Supreme Court Summaries
Opinions filed February 22, 2013
People v. Eppinger, 2013 IL 114121
Appellate citation: 2012 IL App (3d) 100577-U.
JUSTICE THEIS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.
Chief Justice Kilbride and Justices Thomas, Garman, and Karmeier concurred in the judgment and opinion.
Justice Burke dissented, with opinion, joined by Justice Freeman.
In 2010, a Peoria County jury found this defendant guilty of attempted murder, aggravated battery with a firearm, two counts of armed robbery, and unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. Four victims testified, identifying the defendant as the man who robbed them at gunpoint in 2008. One of the victims was shot multiple times. The circuit court imposed a 95-year term.
A public defender had originally been appointed for Eppinger, but Eppinger later requested a different attorney. New counsel was appointed in 2009. Eppinger subsequently made a request to proceed pro se. In granting this request, the trial court admonished him on its consequences, and Eppinger made a waiver of his right to counsel. He then began making motions on his own, which caused the matter to be continued into January of 2010. On the morning of trial, Eppinger advised the court that he no longer wanted to represent himself and requested a third appointment of counsel. This would have required the new attorney to be allowed additional preparation time. The trial court, noting that defendant had refused to cooperate with the two earlier public defenders and had already waived his right to counsel, viewed the request as a delaying tactic and denied it.
The trial commenced with jury selection, but Eppinger refused to participate without counsel and remained in his holding cell. After the jury was selected, he emerged and participated in the subsequent proceedings without counsel. He did not testify or call witnesses, but did make an opening statement and closing argument, and he cross-examined the State’s witnesses.
On appeal, the sole issue defendant raised was that the voir dire of the jury had taken place in his absence, without the presence of any counsel representing him. Eppinger claimed a violation of section 115-4.1(a) of the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1963, commonly known as the trial in absentia statute, and the appellate court agreed. It found plain error and ordered a new trial.
The State appealed. Before the supreme court, the defendant did not make any constitutional arguments or deny his waiver of his right to counsel. The supreme court found the statute in question ambiguous, but concluded that it was not applicable to the facts of this case, in which the defendant was in custody and in which his absence from the courtroom was based on his own refusal to appear. Noting the lack of any constitutional argument here, or defendant’s reliance on any other statute, the supreme court said that no express statutory authority is a prerequisite to trial in absentia. The supreme court said that the trial court in this case was not statutorily required to appoint a third public defender (and, thus, to continue the trial date to give new counsel time to prepare) simply because Eppinger, after waiving his right to counsel, decided to also waive his right to be present during voir dire by refusing to leave his holding cell.
The appellate court’s new-trial order was reversed and the circuit court’s judgment was affirmed.