People v. Belknap

Decision Date18 December 2014
Docket NumberNo. 117094.,117094.
Citation23 N.E.3d 325
PartiesThe PEOPLE of the State of Illinois, Appellant, v. Daniel R. BELKNAP, Appellee.
CourtIllinois Supreme Court

Lisa Madigan, Attorney General, of Springfield and James Hoyle, State's Attorney, of Macomb (Carolyn E. Shapiro, Solicitor General, and Michael M. Glick and John R. Schleppenbach, Assistant Attorneys General, of Chicago, and Patrick Delfino, Terry A. Mertel and Gary F. Gnidovec, of the Office of the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor, of Ottawa, of counsel), for the People.

Michael J. Pelletier, State Appellate Defender, Peter A. Carusona, Deputy Defender, and Andrew J. Boyd, Assistant Appellate Defender, of the Office of the State Appellate Defender, of Ottawa, for appellee.

OPINION

Chief Justice GARMAN

delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

¶ 1 Following a jury trial in the circuit court of McDonough County, defendant, Daniel R. Belknap, was convicted of first degree murder in the death of five-year-old Silven Yocum. The trial court sentenced him to 24 years in prison. The appellate court, with one justice dissenting, reversed defendant's conviction and remanded for a new trial. 2013 IL App (3d) 110833, 377 Ill.Dec. 174, 1 N.E.3d 1061

. This court granted the State's petition for leave to appeal. Ill. S.Ct. R. 315 (eff. July 1, 2013).

¶ 2 BACKGROUND

¶ 3 This was defendant's second jury trial on the murder charge. His first conviction was reversed by the appellate court and remanded for a new trial due to the trial court's failure to comply with Supreme Court Rule 431(b)

( Ill.S.Ct. R. 431(b) (eff. May 1, 2007)) during jury selection when it did not ask the potential jurors whether they understood and accepted the four principles contained in that rule. The appellate court reviewed the error under the plain error doctrine and found the error reversible because the evidence was closely balanced. People v. Belknap, 396 Ill.App.3d 183, 335 Ill.Dec. 420, 918 N.E.2d 1233 (2009).

¶ 4 Evidence at defendant's second trial showed that on September 10, 2006, Silven was transported to McDonough District Hospital (MDH) by ambulance after her mother, Erin Yocum, called 911 and reported that Silven was having seizures. She was later airlifted to St. Francis Hospital in Peoria, where she received treatment for swelling in her brain

and underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from her brain. The treatments were unsuccessful and Silven remained in a coma until her death on September 16, 2006. Forensic pathologists who testified at defendant's trial opined that Silven died from a closed-head injury due to multiple blunt force trauma, causing bleeding on her brain, and bruising and abrasions to her head. The injuries resulted from nonaccidental blows and could have been delivered by a human hand, fist, foot, or an object. The injuries were most likely sustained between 12 and 24 hours prior to the onset of Silven's seizures. One of the pathologists, Dr. Mitchell, stated that Silven sustained five distinct blows to the head. The trauma would not likely have been caused by falling off a trampoline or by falling down one time. The other pathologist, Dr. Blum, opined that Silven sustained three blows to her head. Loss of consciousness would take several hours to occur because it takes time for the brain to swell and begin to bleed. Symptoms would include loss of appetite, listlessness, sleepiness, seizure, and an inability to wake.

¶ 5 Defendant and Erin were romantically involved. Erin and Silven spent a lot of time at defendant's house and Silven was due to start kindergarten in August 2006. At some point shortly before Silven's death, she and Erin moved into defendant's house. Erin and defendant were methamphetamine (meth) users. Larry Leasman testified that he stopped by defendant's house in the early morning hours of September 9, 2006, and they smoked meth in the garage. While Leasman was there, Erin returned from a trip to Wal–Mart. He did not recall whether Erin also smoked meth with them, but Erin testified that she did not. She went into the house to go to bed. She awoke at about 6 a.m. and went to join defendant in the garage. Silven joined them sometime later. During the day, Erin noticed that Silven seemed sluggish and tired and was very clingy. She thought Silven might be getting sick. When defendant asked Silven to go into the house with him and help him make breakfast, Silven cried and said she did not want to go with defendant. After breakfast, defendant took Silven for a ride on his four-wheeler. Later that day, because Silven had no one to play with, Erin went to the home of her brother, Erik, and brought his six-year-old son, Brett, back to defendant's house to play with Silven. When Erin returned with Brett, Silven was still not feeling well. There was a trampoline in the yard. Silven would not jump on it with Brett, but instead sat in a chair and watched him. Erin testified that Silven did not complain of any headaches, she was not bleeding, and Erin did not notice anything unusual about her physical appearance.

¶ 6 Later that evening, Erik arrived to pick up Brett for a birthday party. Silven went with him to drop Brett off at the party. When Erik and Silven returned to defendant's house, Erik commented to Erin that Silven did not seem to have much of an appetite, which was unusual for her. Erik then left. Sometime later, Erik called Erin and said one of the tires on his truck fell off while he was on his way to pick up Brett from the party. Defendant stayed home with Silven while Erin went to pick up Erik. She was gone about 20 minutes and when she and Erik returned, Silven was in bed. The next morning, September 10, 2006, Erin got up to use the bathroom and noticed that Silven was snoring loudly. She did not go into the bedroom to check on Silven. Erin went into Silven's room around noon and discovered that Silven was seizing. She would not wake up. Erin called 911.

¶ 7 At MDH, a doctor told Erin that Silven had been tied at the ankles, sodomized, and that she had a punctured bowel and a broken sternum

. None of this turned out to be true. As Silven was being airlifted to St. Francis, defendant and Erin got in the car to drive to the hospital. Partway there, defendant decided not to go. Erin got out of the car and went on to the hospital with her parents, who had been following in their own car. St. Francis personnel told Erin and her parents that defendant was not allowed to be there.

¶ 8 Erin testified that she had previously been involved with another man, Andy Yates, for several years. Yates and Silven had a very close relationship and when Erin started dating defendant, Silven had difficulty being away from Yates and being with defendant. However, according to Erin, defendant and Silven got along well. Defendant was very good to Silven and appeared to love her. He was not angry with her and never screamed at her or spanked her. Erin also testified that Silven did not like being uprooted from her former home and that she could sense that Silven was not fond of defendant.

¶ 9 Erin denied causing Silven's injuries. She did not know how Silven was injured and did not notice any injuries to her body. Erin testified that she had several interviews with the police and that she felt they were unfairly targeting defendant and trying to get her to implicate defendant in Silven's death. Defendant was being held in the Tazewell County jail on federal drug charges and Erin visited him many times while he was there. This was before he was charged with Silven's murder, which took place more than a year after Silven died. Erin wrote many letters to him and they had numerous phone conversations. She maintained her relationship with defendant because she loved him and did not believe he had caused Silven's death. When Erin complained to defendant that the sheriff wanted to interview her yet again and that she did not want to go, defendant advised her not to talk to the sheriff and to change her cell phone number.

¶ 10 Erik Yocum testified that the night he was at defendant's house, Silven did not want to stay there and she begged and cried to be allowed to go home with Erik. When he got to the house the next day after Erin had called 911, defendant was on the front porch brushing his teeth. Erin was in Silven's bedroom and appeared upset. Defendant appeared concerned, but not upset.

¶ 11 Two of the paramedics who responded to Erin's 911 call testified. Silven was having convulsions when they arrived. Her upper extremities were shaking uncontrollably, her eyes were open and fixed to the right, and there was nystagmus

(uncontrolled shaking of the eyeballs). She did not respond to any stimuli. She also had dried blood around her nose and mouth. One of the paramedics, Aaron Wilson, testified that he did not see defendant in the room while he was there, but he acknowledged that defendant could have come in without Wilson seeing him. Wilson also testified that when he was kneeling over Silven, he saw defendant pacing in the kitchen, saying, “Oh, shit; oh damn; and goddamn.” Another paramedic, Heather Connor, stayed with Silven at MDH until she was airlifted to St. Francis. Erin was upset and in a state of shock. She stayed with Silven in the trauma bay, rubbing her hand and stroking her head. Defendant was also there but he kept his back turned to Silven and did not approach her.

¶ 12 Michael Skelton, a friend of defendant's, testified that on the morning of Monday, September 11, 2006, he was working at his job for the City of Macomb when he saw defendant walking near the building in which the sheriff's office is located. When he stopped to talk, defendant said he needed to talk to “them about some shit.” Defendant did not say who “them” was, but Skelton assumed he meant the sheriff's office. Defendant asked Skelton how to get into the building and Skelton drove defendant around to the front of the building and dropped him off. Skelton did not see whether defendant went inside.

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