People v. Williams

Citation445 Ill.Dec. 774,168 N.E.3d 649,2020 IL App (1st) 162512
Decision Date20 February 2020
Docket NumberNo. 1-16-2512,1-16-2512
Parties The PEOPLE of the State of Illinois, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Vashaun WILLIAMS, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtUnited States Appellate Court of Illinois

James E. Chadd, Patricia Mysza, and Rebecca I. Levy, of State Appellate Defender's Office, of Chicago, for appellant.

Kimberly M. Foxx, State's Attorney, of Chicago (Alan J. Spellberg, Janet C. Mahoney, and David H. Iskowich, Assistant State's Attorneys, of counsel), for the People.

PRESIDING JUSTICE GORDON delivered the judgment of the court with opinion.

¶ 1 After a jury trial, defendant Vashaun Williams was convicted of two counts of first degree murder for the stabbing deaths of his 60-year-old uncle, Charles Williams Jr. (Junior), and his 83-year old grandfather, Charles Williams Sr. (Senior), on September 2, 2007. For the two murders, defendant received a mandatory sentence of natural life in prison. At trial, defendant, who was 26 years old at the time of the offense, did not contest that he stabbed his uncle and grandfather; rather, he argued that he acted in self-defense.

¶ 2 On appeal, defendant argues (1) that the trial court erred by not allowing his sister, Nicole Robertson, to testify about an alleged criminal sexual act and battery by Senior against her 20 years earlier and to the impact that this 1987 incident had on his family, which would have corroborated defendant's testimony and the defense theory of the case; (2) that defendant was denied effective assistance of counsel when counsel failed to object to the State's requested use of a void prior conviction for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon (AUUW) to impeach defendant's credibility; (3) that the trial court erred when it instructed the jury concerning second degree murder based on only self-defense but refused to instruct the jury on second degree murder based on provocation and mutual combat; and (4) that the cumulative effect of these errors deprived defendant of a fair trial.

¶ 3 For the following reasons, we affirm.

¶ 4 BACKGROUND

¶ 5 It is undisputed that on September 2, 2007, defendant, Senior, and Junior lived together in the same house, that the three of them were at home without anyone else present when a physical altercation began, that Senior and Junior died of multiple stab wounds

, and that defendant stabbed them. The only surviving eyewitness was defendant, who testified at trial that he acted in self-defense after Junior came at him with a knife and Senior joined the altercation.

¶ 6 Prior to trial, defendant moved to introduce, in the defense's case-in-chief, evidence of two incidents of violence by each of the two victims. One incident was a 2004 domestic battery charge against Junior, involving an attack by Junior against his then-girlfriend Verma Wyatt, which defendant sought to introduce through Wyatt's testimony.

¶ 7 The other incident was the alleged criminal sexual abuse and domestic battery in 1987 by Senior of defendant's sister, Nicole Robertson. Although the arrest did not result in a conviction, defendant sought to introduce Robertson's testimony, as well as the testimony of other family members.

¶ 8 Defendant sought to introduce the 1987 incident under two different theories. First, he argued that it was evidence of Senior's violent nature. Second, he argued that the 1987 incident led to the breakup of his parents' marriage and to his mother and sisters moving out of the home that defendant continued to share with his father, and that this incident was "a seething sore in this family." Defendant claimed that Junior was offended by defendant's talking about the incident, that this was the motive for Junior's attack on defendant, and that the 1987 incident was, thus, directly connected to the physical altercation ending in Senior's and Junior's deaths.

¶ 9 During the hearing on defendant's pretrial motion, defense counsel stated that defendant would testify at trial about the 1987 sexual assault, about the effect that it had on defendant's family, and about the ensuing 20 years of turmoil that led to the deaths at issue. Counsel argued that Robertson and the other family members listed by defendant would corroborate defendant's assertion that the 1987 incident, whether it was true or not, created extreme hostility and tension in their family.

¶ 10 The trial court found that the 2004 incident by Junior was admissible but "that the incident involving Ms. Robertson is too remote in time to offer the testimony of Ms. Robertson to suggest that Senior had a propensity of violence." After stating categorically that the 1987 incident was "too remote in time to be relevant and probative on any of the issues in this case," the trial court then immediately modified its finding and ruled instead that defendant could testify about the incident, "[b]ut [it was] not going to allow Robertson to come in and testify to that" incident. The trial court further observed: "I'm certain it will be something that comes up again. But for now that's the way I see this headed, okay."

¶ 11 The defense did not ask, and the trial court did not rule on, whether other family members could testify concerning the hostility and tension that this incident caused. Defendant's other proposed witnesses had included his father, mother, and another sister.

¶ 12 Also, prior to trial, defendant filed a motion in limine to bar the State from using evidence of his prior convictions to impeach his credibility. Defendant had six prior felony convictions. He had been convicted of (1) AUUW, on December 8, 2004, receiving a sentence of 3 years; (2) possession of a controlled substance, on May 13, 2004, receiving a sentence of 18 months; (3) manufacture or delivery of cocaine near a school, on October 18, 2001, receiving a sentence of 4 years; (4) possession of a controlled substance, on January 24, 2001, receiving a sentence of 2 years; (5) possession of a controlled substance, on February 23, 2000, receiving a sentence of 8 months of probation; and (6) aggravated battery of a peace officer, on February 17, 1999, receiving a sentence of 2 years.

¶ 13 On March 28, 2016, the prosecutor stated that he was seeking to use only one of the six prior convictions, which was the most recent one or the AUUW conviction. The prosecutor stated that defendant had been released from confinement on the AUUW offense on August 7, 2006, which was less than 10 years ago.1 When the trial court asked if there were "any other convictions within 10 years," the prosecutor responded no. The trial court then asked defense counsel "[w]hat's your position?" and defense counsel responded that he had no objection. The trial court ruled: "Okay. You can use it then."

¶ 14 At trial, the State called the following family members in its case-in-chief: (1) Alicia Brown, daughter of Stephanie Thomas and granddaughter of Senior; (2) Phyllis Price, Brown's then partner; (3) Cheryl Ann Williams, sister of both Junior and Stephanie Thomas; (4) Barry Thomas Jr., stepson of Stephanie Thomas; (5) Stephanie Thomas, Junior's sister; and (6) Barry Thomas Sr., Stephanie's husband. The State also called police officers and a medical examiner.

¶ 15 The family members testified that, on September 2, 2007, the day of the murder, the family had gathered earlier in the day at Senior's home for a party to celebrate the fact that he had a scan showing that he was cancer-free. It was also the Sunday of the Labor Day weekend.

¶ 16 Alicia Brown, age 48, testified that Senior had been diagnosed with colon cancer

and had begun treatment but his latest scan, as of September 2007, did not show any evidence of cancer. The family decided to hold a celebratory party at Senior's new home on South Perry Street in Chicago. Previously, Senior had lived on Arthington Street, which Brown regarded as "the family home" which she "knew as a child." Brown purchased the family home so that Senior would have the money to move and buy a new home that was closer to the rest of the family. When Senior moved to the new home, defendant and Junior moved with him. Junior, who had recently been awarded his veteran's benefits and medals from serving in Vietnam, helped take care of Senior by doing the grocery shopping, making meals, and aiding in other day-to-day activities. Brown's uncle Prentice, who was defendant's father, also helped out.

¶ 17 Brown testified that, on September 2, 2007, she and her then-partner Phyllis Price arrived at 10:30 a.m. to help set-up for the party. Brown testified that the party was "a great day" and she and Price did not leave until the early evening. At 9:30 p.m., when Brown and Price were at home, Brown received a call from her mother, Stephanie Thomas. In response, Brown and Price immediately drove to Senior's house and called 911. When they arrived, her mother and stepfather Barry Thomas Sr were already present, as well as the police.

¶ 18 Brown testified that, shortly before she had left the party, her grandfather said he was going to lie down for a bit in his bedroom. Senior was not eating full meals because he had a colostomy bag

, and he had spent most of the day outside in the sun, so he was tired. Before leaving, Brown looked in his bedroom, observed him sleeping, and did not wake him. Before she left, Junior indicated that he was going to lie down on the living room couch in front of the fan and cool off. During the party, Brown observed defendant talking to Price at one point in the kitchen, but Brown did not observe him outside on the back porch or in the backyard or "engaging" with everyone. For most of the barbecue, Brown and other family members were outside, although people had been eating sometimes in the dining room.

¶ 19 Brown was shown five knives and identified two of them: one was "used to cut ribs and chicken," while the other was "used to like hack at[,] to make rib tips." Brown testified that Junior had told her that he...

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