904 N.E.2d 1077 (Ill.App. 1 Dist. 2009), 1-06-3086, People v. Harris

Docket Nº:1-06-3086.
Citation:904 N.E.2d 1077, 389 Ill.App.3d 107, 328 Ill.Dec. 567
Party Name:The PEOPLE of the State of Illinois, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Nicole HARRIS, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:March 13, 2009
Court:Court of Appeals of Illinois
 
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Page 1077

904 N.E.2d 1077 (Ill.App. 1 Dist. 2009)

389 Ill.App.3d 107, 328 Ill.Dec. 567

The PEOPLE of the State of Illinois, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

Nicole HARRIS, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 1-06-3086.

Court of Appeal of Illinois, First District, Fifth Division.

March 13, 2009

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Richard A. Devine, State's Attorney, County of Cook, Chicago, IL, James E. Fitzgerald, Peter Fischer, Assistant State's Attorneys, of counsel, for Plaintiff-Appellee, People of the State of Illinois.

Robert R. Stauffer, Sarah Hardgrove-Koleno, Jeffrey S. Eberhard, Shannon P. Bartlett, Jenner & Block LLP, Steven A. Drizin, Alison R. Flaum, Center on Wrongful Convictions, Bluhm Legal Clinic, Chicago, IL, for Defendant-Appellant, Nicole Harris.

OPINION

Justice TOOMIN.

[328 Ill.Dec. 569] [389 Ill.App.3d 108] Following a jury trial, defendant Nicole Harris was found guilty of [389 Ill.App.3d 109] first degree murder of her four-year-old son and sentenced to a term of 30 years' imprisonment. On appeal, she asserts that: (1) the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress statements; (2) the court abused its discretion in finding a key defense witness incompetent to testify; (3) in the absence of proof of the corpus delicti, the evidence was insufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; and (4) she was denied effective assistance of counsel. For the following reasons, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

The instant prosecution stemmed from the strangulation of defendant's four-year-old son, Jaquari Dancy. In the afternoon of May 14, 2005, his father, Sta-Von Dancy, discovered Jaquari's lifeless body on the floor of his bedroom. An elastic cord or band dangling from a fitted sheet on the top bunk was wrapped repeatedly around Jaquari's neck. Sta-Von unwrapped the band and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. When Jaquari failed to respond, Sta-Von picked him up and ran outside. He encountered defendant, who had returned [328 Ill.Dec. 570]

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from the laundromat and was parking her car. They rushed off in search of a hospital, with defendant driving and Sta-Von continuing his CPR efforts. An ambulance eventually met them and Jacquari was taken to Resurrection Hospital on the Northwest side of Chicago, where he was pronounced dead.

The Initial Investigation

In the evening of May 14, Chicago police officers were summoned to Resurrection to begin their investigation into Jaquari's death. Detective Randall Wo met with defendant and Sta-Von in a family room about 7:15 p.m. and after expressing sympathies had a brief conversation with the parents. Wo testified that it was customary in child death investigations to ask parents to assist in the investigation and both Sta-Von and Nicole agreed to come to the station. Although defendant was given the option of driving her own car to Area 5 headquarters, she was too emotional and instead elected to ride in a police car. The parents arrived at the station between 8 and 9 p.m.

Detective Anthony Noradin was among the team of officers assigned to the death investigation. Initially, he was basically told that " there was a four-year-old child they found with an elastic band wrapped around his neck." There was no indication that this was a murder investigation. Detective Noradin and his partner, Detective Kelly, interviewed defendant at 9 p.m. in the " quiet room," a sensitive room used mainly for victims of sexual assaults. The room is approximately 18 by 12 feet, with a table and chairs, a television, telephone and a computer. Defendant was not restrained; her five- [389 Ill.App.3d 110] year-old son Diante was seated on her lap. The detectives asked questions concerning background information as well as the family's activities during the day. Her responses gave the officers no reason to believe that Jaquari's death was the result of anything but an accident. Following this 25- to 30-minute conversation, the detectives left defendant and Diante in the room with the door open. Defendant was not told she was under arrest nor was she told that she was free to leave. The detectives passed the results of their conversation to other detectives who were about to interview Sta-Von. It is customary interviewing practice to separate witnesses during investigations.

Defendant's Arrest and Custodial Interrogation 1

As the investigation continued, Detectives Balodimas and Landando left the station to re-canvas the family's apartment building at 2004 North LaPorte in Chicago. After speaking with other tenants, they returned to the station to confront defendant with some of the inconsistencies between her earlier comments and what they had learned from her neighbors. Detective Balodimas told defendant that contrary to her earlier statement, the neighbors said that she had struck her children that day with a belt, rather than with her hands. They spoke for about 15 minutes and toward the end of the conversation, defendant told the officers that when she returned from the laundromat, she got mad when she saw Jaquari and Diante outside. She then broke down, started crying, and spontaneously stated, " I wrapped the phone cord around Jaquari's neck and then I wrapped the elastic band from the bed sheet around his neck to make it look like an accident." Detective Landando immediately stopped the questioning and read defendant her Miranda rights from his Fraternal Order of Police book. According to Noradin, defendant [328 Ill.Dec. 571]

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acknowledged them, saying: " I understand my rights. I have a degree from Southern University of Illinois. I understand my rights." She was then placed under arrest and moved to Interview Room A, a secure room. Although the room has a metal bench and handcuff bar, defendant was not restrained. The questioning did not resume at this time.

At 1:40 a.m., Noradin and Kelly returned to the interview room and again spoke with defendant. Noradin informed her that an assistant State's Attorney would be coming out to memorialize her statement. In turn, defendant recanted, denying that she caused Jaquari's death. The conversation lasted but five minutes.

[389 Ill.App.3d 111] The detectives next spoke to defendant at about 2:25 a.m. at which time she agreed to take a polygraph examination. Arrangements were made to do the examination later that morning. At 11:30 a.m., Noradin took defendant to the polygraph section located at 1819 West Pershing Road. Sta-Von was taken there in another car having likewise agreed to the examination. Investigator Bartik, the polygraph examiner, first spoke to the detectives concerning the facts of the case. He met with defendant at 12:45 p.m., at which time she signed the polygraph consent, which included her Miranda waiver. At no time did she elect to remain silent or request an attorney. The examination took about an hour and a half and defendant answered the questions coherently. Although Bartik could not determine whether defendant was telling the truth, he informed the detectives that she had made certain statements that were inconsistent with earlier accounts as well as information provided by Sta-Von. In turn, the detectives re-interviewed defendant at the polygraph section and were then told that after defendant took Jaquari back into the bedroom, she spanked him again, grabbed the elastic band from the top bed sheet, put it around his neck, laid him on the top bunk and then left.

Defendant was returned to Area 5 and again placed in the " quiet room." At 7:10 p.m., she again spoke with Balodimas, Landando and Noradin. After being reminded of her rights, defendant was confronted with the fact that because there was a bed rail around the bunk, there was no way Jaquari could have rolled off the bed and fallen to the floor. The defendant then stated she wanted to tell the truth; that she wrapped the elastic band around Jaquari's neck three to four times and pulled it until he stopped crying. She saw blood coming from his nose, laid him down and then left. In turn, Noradin called the State's Attorney's office and asked for a felony review assistant to come to the station.

Assistant State's Attorney Lawrence O'Reilly had been summoned earlier to Area 5 on another investigation. Because the detectives on that matter did not need him immediately, he agreed to help with this case. O'Reilly, together with Detectives Noradin and Cordero, met with defendant around 8:30 p.m. in the " quiet room," which O'Reilly described as an office, a yellow room " with butterflies and ladybugs and things" painted on the wall. After introducing himself and making it clear that he was an assistant State's Attorney and not defendant's lawyer, O'Reilly " Mirandized " the defendant. She acknowledged her understanding and agreed to tell him what had happened to Jaquari.

According to defendant, on the prior day, she and Sta-Von left for the laundromat late in the afternoon, instructing both children to [389 Ill.App.3d 112] remain inside. They spent 30 to 40 minutes there and on returning home found Jaquari outside with older boys, kids who were 7 and 8. She took Jaquari to his bedroom, pulled down his pants and [328 Ill.Dec. 572]

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spanked him with a belt. She spanked her other son too and left both children in the bedroom. Jaquari would not stop crying so defendant told him: " There's nothing wrong with you. Stop crying." The crying continued. She reentered the children's bedroom and grabbed the elastic portion of the fitted sheet from the top bunk and wrapped it around Jaquari a number of times. He had a little bit of blood coming from his nose and eventually he stopped crying and squirming. She left Jaquari in the bed with the elastic band around him. Her boyfriend was asleep in their bedroom and defendant then...

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