Witness testimony of gun possession is sufficient proof to sustain a defendant’s armed habitual felon conviction, a unanimous Illinois Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.
The justices affirmed the conviction of Jasper McLaurin, finding the standard of review in his case did not require prosecutors to present the alleged gun at trial to establish he had a gun.
The court’s ruling, which reverses the appellate court, allows for a police officer’s unequivocal eyewitness testimony alone to establish gun possession when the sufficiency of evidence is challenged.
Justice Mary Jane Theis wrote, on behalf of the court, the prosecution did not present overwhelming evidence a trial.
“The [s]tate took a risk by choosing not to introduce into evidence the gun that [Chicago police officer Jesse] Rodriguez testified was recovered at the scene and inventoried by police,” Theis wrote in the 11-page opinion. “Based upon our standard of review, however, the question before us is ‘whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.’ The answer to that question is yes.”
Justice Michael J. Burke did not participate in this opinion.
In June 2014, McLaurin was charged with being an armed habitual felon, unlawful use of a weapon by a felon, and aggravated unlawful use of a weapon.
McLaurin was arrested in Chicago a month earlier when a police officer testified she saw McLaurin leave his apartment “carrying a silver handgun,” before entering a white van. Police stopped the van, and McLaurin and two others were ordered out.
The officer testified she didn’t see McLaurin or the others exit the van. Police patted them down and searched the van but didn’t find a gun.
A second officer noticed an object underneath the van and retrieved a nine millimeter chrome handgun.
The gun was not offered as evidence at trial or tested for fingerprints.
The prosecution argued the trial court judge could rely on circumstantial evidence to reasonably infer that McLaurin tossed a gun underneath the van after he exited it. McLaurin’s trial attorney maintained that circumstantial evidence was not enough.
After a trial in September 2018, Cook County Circuit Judge Thaddeus L. Wilson found McLaurin guilty and merged the three offenses into one armed habitual felon count. McLaurin was sentenced to seven years in prison. He then appealed his conviction, arguing the state failed to prove he possessed a gun.
In December 2018, a 1st District Appellate Court panel reversed Wilson’s ruling, and entered a judgment of acquittal. Justice Carl A. Walker and Daniel J. Pierce concurred and Justice Mary L. Mikva specially concurred.
Walker wrote the prosecution’s evidence couldn’t sustain McLaurin’s conviction because the burden of proof in possessory firearm cases requires more than circumstantial evidence.
“Absent proof, either by inspection or analysis or by other verifiable means, that the item possessed is a device that is designed to expel a projectile or projectiles by the action of an explosion, expansion of gas, or escape of gas, there is no basis to determine whether the item is a firearm, an exempted antique, B-B gun, ‘a toy, a nonfunctioning replica, or a piece of wood or soap,’” Walker wrote.
On appeal before the Supreme Court, the justices disagreed with the standard of review used by the appellate court.
The justices relied on precedent in People v. Washington and People v. Wright.
In Washington, James Washington appealed his conviction of armed robbery, kidnapping and vehicular hijacking where the police didn’t recover a gun. The robbery victim testified that Washington pointed a gun at him, and he felt the gun held to his head.
In Wright, Eugene Wright appealed his armed robbery conviction. Although no gun was found, the restaurant owner testified that Wright said “this is a robbery” and lifted his hoodie to show what appeared to be a gun. The restaurant owner also testified that felt something sharp in his back, like the barrel of a gun.
In both cases, the Supreme Court reversed the appellate courts’ holdings, finding that unequivocal testimony could establish possessory firearm offenses, although no gun was recovered in either case.
The Supreme Court on Thursday concluded, based on the precedent in Washington and Wright, that armed robbery with a firearm and the possessory offense have the same statutory element and definition.
“The [s]tate is correct that, because the statutory element is the same and the burden of proof is the same, the evidence required to prove that element is identical for both offenses,” Theis wrote. “Viewing this evidence, as we must, in a light most favorable to the [s]tate, it was not so unreasonable, improbable, or unsatisfactory that no rational trier of fact could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant possessed a firearm as defined by the FOID Act.”
McLaurin is represented by Steven A. Greenberg, of Steven A. Greenberg & Associates Ltd.
Greenberg said he is terribly disappointed with the opinion.
“Unfortunately, [this opinion] makes it easy for people to get convicted of a weapon offense based on the testimony of a liar,” he said.
The state was represented by Assistant Attorney General Evan B. Elsner.
A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office said the court’s decision will provide guidance that will be useful in future matters.
This case is People v. Jasper McLaurin, No. 124563.