Appellate ruling may move Danville murder trial forward

DANVILLE — Local prosecutors are hoping a Danville man's murder trial will move forward now that an Illinois appeals court has reversed a trial court's ruling on a key piece of evidence.

The Fourth District Appellate Court in Springfield reversed a decision by Vermilion County Circuit Judge Claudia Anderson to suppress a video recording and its transcript of a police interview with murder suspect Lafayette L. Harper about the 2009 fatal shooting of Timothy A. Shutes Jr.

The opinion, written by appellate court Judge M. Carol Pope, was filed on Friday. Judge John Turner concurred, while Judge Robert Cook dissented.

"I'm pleased the appellate court ruled the way they did," said Vermilion County State's Attorney Randy Brinegar, who hopes the case can be put back on the trial call soon. "Without that ruling ... we still could have proceeded. But our case would have been weakened."

Vermilion County Public Defender Jacqueline Lacy said she has a month to file a petition to appeal, but has made no decision on whether to do that.

Mr. Shutes, 20, of Danville, was robbed of cash and shot to death on Oct. 24, 2009, in Elmwood Park on the city's southeast side.

A couple of days later, Harper's relative — Davieon L. Harper, 30, of Danville — was arrested in connection with the murder. He was convicted of one count of first-degree murder and one count of armed robbery in September 2010, and is serving a 30-year prison sentence.

Lafayette Harper, 28, of Danville, was charged with four counts of first-degree murder on Nov. 18, 2010. He remains behind bars at the Vermilion County Jail.

In June 2011, Harper filed a motion asking a judge to suppress his recorded statement to police, which he gave voluntarily in November 2009, because about 30 minutes of the 105-minute interview was inaudible due to an equipment malfunction. Under Illinois law, such statements are admissible in court if "the recording is substantially accurate and not intentionally altered."

That September, Anderson granted Harper's motion, deeming the recording unreliable. She said that while the recording was not purposefully or deliberately altered, the law didn't require deliberate alteration.

Anderson said that 30 minutes was a "substantial" amount of time. And according to the transcript, when the audio first stopped, "That's when Mr. Harper is really being questioned as to the investigator's conversations with other witnesses and what they said they begin to start now questioning Mr. Harper about statements they had taken from other witnesses that might vary or be different from his. And then, of course, it just drops off the edge of the earth, and we're somewhat lost. To me that renders the recording untrustworthy and unreliable as a whole."

Anderson went on to say she was "reserving for later ruling the admissibility of evidence that might have been gathered during the interrogation or during the investigation in alternative forms."

In her opinion, Pope wrote that the trial court erred in interpreting the law regarding recorded statements and made insufficient findings to determine whether Harper's statements were inadmissible before deciding to suppress the recording and transcript.

Pope wrote the law's intent was to "help insure the voluntariness and reliability of statements made during custodial interrogations." She went on to say Anderson erroneously focused her attention on the language "intentionally altered" and upon reviewing the law's legislative history, determined that a malfunction of any kind was sufficient to suppress Harper's statement.

"The trial court should have examined whether the lack of audio in certain parts of the electronic recording made the recording substantially inaccurate" and determined "whether defendant's voluntary statement was also reliable under the totality of the circumstances," Pope wrote.

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