People v. Albanese

Decision Date19 October 1984
Docket NumberNo. 57660,57660
Citation85 Ill. Dec. 441,473 N.E.2d 1246,104 Ill.2d 504
Parties, 85 Ill.Dec. 441 The PEOPLE of the State of Illinois, Appellee, v. Charles M. ALBANESE, Appellant.
CourtIllinois Supreme Court

Neil F. Hartigan, Atty. Gen., Mark L. Rotert, Sally L. Dilgart, * Jack Donatelli, Asst. Attys. Gen., Chicago, for appellee.

Charles M. Schiedel, Supervising Atty., State Appellate Defender, Gary S. Rapaport, Asst. State Appellate Defender, Springfield, for appellant.

UNDERWOOD, Justice:

In a jury trial in the circuit court of Lake County, defendant, Charles Albanese, was found guilty of the arsenic-poisoning murder of his mother-in-law, Marion Mueller. Pursuant to section 9-1(d) of the Criminal Code of 1961 (Ill.Rev.Stat. 1981, ch. 38, par. 9-1(d)), the court conducted a separate sentencing hearing to determine whether a sentence of death should be imposed, and defendant was subsequently sentenced to death. The trial court stayed imposition of the sentence (87 Ill.2d R. 609(a)) pending direct appeal to this court (Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, sec. 4(b); Ill.Rev.Stat. 1981, ch. 38, par. 9-1(i); 87 Ill.2d R. 603).

The evidence admitted in this case is substantially similar to that introduced in another case involving defendant (see People v. Albanese (1984), 102 Ill.2d 54, 79 Ill.Dec. 608, 464 N.E.2d 206; hereinafter Albanese I ), and will not be discussed in any detail. In Albanese I, defendant was convicted of murdering his father, M.J. Albanese, and his wife's grandmother, Mary Lambert, by arsenic poisoning; the attempted murder of his brother, Michael Albanese, by the same means; and the theft of property from the family business. He was sentenced to death on the murder charges, and we affirmed that judgment in Albanese I. The evidence in this case differs from that admitted there in that, in the guilt phase of this trial, no evidence related to the murder of defendant's father, the attempted murder of his brother, or the theft charges was admitted, and defendant did not testify at this phase, as he did in Albanese I. Also, evidence admitted here pertaining to defendant's scheme to have his cellmate, John Saltz, force Michael Albanese to sign a note confessing to all of the previously mentioned crimes and then murder Michael and his wife was not available at the time of the first trial.

Defendant argues that the evidence presented was insufficient to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, challenging the sufficiency of the State's evidence that he murdered Marion Mueller to obtain, through his wife, an inheritance that would ease the financial strain he was experiencing. In particular, he disputes the accuracy of the State's evidence assessing his financial condition in 1980, urging the court to adopt calculations he offers here for the first time, which produce an increase in his cash assets and a decrease in expenses. However, as defendant acknowledges, the revised financial data do not alter the result that he overspent his income in 1980. Moreover, his revisions do not detract in any way from the State's evidence summarizing defendant's obligations and arrears in the critical months of July and August of 1980. As for defendant's more general argument that all of the circumstantial evidence submitted failed to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, we believe, as we stated in Albanese I, that the State has clearly established that Charles Albanese plotted and carried out this murder for financial gain. "A conviction can be sustained upon circumstantial evidence as well as upon direct, and to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean that the jury must disregard the inferences that flow normally from the evidence before it." People v. Williams (1968), 40 Ill.2d 522, 526, 240 N.E.2d 645, cert. denied (1969), 393 U.S. 1123, 89 S.Ct. 1004, 22 L.Ed.2d 129.

Defendant also contends that the State was erroneously permitted to introduce evidence of his financial problems and relies chiefly on People v. Dorr (1931), 346 Ill. 295, 178 N.E. 476, to support this proposition. In Dorr, the court stated that evidence of pecuniary embarrassment should have been excluded because: "A person's lack of money or even insolvency, without other incriminating facts or circumstances, does not justify the suspicion that, to improve his financial condition, he will commit one of the graver crimes of violence." (Emphasis added.) (346 Ill. 295, 302, 178 N.E. 476.) Defendant did not object at trial or in his post-trial motion to the admission of evidence concerning his strained finances, and thus any claim of error in this regard would normally be considered waived. However, even if there had been no waiver, we find that evidence of defendant's financial problems was properly admitted under the rule in Dorr since there was a considerable amount of other incriminating evidence introduced to support the conclusion that defendant murdered Marion Mueller. That evidence includes defendant's initial denial to McHenry police that he had ever possessed arsenic; his conviction for the murder of Mary Lambert, whose death prior to Marion Mueller's enabled his wife to inherit valuable real estate jointly owned by the two victims; the promptness with which the victims' assets were used to pay defendant's debts; defendant's scheme whereby a former cellmate mailed letters, actually authored by defendant, but written as though from an anonymous third party, which implicated his brother and others in the crimes with which defendant had been charged; and his plot to have his brother murdered after he had been forced to sign a letter confessing to defendant's crimes.

Defendant further argues that evidence of other crimes committed by him, unrelated to the murder of Marion Mueller, was improperly admitted, thereby denying him a fair trial. He maintains that evidence of the following crimes was admitted in error: the attempted murder of his brother, Michael Albanese; theft of property from the family business; wilful withholding of child-support payments; and solicitation of the murder of his brother and sister-in-law. The first two arguments, relating to the admission of evidence of attempted murder and theft, are apparently based on the admission of two exculpatory notes he authored while in jail: a note, supposedly from an anonymous third party, circulated by his cellmate in McHenry County jail, Marty Nathan, and the "suicide" note his cellmate in Lake County jail, John Saltz, was to force defendant's brother to copy. The Nathan note states, in relevant part:

" * * * The container Joe [Reichel] gave Charles had powder[ed] sugar with a little arsenic. Just enough to kill the animals. Mike almost took to[o] much by trying to make himself look like a victim. * * * Mike set up the phoney [sic] theft."

The Saltz note contains the following relevant passage:

" * * * I took arsenic myself to make Chuck look guilty [sic]. But I overdid it and now I'll never be the same. The sale of zinc and scrap was actually my idea. But I had him do it in a way that I could make mom believe Chuck did it alone. * * * "

Since the trial court had granted defendant's motion in limine to exclude any evidence connected with his attempted murder of his brother by use of arsenic or the theft of company property, those facts necessary to fully decipher the meaning of these notes were not before the jury. In the absence of those explanatory facts, it seems to us the information contained in these notes simply does not implicate defendant in either an attempted murder or a theft. Nor is there in this record any evidence that defendant wilfully withheld child-support payments due his former wife; on the contrary, the evidence indicates that he was experiencing a cash shortage which made it impossible for him to comply with the terms of his divorce decree. Although section 1 of the Non-Support of Spouse and Children Act (Ill.Rev.Stat. 1979, ch. 40, par. 1101) makes it a misdemeanor to refuse to support one's children without lawful excuse, decisional law interpreting this statute indicates that inability to pay may provide the lawful excuse contemplated by this section. (See People v. James (1980), 89 Ill.App.3d 157, 159, 44 Ill.Dec. 441, 411 N.E.2d 563.) Moreover, it is not common knowledge that it is a misdemeanor to neglect support obligations, and jurors were never so advised. Attorney Eugene Buchalter did testify that defendant was seized by the McHenry County sheriff pursuant to a body attachment issued by the court, but he stated that he requested this order so that defendant would appear in court on a rule to show cause. Thus, the first three matters which defendant contends were improperly admitted simply do not constitute evidence that defendant committed other crimes.

It is clear, however, that evidence concerning defendant's solicitation of John Saltz to murder his brother and sister-in-law was before the jury since Saltz testified to this effect. Evidence of collateral crimes is inadmissible if it is relevant merely to establish the defendant's propensity to commit crimes. (People v. Bartall (1983), 98 Ill.2d 294, 309, 74 Ill.Dec. 557, 456 N.E.2d 59; People v. Lindgren (1980), 79 Ill.2d 129, 137, 37 Ill.Dec. 348, 402 N.E.2d 238.) The issue then is whether Saltz' testimony was admitted only to establish defendant's reputation as a bad person, deserving of punishment, or whether there was some other, legitimate purpose for its admission. We believe that the solicitation-of-murder evidence was properly before the jury because it represented the ultimate step in defendant's plan to fabricate exculpatory evidence and, as such, constituted evidence of defendant's consciousness of guilt. (See United States v. Rajewski (7th Cir.1975), 526 F.2d 149, 158.) The scheme to have Saltz force Michael to sign a "suicide" note confessing to defendant's crimes would not have been complete if the two persons who, according to...

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