concluding that "a negative inference drawn from the witnesses' testimony is, standing alone, insufficient to support a conviction and . . . there must be independent support in the evidence for what is inferred"Summary of this case from State v. Searcy
Argued April 5, 1978. —
Decided May 2, 1978.
ERRORS to review a judgment and orders of the county court of Rock county: EDWIN C. DAHLBERG, Judge. Reversed with directions to dismiss.
For the plaintiff in error the cause was argued by Ruth S. Downs, deputy state public defender, with whom on the briefs were Howard B. Eisenberg, state public defender, and Alvin E. Whitaker, assistant state public defender.
For the defendant in error the cause was argued by Marguerite M. Moeller, assistant attorney general, with whom on the brief was Bronson C. La Follette, attorney general.
The defendant, William E. Stewart, was found guilty by a jury of burglary and attempted theft contrary to secs. 943.10(1) (a), 943.20(1) (a) and 939.32(1), Stats. Stewart was sentenced to eighteen months on the burglary conviction and one year on the attempted theft conviction, the terms to be served concurrently.
Defendant appeals from the judgment of conviction and the orders denying post-conviction relief.
In the early hours of January 2, 1975, a burglary and attempted theft took place at the Liberty Pharmacy located on Liberty Avenue in Beloit, Wisconsin. Responding to a silent alarm, Police Officer Edward Polglaze drove his patrol car in front of the pharmacy and shined his spotlight into the front windows. He saw nothing unusual in the store. Officer Polglaze then drove further down the street, past an adjacent building, and turned south into an alley which ran parallel to the side of the pharmacy building. Upon arriving at a spot where he could see the back of the pharmacy, the officer saw a person running south from the back of the pharmacy. Pausing only to radio in that a white male suspect with a dark stocking cap and dark clothing was running on foot, the officer left his car and gave chase. Rather than directly following the suspect, Officer Polglaze paralleled his path and proceeded down the alley.
Another officer, Glen Sieren, overheard the radio dispatch and proceeded to the pharmacy. On his way, he also heard Officer Polglaze's radio call indicating the suspect's direction and in response, proceeded to the intersection of 11th and Merrill Streets. Merrill Street, like Liberty Avenue, runs east and west and is one block south of the pharmacy. Officer Sieren stopped at the intersection hoping to catch sight of the running suspect as he crossed either Merrill or 11th Streets. Sieren saw no one on foot, but he did see a dark colored automobile traveling east on Merrill toward him. It was an old model car and had two people in it, and Officer Sieren paid little attention to it as he looked for the pedestrian suspect.
With the help of Officer Sieren, Polglaze searched in and about the various garages and buildings in the vicinity of the pharmacy. Finding no one, they returned to the pharmacy.
Meanwhile, Officer Bryan Kurt Britton had also heard the radio dispatch, and had proceeded to the intersection of 10th and Liberty Streets. There he saw a green, older model Plymouth automobile proceeding east on Liberty Avenue. When the automobile passed him, Officer Britton followed it long enough to request by radio a license plate check. He then turned around and proceeded west on Liberty towards the pharmacy.
A fourth officer, Edward Mealey, was proceeding to the intersection of 10th and Merrill Streets when he heard Officer Britton's request for a license plate check. He observed a vehicle approaching him from the east on Merrill Street. The vehicle was moving very slowly, and stopping and starting at irregular intervals. Mealey noted that the vehicle was an older model green Plymouth with a license number matching that radioed in by Officer Britton. Mealey followed the car as it meandered about the neighborhood of the pharmacy and eventually stopped the automobile. The driver of the vehicle was identified as Dennis Williams and the passenger as William Stewart. When Williams and Stewart stepped out of the car, Officer Mealey noticed that Stewart was wearing a hunting knife in a sheath. Mealey placed Stewart under arrest for carrying a concealed weapon.
Officer Britton arrived on the scene. When the officers asked Stewart and Williams separately to explain their presence in the neighborhood, they claimed that they were looking for a dog. Williams, however, stated they were looking for a Doberman Pinscher while Stewart claimed they were looking for a black Labrador. The officers then returned with both men to the pharmacy.
While these events were taking place, Officers Sieren and Polglaze had been inspecting the inside of the pharmacy and the area immediately to its rear. Inside the pharmacy they found obvious signs of a breakin. Drugs and jewelry were scattered over the floor. A pillow case full of prescription drugs and a paper bag partially filled with jewelry and drugs were found on the floor. The manager inventoried these goods and placed their value in excess of $700. Entry into the pharmacy had apparently been made through a two foot hole in the ceiling, and plaster and lath debris was strewn over the shelves and floor. On the roof above this hole, the officers found that the top of an unused ventilator shaft had been removed and its bottom kicked through. Near this opening, the officers discovered the screws from the top of the ventilator shaft, another pillow case and a roll of string.
Further investigation in the area behind and around the pharmacy, which was covered with one to two inches of snow, yielded two sets of footprints. One set was obviously left by the fleeing subject. These footprints were made by a smooth-soled shoe and led directly away from the back door of the pharmacy, across an open area, into and out of a garage, and then into some bushes. Another set of footprints was made by a hiking boot type of shoe which gave the prints a distinctive "waffle" pattern. These prints were found in a random pattern behind the building immediately west of the pharmacy and in the vicinity of the alley. They also led around one of the garages fronting the alley and then east on a course parallel to Liberty Avenue.
When the men were brought to the pharmacy, Officer Polglaze noticed that Stewart was dressed like the suspect he had seen flee the area. He also noticed that Stewart's shoes made imprints similar to the "hiking boot" footprints. Both Stewart and Williams were then placed under arrest.
Later that day, another police officer attempted to preserve one of the hiking boot footprints with a sulphur cast but was unsuccessful. Instead, photographs were taken.
The actions against Stewart and Williams were consolidated for trial. During trial, the above facts were brought forth through the testimony of the officers. It was also established that the car in which the men were stopped belonged to an acquaintance, Karen Katuin. Ms. Katuin lived one block from the pharmacy at the time of the breakin. She testified that on the night of the breakin, she attended a party during which Williams borrowed her automobile to take a couple and their baby home from the party.
Both Williams and Stewart testified at the trial. They testified that Stewart was living with this couple at the time, and that when they had dropped the woman and baby at home, the three men drove to Rockton, Illinois, to visit a friend of Williams. At about 11:40 p.m. on the night of the break in, they were stopped by a Rockton police officer for failing to stop at a stop sign. Williams called his father who came down from Beloit with the bond money, and Williams, Stewart and the third man left the Rockton police station at about 12:30 that night. When they arrived in Beloit, Williams and Stewart dropped off the third man. They later attempted to return Ms. Katuin's automobile, but discovered that she was not home. The defendants testified that they then drove down Liberty Avenue past the pharmacy where they observed the police squad cars. After passing Officer Britton's car further down Liberty Avenue, they testified that they became curious and decided to drive back through the area to see what was happening. While they were wandering about the area, Officer Mealey stopped them under the circumstances previously described.
Williams admitted that he made up the dog story when he saw that they were about to be stopped, and both men testified that they told the police the fabricated story because they thought the police would be suspicious of their movements through the neighborhood.
The sole issue presented for review is whether there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict of guilty.
There is no serious dispute that the evidence adduced at this trial, circumstantial or otherwise, demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that a burglary and attempted theft had taken place at the Liberty Pharmacy in the early hours of January 2, 1975. What the defendant does dispute in this appeal is the sufficiency of the evidence to permit the jury to conclude that he perpetrated these crimes.
The evidence upon which the jury made this determination was for the most part circumstantial. This court has long held that because "stealth and secretiveness are the regular features" of the crime of burglary, and because "circumstantial evidence can be as probative and sometimes more probative than direct evidence" ( Peters v. State, 70 Wis.2d 22, 33, 233 N.W.2d 420 (1975)), such evidence, even alone, may support a conviction for these crimes. Murphy v. State, 75 Wis.2d 522, 525-26, 249 N.W.2d 779 (1977). Nevertheless, in State v. Shaw, 58 Wis.2d 25, 205 N.W.2d 132 (1973), this court stated:
"[A]ll the facts necessary to warrant a conviction on circumstantial evidence must be consistent with each other and with the main fact sought to be proved and the circumstances taken together must be of a conclusive nature leading on the whole to a satisfactory conclusion and producing in effect a reasonable and moral certainty that the accused and no other person committed the offense charged. The circumstantial evidence must, however, be sufficiently strong to exclude every reasonable theory of innocence, that is, the evidence must be inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence. This is a question of probability, not possibility." State v. Shaw, supra at 29. (Emphasis supplied).
We believe that the circumstantial evidence in this case is not sufficient when analyzed under this test. First, the facts necessary to the inference underlying the identification of one of the defendants, Stewart, as the suspect seen fleeing the pharmacy are inconsistent with each other and with the fact sought to be proved.
Stewart, who was the passenger in the automobile, was wearing a dark coat and stocking cap on the night of his arrest. He was also wearing hiking boots which left a conspicuous imprint in the snow similar to the hiking boot tracks found behind the building next to the pharmacy. The state also notes that the suspect seen fleeing the scene was of the same weight and build as the defendant, Stewart, but not of the heavier Williams. However, the testimony at trial was unequivocable that the suspect seen fleeing the pharmacy left a trail of smooth footprints. Thus, although the evidence describing the suspect bore a general similarity to the defendant, the type of tracks left by the fleeing suspect conflicts with the type of foot gear worn by Stewart on his arrest. This conflict is not reconciled by other evidence.
The state attempts to lessen this conflict by speculating that "quite possibly" Stewart might have been wearing smooth-soled shoes at the time of the burglary and might have later traded shoes with either Williams or an unknown third person. But this explanation is not reasonable in light of the complete absence of evidence indicating the type of shoes — smooth-soled or hiking pattern — worn by Williams, or demonstrating the presence of a third person, at the time of their arrest. Here, the circumstantial evidence identifying by inference Stewart as the suspect seen fleeing the pharmacy failed to achieve the consistence required by State v. Shaw, supra.
To bolster its case, the state places a great amount of emphasis on what it terms the "negative inference" the jury could have drawn from the defendant's fabrication of the dog story. The state cites Edwards v. State, 46 Wis.2d 249, 174 N.W.2d 269 (1970), as authority for the proposition that the jury could have concluded from the defendant's admission that he lied to the police at the time of his arrest that his testimony at trial was not credible. Thus, the state argues, the jury not only could disbelieve the defendant's trial explanation for his presence in the neighborhood of the pharmacy soon after the burglary, but also that the truth is the opposite of his story. However, as the state concedes, "The absurd result [of letting a jury infer guilt from a claim of innocence] in some situations would be to convict the defendant even though the prosecutor had failed to present any evidence of guilt."
To avoid such a use of this inference, courts generally hold that a negative inference drawn from the witnesses' testimony is, standing alone, insufficient to support a conviction and that there must be independent support in the evidence for what is inferred. See, e.g., United States v. Jenkins, 510 F.2d 495, 499 (2d Cir. 1975); United States v. Scher, 476 F.2d 319, 321-22 (7th Cir. 1973).
The principle that the negative inference drawn from the defendant's claim of innocence must be supported by independent evidence was stated by this court in the slightly different context present in Peters v. State, supra. There, the defendant, in a consolidated jury trial, was tried and convicted for burglary and obstruction of an officer. The latter offense was based upon a claim that an alibi relating to the defendant's whereabouts on the night of the burglary was fabricated. On appeal, the defendant argued that the burglary and obstruction charges were improperly consolidated for trial because it infringed on his constitutional right to present a defense to the burglary charge, particularly the alibi defense. With proper instructions to the jury, the court concluded that the charges could be joined for the purposes of trial and that evidence relating to the alibi would be admissible on the burglary count. But in doing so, the court stated:
"The probative value of such evidence on the burglary count is slight, but it does tend to show an awareness by the defendant that his defense to the main charge is so weak that he needs to fabricate evidence. From this awareness of weakness the trier of fact can legitimately infer a consciousness of guilt on the part of the defendant in regard to the main charge. It must be emphasized, however, that fabrication of alibi cannot be relied upon by the state as affirmative proof of elements as to which it has the burden of proof. The state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt all elements of the crime of burglary by evidence independent and separate from the evidence relating to fabrication of alibi." Peters v. State, supra at 30-31. (Emphasis supplied).
Thus, although the slightly probative evidence relating to the fabrication of an alibi may be considered in determining the defendant's guilt on the burglary charge, the Peters decision held that "the jury must not employ such evidence as affirmative proof of elements of the crime of burglary . . ." and that "the state must introduce separate and independent evidence showing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." Peters v. State, supra at 32.
Here, the jury could infer from the admission that the dog story was fabricated that Stewart and Williams believed that they could not tell the officers the true reason for their presence in the neighborhood a short time after the burglary. But this inference is of only slight probative value, and on an appeal to review the sufficiency of the evidence, the record must disclose other affirmative proof relating to each element from which the trier of fact may determine the defendant's guilt.
Even in light of this slightly probative negative inference, the evidence contained in this record is not sufficient to produce a reasonable and moral certainty that this defendant and no one else committed the burglary. Assuming that the hiking boot tracks were in some way related to the burglary, no evidence, aside from an officer's observation that Stewart's boots were of a type which would leave a print similar to those found in the vicinity of the pharmacy, was offered to establish that Stewart's boots in fact made the tracks. The similarity was based, the officer stated, on only a visual comparison: the officers did not physically take the shoe over to one of the footprints to make this comparison; and the boot print which was photographed by the police was not measured so as to permit one to determine that the shoes of the size Stewart was wearing could have made the prints. Indeed, two officers testified that these prints were a common hiking boot print.
There was also no evidence that the fingerprints of either Stewart or Williams were found in the pharmacy or that plaster dust was found on their clothing. No footprints, either smooth or "waffle," were found in the plaster dust within the pharmacy or on the roof of the pharmacy. Finally, one officer testified that the area behind the building adjacent to the pharmacy, where some of the "waffle" footprints were found, was used by people to gain entrance to some of the buildings in the area and many different footprints were found there.
We conclude that this circumstantial evidence was not sufficient to permit the jury to conclude to a moral certainty the defendant perpetrated, either by himself or with another, the burglary and attempted theft which occurred at the Liberty Pharmacy.
The judgment of the trial court is reversed, with directions to dismiss the proceedings.
By the Court. — Judgment reversed, with directions to dismiss.