People v. Price

Decision Date23 November 2021
Docket Number4-19-0043
Citation2021 IL App (4th) 190043,193 N.E.3d 320,456 Ill.Dec. 352
Parties The PEOPLE of the State of Illinois, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Theron PRICE, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtUnited States Appellate Court of Illinois

James E. Chadd, Douglas R. Hoff, and Brian L. Josias, of State Appellate Defender's Office, of Chicago, for appellant.

Kwame Raoul, Attorney General, of Chicago (Jane Elinor Notz, Solicitor General, and Michael M. Glick and Garson S. Fischer, Assistant Attorneys General, of counsel), for the People.

JUSTICE STEIGMANN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

¶ 1 In July 2015, the State charged defendant, Theron Price, with first degree murder in the shooting death of William Newbern. 720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(1) (West 2012). In October 2018, a jury convicted defendant. The trial court later sentenced him to 60 years in prison.

¶ 2 Defendant appeals, arguing (1) the trial court erred by admitting into evidence deleted text messages recovered from defendant's phone, (2) the trial court erred by admitting other crimes evidence that defendant possessed a gun unrelated to the shooting, (3) the trial court erred by admitting expert opinion testimony from a witness that Newbern was found with signs of rigor mortis, (4) the State's closing argument was improper in that it attempted to lower the burden of proof, and (5) defendant was denied the effective assistance of counsel because of counsel's failure to adequately prevent these errors. We disagree and affirm.

¶ 3 I. BACKGROUND
¶ 4 A. The Charges Against Defendant

¶ 5 In July 2015, the State charged defendant with three counts of first degree murder in the shooting death of William Newbern. Id. The State alleged defendant personally discharged a firearm, causing Newbern's death on November 24, 2014.

¶ 6 B. Motions in Limine

¶ 7 Prior to trial, the State and defendant filed several motions in limine seeking to admit and exclude certain evidence. Relevant to this appeal, the State sought the admission of deleted text messages recovered from defendant's cell phone by a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent. The trial court denied the State's motion and excluded the evidence because the State failed to authenticate the deleted text messages.

¶ 8 Defendant filed a motion in limine to exclude testimony from paramedic Timothy Lawson that Newbern's body displayed signs of rigor mortis when Lawson examined it at the scene because Lawson was not an expert. The State argued that such testimony was not an expert opinion but merely an observation based upon his 20 years’ experience as a paramedic. The trial court denied defendant's motion.

¶ 9 C. The Evidence at Defendant's Trial—The State's Case

¶ 10 In October 2018, defendant's case proceeded to a jury trial, and the State presented the following evidence.

¶ 11 1. The Discovery of Newbern's Body and the Crime Scene

¶ 12 Forgenia Coe testified she lived at 502 Griffin Street in Danville on November 25, 2014. Sometime before 7 a.m., she saw a body lying in a yard across the street. She found the body to be that of a man who was unresponsive and cold to the touch. Coe covered the body with a blanket and called 911. A firefighter testified that he arrived on scene and found the body to be cold, stiff, and without a pulse. The firefighter recovered a driver's license from the body identifying the man as William Newbern.

¶ 13 Tim Lawson testified he had been a paramedic in Danville for nearly 30 years and received 18 months of training on topics such as anatomy, physiology, medications, and lifesaving treatment. He was also trained to determine if someone was deceased and to record his observations. On November 25, 2014, he responded to a call shortly before 7 a.m. Lawson stated he observed a body lying facedown on the ground. The man was not breathing, did not have a pulse, and had rigor mortis. Defendant objected, arguing Lawson's statement about rigor mortis constituted improper opinion testimony. Lawson then testified that he was trained to look for rigor mortis, which was a sign of death and occurs when someone "is deceased." Lawson stated that the body "had obvious rigor mortis." The objection was overruled. Lawson further stated the body was "ashen" or gray looking and "very obviously he was cold to the touch."

¶ 14 Police officers at the scene discovered a blood trail from Newbern's body leading to 1227 Clarence, an apartment complex located behind 502 North Griffin. The blood trail went over a chain-link fence and up to the open window of apartment 4. (We note it was later determined that Newbern lived in apartment 4.) Inside the window was a kitchen and living room with "blood all over." While police were on scene, defendant arrived, followed shortly thereafter by Jennifer Kindle. They informed the police that they lived together in apartment 2.

¶ 15 The police recovered bullets but no casings from Newbern's apartment. The police never located the firearm used in Newbern's murder. A forensic expert testified that all of the bullets had been fired from the same gun.

¶ 16 2. The Autopsy

¶ 17 Shiping Bao testified he was a forensic pathologist and performed an autopsy of Newbern. Bao noted three gunshot wounds in Newbern's back, two of which exited through the right side of Newbern's chest. Bao opined that Newbern died from blood loss resulting from the gunshot wounds. Bao determined that the shots were not fired from close range, meaning the shooter was more than five feet away. Toxicology tests showed Newbern had cocaine, alcohol, and an antidepressant drug in his system. Bao stated that (1) he could not testify as to the time of death and (2) Newbern could have died on November 24 or 25.

¶ 18 On cross-examination, Bao testified that it is "impossible" to testify to the time of death. He explained that there are too many variables, such as body temperature, environmental conditions, medications used, and body composition (fat and muscle), to permit anyone to determine time of death. As to time of death determinations, he emphasized, "Nobody can do that," and "[i]t's fiction."

¶ 19 3. The Initial Investigation
¶ 20 a. Hope Scott: Newbern's Girlfriend

¶ 21 Hope Scott testified she was in a romantic relationship with Newbern that began in early 2014. While they were dating, Newbern was "a recovering addict" and took medication for depression. On November 24, 2014, Scott arrived at Newbern's apartment at about 4 p.m.; defendant arrived shortly thereafter. Newbern and defendant left together and returned with a bottle of liquor. Newbern and defendant began drinking, but Scott did not join them.

¶ 22 Scott testified that Newbern and defendant began to argue over Newbern's failure to pay defendant for a speaker defendant had given him. Scott stated she left the apartment at about 6:30 p.m. Scott testified, "I left because they stated to argue, and [Newbern] said, We aren't going to do this in front of her,’ and he walked me to my car." Scott said she saw Newbern walk back into his apartment with defendant before she left.

¶ 23 Scott returned to her home in Indiana. She called and texted Newbern around 7:15 p.m. to let him know she got home safely, but he did not answer. Scott became concerned the next morning when Newbern had still not answered.

¶ 24 b. Detective Brian Lange: Interview With Defendant

¶ 25 Detective Brian Lange of the Danville Police Department testified that he and Detective Philip Wilson interviewed defendant on the morning of November 25, 2014. During the interview, Lange asked defendant if he had fired a gun recently, and defendant stated he "hadn't in years." Defendant also told Lange that he argued with Newbern in the past but "it never got physical." Defendant told Lange that, the night before, he and Newbern "were in an argument" about Newbern's failure to pay for a speaker defendant had given him.

¶ 26 Defendant told Lange that he could not remember when he left the apartment because "when he drinks alcohol he doesn't remember a lot." Defendant recalled that no one was with Newbern when defendant left his apartment and he heard Newbern lock the door behind him. After he left, defendant "drove around" for several hours, as he routinely does, and he became lost. Defendant told Lange he called 911 at some point from somewhere in Indiana to ask for help getting back to Danville. At a gas station, "some security guards" put directions into defendant's phone to get him back to Danville.

¶ 27 Lange testified that defendant had his cell phone with him during the interview and he signed a written consent for the police to search his phone. Lange told defendant that Wilson was taking the phone to "dump it" and "take the information off of it." Defendant also signed written consent forms for the police to search his vehicle and his apartment. Lange stated they collected defendant's boots, pants, and shirt for evidence.

¶ 28 Lange testified that defendant was very cooperative.

"During the interview when [defendant] was talking about his phones and we asked him if he called anybody, he got his phone out and at one point handed it over to Detective Wilson because he wasn't sure how to get into his recent calls or some of the different apps on his phone."

"He was looking through like the recent calls where he was trying to show us the—show Detective Wilson the MapQuest or the route navigation thing."

¶ 29 c. Detective Ralph Dunham: Defendant's Arrest and Second Interview

¶ 30 Detective Ralph Dunham of the Danville Police Department testified that, in July 2015, he arrested defendant and conducted a second interview. Defendant made substantially the same statements as in his prior interview with Lange and Wilson.

¶ 31 Since the first interview, however, a forensic scientist identified gunshot residue (GSR) on defendant's clothing that the police had collected at the conclusion of the first interview. When Dunham asked defendant about the GSR, defendant responded that he worked at ...

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3 cases
  • People v. Thomas
    • United States
    • United States Appellate Court of Illinois
    • November 23, 2022
    ...that authenticated the records, provided a proper foundation for the evidence. See People v. Price, 2021 IL App (4th) 190043, ¶ 115, 193 N.E.3d 320 (quoting People Ziemba, 2018 IL App (2d) 170048, ¶ 51, 100 N.E.3d 635). ¶ 53 Defendant cites Ramos as an example where this court found cell ph......
  • People v. Griffis
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    • United States Appellate Court of Illinois
    • June 28, 2023
    ...from a phone like any other form of documentary evidence. See People v. Watts, 2022 IL App (4th) 210590, ¶ 74 (citing People v. Price, 2021 IL App (4th) 190043, 115, 193 N.E.3d 320; People v. Ziemba, 2018 IL App (2d) 170048, ¶ 51, 100 N.E.3d 635). A proper foundation is laid for the admissi......
  • People v. Logan
    • United States
    • United States Appellate Court of Illinois
    • June 15, 2023
    ... ... (2001). "A trial court abuses its discretion only when ... its decision is arbitrary, fanciful, or unreasonable or when ... no reasonable person would take the trial court's ... view." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) People v ... Price , 2021 IL App (4th) 190043, ¶ 111, 193 N.E.3d ... 320. A court should only declare a mistrial, if some ... occurrence at trial was of such a character and magnitude, it ... deprived the party seeking the mistrial a fair trial ... People v. Foster , 394 Ill.App.3d 163, 166, 915 ... N.E.2d ... ...

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