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People v. Hamilton

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Sixth Division

December 13, 2019

ERIC HAMILTON, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 15 CR 609 Honorable Kevin M. Sheehan, Judge Presiding.

          Attorneys for Appellant: James E. Chadd, Patricia Mysza, and Daniel H. Regenscheit, of State Appellate Defender's Office, of Chicago, for appellant.

          Attorneys for Appellee: Kimberly M. Foxx, State's Attorney, of Chicago (Alan J. Spellberg, Brian K. Hodes, Assistant State's Attorneys, of counsel), for the People

          JUSTICE CUNNINGHAM delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Mikva concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶ 1 Following a jury trial in the circuit court of Cook County, the defendant-appellant, Eric Hamilton, was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 55 years' imprisonment. On appeal, the defendant contends that (1) he received ineffective assistance of counsel, (2) he was unfairly prejudiced by witness testimony, and (3) the trial court did not provide proper Illinois Supreme Court Rule 431(b) (eff. July 1, 2012) admonishments during voir dire. For the following reasons, we reverse the judgment of the circuit court of Cook County and remand the case for a new trial.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 The State charged the defendant with first degree murder for the death of Guvonni Johnson on December 8, 2014. The defendant retained counsel, who claimed that the defendant shot Johnson in self defense. A jury trial commenced, and the following evidence was presented.

         ¶ 4 On the morning of December 8, 2014, the defendant picked up his fiancée, Nikita Robinson, from her job and drove her home. When they arrived at the house, located at 6103 South Wabash Avenue, Chicago, Illinois (the house), Guvonni Johnson was there. Johnson was Robinson's brother, who had lived with Robinson at the house for the past several months. An argument ensued between Johnson and Robinson over a bus pass. The defendant joined the argument to support Robinson, and things became heated between him and Johnson.

         ¶ 5 The defendant stepped outside and called the police. Chicago police officer John Block arrived at the house a few minutes later. Robinson and the defendant told Officer Block that they wanted Johnson to leave the house. However, Officer Block declined to remove Johnson or make him leave. After talking with everyone for about 20 minutes, Officer Block left the house.

         ¶ 6 The argument continued between the defendant and Johnson once Officer Block left. Robinson then told both men to leave the house. Once outside of the house, the defendant and Johnson engaged in a physical altercation. Johnson eventually entered his car, a red PT Cruiser, and drove away. The defendant followed in his car, a white PT Cruiser. After a few minutes, both men drove back to the house and parked their cars. Words were exchanged between them on the street. The defendant then shot and killed Johnson outside of the house. No gun was found on Johnson or at the crime scene.

         ¶ 7 The State's Case

         ¶ 8 Robinson testified on behalf of the State. After she told both men to leave the house, she watched the physical altercation between them from inside the house. Johnson punched the defendant in the jaw, which knocked out the defendant's tooth, and then Johnson spit in the defendant's face. The defendant pushed Johnson away from him and swung at him but missed. Robinson then went outside to try to stop the fight, but was unable to do so and it continued. She went inside the house and called the police. She was on the telephone with the police for a few minutes when she heard the front gate outside of the house crash to the ground. She looked outside and saw that Johnson had knocked the defendant into the gate, which broke it. Robinson went back outside as the two men continued to fight in the street. She went up to them to try to physically break up the fight once again, but she was hit by one of the punches thrown. She went back into the house and called the police again.

         ¶ 9 About five minutes after Robinson went back inside the house, she heard three gunshots. She looked out the front window of the house and saw Johnson lying on the ground in front of his car. The defendant then knocked on the back door of the house. Robinson opened the door, and the defendant told her "I'm sorry, I love you." Robinson told the defendant to turn himself in, and he left.

         ¶ 10 Robinson testified on direct examination that she did not see either man with a gun on that day. On cross-examination, defense counsel asked her: "Had you ever seen [Johnson] with a gun?" Robinson answered, "Yes." The State objected and the trial court sustained the objection. Defense counsel requested a sidebar, and the trial court asked defense counsel why he should be allowed to ask Robinson if she ever saw Johnson with a gun:

"[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: I believe the State opened the door. They said there were a couple of questions. Did you ever see him on that day with a gun? Did you ever see him --
THE COURT: Well, that's relevant because you had filed a defense of self defense for that particular day.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: I just believe, Judge, I should be able to ask if she ever saw [Johnson] with a gun. They lived together for eight months and it shows he may have possessed a gun at some point and he may have had a gun -- if he possessed a gun at some point prior, then he may have had a gun on that day.
THE COURT: That calls for sheer speculation. State['s] response.
[THE STATE]: First of all, in the defendant's opening statement, they indicated that this defendant saw [Johnson] supposedly carrying his waistband as if he had a gun. Thus the question[, ] [']did you see [Johnson] on that day carrying a gun.['] Secondly, even if [Johnson] had no criminal background, even if he had a criminal conviction for possession of a gun, case law is clear [that possession] does not go towards violence. It doesn't go to Lynch material. This is nothing but to dirty up [Johnson].
THE COURT: First of all, the fact that he has ever [been] seen by anyone with a gun, is she prepared to tell you where and when and what date she saw him with a gun?
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: I think she is prepared to tell me not the exact date but where.
THE COURT: What do you mean where? On his person, at his place?
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: On his person.
THE COURT: Here is the problem. When the State asked [']did you see him with a gun on that particular day, ['] that's a relevant question because that goes to the heart of pure self defense. It may go to the heart of unreasonable self defense, et cetera. In your opening statement you obviously indicated that your client will testify that he saw [Johnson] reaching towards something that he thought was a gun. The fact that did one person ever carry a gun is irrelevant. Number one, we don't know if that person had the right to carry a gun or carried a gun lawfully. Right?
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Judge, agree.
THE COURT: What this is doing essentially, [counsel], he carried a gun then so I think you can pretty much believe he carried a gun. It's conjecture. Objection sustained."

         ¶ 11 Shelton Young also testified on behalf of the State. Young lived across the street from Robinson. On December 8, 2014, Young was watching television at his home when he looked outside of his window. He saw Johnson park a red PT Cruiser and walk toward Robinson's house. He then saw the defendant park a white PT Cruiser and walk toward Johnson. The defendant said something to Johnson that Young could not hear, and Johnson turned and walked toward the defendant. Young noticed the defendant had a gun in his hand. When the two men were about 10 feet apart from each other, the defendant fired the gun at Johnson and missed. Johnson ran between two cars to shield himself. The defendant fired again, and Johnson fell to the ground. The defendant then walked up to Johnson and fired his gun four more times.

         ¶ 12 Anthony Bates testified that he is the maintenance supervisor for Robinson's townhome complex. Just before 11 a.m. on December 8, 2014, Bates was walking near the house when he saw "two cars racing back and forth down the street," one a burgundy PT Cruiser and the other a white PT Cruiser. He saw the burgundy PT Cruiser eventually stop, and then the white PT Cruiser stop just a few seconds later. Bates recognized the defendant as he "hopped out" of the white PT Cruiser. The defendant walked up to the burgundy PT Cruiser, and tried to break several of the car's windows with his elbow, but was unsuccessful. The defendant walked back to his car, and Johnson exited the burgundy PT Cruiser. Johnson walked away from the defendant and toward the house. The defendant then fired a gun at Johnson but missed. The defendant chased Johnson between the parked cars and fired a second shot. Johnson fell to the ground. Bates moved toward the defendant and "tried to talk him out of it." As Bates stood in the middle of the street, he saw the defendant walk over to Johnson, who was laying on the ground, and stand over Johnson and shoot him about four or five more times. The defendant then "[l]ooked up and took off running" with his gun. Bates never saw Johnson with a gun.

         ¶ 13 Detective Dale Potter testified that when he arrived at the scene, Johnson had already been transported to the hospital. He spoke with Bates, who agreed to go down to the police station to speak with him further. At the station, Detective Potter showed Bates an array of compiled photographs. Bates identified the defendant's photograph from the array. Detective Potter then notified the "mission team" of detectives and police officers within the area to look for the defendant. Detective Potter testified that he gave the mission team "personal information that I knew of [the] defendant based on ...

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