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Criminal Nuggets


Jun 26, 2018

People v. Wilkinson, 2018 IL App (3d) 160173 (June). Episode 504 (Duration 15:06)

Defendant beats back a racist aggressor; now he's doing 3 years.

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Gist

A big white dude walks up to defendant’s front door with another guy. When Defendant gets to the door the white dude punches defendant who is African American. A struggle ensues. Defendant grabs a hammer and hits defendant in the head. Either he doesn’t stop and repeatedly hits him or the struggle ensues.

Issue

On appeal, defendant argues that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant did not reasonably believe that the force he used was necessary to prevent great bodily harm.

The parties on appeal limit their arguments to the reasonableness of defendant’s belief that striking the victim with a hammer was necessary to prevent great bodily harm to himself.

Facts

Big white dude was jacked up.

The victim testified that he suffered fractures to his eye socket, sinus cavity, and “nose socket” as a result of the altercation. Looks like it came from one blow with the hammer.

He required 12 staples and a number of stitches. A tendon was also severed. He continued to suffer from eye spasms and headaches.

The Verdict

The State concedes “that the record in this case supports defendant’s and trial court’s beliefs that Cook was the initial aggressor. More pointedly, the State concedes that Cook punched defendant in the face. The State, however, argues that defendant used “excessive force,” or “an amount of force far greater than needed to neutralize the threat posed by Cook.”

Here, the jury was free to conclude that defendant struck the victim repeatedly in the head with a hammer while he was on top of him and the victim was trying to get away.

It follows that the jury could rationally conclude that any belief defendant held at that point that those hammer strikes were necessary to protect himself was unreasonable.

Racist Victim

The trial court noted that “the elephant in the room” was that “this case [was] about being black.” The court found it clear that the victim did not like defendant because of his race, based on his comments that defendant was not welcome in the neighborhood. The court noted that defendant had been made well aware of that racial animosity before the physical altercation.

The victim’s untruthfulness about his initial intentions did not fatally undermine his credibility as to his later actions. Indeed, it is plausible that a hammer strike to his face, leaving a large gash between his eyes, was enough to convince the initially aggressive victim that it was time to leave.

In sum, testimony from the victim in this case tended to show that defendant continued to strike him with a hammer after any threat had subsided. The jury could reasonably have concluded that this testimony was credible and, in turn, that defendant did not reasonably believe those continued hammer strikes were necessary to prevent great bodily harm to himself.

Self Defense?

Defendant claimed self defense.

The court concluded that victim was the aggressor.

The court noted that while defendant had been initially justified in using force, the State had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he used “excessive force in the lawful act of self-defense.” The court commented that defendant would not have been guilty if he had only struck the aggressor with the hammer “once or twice.” The court made clear that it was sentencing defendant not for initially striking the victim with the hammer, but “for not stopping.”

Police Investigation

The court also condemned the actions of the investigating officers in the case, opining:

“[T]he police already made up their mind what the charge was before they ever spoke to you. They didn’t even come and ask you what happened. They didn’t come and ask your girlfriend what happened, even though she was the one that called the police. They just went directly to the victim and got his side of the story and the case was opened, and closed, and shut.”

Sentence

The court sentenced defendant to a term of three years’ imprisonment.

Statue on Self Defense

 Section 7-1(a) of the Criminal Code of 2012 holds as follows:

“A person is justified in the use of force against another when and to the extent that he reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or another against such other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, he is justified in the use of force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm only if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or another, or the commission of a forcible felony.”

720 ILCS 5/7-1(a).

The section further provides that a person who is an “aggressor” may not invoke self-defense. Id. § 7-1(b).

Self Defense Elements

A claim that self-defense justified a use of force that was likely to cause great bodily harm contemplates six distinct elements:

(1) unlawful force was threatened against a person,
(2) the person threatened was not the aggressor,
(3) the danger of great bodily harm was imminent,
(4) the use of force was necessary,
(5) the person threatened actually and subjectively believed a danger existed that required the use of the force applied, and
(6) the beliefs of the person threatened were objectively reasonable.

Once a defendant raises the affirmative defense of self-defense, the burden shifts to the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant did not act in self-defense.

The State satisfies this burden if it negates any of the six elements beyond a reasonable doubt.

Holding

We find the State produced evidence sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant was not acting in self-defense. The judgment of the circuit court of Whiteside County is affirmed.

But See The Dissent

The dissent says he was only hit once with the hammer.

Defendant's Injuries

The photographs showed a swollen nose and a knot on defendant’s head, apparently confirming the punch to his face, and “welt-like marks on his right arm, redness and a small wound on his left arm, and scrapes on his elbow, knee, and knuckles.”

The photographic evidence in the case, including the welts and redness on the Defendant’s arms, thus casts doubt upon the victim’s testimony in two ways:

(1) How did the victim have only one significant injury to his face if he was struck in the head multiple times with a hammer while defendant was on top of him? and
(2) How did the defendant acquire such a variety of injuries if the victim was merely trying to flee?

Indeed, nothing in the victim’s version explains defendant’s injuries.

In affirming, the majority not only does not address these questions; it makes no reference to the photographs at all in its analysis.

Victim's Testimony

The victim’s testimony, the most significant basis for Wilkinson’s conviction, is precisely the type of “unreasonable, improbable, or unsatisfactory” evidence that creates a reasonable doubt as to Wilkinson’s guilt.

Just One Solid Hammer Blow

Further, the majority’s holding is that the defendant was no longer acting in self-defense when, at least according to the victim, he continued to beat the victim with the hammer outside.

Yet the evidence unequivocally shows that the major wound to the victim’s face—the wound that clearly was the source of the frontal sinus fracture referenced in the charging instrument—was the result of the first, justified hammer strike.

No Serious Injuries After First Blow

To sustain a conviction on the theory that it was defendant’s continued hammer strikes that negated the reasonableness of his belief in the necessity of his actions, the State would need to prove that defendant caused great bodily harm after the point at which he was no longer reasonably defending himself.

Even accepting as true victim’s later testimony that he was merely trying to get away when defendant repeatedly struck him with the hammer outside, the photographs show that those alleged additional hammer strikes caused—at most—some cuts, scrapes, and slight bruising.

These injuries conformed with the suggestion that the strikes may have been glancing blows.

No rational juror could conclude that injuries of that nature rise to the level of great bodily harm. It does not appear to me that the State was engaged in creating and presenting a fair and objective record to facilitate the jury’s search for truth. For all of these reasons, I would reverse the conviction of Michael Wilkinson outright.

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