Supreme Court Summaries

Opinions filed November 29, 2012


 

 

People v. Leach, 2012 IL 111534

Appellate citation: 405 Ill. App. 3d 297.

 

      JUSTICE GARMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

      Justices Freeman, Thomas, Karmeier, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

      Chief Justice Kilbride dissented, with opinion.

 

      On June 30, 2004, this defendant walked into the Harvey police station and reported that he had strangled his wife to death in their apartment located in nearby Robbins. Although he stated that there had been an argument and a physical struggle, he also claimed that the death was an accident. His statement to police was video-recorded, and he was charged with first degree murder.

      At a bench trial in the circuit court of Cook County, the defendant claimed that he had not intended to kill. Defense counsel argued that the evidence showed, at most, recklessness and guilt of no more than involuntary manslaughter. The judge, acting as trier of fact, found that the State had not met its burden of proving intentional murder, but did find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of first degree murder, based on knowing that his acts created a strong probability of death or great bodily harm. Leach received a 28-year sentence, and the appellate court affirmed. In this decision, the supreme court also affirmed, although reasoning differently.

      The supreme court said that the conviction is supported by the defendant’s confession as to the manner and cause of death, as well as by the properly admitted testimony of a qualified expert that it would take three to six minutes for a person to die from strangulation. The State had argued that this death by strangulation could not possibly have been accidental. The trial judge, having heard the evidence, concluded that pressure on the victim’s throat could not be maintained for such a length of time without the perpetrator knowing that his acts created a strong probability of death or great bodily harm. The judge’s finding that the evidence was sufficient to convict is upheld here.

      In the petition for leave to appeal, and in the arguments of the parties before the supreme court, constitutional confrontation issues of evidentiary law under Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), were dealt with because the autopsy report, concluding that the death was a homicide, was made by a pathologist who had retired by the time of trial. He did not testify and, thus, could not be cross-examined. Nevertheless, his report was admitted into evidence, and a different expert (who was cross-examined) testified, based on the report, concluding that the cause of death was strangulation. At trial, the defense argued unsuccessfully that the testimony of this second expert was hearsay. On appeal, the parties disputed whether it was “testimonial” so that, under the Crawford rule, prior cross-examination of the unavailable witness would be required for admissibility.

      In this decision, the supreme court held that a medical examiner’s routine autopsy report, such as the one here, which speaks to the manner and cause of death, i.e., whether it was accidental, suicidal, or homicidal, is not testimonial and is not subject to the Crawford rule even if the examiner is aware that police suspect homicide and that a specific individual might be responsible. In this instance, the autopsy report was not prepared for the primary purpose of providing evidence in a criminal case and was properly admitted as nontestimonial. Should the United States Supreme Court later determine otherwise, the defendant still is not entitled to a new trial because the error, if any, was harmless due to the circumstances that the defendant did not dispute the manner and cause of death or that he was guilty of some form of homicide. The evidence was otherwise sufficient to convict, as the circuit court held.