Dr. Goldschmidt, testified that Stubblefield died from multiple gunshot wounds, and that he was shot a total of 10 times-in the chest, back, pelvis, legs, hand, and groin.

         ¶ 35 The jury found defendant guilty of first-degree murder. It also found that he proximately caused Stubblefield's death by personally discharging a firearm. The trial court sentenced him to 47 years in prison. This appeal followed.

         ¶ 36 ANALYSIS

         ¶ 37 I

         ¶ 38 Defendant first claims the State failed to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. There was no physical evidence linking defendant to the murder. Defendant did not make any inculpatory statements to the police. And there were no eyewitnesses to the shooting. The State's case was circumstantial, resting principally on the testimony of three occurrence witnesses- Randolph, Hillard, and Thompson. And not one of these witnesses, he argues, was credible.

         ¶ 39 In reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, we ask whether a rational trier of fact, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia,443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979); People v. Ross,229 Ill.2d 255, 272 (2008). With regard to the credibility of the witnesses and the reasonable inferences to be drawn from the evidence, the trier of fact's findings are entitled to great deference, but they are not conclusive. Ross, 229 Ill.2d at 272. Circumstantial evidence alone, if found ...

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